The UFC is the biggest brand in MMA, but that doesn’t mean all of the sport’s best fighters wage war inside the octagon.
The UFC badly wants to be seen as the NFL, NBA and MLB of mixed martial arts. Those are leagues and organizations that are synonymous with their sports. And while the UFC is likely on its way to becoming the only major brand in in MMA, it’s not there yet.
Just ask Ben Askren. Or Eddie Alvarez. Or Michael Chandler. These three fighters are among the best in the world in their divisions, but they don’t fight in the UFC and only the hardcore MMA fans probably even know who they are.
They fight in Bellator, the other big MMA promotion, owned by Viacom, that you will find on Spike TV.
With MMA being an emerging sport, the UFC and Bellator don’t have formal paths for how to join the top two promotions in the industry. There’s not a high school-to-college-to-scout-to-Fox Sports ready-made route. There’s a whole bunch of factors that go into how a fighter gets into the so-called “major leagues.” Like everything in life, landing in the UFC versus landing in Bellator is a lot about timing, who you know, and whether anyone in power within the two organizations decides to take a chance on you.
What if UFC light heavyweight champion Jon Jones never landed in the UFC? He got his big break when at 6-0 in other promotions, the UFC called him in as a replacement fighter on 14 days notice. Jones said yes, and anyone who follows the sport knows what happened after that. What if he had turned down the opportunity? Would he be fighting in Bellator and getting disparaged as not one of the best in the world because he doesn’t fight in the UFC?
UFC President Dana White recently said that the UFC would never buy Bellator because Bellator has “no value.” It’s true that the UFC is the most prominent, well-established and successful brand in MMA.
But like Miley Cyrus, Taylor Swift and Drake, who are always on the radio, the UFC is always on television. All of them are highly visible and mass marketed. That doesn’t mean, however, that there aren’t really good musicians and talented singers out there who nobody knows about, artists who would blow away the radio favorites if they ever performed on equal stages. The same goes for MMA. Guys such as Askren, Chandler and Alvarez are great, whether they are “on the radio all day” or fighting on any one of the Fox Sports channels.
So it doesn’t make any sense when White says Bellator has no value, and White deep down must know that.
The worst part of the promotional wars between the executives at UFC and Bellator is that the fans are the ones who end up losing. Yes, the UFC puts on some great fights, but there are many other great fights possible if the two organizations would come together to allow it to happen.
It shouldn’t take the UFC buying another promotion for the fans to see some great inter-promotional matches. Look what the UFC did to Strikeforce after purchasing it? It slowly dismantled the organization and the company’s brand value. In the end, all that was left was Ronda Rousey, Daniel Cormier, Gilbert Melendez and a handful of fighters with “potential.”
The UFC could have invested in Strikeforce, promoted the brand and held wicked inter-promotional, title vs. title belts, all under the Zuffa banner. Everyone would have won, rather than what happened, which was that the Strikeforce titles went away and some of the Strikeforce guys got title shots.
The way MMA is structured right now we may never see Eddie Alvarez or Michael Chandler fight Anthony Pettis. We may never see Georges St-Pierre vs. Ben Askren.
It would never happen, but rather than disparaging each other’s products, why can’t these two companies come together for an inter-promotional battle? Undoubtedly, it would make a lot of people a lot of money. The downside, of course, is that neither the UFC or Bellator would want their guy to lose, but they might be overreacting. Askren would only be a greater star if he fought GSP and lost. GSP’s legacy won’t get hurt with a loss to the younger Askren.
Fans are smart enough now to know that any fighter can beat any other fighter on any given day inside the cage. They won’t hold the loss against the company.
The best thing for the long-term future of MMA is for everybody to understand that the UFC is the most successful brand in MMA right now, but that there are great fighters who fight elsewhere. The great sport of mixed martial arts must be bigger than the current success of any one company. Guys like Askren, Chandler and Alvarez, and probably several others, are among the best in the world, regardless of whether Jimmy Smith or Joe Rogan calls their fights.