Mailbag: Can Viacom's Bellator ever compete with the UFC?
It's been 10 days since the last UFC event. We have another week and a half to go before the next one.
That's not exactly an extended hiatus. But it's enough time for us to think, watch a little Bellator MMA and think about where the sport of mixed martial arts stands and where it's going.
It's not unreasonable for us to consider the UFC and MMA to be one and the same, just as we use the terms "NFL" and "professional football" interchangeably. But the Roger Goodell rec league has been around for nearly a century and has been firmly established at the head of our sports culture for at least half that time. Who can just show up on the field and compete with that?
Perhaps a more appropriate comparison would be to ESPN and 24/7 sports television: True, a generation has grown up following signals that have originated in Bristol, Conn., but the media landscape is forever shifting. At this point, the rest of the sports section on the TV channel guide consists mostly of regional stations and outlets focused on a single sport. However, Fox Sports 1 is poised to burst onto the scene later this summer. Can that financially potent all-sports channel, which will be home to much UFC programming, challenge The Worldwide Leader in a significant way?
The same question can be posed about Bellator. An even playing field seems implausible if we look at the MMA map today and see just a single mountain surrounded by a few molehills, Bjorn Rebney's among them. But that topography does not take into account the accompanying piles of money, and Bellator's is significant now that Viacom owns a majority stake in the fight promotion. How much cash will the world's fourth-largest media conglomerate commit?
That was the question implied by a message I received on Twitter from a reader with the handle @TweetDenman, who asked, "Where do you see Bellator's talent at over the next few years? UFC gonna scoop up Chandler, Askren?"
There are two parts to that. First, let's address the specific fighters. Based on its modus operandi, the UFC likely would have far more interest in lightweight champion Michael Chandler. At 11-0 with nine finishes, he's an exciting fighter to watch, and the UFC has made it abundantly clear that the applause meter means at least as much as the win and loss columns. Dana White & Co. went after the energetic Eddie Alvarez when his Bellator contract was finished. Well, this is the guy who dethroned him in a thrill-a-minute fight.
Ben Askren, the welterweight belt holder, is also 11-0, but until his most recent bout he was on a run of six straight decisions. A two-time NCAA Division 1 wrestling champion and a 2008 Olympian, Askren has ridden his grappling into the winner's circle time after time, a la Jon Fitch, whom the UFC set free as soon as he hit a couple of bumps in the road. But Askren might not be Fitch-like for long. Considering that Ben trains under renowned kickboxer Duke Roufus, with Anthony Pettis and Erik Koch among his teammates, it's safe to say that his standup game is a work in progress. So he bears watching.
The larger question, though, is whether the UFC will be able to "scoop up" any Bellator talent it chooses to. If the tug of war over Alvarez has told us anything, it's that Viacom isn't going to dig any further into its deep pockets than necessary. The new contract it gave to its former 155-pound champ might or might not be a legitimate match of the UFC offer -- that's for a court to decide -- but this squabble could have been avoided if Bellator, acknowledging what Eddie has meant to the growing promotion, had reached deeper and blew the UFC deal out of the water.
I'm not suggesting that Bellator throw money around recklessly like failed MMA promotions of the past have. But sometimes you just have to send a message. You want the UFC to know you're there. You want top fighters whose contracts are up to know you're there.
The other day, UFC president Dana White spoke to MMAjunkie.com and questioned the commitment of Bellator's corporate partner. I'm not on board with his denigration of Viacom as a "me, too" player in the MMA game, for jumping in only after the sport has been established. There's no shame in opportunism. Not everyone can be a pioneer.
But I do think White is on to something. "They're never going to be as good as us," Dana told Junkie's John Morgan. "This is what we do 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Christmas. Easter. Let Christmas time come. Viacom shuts down from December 3 to after the new year and then all the big holidays in between. Christmas? I'm on the [expletive] phone on Christmas. Easter? I'm on the phone. Thanksgiving? I'm on the phone. Bad [expletive] happens in our business every day, and if something real bad happens, I'm on a [expletive] plane on Christmas Day flying to fix it. That's the difference between us and everybody else."
No question this sport is a labor of love for White & Co. But now they're not the only ones reaping the benefits of what they've built. The lingering issue, with MMA having become so prolific a player on the sports scene, is whether the suits who hold Bellator's purse strings will see the wisdom of staying in this for the long haul. Or will the corporate mentality be to sink in cash only while MMA is the sporting flavor of the month?
In other correspondence ...
You've been highly critical of the UFC for its title fight matchups. It just announced three new ones, and you haven't complained. Shall we assume you're on board? -- Samuel, Philadelphia
How could I not be on board with the UFC's recent announcement of title defenses for Jon Jones, Cain Velasquez and Georges St-Pierre? Jones will put his light heavyweight belt on the line against Alexander Gustaffson (Sept. 21 at UFC 165 in Toronto), a rising contender who's 6-feet-5, taller than the champ (who's often criticized for picking on guys not his size). Velasquez will fight the only fight that makes sense, a rubber match with ex-heavyweight champ Junior dos Santos (Oct. 19 at UFC 166 in Houston). And St-Pierre will take on Johny Hendricks (Nov. 16 at UFC 167 in Las Vegas), who earned his shot and, with his wrestling virtuosity and robust punching, poses a real threat to the welterweight champ's comfort zone.
These are fights worthy of having a championship belt on the line. That wasn't the case when Jones defended against Chael Sonnen, who hadn't fought at light heavyweight in seven years and was coming off a loss. It wasn't the case when St-Pierre put his belt up against Nick Diaz, who was coming off a loss and a drug suspension. The UFC has demonstrated that it takes its fiduciary duty more seriously than its duty to sanction credible championship fights. But sometimes -- often, actually -- those two interests align nicely. That's the case with the fall's championship bout lineup.
We keep hearing from fighters that Chris Weidman is going to beat Anderson Silva. What do you think? -- Tony, Moorestown, N.J.
I'm not going to make a prediction until fight week, but I do think Weidman has what it takes to defeat Silva in their July 6 middleweight title bout in Las Vegas. Chris is a tremendous wrestler, and we all saw how "The Spider" struggled when Sonnen got his hands on the champ. What's more, Chris has more game than Chael does when the fight hits the canvas. He might not be able to submit Anderson, who's a jiu-jitsu black belt, but the threat of a sub might open up opportunities for game-changing ground-and-pound.
The wild card on Weidman is his last fight, which was almost a year ago. He moved to 9-0 with a dominant performance against a guy thought to be a Top 3 contender at the time. We've since learned that Mark Muñoz was not himself that night, that injuries had impeded his performance. Of course, no fighter is 100 percent on fight night. So what does that performance tell us? Bottom line: If is Weidman so good that he could brutalize a guy like Muñoz, watch out, Anderson.
I get that Mike Tyson was an incredible (and incredibly exciting) boxing champion. And I also get that a lot of fighters look up to him and that he's a friend of Dana's. As such he doesn't only sit at ringside, but makes cameos both in the cage and on The Ultimate Fighter. But if Dana is going to suspend Matt Mitrione (albeit for a duration shorter even than his mandatory medical suspension) because of offensive remarks toward transgenders, maybe he shouldn't be emphasizing the UFC's ties to a convicted rapist. I have to think the Las Vegas unions in dispute with the Fertittas are going to be using this with female legislators in the battle over fight sanctioning in New York. -- Ro'ee, Israel
That's a fair point, Ro'ee. Dana's a big boxing fan, though, and I'm thinking he's like a little kid being noticed by his idol. He's got a huge man crush on Tyson, and I suspect that no bad publicity is going to deter him.
And, really, "Iron Mike" has had a bit of an image resurgence of late, with a one-man show on Broadway plus a song and dance on the Tony Awards telecast. What he did back in 1991 will never go away, but he served his time and seems like a different man now. He's sought treatment for bipolar disorder. He claims to be solar, even vegan. He's not the angry miscreant he once was.
The popular culture has a short memory. So unless Tyson does something horrendous, Dana is going to continue to ride with his idol.
Questions? Comments? To reach Jeff Wagenheim or contribute to the next SI.com MMA mailbag, click on the E-mail link at the top of the page.