Bellator must keep building

While the mixed martial arts community is understandably enthralled with Conor McGregor and Floyd Mayweather as they promote their upcoming boxing match, Bellator MMA initially took the week by storm before “The Notorious” and “Money” stole all the thunder.

It was announced on Monday that UFC middleweight contender Gegard Mousasi jumped ship to Bellator with a multi-fight deal. Mousasi gave several reasons for deciding to leave the UFC, and most of those reasons are ones you’ve heard from other fighters who left the (not-so-loving) arms of Dana White for Bellator – money being chief among them.

Mousasi joins other notable names like Benson Henderson, Matt Mitrione, Phil Davis, Rory MacDonald, Ryan Bader and Roy Nelson in joining Bellator. As previously stated, they all cited a common theme in making the decision to sign with Bellator – the UFC’s Reebok deal that is clearly an awful arrangement for fighters. Anyone who doesn’t see that is obviously still drinking the Zuffa Kool-Aid. It also doesn’t help that UFC President Dana White continues not to be able to resist throwing fighters under the bus every chance he gets. UFC bantamweight champion Amanda Nunes is just the latest example of that.

But Bellator President Scott Coker shouldn’t just sit back and rest on his laurels after nabbing the previously mentioned fighters as well as other well-known fighters and personalities like Chael Sonnen, Fedor Emelianenko, Wanderlei Silva, Mike Goldberg and Mauro Ranallo. Despite all its signings and the progress Bellator has made since Coker took over in 2015, it’s still not on the UFC’s level and shouldn’t consider itself a competitor.

If Bellator attempted to compete directly with the UFC right now – by airing pay-per-views every single month, for example – it would be akin to when Total Nonstop Action (TNA) wrestling attempted to compete head-to-head with WWE in 2010 by airing its weekly Impact program against Monday Night Raw. TNA was roundly trounced in the ratings, and the new “Monday Night War” was over before it ever began.

How should Bellator continue to build so that it could, one day, perhaps compete with the UFC? By continue to do what it has been doing. Coker has presented Bellator as an entertaining alternative to the UFC by holding “big top” events featuring fighters like Royce Gracie, Ken Shamrock, Tito Ortiz, Stephan Bonnar and the late Kimbo Slice. It was a smart strategy to build Bellator’s name with mixed martial arts fans at-large while continuing to develop its existing talent.

Nowadays, homegrown fighters like Michael Chandler, Brent Primus, Patricio “Pitbull” Freire and his brother Patricky, Daniel Straus, Darrion Caldwell and Eduardo Dantas take on a bigger role in headlining Bellator fight cards. Coker also launched Bellator Kickboxing as another way to appeal to combat sports fans and introduce new MMA fans to one of the sport’s primary influences.

Bellator continues to grow its television audience, with its most recent card that preceded its debut in Madison Square (and was on pay-per-view) peaking at more than 1 million viewers. Bellator’s other recent cards have enjoyed increased viewership, so it appears that more and more fans are becoming aware of what Bellator has to offer and are deciding to tune in.

However, despite Bellator’s talent additions and increase in viewership, the UFC are still the three letters that are synonymous with MMA. When you tell someone that you watch MMA, I would place a healthy wager that they’re immediate response is “Oh, you mean UFC?” So needless to say, Bellator is not yet a household name.

Bellator has the talent, but UFC still has the most talent and has the brand. Currently, that basically means more than whether you have enough fighters who can actually, y’know, fight. The UFC’s partnership with Fox Sports and the attention that stars like McGregor and Ronda Rousey brought to the UFC put it on a whole new level.

But there is hope for Bellator to one day be able to place itself on that same level. Coker must continue to make savvy free-agent signings and continue to put on exciting fight cards with matchups that will deliver entertaining performances. If McGregor decides to walk away from MMA following the massive payout he will receive from boxing Mayweather next month, the UFC will be in need of a new star to build its brand around.

That can be Bellator’s opening. There’s no way it would ever be able to sign McGregor – he would be too expensive for Bellator, hypothetically, and I think McGregor would sooner start his own promotion than sign with a rival one. But Bellator could leverage its current roster mix of talented homegrown fighters and recognizable names to let fans know there is another choice out there.

Competition makes everything better. Going back to pro wrestling, the WWE product has been rather stale for the last 10-15 years, ever since it purchased its biggest rivals WCW and ECW. While alternatives like Impact Wrestling, New Japan Pro Wrestling, Ring of Honor and Lucha Underground exist, those organizations are the Bellator to the WWE’s UFC.

Bellator is capable of stepping up its game and eventually putting itself in the UFC’s company. But in order to do that, it can’t be complacent. Bellator must continue building itself, one free-agent signing and one entertaining card at a time.

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Chris Huntemann
Chris Huntemann writes about mixed martial arts in the state of Maryland. He also opines on all things UFC, Bellator, World Series of Fighting and any other MMA topics he cares to bloviate about. You should check out his blog, or his Twitter. Or both. When he's not watching MMA, he's an avid fan of other sports, such as football, baseball and college basketball. He may or may not do other, non-sports-related things as well.

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