Bellator’s foray into kickboxing is less than a year old, but as it nears its second official card (and coincidentally, its second Dynamite event), what does the future hold for the Viacom-owned promotion?
What started as a joint venture with one of the sport’s leaders, GLORY, has turned into something else entirely. Bellator President Scott Coker has been promoting kickboxing events since the mid 1980s, and with the backing of a large media entity like Viacom, he’s opted to try to build a sister brand to the already-established Bellator MMA.
While the first Dynamite card featured GLORY mainstays Saulo Cavalari, Zack Mwekassa and current featherweight champion Serhiy Adamchuk, Coker gave a preview of his future strategy with the rest of the kickboxing bouts. Rather than go after established global talents, Coker opted to include former MMA fighters such as Fernando Gonzalez.
For Bellator Kickboxing’s first official card in Torino, Italy, Coker partnered with Italian promotion Oktagon to secure top-10 welterweight Karim Ghajji for a title bout. Coker also gave longtime veteran (and Bellator MMA fighter) Melvin Manhoef the headlining spotlight, while also including American mainstays Raymond Daniels and Kevin Ross.
The direction of the promotion is becoming more and more clear with each event. For Dynamite 2, there will once again be just a handful of kickboxing bouts attached to an MMA event. As with the previous cards, there will be numerous former MMA fighters and a largely American fight card, including top-10 middleweight Joe Schilling, the aforementioned Ross and Daniels, as well as Keri Anne Taylor-Melendez.
Prior to Bellator Kickboxing 2, which takes place Friday, June 24, in St. Louis, Combat Press writer Rob Tatum was joined by Michael Stets of SiriusXM RUSH 93 and MMA Mania to discuss, debate and break down what the future holds for Coker’s newest endeavor.
Tatum: Stets, you’ve been covering the kickboxing scene for just as long as I have, if not longer, and we’ve both witnessed the struggles that promotions have had in building the sport on U.S. soil. After what happened with Bellator’s brief relationship with GLORY, and the uphill battle that GLORY has faced, does BellaKick have a chance to grow and establish itself as a true destination for kickboxing talent? Or is this just Viacom letting Coker have some fun with a niche market?
Stets: I think you have to look at BellaKick much differently than you do GLORY. While Coker began as a promoter in the American kickboxing scene before MMA — and is a clear fan of the sport — he’s going to have a much different approach in regards to matchmaking. It’s two different schools of thought. Cor Hemmers and Eric Haycraft are building divisional depth, have a ranking system, and hold constant tournaments that decide contenders for titles. Coker and Rich Chou are from the “let’s make the fights the fans want to see” school of thought. And they are making fun match-ups and fights they think will catch the fans’ interest in a sport that continues to struggle in regards to popularity in the States. That’s not to say they won’t eventually build several divisions up and have title holders etc. But for right now, they have to get fans interested in the sport, butts in seats, and ratings on Spike. Ultimately, I think you have to take a wait-and-see approach before passing judgment.
Tatum: I can certainly understand the butts-in-seats aspect to what Coker and Chou are doing. It’s not a departure from what they have done on the MMA side of things with fights like Royce Gracie vs. Ken Shamrock 3. And to your point, the approach that Hemmers and Haycraft are using has had mixed results in terms of establishing a strong footing in the U.S. market.
That said, I’m having a hard time grasping how recycling the same handful of American fighters is going to change anything. Can fans really latch onto the sport when the majority of the sport’s talent is fighting for GLORY or Kunlun Fight? Obviously, I would like to see the sport grow in popularity for the sake of the fighters, but can fighters like Schilling, Daniels and Ross capture fan interest in ways they couldn’t previously under the GLORY or Lion Fight banners?
Stets: I think they can definitely capture fan interest for several reasons.
First, Bellator is piggybacking the kickboxing cards after the MMA cards, so they are slowly ingratiating their fan base to the sport while the fan base is already digesting an MMA card. That is a smart approach. Fans will at least tune in for a fight or two to check it out. Some are going to love it, and, of course, as we know, some will not. There are fighters like Schilling, Ross and Daniels, and many fans are already familiar with them.
They’ve seen Schilling in the Bellator cage twice now and know he was once with GLORY. Now they get to continually see him at his best, which is in the kickboxing ring. Having Schilling vs. Hisaki Kato in a kickboxing match is fun and unique. Schilling gets to try to avenge a brutal loss while Kato can’t use his superior grappling. Having fighters fight in both kickboxing and MMA sounds like a ton of fun to me. Yes, it’s a downer to not see “Stitch ’em Up” go up against the elite, like Simon Marcus and Artem Levin, but those days are now over.
Daniels was always well received by the Spike TV audience, and fans know something crazy is going to happen whenever he fights. So, while it’s almost a foregone conclusion he dismantles Stefano Bruno in under a round in St. Louis, it doesn’t make fans of his want to watch it any less. Also, since he was on the last card, those that only know Daniels from Bellator will remember him from last time.
I think Ross will be somewhat of a challenge at first, until fans see one of his fights that turns into a crazy battle. Ross is a Muay Thai guy, and I think it will take him a couple of fights to adapt to the rule set and not having elbows at his disposal. His first fight in Italy against Matteo Taccini wasn’t the most action packed, but he will eventually win some fans over for sure. And, like in the case of Daniels, viewers will remember him from the Italy card.
Also, we can’t forget Denise Kielholtz, who is also on the Dynamite 2 card in St. Louis. She is one of the best women’s kickboxers on the planet and a fine showing of the Dutch style of kickboxing. She was on the first card as well and is always fun to watch. Having her style in front of the American TV audience behooves the sport, in my opinion. You can argue the American casual fan loves rock ’em, sock ’em robots, but a skilled striker always gets people’s attention. Think Nieky Holzken, who always elicits a “wow, that guy has some serious skills” response when he fights.
Tatum: All of the fighters that we’ve mentioned are talented and should be able to capture fan interest in the short term, but I have some doubts in the long run. Take Schilling, for example. Would you rather see him fighting Levin and Marcus, or bouncing back and forth between kickboxing and MMA against mid-tier fighters in both sports? No disrespect to Kato — who, like you said, owns a brutal knockout over Schilling in MMA — but I can’t see him posing much threat to Schilling when you take away the ground game.
The same goes for Daniels. He’s basically a human highlight reel when not facing Holzken. But if he’s just wrecking opponents like Justin Baesman (you guessed it, another Bellator MMA product) or the overmatched Francesco Moricca, will fans be calling for a real challenge? Since Ghajji has already been dubbed a champion at welterweight in Torino, why is Daniels being fed someone like Bruno? A future match-up with Ghajji is the only thing whetting my appetite at this point for future BellaKick fights. I mean, for those of us that follow the sport regularly, a match-up between two top-10 welterweights is something that anyone can get behind.
Ross is one of those guys who has paid his dues and deserves some spotlight, but given his weight class and style, it’s going to take some well-thought matchmaking to get fans on board. While bringing in overmatched MMA fighters for big knockouts might work for Schilling or Daniels, Ross needs a challenge to truly showcase what he has to offer. He’s the type of fighter that tends to thrive under adversity and always puts on a show, regardless of the outcome.
Kielholtz is in a similar boat as Schilling and Daniels. Sure, bringing in a highly skilled Dutch fighter with her resume is a good thing, but who is she going to fight? The women’s side of the sport is another topic that we could spend a lot of time discussing. After seeing the tournament that GLORY recently put together, I can’t help but feel like BellaKick really missed an opportunity that would’ve helped it stand out. Then again, Bellator MMA hasn’t exactly excelled with its women’s divisions during the Coker era.
Stets: GLORY did a great job putting the women’s super bantamweight tournament together and signing Tiffany van Soest, but that organization is already established. Coker needs to get the new promotion up and running before a move like that. Women’s MMA, let alone women’s kickboxing, is still making headway in the United States. The UFC only has two women’s divisions. Bellator has one. Outside of Invicta, there really aren’t deep divisions in other promotions, and many of the most talented strikers from kickboxing or Muay Thai are going the MMA route. Joanna Jędrzejczyk is the UFC women’s strawweight champ, Holly Holm won the women’s bantamweight title before losing it to Miesha Tate, and Valentina Shevchenko is now in the UFC women’s 135-pound division. Germaine de Randamie is also.
You are right — there aren’t a lot of opponents for Kielholtz — but I think Coker will handle Kielholtz in a similar fashion to how Lion Fight handled van Soest and bring in different fighters to face her each time. Also, Coker can have Anastasia Yankova fight in BellaKick too, although she is pursuing MMA now as well and following the same path as the other female fighters I mentioned.
Tatum: As we’ve both reiterated, the promotion is still very much in its infancy. But realistically, is there enough talent/depth in the American market to support the type of roster Coker needs to truly grow the brand?
Stets: You know as well as I do that it’s slim pickings if you are talking about the upper echelon. Fighters like Schilling, Ross and Daniels are the exception, not the norm. Dustin Jacoby just fought for the GLORY middleweight title, but his story is a rare one. He crossed over from MMA and took his lumps for the first three years before turning it around. Most fighters are training for MMA in the States, so it’s an uphill battle to find talented American kickboxers. That is assuredly one of the reasons Coker partnered up with Carlo Di Blasi and Oktagon when he launched Bellator Kickboxing. BellaKick will need fighters to fill out cards and there are plenty available overseas.
Tatum: Looking forward, I wanted to touch on what I see as the biggest hurdle for BellaKick: Can the promotion ever establish itself as a standalone entity? Or is it forever going to be relegated to Bellator MMA’s sidekick (pun intended)? If Coker is only putting on a handful of fights per event and, in the case of the Dynamite cards, mixing them in with MMA bouts, will the brand ever be strong enough to hold its own fight card?
Stets: I think BellaKick can establish itself, but, as I said earlier, it’s going to take time. We will just have to see what the company does and how they do it. I can’t pass judgment after only two events and Dynamite 2. I do think Coker and Co. will be doing some different things in regards to matchmaking and how they build a card. I’d imagine they will have more of the MMA roster cross over into the kickboxing ring at some point — Coker already said he’d be down to make that happen. Obviously, Kato will be doing this to face Schilling on the upcoming card. I’m fine with it, because fans need names and they need familiarity to get on board with something.
GLORY struggled with getting viewers because of what I just mentioned, and they are the top kickboxing promotion out there. GLORY 15, which featured Gokhan Saki and Tyrone Spong, drew just over 350,000 viewers on Spike TV. I’ll give you another one: GLORY 11, with a four-man heavyweight tourney featuring Daniel Ghita, Rico Verhoeven, Saki and Anderson Silva. Spong was on that card, too. It drew 381,000 viewers. So, just talent alone isn’t going to cut it. BellaKick needs action-packed fights and big names to get viewers to tune in to the fight cards.
It’s also important to note that, yeah, MMA is definitely Bellator’s priority now. You said BellaKick is the “sidekick” to Bellator MMA, which is somewhat true at the moment, but MMA has to be its priority, especially when the company is just introducing kickboxing to its fan base. The main takeaway right now is that Coker loves kickboxing and he’s putting on kickboxing cards. That’s a good thing. There are two fights on Dynamite, and three on Bellator Kickboxing St. Louis. Coker is letting the fans get a little taste The next card BellaKick does will likely have a deeper lineup.
Tatum: I’m with you on the wait-and-see approach. Let’s hope that this weekend gives us a glimpse of the true potential that the promotion has. It would be unfortunate for talented fighters like Schilling and Daniels to waste their time competing for an organization that isn’t truly vested in them. Time will tell.