It’s a funny thing that’s happened since Bellator stopped churning out low-level “Friday Night Fights” style cards alongside the occasional freak show-led tentpole event and started buying up the hottest free agents on the market: people actually started watching it, and dare I say, even buying into President Scott Coker’s claims that the promotion would soon be nipping at the heels of the UFC in the ratings battle.
Less than a year ago, we were watching 52-year-old Ken Shamrock get groin-shotted into a living death by 49-year-old Royce Gracie and the late Kimbo Slice defeat a street fighter with a robot’s name via heart attack. On the same night. All while being reassured that what we were watching was as legitimate as anything you’d see in any premier mixed martial arts organization (kind of?). Now, we’re seeing top contenders like Gegard Mousasi, Benson Henderson, and Lorenz Larkin leave the ivory towers of the UFC just to get a piece of the Bellator (or technically, Viacom) pie. It’s been a hell of a turnaround, at the very least.
In 2018, Bellator will look to continue narrowing the gap between itself and its chief competitor starting with its very first event of the year, Bellator 192, where former UFC star Rory MacDonald will challenge champion Douglas Lima for the promotion’s welterweight title. It’s already the most anticipated title fight of the year (albeit by default), but beyond that, it might just be the greatest title fight in Bellator history — and one that reasonably stands to make good on the Coker’s lofty promises.
“They have the potential to overtake [the UFC],” said MacDonald in an exclusive interview with Uproxx MMA.
“But that’s going to take some very strong moves and some good luck as well. The UFC has a stronghold on everything… for the very general pop culture fan, they know MMA as UFC. To switch that dynamic over, it’s going to take some time, but I do believe that Bellator will be a very strong competitor [in the coming months], even more so than Strikeforce was at its peak.”
And for Bellator, the time could not be better to strike. Last weekend’s UFC 217 may have gone down as one of the greatest events in recent memory, but there’s no denying that it came amidst one of the most underwhelming years in UFC history from a promotional standpoint. MMA fans hoping that the promotion’s new leadership under WME-IMG would address its historical inability to create new stars were met by mediocre event after mediocre event, with even UFC 217 reportedly “not selling well” in the lead-up according to Joe Rogan. Meanwhile, Bellator’s own trip to Madison Square Garden for Bellator 180 was being heralded as “the best card of the year” (again, somewhat by default) right up until last weekend, a distinction that the promotion had rarely (if ever) found itself in the running for previously.
According to MacDonald, the reason for Bellator’s rise can be attributed to a simple lack of compelling cards from its competition.
“Honestly, I think [fans are losing interest in the UFC] everywhere. It’s not just Canada, it’s in Brazil, and even these cards they put out in the states are lacking. It could be incompetence [on the UFC’s part], or trying to have too much say in the way things are being presented. I think there’s a lot of stress on the shoulders of the new owners. The debt they have is steering the decisions they have to make.”
It’s a notion that “The Red King” has driven home before. Shortly after leaving the UFC’s good graces for Bellator last year, MacDonald blamed the UFC’s much-maligned — and in his words, “boring” — deal with Reebok among his grievances with the promotion, which Coker has also echoed in the not-so-distant past.
Like many of his former UFC cohorts, however, MacDonald isn’t solely interested in exploring the past. After dominating Paul Daley in his promotional debut back in May, he now finds himself facing one of the most dangerous and talented fighters to ever step foot inside the Bellator cage: Douglas Lima. It’s a matchup that MacDonald calls “An A-level fighter fighting an A+-level fighter” (with himself obviously representing the latter).
When asked if he feels any additional pressure to represent the UFC as the “true” top-level brand against Lima, especially in light of the rocky landing that guys like Henderson and Larkin have found in Bellator, MacDonald stated just the opposite.
“It helps legitimize the level of the opponents in Bellator,” said MacDonald.
“The fact that there have been some [former UFC] guys that have been unsuccessful, I think it opens some eyes to the level of competition that Bellator has here, and has always had.”