It was a special experience to sit in the front row at Bellator 206 in San Jose, Calif.. It was unlike anything else I have ever seen. To watch what was, to most’s agreement, the biggest card in Bellator history right beside the cage is something I will never forget in my life. Just as special was the atmosphere that I was a part of by simply being in the SAP Center.
I remember being present at Bellator 186: Bader vs Vassell in Pennsylvania, but the atmosphere was nowhere near what it was on Saturday. At that event, which took place just last year, the upper section was completely closed off. Even in the lower sections, there were empty seats all over the place.
In just under a year, Bellator has taken some massive steps. The company has made some unbelievable free-agent signings, including UFC stars Rory MacDonald, Gegard Mousasi and Lyoto Machida.
Something that you have heard many times from the fighters themselves that have been in both the UFC and Bellator, is that Bellator treats their fighters better and with more respect, which starts from the top of the promotion. Bellator head Scott Coker is undoubtedly a substantial part of Bellator’s recent success. He has made some giant moves for his promotion, such as signing a deal with the digital network DAZN. Fighters have no problem letting the public know that Coker cares about his fighters individually, whereas UFC President Dana White, although excellent at his job, gets a lot of criticism at times from fighters for the things he says.
Even just about a year ago, the MMA community never really looked at Bellator and the UFC on the same level. The UFC was always the promotion when it came to the sport, and the organization still may be, at least for now. However, one thing’s for sure: the lead the UFC had is slowly but surely deteriorating. More than once, we have heard fighters in the UFC either complain about their pay or ask for more. Meanwhile, Bellator fighters rarely seem to have a problem with their wages.
Mousasi, while still under contract with the UFC before the last fight on his deal against Chris Weidman at UFC 210, asked for “what is fair.” He made it clear that he does not ask for an excessive amount of pay, but simply what he deserves.
The same is true for MacDonald. After signing with Bellator, he spoke out on how little he got paid compared to what he deserved after his legendary war against Robbie Lawler at UFC 189. It was one of the greatest fights ever, yet the one who made it happen profited very little off of it.
Momentum is a scary thing. If there is one advantage Bellator has over the UFC right now, it is momentum. The UFC has been staggering in 2018 so far, with almost every pay-per-view card having a major fight pulled from it. UFC 221 had Robert Whittaker scrapped with an injury. UFC 222 suffered when Max Holloway was pulled from the card. UFC 223 was possibly the most disastrous event in UFC history, with Tony Ferguson suffering a major injury just a week out from the fight, and also the infamous bus incident taking out Michael Chiesa and Ray Borg from the card as well. UFC 226 had Holloway once again suffer a setback. And, of course, UFC 228 had brand new women’s flyweight champion Nicco Montaño pull out at the last minute after troubles with making weight. The point is, the UFC has not been so lucky with the events that it has put on this year.
On the contrary, Bellator hasn’t had many problems with its fighters pulling out of bouts. Whenever there is a massive fight in the UFC nowadays, it seems like everyone is holding their breath, worried about someone pulling out, rather than being excited about the match-up. This is absolutely warranted, too, considering how many injury withdrawals have occurred this year. Even for the massive fight between Khabib Nurmagomedov and Conor McGregor, the first question was, “Can they both make it to the fight?” This is problematic, particularly for a promotion that relies on pay-per-view sales to conduct business.
The pay-per-view system seems to be hurting the UFC’s business. Now that the price tag for every pay-per-view has risen up to $65 from $60, it is understandable how a lot of the fans feel overwhelmed by the price. It’s not cheap.
The big four sports leagues in the United States, and even promotions like the WWE, are paying their athletes far more than the UFC pays its fighters. None of these organizations are working with a pay-per-view system. The WWE did in the past, but it has since moved its marketing strategy to its own WWE Network, where fans only have to pay $9.99 monthly. The WWE seems to be doing just fine, too, and maybe even better since the switch.
Bellator is following a similar path. It’s moving content to an exclusive network in DAZN. With a subscription price of $9.99 per month, DAZN not only provides streams for Bellator, but it carries boxing as well. How things will turn out for Bellator in the long-term remains to be seen, but it’s worth noting that the organization is staying away from the pay-per-view business model.
It would be a reach to say that Bellator is ahead of the UFC at this point, but this is not all that important. It has always been that way. However, the gaps are closing between the two promotions. For the UFC, this is a scary thing. A lot of big-name fighters has been going over to the other side recently. For whatever it might mean for the UFC to have Bellator neck and neck with it, this is great for the sport and the business. Competition prompts growth, and right now the UFC and Bellator are in competition. This is only going to help take the sport to the next level.