(Patricky Freire beat down former WEC Lightweight Champion “Razor” Rob McCullough before crushing two-time Bellator finalist Toby Imada.)
Any entrepreneur worth his or her salt will tell you that unless you’re competing on price – like generic facial tissue vs. Kleenex – a business needs a unique selling proposition, or USP, to thrive. If you look over the graveyard of big-time MMA promotions you’ll find one USP (team MMA!) and a lot of knockoffs (it’s like the UFC, without the guys you know!). Bellator Fighting Championship, on the other hand, is one big throbbing USP. Its strict adherence to the eight-man tournament format for title shots makes it unique among all MMA promotions. The fact that Bellator’s best fighters distinguish themselves organically and tournament winners have built in promo reels at the end of each season eliminates the need to pursue whatever marketable, noteworthy fighters remain on the open market. But Bellator’s farm-team style approach to fighter development comes with one drawback: lack of context.
For better or worse, Zuffa-owned promotions have been the gold standard for assessing talent in MMA. You make it to the UFC – or until recently if you weighed less than 155 pounds, the WEC – and fans assume that you’re in the top tier of available talent. Whether or not this is always true is beside the point because perception is reality. So it’s hard not to wonder when you’re watching shows like Bellator – and until recently, Strikeforce – how their champions would stack up against the best guys in the UFC. The only problem is that with the combined rosters of the UFC and Strikeforce under the Zuffa umbrella, the Las Vegas-based company owns the contracts of most of the top 25 in the seven most common weight classes.
A guy like Eddie Alvarez (#11 Lightweight) isn’t going to get a non-title superfight fight with a top 155er because he’s the only top 25 lightweight not under contract with a Zuffa-owned property. Likewise, Bellator Bantamweight Champion Zach Makovsky (#10) and Welterweight Champion Ben Askren (#15), and Middleweight Champion Hector Lombard (#7) are alone in their respective top 15′s. Bellator Heavyweight Champion Cole Konrad (#26) is the best big man Bellator has under contract and every guy ahead of him is under contract with the UFC, Strikeforce, or M-1 Global. With the exception of Featherweight Champion Joe Warren (#2), who made a run in the Dream tourney before taking Bellator gold, none of these guys have faced top competition in the last couple of years or ever. This leaves Bellator with an internal question to answer; do we keep our guys in a self-contained universe or do we cherry pick guys coming out of the UFC/Strikeforce to help put our talent in context? I don’t know the inner workings of Bellator’s business but the answer appears to be the latter.
With this season’s additions of former WEC Lightweight Champion “Razor” Rob McCullough, former IFL Welterweight Champion and UFC/Strikeforce/Affliction vet Jay Hieron (#19) to the lightweight and welterweight tournament brackets and signing of UFC vet Ben Saunders for non-tournament feature fights, it appears that Bellator wants to capitalize on the promotional power of big show veterans. It also gives relatively unknown fighters the chance to score a signature win en route to a title shot. On paper, Rob McCullough vs. PatrickyFreire – former WEC champ vs. that one dude’s brother – probably looked like a favorable match up for “Razor” Rob. Then the fight started and Freire did to McCullough what only fellow former WEC Lightweight Champion Jamie Varner had managed to in the last decade; he finished him. Freire then did the same, only more quickly and viciously, to Toby Imada, and punched himself a ticket to the Lightweight Tournament Final. A month ago no one knew much or cared much about Patricky Freire. Now thanks to the tournament format and opponents who helped put his talent in context, fans are salivating for a possible Alvarez vs. Freire title fight.
Zuffa isn’t going to give up its champions, top contenders, or even it’s entertaining middle of the pack guys anytime soon. But a few smart acquisitions each season could help Bjorn Rebney & Co. put their talent in context and go a long way towards answering hypothetical questions.
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