With a new year comes a new slate. Bellator MMA has a big 2017 available with the major changes in the MMA world at the end of 2016.
WME-IMG’s purchase of the UFC took hold toward the tail end of 2016, and the changes to the promotion have begun to take shape. 2017 will be a telling year as the UFC adjusts in what will be its first full year under new ownership. There’s the question of which fighters will remain on the roster, plus there are the changes to the announcing team and the overall load of cards, all factors that could see a shift for the UFC.
This makes 2017 a big year for Bellator, which has become the second promotion in North America. Now, with uncertainty in what will happen under the new ownership for the UFC, Bellator has a big chance to make a run and close the gap between the two promotions.
It seems highly unlikely that Bellator can surpass the UFC when much of the top-tier, marketable talent lies within the UFC. However, Bellator can certainly capitalize on some of the changes and turn this into an interesting battle for promotional dominance.
The UFC has already begun trimming its roster and letting some top talent walk for greener pastures out of an unwillingness to match their salary requirements. The likes of Phil Davis and Rory MacDonald have already paved the road for a change in scenery. Bellator has the potential to keep these signings going as more and more top-tier fighters hit free agency.
This starts with Ryan Bader, who would signify a huge signing for Bellator. The light heavyweight division is relatively thin and has always been a sore spot for Bellator. There just hasn’t been enough talent to really make the division pop, much the same as is the case with the promotion’s heavyweight division. Current 205-pound champion Phil Davis doesn’t really have much in front of him. It’s difficult to look at his current list of potential challengers and say he can be dethroned by any of the bunch. Davis could rematch Liam McGeary, but their previous fight was a one-sided affair and not enough time has passed to really warrant a second go-around. Bader, on the other hand, is one of the top light heavyweights in the world and would immediately jump into a title fight against Davis.
As Bellator moves to more bigger tentpole events, this sort of fight could be the company’s main showing. It would be a tentpole headliner housing two ex-UFC light heavyweights who are still at the top of their game. It adds legitimacy to the title that has been sorely missing until now and take Bellator far past the days when guys with barely a winning record were fighting for the title.
Bellator will also need to pursue some top heavyweights to join recent acquisitions Fedor Emelianenko and Matt Mitrione. The heavyweight division has been another weak spot for Bellator. The upcoming fight between Emelianenko and Mitrione is a good start to help give the division the shine that has never really been there before. There have been dominant champions, but no interesting fights like the upcoming one pitting an ex-UFC heavyweight at the top of his game against the greatest heavyweight and fighter of all time.
The additions even go beyond the roster and into the broadcast booth. Former UFC commentator Mike Goldberg has been rumored to be in talks with Bellator. That alone is a big coup. Goldberg brings a recognizable voice that could add some excitement to the cards alongside a great mind like Jimmy Smith.
These signings make for interesting match-ups at the top of the cards as the two promotions make trips to London. The UFC’s main event in that trip will pit Jimi Manuwa against Corey Anderson. Sure, Manuwa is a hometown hero, but Paul Daley takes on Rory MacDonald a couple of months after in May for Bellator. The ratings will be interesting for sure, as MacDonald’s first Bellator fight seems to be the more interesting of the two bouts. MacDonald is coming off two losses, but they’re to current welterweight title challenger Stephen Thompson and former champ Robbie Lawler in what turned out to be a “Fight of the Year” throwdown. MacDonald is still one of the best welterweights on the planet, too.
As the year unfolds, these events will continue to compete for ratings and ticket sales in the same markets. With the UFC under new management, the amount of events on the calendar could be scaled back. This is where Bellator needs to jump in. The organization needs to avoid lackluster cards and put forth some of the best efforts they can put together to go hard against the UFC.
With so much uncertainty in the coming year about what will happen and who won’t be in the UFC any longer, Bellator needs to take advantage. It isn’t now or never, but this is the best opportunity Bellator will get to close the gap.