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Is Bellator Destined to Fail?

(Photo: Barry Hartman/MMA Fight Corner)

Quinton ‘Rampage’ Jackson and ‘King Mo’ Lawal bickered amongst each other, garnering the full attention of Bellator 120 fighters and media that filled the Lander Center’s conference room.

Their tiff turned into a scene, and a debate over Jackson’s controversial unanimous decision win began to mirror a schoolyard quarrel. Lawal wanted a rematch, but Jackson wasn’t having any of it, at least not yet.

In between sat Bellator CEO Bjorn Rebney, gloating over his first-ever pay-per-view; the one that would catapult his promotion into a bona fide mixed martial arts powerhouse. Rebney smiled, he said the right things, praised the small yet vociferous fans that filled Southaven, Mississippi’s arena, and looked to a prosperous future.

One month later, Rebney was gone; relieved from the promotion he founded.

Rebney, along with COO Tim Danaher, were given the booty by parent company Viacom after elevating Bellator to the second biggest outfit in the world, drawing mainly on a fan base that desired sport over spectacle. His tournament-style format delighted the MMA community and gave a refreshing alternative to Dana White’s Ultimate Fighting Championship.

It was meant to mix the UFC’s prestige with the ruggedness of now defunct PRIDE and Strikeforce organizations. In the end, Bellator fell victim to its own aspirations.

They swung big and missed in signing big names. Rampage and Tito Ortiz-whose PPV main event last fall fizzled out-haven’t panned out, even if ‘The Huntington Beach Boy’ still eyes a November return. Undercard fighters get paid anywhere between $500-1000, pittance compared to the $10,000 their UFC counterparts can make.

Bellator eliminated womens’ divisions in spring 2013, months before Ronda Rousey’s rise to international stardom, carrying WMMA into millions of households. A cost cutting measure, sure, but one signaling the company’s dwindling budget.

Multiple fighters have called the obstinate owner out on murky contract negotiations. A clause in a champion’s contract states that he must complete either 18 month or three fights before terminating his contract. Winning a tournament also extended one’s contract meaning a total of six matches could be added, regardless of a fighter’s desire to hit the open market.

Rebney lured notable names like Gilbert Melendez and Cheick Kongo, but drove away standout welterweight Ben Askren and alienated many on Bellator’s roster, including lightweight champion Eddie Alvarez.

When it was it was all said and done, creative differences sealed Rebney’s fate. “Viacom and Tim and I differed in our views of the right strategic direction,” Rebney said in a statement released by Spike TV. He and six years of work belonged to someone else.

Enter Scott Coker, Bellator’s appointed savior.

Like Rebney, Coker didn’t just talk the talk, he fought the fight. Coker earned a fifth degree black belt before covering kickboxing and MMA events as a promoter. He headed Strikeforce from its inception in 1985 to its downfall in 2013, championing deals with CBS, Showtime, and various international network.

Beyond his business savvy, Coker knew what fans wanted. He managed to sign well-known heavyweights like ‘Bigfoot’ Silva, Josh Barnett, and Fedor Emelianenko. Fedor alone attracted over 5 million viewers, legions more than Bellator 120’s estimated 100,000 buy rate.

In March 2011, however, Coker sold his popular promotion to Zuffa. Debt was piling up-many blame Fedor’s heft contract- and business partners opted out. Coker’s never into delved how deep in the red Strikeforce was.

In his June 18 inaugurations, Coker stated that Bellator would undergo significant changes. The question is whether it’s too late to be save.

Much like a new CEO will slash-and-burn to fit his vision, Coker’s addition sent shockwaves to the promotion’s foundation.

He immediately announced an intent to move away from the current structure to a more traditional format. “We will do tournaments when the situation makes sense. I think a tournament can make sense, but it has to be the right time and the fighters have to be right,” Coker said on his first day as Bellator president.

Less than a week later, over 20 fighters were cut, most notably former tournament winner Eric Prindle. To his credit, remaining fighters are in favor of restructuring.

Bellator fighters recently spoke with Scifighting about Coker’s arrival. “It’s a new start for the organization and I’m glad they are stopping the tournament. Physically it’s just too hard and the better fighter doesn’t always win,” said season 10 featherweight tournament semi-finalist Will Martinez.

Featherweight Matt Bessette had more fiscal reasoning. “This could mean more money for the fighters,” Bessette said. “If you think about it, something like a quarter-million is tied up in each tournament bracket. Two or three brackets a season is a ton of tied up money on hopeful exciting fights. Take a portion of that money and give it to the guys that you know are promising and exciting.”

Still, there is the fear that Bellator will lose its identity. Similar up-and-coming promotions, like World Series of Fighting and GLORY, have inked multi-year broadcast agreements, with WSOF aspiring to appear on NBC much like CBS televised Strikeforce events.

There is also fan backlash to consider. Many tire of the UFC’s overwhelming roster and saturation of the MMA market. Bellator, at least, stood out. Unless they sign headliners-not someone past their prime- they will have trouble adjusting to the change.

Bellator 122 is scheduled for July 25 in Temecula, Calif. with a pair of tournament finals. It will be one of the last times fans see Bellator as Rebney envisioned it.

Coker plays for keeps. He’s an all-or-nothing kind of guy who gambled big with Strikeforce and got in over his head. Now, he takes over a flailing promotion looking to stay afloat. Is history bound to repeat itself?