May 26, 2024

Jorge Masvidal was looking for a grappling transition, something that would give him an advantage in the second round of a fight against Toby Imada. Masvidal went for what looked like a single-leg takedown attempt. But Imada’s entire body went with it, up into the air and over Masvidal’s head.

What looked like an innocuous, albeit odd, position turned dangerous for Masvidal quickly. Once Imada was on Masvidal’s back, facing upside down, he was able to wrap Masvidal’s left arm and his neck into an inverted triangle. Before Masvidal realized what was happening, Imada hipped into the attack and squeezed his legs together.

Masvidal bent over forward at the hips to relieve the pressure. But it was too late. Seconds later, he was unconscious on the mat as Imada unfurled his legs and celebrated.

That was May 1, 2009, in Dayton, Ohio. The event was the fifth in the history of Bellator MMA, then called Bellator Fighting Championships. Imada’s technical submission win over Masvidal was a semifinal of the first Bellator lightweight tournament, which was eventually won by Eddie Alvarez.

Long before Masvidal moved on to UFC stardom by scoring the fastest knockout in that promotion’s history, becoming the first “BMF” champion and entering the phrase “three piece with a soda” into the MMA lexicon with his verbal exploits, he went viral on video for a memorable moment over which he had no control. His uncommon submission loss to Imada was one of the first online videos that put Bellator on the map. The video on the Bellator YouTube page, not even in high definition, has more than 2.4 million views.

Fourteen years later, Masvidal is one of MMA’s biggest stars and Bellator has reached a milestone. After more than a decade of exciting, epic and at times bizarre highlights, Bellator 300 will take place Saturday in San Diego, headlined by three championship fights. The event will be a celebration of what has been an entertaining MMA product with longevity that has gone through several regimes and iterations. But it will also be a bittersweet night given Bellator’s reportedly bleak future.

Usman Nurmagomedov, the precocious cousin of Khabib, will defend his lightweight title against former champ Brent Primus in the main event. In the co-main event, one of the greatest women’s MMA fighters of all time, Cris Cyborg, puts her featherweight belt on the line against Cat Zingano. In addition, women’s flyweight champion Liz Carmouche faces her longtime teammate Ilima-Lei Macfarlane, a former champ.

Bellator has one more event scheduled after 300, on Nov. 17 in Chicago. After that, things seem to be up in the air. Sources confirmed the multiple reports that Bellator’s parent company, Viacom, has put the MMA promotion up for sale, with competitor PFL the frontrunner to buy it. What that means isn’t clear, but sources said those in Bellator are bracing for the worst — the end of the promotion as it is presently constituted. Given those circumstances and the milestone event that is Bellator 300, it’s the right time to look at where Bellator came from, its journey over the last 14 years and how it got here.

The Tournament Era

Jon Anik was covering combat sports as part of his job for ESPN, including hosting the show “MMA Live,” when he got a call from Bellator founder Bjorn Rebney. It was about four weeks before Bellator 1, which took place on April 3, 2009. Bellator’s first broadcast deal was with the Spanish language outlet ESPN Deportes, but Rebney had decided to also do a broadcast in English that would be available via the SAP function on televisions. Anik was seeking more opportunities doing play-by-play and jumped at the chance.

“When I heard Jorge Masvidal and Eddie Alvarez were gonna be part of Season 1, I knew that they were trying to do something pretty big,” Anik said. “Certainly, the vision was to have those two compete in the lightweight championship final. And Toby Imada memorably got in the way of all of that.”

Rebney’s vision for MMA was purely merit-based. Every season would feature tournaments in several weight classes. The winners of those tournaments would become either the Bellator champions or No. 1 contenders.

Tim Danaher, who worked at a hedge fund that provided the seed capital for Bellator’s start, shared Rebney’s philosophy that for a new MMA promotion to be successful, it needed to “create a real point in differentiation” to the UFC, the market leader. Hence, the tournament-based structure was counter to the UFC’s matchmaking and promotion. Danaher eventually became Rebney’s partner and Bellator’s chief operating officer.

“There was a lot going on in the sport,” Danaher said. “You had EliteXC and the IFL go out of business. You had the UFC, which was obviously doing extremely well. The original premise was, ‘He who got ESPN would win.’ Even if it was only on ESPN Deportes, we ultimately thought the English language [ESPN] would commit. We were obviously right, but it was a little too early.”

Bellator added more talent for Season 2, which aired on Fox Sports Net and Telemundo. Ben Askren won the welterweight tournament and would go on to become one of the best 170-pound fighters in the world for some time. In the featherweight final, Joe Warren beat Patricio “Pitbull” Freire. Warren ended up becoming the first to win Bellator titles in two divisions, and “Pitbull” is the current 145-pound Bellator champion, in his third reign. Freire is the greatest Bellator fighter of all time and one of the best MMA athletes to never compete in the UFC.

Season 3 in 2010 featured the debut of the first women’s strawweight division in American MMA history. EliteXC and Strikeforce featured women’s bantamweight and featherweight fighters such as Cyborg and Gina Carano. Bellator’s first women’s weight class was 115 pounds and featured Japanese legend Megumi Fujii, Irish MMA pioneer Aisling Daly, Carla Esparza, Jessica Aguilar, Zoila Frausto and Jessica Penne. Frausto would end up beating Fujii to become the first Bellator women’s champion. The UFC didn’t open up women’s divisions until 2013 and strawweight wasn’t added until 2014, which saw Esparza become the division’s first champion.

“We saw how the female athletes were putting just as much into it as their male counterparts and that they deserved the platform, as well,” Danaher said. “And we were trying to find the best female fighters in the world, right? Where you could basically say that the winner of that tournament should be undeniably the No. 1 in the sport.”

There was a non-tournament fight in September 2010 during Season 3 and play-by-play man Sean Wheelock, who took over as Bellator’s main voice at Bellator 13, was impressed by the demeanor of one of the participants. During a meeting with Wheelock and color commentator Jimmy Smith, this lightweight fighter, who was just 3-0 at the time, said he knew he could beat Alvarez, who some considered the best 155-pounder in the world then.

That fighter was Michael Chandler.

Chandler would get his shot against Alvarez a year later. After winning the Season 4 lightweight tournament, he beat Alvarez to win the belt in November 2011. It was an incredible, back-and-forth affair that is perhaps still the best fight in Bellator history and one of the best ever in MMA.

The year 2011 was significant for Bellator, because it was when Rebney sold a majority stake in the promotion to Viacom, the billion-dollar media conglomerate. Viacom owned Spike TV, the first television home of the UFC, beginning with the first reality-show season of “The Ultimate Fighter” in 2005. Spike had been a destination for MMA for six years, but the UFC was about to depart. The plan was to fill that void with Bellator, which moved its broadcasts to Viacom property MTV2. And soon enough, there would be even more changes.

The Entertainment Era

Kevin Kay, then the president of Spike TV, had been responsible for greenlighting “The Ultimate Fighter” and then to air the UFC on cable for the first time. When the UFC was on its way to Fox, Kay remembered a sales tour meeting with potential advertisers and investors. A representative from Deutsche Bank asked him how many hours of UFC fights per year Spike would be losing. Kay’s answer was 700.

“And he just looked at me and he goes, ‘So, 700 highly rated hours of UFC programming?'” Kay said. “I said, ‘Yep.’ And he said, ‘Yeah, good luck with that.’ And he got up and left the room.”

By 2013, it was time for Viacom to move Bellator from MTV2 to Spike TV. It should have been a perfect marriage. MMA fans were used to going to Spike to watch MMA. The network needed programming. And Bellator, more than anything, needed more eyes on its product. It had been constantly preempted on Fox Sports Net and rarely aired in the same time slot. On MTV2, its audience was far smaller than what it could attract on Spike. Bellator debuted on Spike TV on Jan. 17, 2013, with two title fights: Chandler against Rick Hawn for the lightweight title and Pat Curran versus Patricio “Pitbull” for the featherweight belt.

There was one major issue. Rebney and Kay had different views on the spirit of MMA. Rebney believed in the merit-based tournament system, which is not dissimilar to PFL’s format now. Kay didn’t think that worked, for many reasons — the most important being the inability to put marketable fights together when they were available.

“It was maybe one of my least favorite things about Bellator back in the day,” Kay said of the tournaments. “It seemed like it was always problematic trying to figure out how that was going to work.”

Smith said fighters were not a big fan of the tournaments, either. “It’s a murderous schedule for anybody,” Smith said. “You’re making weight three times in three months. Look at the trouble [the UFC has] getting Conor McGregor to fight once every decade. If you want somebody to fight three times in three months, stars don’t do that.”

When Bellator put on its first pay-per-view May 17, 2014, it was emblematic of the promotion being at a crossroads. The pay-per-view was Spike’s idea, not Rebney’s. It was supposed to take place six months earlier on a fight card with a main event between aging UFC legends Tito Ortiz and Quinton “Rampage” Jackson, but Ortiz pulled out with an injury and the card was put on Spike.

The pay-per-view finally happened at Bellator 120, with Jackson against rival Muhammed “King Mo” Lawal as the main event. It was a fight Bellator had wanted earlier, but Lawal had lost in a tournament. Chandler and Alvarez were supposed to fight in a trilogy bout on the card, but Alvarez sustained a concussion in training and had to withdraw. Chandler fought Will Brooks and lost. Ortiz made his Bellator debut, beating an undersized Alexander Shlemenko. It was an underwhelming PPV.

Alvarez would never fight for Bellator again. A year earlier, Alvarez had agreed to a deal with the UFC, but Bellator had claimed it had matching rights and Alvarez had to remain with Bellator. Alvarez and his team disagreed. He ended up suing Bellator, and it became an ugly situation for all involved, with verbal mudslinging between him and Rebney.

Kay felt that Rebney, as a businessman, rubbed some people the wrong way. Smith said he remembers one top Bellator fighter telling him after a violent win that he was picturing his opponent was Rebney.

“I felt like, as I watched what was going on in Bellator, it really wasn’t fighter friendly,” Kay said. “The relationships that happened in [2011] and [2012] and [2013] were not particularly productive with fighters and their management. It was a battle, and I didn’t see what the path forward was.”

Rebney declined an interview for this article.

“I think his heart was always in the right place,” Anik said of Rebney. “And I definitely consider him to be an MMA visionary and a massive mixed martial arts fanatic.”

Another change was on its way.

Strikeforce, at one time the top competitor to the UFC, was purchased by Zuffa, the UFC’s parent company, and ran its final show in January 2013. Scott Coker, who had run Strikeforce for nearly 20 years, had his non-compete clause coming up in mid-2014. Mike Kogan, then an MMA manager, told Coker that he should meet with Kay about Bellator.

“I literally like threw up in my mouth,” said Coker, who had been working for the UFC after the Strikeforce purchase. “I was like, ‘Are you kidding me?’ You gotta be joking. That’s never gonna happen, bro.”

Bellator didn’t have much cache to Coker. But Kogan was a friend, so Coker agreed to meet with Kay even though he planned on starting a new promotion after his non-compete was over. Coker and Kay ended up hitting it off. On June 18, 2014, Spike announced Coker had been hired as the new president of Bellator. Rebney and Danaher were out.

“They were probably more aligned with what Coker was telling them than what Bjorn and I were telling them,” Danaher said. … “In terms of the direction, [Viacom executives] held the votes and they held the decisions, and they were gonna get their way. Bjorn and I just thought that it was better to walk away as friends and call it quits.”

Coker brought in Rich Chou, formerly of EliteXC and Strikeforce, and later Kogan as his matchmakers. Bellator had some high-level talent at the time, like Chandler, the “Pitbull” brothers, welterweight champion Douglas Lima and knockout artist Michael “Venom” Page. But there was a lack of depth, and Spike TV needed events that would draw ratings quickly.

So Coker implemented the strategy he had used with Strikeforce. This new version of Bellator would try to sign free agents whom people recognized and invest in young prospects they hoped would become future stars. Coker and his team were known for talent identification. Several Strikeforce fighters would go on to win titles in the UFC, including Ronda Rousey, Daniel Cormier, Luke Rockhold and Tyron Woodley.

The other thing Coker wanted to do was make Bellator higher profile. At the time, the promotion was running mostly small casino shows. Coker wanted to bring Bellator to major arenas and international destinations.

“It was like a shot in the arm for us because we thought, ‘OK, Scott will make it bigger,'” Smith said. “He has good relationships with fighters, he can bring a lot of free agents. He’s done big promotions with big venues. We can take that next step.”

But in an effort to get bigger quickly, Bellator faced criticism from MMA purists. Coker’s first major show was Bellator 131 on Nov. 15, 2014. The main event pitted Ortiz against Stephan Bonnar, who had gained fame for his brawl with Forrest Griffin nearly a decade earlier in the TUF1 finale. Ortiz and Bonnar had name value but were way past their primes.

To make matters worse, two months before the fight, Bonnar came to Bellator 123 to promote the Ortiz fight and arrived with a man wearing a mask. Ortiz, Bonnar and the masked man entered the cage for an interview segment that was extremely pro-wrestling-like. During the segment, the masked man revealed himself to be Justin McCully, a longtime friend of Ortiz who had joined Bonnar’s camp due to a beef with Ortiz. After some heated words, there was pushing and shoving and the men had to be separated.

“I just remember being confused, because Justin came with a mask on,” Chou said. “So, he was in character the whole time. … I just was like, ‘Who the hell? What’s going on?'”

This was a far cry from the pure tournament format, and Bellator became the butt of jokes among hardcore fans. But Coker and company laughed all the way to the bank. Bellator 131 did the highest rating in promotion history with an average viewership of 1.2 million, including a peak of more than 2 million for Ortiz vs. Bonnar. More than 8,000 people showed up to watch the spectacle live at Valley View Casino Center in San Diego.

That same month, Bellator began signing young fighters who could grow into stars. Aaron Pico, an 18-year-old near-Olympic-level wrestler with boxing experience, was first. ESPN branded Pico as the best MMA prospect ever. Next was AJ McKee, son of MMA veteran Antonio. Bellator also brought in highly ranked UFC light heavyweights Phil Davis in 2015 and Bader in 2017, plus former UFC lightweight champion Benson Henderson.

While waiting for the youthful fighters to develop and the roster to deepen, Bellator continued putting on unorthodox fights between older competitors to pop ratings.

“They were eyeball fights,” Kay said. “… It helped build [ticket sales], it certainly helped build ratings, and God knows we needed ratings back then.”

In January 2015, Bellator signed former viral backyard fighter Kimbo Slice. He was about to turn 41 years old. Bellator pitted him against an old rival, MMA pioneer Ken Shamrock, who had fought at UFC 1 in 1993. Shamrock turned 51 in 2015.

Slice vs. Shamrock was seven years in the making. It was scheduled to happen in EliteXC in 2008, but Shamrock had pulled out on the day of the event, allegedly because of a cut. Instead, the fight headlined Bellator 138 on June 19, 2015. That was a personal victory for Chou, because he was the EliteXC matchmaker who had lost that fight. But the fight turned out to be nothing to write home about. It was simply two over-the-hill guys in a sloppy scrap.

But again, Bellator set a ratings record. Slice had a ton of star power, which crossed over into the mainstream. The show averaged 1.6 million viewers, with the peak of 2.4 million coming during Slice vs. Shamrock.

Bullish about that success, Bellator pushed the accelerator down harder on those types of fights. Bellator 149 on Feb. 19, 2016, had a double main event that caused insider MMA fans to cringe. Shamrock faced his UFC 1 rival, Royce Gracie, who was 49 years old. Slice took on a fellow Miami street brawler, Dhafir “Dada 5000” Harris, who was out of shape and had no MMA experience.

Ratings were fantastic, drawing a record 2 million viewers average across the event, and more than 14,000 came to Toyota Center in Houston for a live gate of more than $1 million. It was the biggest show in Bellator history, but other than business figures, it was a disaster.

Gracie beat Shamrock in just over two minutes via TKO after landing a controversial — in Shamrock’s eyes — knee below the belt. Slice knocked out Harris in the third round, but the end came not from anything Slice did. Harris simply collapsed. He later said he died in the cage and was revived in the ambulance on the way to the hospital. Slice was in bad shape backstage, too, in a state of exhaustion.

Slice’s win was later overturned to a no-contest due to a positive drug test. Shamrock’s test came back dirty, too. Slice died of congestive heart failure June 6, 2016, less than four months after the fight. It became clear that Slice and Harris had no business being in the cage that night. Bellator and the Texas Department of Licensing and Regulation were sharply — and rightly — criticized.

“The biggest night in Bellator history was Kimbo vs. Dada,” Smith said. “And Dada dies backstage and Kimbo is dead three months later.”

After Slice vs. Dada, Bellator largely moved away from putting unqualified fighters in big fights. The promotion signed more quality UFC free agents, including Rory MacDonald and Gegard Mousasi. Later, Bellator had another star, as ex-UFC antagonist Chael Sonnen, coming off a drug-test-failure-induced retirement, signed in September 2016.

Sonnen, one of the all-time trash talkers in the sport, had big fights in Bellator, including main events against Ortiz, Jackson and Russian legend Fedor Emelianenko. Sonnen’s grudge match with Wanderlei Silva headlined Bellator’s debut at Madison Square Garden in 2017.

“When you’re not the UFC, that’s the challenge,” Chou said. … “What would you do? You can have the fights that the hardcore guys on Twitter are gonna love, but you’re not gonna be able to sell tickets or draw strong ratings. It’s just hard to please everybody, right?”

The Star-Crossed Era

In 2004, Kay was the president of TNN (Spike) when “WWE Raw” was on the network. Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson had departed WWE as a full-time roster member to pursue a career in Hollywood. WWE’s television ratings went down noticeably. So, Kay traveled to the WWE offices in Stamford, Connecticut, to meet with then-chairman and CEO Vince McMahon about what they could do to stem the tide and present the next big star.

“I said, ‘Who’s next? What do we do?'” Kay said. “And he goes, ‘Kevin, do you know how many years it takes to build a star in wrestling?’ And I was like, ‘I don’t, Vince. Tell me.’ And he goes, ’10.’ And I just looked at him and I go, ‘Jesus, man, I got about 10 weeks here to solve this.'”

McMahon was being a bit hyperbolic, as Johnson hadn’t been a full-time WWE talent for a decade. In any case, Kay understood what McMahon meant along with what Coker was trying to do for the long term.

By 2018, Bellator had largely moved away from the circus fights and started doing one or two annual grand-prix tournaments, a nod to Coker’s past working for K-1 kickboxing in Japan and to how Bellator had started in the first place. The tournaments were largely filled with high-caliber talent. The first welterweight grand prix in 2019 featured a final pitting Lima against MacDonald.

McKee, who was perhaps the best prospect in MMA, entered the featherweight grand prix that started later that year and ended up winning it in 2021 (the COVID-19 pandemic and injuries got in the way), beating Patricio “Pitbull” in front of a big crowd at The Forum in Inglewood, California. It was a passing-of-the-torch moment spanning the three eras of Bellator.

Coker’s plan was finally maturitng. But, there were issues outside their control.

In early 2018, Spike was rebranded to Paramount Network. The channel that was the home of MMA, with a strong male demographic, would be revamped in the following years with more scripted programming and original series geared more toward women, like “Lip Sync Battle.” Bellator’s ratings suffered immediately.

Another blow hit in October 2018: Kay, the biggest advocate for MMA on cable since the mid-2000s, departed Viacom as part of a reorganization. Without Kay, Coker and Bellator reported to Kent Alterman, the president of Comedy Central.

“That was not the priority of Comedy Central,” Kay said. “It shouldn’t have been. It wasn’t their fault, but there was nobody there that was gonna champion [Bellator], and there was nobody there that was gonna spend money on it.”

Bellator was moved off Paramount Network in late 2020 and put on CBS Sports Network. Just months later, in February 2021, Bellator was shifted to Showtime, a premium channel with a smaller reach. That’s where Bellator airs currently — on the promotion’s seventh television home in 12 years.

“You’re stepping down each time in terms of distribution and available audience, and that’s not supportive,” Kay said. “And that is not a great place for MMA to be in that world.”

Bellator’s viewership has possibly never been lower, though people cutting the cable cord en masse has contributed to that. The irony is, Bellator now has the best and deepest roster in promotion history. Chou left in 2020 during the pandemic shows at Connecticut’s Mohegan Sun, but Kogan continued to scout out and sign strong talent. Currently, Coker and company regularly put on top-tier fights that most hardcore fans can appreciate. Several of the promotion’s champions — Vadim Nemkov, Johnny Eblen, Yaroslav Amosov, Sergio Pettis, Nurmagomedov and Freire — can make a feasible claim that they are the best in the world in their weight class, even better than their UFC counterparts.

“The only thing that really worked numbers-wise for Bellator for the long haul was [unorthodox fights] that just couldn’t last,” Smith said. “And now that they have something that does last, they’re not getting the numbers.”

Largely, Coker has done what he set out to do nine years ago when he joined Bellator. The promotion holds large-scale events and has multiple international broadcast deals. Bellator has run big shows in places like London, Dublin, Moscow and Paris, plus several crossover events with Japan’s Rizin Fighting Federation and trips to Hawaii.

“The hardcore fans are still finding the fights,” Coker said. “The fans not just here domestically, but the worldwide footprint. This business has grown every year since I started here.”

Bellator 300 is a strong card with top-caliber fighters and legends like Cyborg, who are still near the top of their games. It feels like a celebration of the current era of the promotion combined with an ominous feeling of what is likely to come next. Moreover, the current excellent fighters in Bellator are saddled with a label of being lesser, because they are not in the UFC.

“It’s almost like it’s frustrating that people don’t realize until they’re in the UFC how great these guys were,” said Smith, who can relate because he became a color commentator for the UFC in 2018.

If Bellator 300 turns out to be something of a last hurrah for the promotion, there will be a lot of fond memories to look back at — many that will be appreciated more than maybe they were at the time they happened.

“I think it’s always been an extraordinary product that, from the fighters to the fighter ops to television production, … [was] trying to give fans what we always felt they wanted MMA to be,” Bellator and NBA play-by-play man Sean Grande said. “And succeeding in that, but failing to make it easy for [fans] to do it. I think the shortfall is always going to be not that Bellator never found its audience, but its audience never found it. That, to me, is the legacy of Bellator.”

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