Not too long ago, Bellator MMA announced that they had outright released their Lightweight Champion Eddie Alvarez and the collective MMA audience laughed.
They couldn’t be serious, could they?
Releasing one of their biggest stars just after he had won a belt seemed like promotional suicide. Yet we sit here with Alvarez’s UFC debut just around the corner and both promotions are in better places since Bellator released him.
For the UFC, the gains are much more visible and immediate. Alvarez was one of the biggest stars outside of the UFC and will bring immediate financial gain to the company. While Alvarez is not the headlining act of UFC 178, his fight is either the most or second most anticipated on the card. Without Alvarez, UFC 178 would have been co-headlined by Donald Cerrone vs. Bobby Green. That bout is a fine co-headliner, but doesn’t have the ring that Cerrone-Alvarez does.
Alvarez is also a great promotional tool for the UFC. As seen in the promos for UFC 178, they can tout Alvarez as a “four time world champion” and easily convey how big of a deal his debut is to a casual MMA audience. The former Bellator champion also has a laundry list of brutal knockouts on his record which make for great promotional sizzle reels (well, at least the ones Zuffa has the rights to).
While the UFC’s gains after signing Alvarez will definitely be huge, Bellator may have set themselves up for a long future of prosperity after releasing their former champion.
One of the facts that had floated around during Bjorn Rebney’s time running Bellator was that his contracts were not fighter-friendly. A perfect example of this would be the contract dispute Alvarez had with the promotion. Alvarez had signed a contract with the UFC which was immediately matched by Bellator, forcing Alvarez to return to the promotion. This resulted in Alvarez taking his employer to court because he felt that Bellator couldn’t accurately match the UFC’s contract. According to Alvarez, Bellator did not have the ability to put on a pay-per-view the size of a UFC pay-per-view, which would result in him losing out on tons of money.
At the end of the day, Alvarez returned to Bellator but the long court battle left a sour taste in the mouth of fans and fighters alike. It’s hard not to see why free agents would balk at the idea of signing with Bellator after seeing the hell Alvarez had to go through when attempting to better his career. Simply put, Bellator would have to pull teeth to sign any fighter of significance.
Shortly after the court battle, Rebney was fired by the promotion and former Strikeforce President Scott Coker took the reigns of the reeling promotion. In one of his first acts, Coker released Alvarez from his contract which let their current champion sign with any promotion.
While the decision seemed puzzling on the surface, Alvarez’s release re-opened the door for Bellator to sign MMA’s biggest stars and top prospects. His release signified that the days of court battles to decide the future of Bellator’s athletes were gone and the days of a fighter-first promotion had arrived. With this new direction, Bellator has now become an even greater threat to the UFC powerhouse.
What this all adds up to is simple: Great MMA for a long time to come. Fans can now watch Alvarez go up against the best fighters that the UFC has to offer and Bellator can begin to rebuild its own empire.
I can’t wait to see what both promotions have planned for the future.