Keep your eye on the prize.
This is what every kid is told when they are trying to achieve a goal within their life, whether it’s going for the state championship in Little League or making it through to the finals of a wrestling tournament. It’s the object, both physical and metaphorical, that drives a person to become successful and feel warranted. Sometimes the prize can be a bit too much to handle and the situation itself can become overwhelming. When this happens, the original reasoning behind obtaining the prize is lost.
Right now, Bellator MMA is the little kid in the above scenario.
Since the acquisition of Pride and Strikeforce by the UFC, Bellator MMA has been seated in the No. 2 position in the pecking order of MMA organizations. The promotion has always been regarded as having a subpar talent pool when compared to the UFC. However, Bellator has always found a way to remain relevant and different, no matter how or what the reaction might be.
It started with the tournament format. Bellator revolutionized the modern MMA era by having seasons filled with tournaments that would determine the next set of challengers for the titles. It was an unusual way of determining contenders, but it kept the fans interested and the fighters relevant and in the game. It was how combatants like lightweight champion Michael Chandler, featherweight titleholder Daniel Straus and current welterweight kingpin Douglas Lima began their rise up the ranks. Unfortunately, the tournament began to grow stale without any evolution. It was eventually scrapped, even though current Bellator President Scott Coker has not completely ruled out the idea of bringing back the tournament format in the future.
With the UFC-Reebok deal leaving such a bad taste in the mouths of many in the MMA world, Bellator has taken full advantage of this disdain to start securing some bigger names in the MMA world. In the last few months, the company has scooped up the likes of Rory MacDonald, Michael McDonald, Lorenz Larkin, Ryan Bader and “The Last Emperor” himself, Fedor Emelianenko, from the free-agent market. It has been a snowball effect of free-agent signings that Bellator has aggressively pursued to gain notoriety. It’s a genius plan. The word floating around the internet is that Bellator is being talked about more than the UFC. It’s not an ironclad set of roster additions, but Bellator is certainly onto something, and with the backing of the company’s owners, Viacom, they have the financial means to pursue this strategy. Furthermore, the newly signed fighters are actually able to wear the sponsors that assist them in supplemental income, rather than Reebok, which often doesn’t pay at quite the same level. Crazy, right?
Bellator needs to move away from pulling in too many UFC veterans and focus on acquiring high-profile young talent that it doesn’t need to spend too much time grooming. A fight between Muhammed “King Mo” Lawal and Ryan Bader has the potential for fireworks, but it could also be a lose-lose for the organization if their brand new high-profile signee is handily defeated or involved in another snoozefest, as both Mo and Bader have been apt to be in the past. As long as Bellator doesn’t forget about the little guys that have brought the company to the level it’s at now, then the organization has a real shot at becoming a true and recognized threat to the UFC.
What Bellator needs to be cognizant of is forgetting about the fighters who helped to create the organization in the first place. These fighters have grown with Bellator and have started to become household names themselves. The aforementioned Straus and Chandler have held their respective titles on multiple occasions. They have carried the Bellator torch diligently while many have left to see if the grass is greener on the other side.
Straus and Chandler are booked for title fights right now, but it’s playing second fiddle to the likes of Chael Sonnen’s fight with Wanderlei Silva and Emelianenko’s upcoming scrap with Matt Mitrione. Bellator needs to keep in mind that its champions and homegrown talent have been loyal through thick and thin. These fighters don’t just want to come along for the ride while UFC castoffs take the lead. These fighters want to be in the driver’s seat instead.