By Ryan Young
When Strikeforce held its final bout on Saturday night, it marked the end of what had universally been accepted as the world’s No. 2 MMA promotion for the past few years.
In its place now steps Bellator MMA, a tournament-based organization formed in 2008 by lawyer and now chairman and CEO Bjorn Rebney.
While Strikeforce aired on Showtime, reaching roughly 20-25 million homes in the United States, Bellator is about to make the jump into 100 million homes on Spike TV beginning with Bellator 85 on Thursday.
The real question is, what can Bellator learn from its predecessor as it moves into one of the least desirable spots in all of sports — the UFC’s biggest direct competition.
Strikeforce was born and bred out of the Bay Area in California and it developed a strong relationship with the fan base there. Much like the UFC’s home is in Las Vegas, Strikeforce was proud to call itself a San Jose-based fight promotion.
Bellator was originally based out of Chicago but moved its home offices to California in the second half of 2012. It remains to be seen whether they will try to position themselves as prominently in the state as Strikeforce had. Their first show on Spike TV will be in Bren, Calif., but developing a solid home base with a staple of fans to rely on could only help the promotion.
Another thing that always struck me about Strikeforce was how they embraced the spectacle, a little reminiscent of the old PRIDE FC days. Maybe it’s from my childhood time spent as a wrestling fan but the flashy fighter entrances with pyro and lighting always made Strikeforce stick out a little bit. The UFC runs their two-minute pre-fight hype video and then the fighters walk out to the cage with music — not the most imaginative idea.
I’m sure it would add a lot of costs, but embracing all the potential pre-fight spectacles would help Bellator create an image of itself that makes it unique from the UFC, something that must be achieved if it wishes to compete with them. Add in the fact that Bellator will be airing directly following TNA Wrestling on Spike TV and the familiar theatrics of fighter entrances could help lure in new viewers/fans.
Nothing will draw in viewers like recognizable stars however, and there’s many ways to go about acquiring them.
For Strikeforce, their big opportunity came in 2009 when Silicon Valley Sports and Entertainment, operators of the HP Pavilion arena in San Jose where Strikeforce was based out of, invested in the company and gave it the financial support needed to sign some big name MMA free agents.
Bellator has already dabbled into their own signing of recognizable fighters this past year as former Strikeforce light-heavyweight champions Muhammed (King Mo) Lawal and Renato (Babalu) Sobral are both lined up for Bellator’s Season 8 light-heavyweight tournament. Also, former UFC welterweights Ben Saunders, Paul Daley and War Machine (né Jon Koppenhaver) have all put pen to paper with the organization.
But while Bellator will need to continue to poach stars exiled from the UFC, the best way to go about securing them is building from within, much like Strikeforce did with Gilbert Melendez, Daniel Cormier, and the star of 2012 Ronda Rousey, among others.
In the nearly four years Bellator has been putting on fights they have had some success in this department.
Michael Chandler, Pat Curran, Eduardo Dantas, Hector Lombard and Eddie Alvarez have all garnered lots of attention while rising through the Bellator ranks, proof that it can be done. The real challenge, much like it was for Strikeforce after Zuffa purchased it in 2011, is keeping those stars around.
There’s no denying the UFC is the superpower in the MMA business, and no promotion in their right mind wants to get into a battle of the chequebook with Dana White. But after losing Lombard early in 2012, Rebney is going to war (court) to hang onto his long-time employee, friend, and former Bellator lightweight champion Alvarez.
While Strikeforce mildly fought to keep their stars — I mean after they lost Nick Diaz, Dan Henderson and the majority of their heavyweights — Bellator seems intent on showing they won’t be pushed around. A lot of criticism has been aimed in the direction of Rebney for the way he’s treating Alvarez, but need I remind you this is a business and if Bellator can somehow retain one of its biggest draws it has an obligation to do so, whether Alvarez or the general public likes it or not.
It’s easy for Dana White to call Rebney “dirty” when Bellator exercises its right to match contract offers because when you have the money to afford whatever you want it’s a lot easier to employ morals. Regardless of how the Alvarez situation plays out, at least Bellator has shown that while it may not be on par with the UFC yet, it’s not afraid to dance with them either.
Bellator’s biggest advantage is something Strikeforce never had though, something that differentiates them from the UFC, and that’s their tournament style format to decide title challengers.
Having spoken to a couple sports editors of major newspapers in Toronto, one of the main reasons mainstream media hasn’t fully accepted mixed martial arts yet is because, unlike in any other major sport, championship opportunities in the UFC are awarded to fighters as much as they are earned.
That isn’t the case in Bellator where a fighter must win an eight-man elimination style tournament to receive a title shot. The format takes some power out of matchmaker Sam Caplan’s hands, but for the potential exciting fights that may be lost I think the overall sense of fighters being in control of their own future is enough to offset it.
As I’ve mentioned in previous articles, the true success of Bellator will come down to the performances its fighters put on inside the cage. That being said, Bellator may as well learn from what Strikeforce showed us in the last few years as the world’s de facto No. 2 MMA promotion.
The biggest lesson?
Don’t let Zuffa purchase you.
Ryan Young is a regular contributor to Sportsnet.ca’s MMA section. Follow him on Twitter @YoungRyan4.