As you will have all seen, former England rugby star and sometimes TV presenter James Haskell has signed with Bellator MMA. Haskell has zero MMA experience other than being, what can only be called, a hobbyist for a few years. Yes he may have some knowledge of the game from the inside, but at 34 years old and a myriad of injuries from his former life as a rugby player, what can he offer Bellator and the MMA world?
I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but nothing he can offer is what we need in the MMA world. Yes, James Haskell might be a good athlete, he's certainly in shape, but he has been a full time athlete in another sport until June or July this year. How much full time training has he had? There wouldn't have been time to train during his career due to insurance and making sure he's fit for games. So, maybe it is a couple of months full time? With that knowledge Bellator has has signed him to his first pro deal.
This for me is indicative of the sport of MMA currently. About a decade ago, you would have heard the rhetoric from all promoters and fighters etc about the battle to legitimise the sport. The MMA world no longer wanted to be seen as people who would get into a legal bar fight instead of prime athletes. No longer did the big promotions want to push someone on the back of their name. The sport wanted their own legit stars and to become more 'professional' in the eyes of the public.
For a time, they succeeded. The sport looked more and more legit as the years went on. At its peak the UFC was breaking PPV records and building the biggest combat stars on the planet, with Conor McGregor, Ronda Rousey and Jon Jones coming through in this time. It was finally a sport that could stand on its own two feet. Comparisons with boxing were starting to fade and the monetary compensation for fighters was getting better. It all looked good. Until WME took over the UFC.
All of a sudden the company needed to make back the money it paid to buy the company, employees were let go, legends were released from their ambassador roles and the talent was trimmed by about 100 fighters. They also had to sell as many PPV's as possible to recoup money. Then the problems struck. Ronda Rousey retired. Jon Jones constantly got banned. Conor McGregor went to boxing to earn $100 million in a fight vs Floyd Mayweather. The UFC's stars were gone. Who could they sign to save them? CM Punk.
The MMA world was about to change from legitimate sport to spectacle. The exact thing they had tried to avoid was now becoming a reality due to their own misguided attitudes towards the fans. Many fans/observers know that all things have peaks and troughs and when the UFC was bought out they were at their ultimate peak, there was only one way it could go. Down.
With the peak being over and the money needed to be grabbed, they had to turn to spectacle. CM Punk is a prime example - a WWE wrestler who had never trained, let alone fought was given a contract and a hefty contract with a $500,000 guaranteed downside. Yet champions were getting $100k to win. When looking at the statistics though CM Punk being on that card alone generated around another 200k PPV buys which equated to between $3.5 - $6 million extra for the UFC. Not a bad return for the investment.
The bad news is, the fans were starting to turn off more and more due to the spectacle. No longer was the best fighting the best. It was who could get their name heard loud enough to get a title shot, or the main event spot. Many fighters have tried and all have failed. Since 2016 when McGregor left the MMA scene to box, there has only been one PPV that broke the million buy mark and you guessed it, that was McGregor's return. The second highest selling PPV in three years you ask? GSP vs Bisping. It did 875,000 buys. A mere blip on the 2.4 million that purchased Conor vs Khabib. Not to mention that both GSP and Bisping are now retired and have zero pull for the UFC once again.
Meanwhile whilst all this was happening, Bellator were taken over by Viacom, a company with huge financial backing who bought a product that doesn't put out PPV's. It was hard to see where the revenue would come from if they invested. Well viewing figures steadily increased, they expanded their operations out in to Europe (a market the UFC tends to ignore) and fighters such as Rory MacDonald made the switch when he was the number one contender of the welterweight division in the UFC.
Around this time Bellator started to adopt the UFC's business model too. Perhaps seeing the writing was on the wall due to the now huge budget and advertising deals the UFC would get being associated with WME. They would sign anyone with a name and hope they bring up the ratings. Chael Sonnen, Wanderlei Silva, Rampage Jackson, Tito Ortiz and Fedor Emelianenko propped up their main events for some time. At the same time though, they were also gathering talent like the aforementioned MacDonald.
Bellator also signed Phil Davis, Ryan Bader, Benson Henderson and Gegard Mousasi from underneath the UFC's nose when their contracts expired. These fighters as well prospects like Aaron Pico and champions such as Michael Chandler legitimised Bellator more and more. It seemed the signing of the old guard talent was a means to and end to get eyes on screens and it worked to a degree. Bellator is stronger than ever and still expanding their market.
Realising the UFC had missed a trick in Europe, Bellator continues to sign a lot of UK talent and Scott Coker can even be quoted as saying "I want astronomical numbers" when discussing the expansion in the UK when talking to Gareth Davies of the Telegraph. Not only that but Coker even put emphasis on the fighters during the interview saying "It’s always about the fighters. That’s what it is. If you don’t have the fighters, you don’t have anything. You need a brand, but if you don’t have any fighters, what are you going to sell?".
However, is Coker telling the truth?
Whilst the trend of companies like Bellator are going in the right direction, they are also fallible. The signing of James Haskell is a desperate attempt to get more eyes on screens in the UK. Considering the reaction I have had from friends today via whatsapp, it seems that people who know nothing about MMA are interested. Their gamble, for now, has paid off. They will get more eyes, but they could potentially lose more fans as they grow tired of these antics within MMA.
Bellator however, have done this in the past. Aaron Chalmers - a reality TV star - was also signed by the company a couple of years back after a successful couple of fights with now defunct promotion BAMMA. All looked rosey for their star until he met one fighter who could last more than one minute and he lost. His return fight earlier this year looked so fixed, it was less entertaining than Ken Shamrock vs Royce Gracie in their rematch a couple of years ago.
As fans, we now have more legitimate options for MMA than ever before. In contrast to the two 'big' promotions, the PFL (Professional Fighter's League) is starting to make strides and the 'hardcore' fans are buying into the concept more and more. The company has a tournament style format over a season, with fighters picking up as many points as they can, so they can enter the playoffs. The pay off if you win the tournament is a cool $1 million. More money than most of the UFC roster will see in their life time.
Whilst the PFL is still haemorrhaging money (all start ups and rebrands do), they have decided to take another route. They are looking for the best talent that the world doesn't quite know yet. It is a refreshing approach to the game and I for one, like many others appreciate and support such a company.
The problem with signing fighters for more eyes is that over 99% of them will never tune in again unless that person is fighting. It leads to protection from real challenges in the game and it leads to a massive downfall when the golden boy or girl loses. Putting the eggs in a basket that will fall over if a mild breeze hits it, is not a good business plan for longevity.
It's about time promotions stop looking for the quick buck and build stars for the future instead. James Haskell will not be a success. He will never be a champion. He is in the promotion to test himself I'm sure, but I don't think he quite understands the level he should be to get this shot. If he comes into the sport thinking he has already won, it will be dangerous for him. Bellator has some serious heavyweight fighters including current champ Ryan Bader and if he was put in the cage with him, it would last less than 10 seconds.
UFC and Bellator, please stop the antics and bring back the sport I love and know dearly. The politics and business side, I am sure are hugely important, but stop thinking each event and start thinking big picture. Conor McGregor's come around once in a lifetime and the UFC seem to have even missed that trick. Letting him lose to Floyd Mayweather in another spectacle hurt the sport massively. Go back to building a legitimate sport and stop playing these PR games.