Scott Coker took the reins of Bellator MMA in 2014 with a strong growth plan. The combat sports promoter was going to apply some of the principles that worked well when he ran Strikeforce, from its first MMA event in March 2006 until it was acquired by the UFC’s parent company in 2011.
Basically the idea was to build prospects from scratch and hire high-profile free agents from other promotions. That led to some unconventional matchups early in Coker’s tenure at Bellator.
Ultimate Fighter legend Stephan Bonnar revealed a masked Justin McCully heading into a fight with former UFC star Tito Ortiz, trying to tap into a hard-to-follow grudge from when Ortiz and McCully were training at the same camp. Bellator hired cult YouTube wrestling hero Kimbo Slice and pitted him against Ken Shamrock, a 50-something golden age MMA star. Then Royce Gracie, the 1993 UFC first-event champion, came out of retirement after nine years to face longtime rival Shamrock. Slice took on his Miami street fighting partner Dada 5000 in one of the most vilified MMA fights of all time.
Along the way, however, Bellator was signing and developing some of the best prospects in the sport, like Aaron Pico and Joey Davis. The jewel in the crown of those blue chippers has ended up being the undefeated AJ McKee, who fights the most successful Bellator fighter of all time, Patricio “Pitbull” Freire, for the featherweight title on Saturday night at the Bellator 263 main event in Los Angeles.
“Some [peleas] they were fun to watch, “Coker told ESPN.” Some had great viewership ratings. But at the end of the day, this is where we wanted to be. In the business of the best fighters in the world. “
“Pitbull” vs. McKee is also the final of the Bellator World Featherweight Grand Prix. The winner will receive $ 1 million. And the victor could also claim to be the best featherweight fighter in the world, regardless of the promoting house. Bellator hasn’t always been able to boast that its champion is better than the UFC champion in the same weight class (former three-time Bellator lightweight champion Michael Chandler was definitely in that picture), but a argument in favor of Freire or McKee. at featherweight after Saturday.
Clearly, this is one of the biggest fights in Bellator history, a pivotal moment for the Viacom-owned promotion still trying to cement its strength in a crowded American mixed martial arts space, now leveraging its new broadcast network: Showtime. .
“I think he lives up to probably the two or three biggest fights in the history of this company,” Coker said. “And it could be said to be the biggest fight.”
How did Bellator get here, from the era promoted by founder Bjorn Rebney to the ultimate vision for Coker? Let’s take a look at the biggest fights in company history.
Michael Chandler vs. Eddie Alvarez 2 (Bellator 106, November 2, 2013)
By sheer action, the first fight between Alvarez and Chandler in 2011 could be the best in Bellator history. But in terms of importance, the rematch surpassed her. Chandler became a viable star for the promotion after his win over Alvarez in the first fight, and here Alvarez was looking to regain his belt, and he did. Chandler and Alvarez were considered among the best lightweight fighters in the world at the time. And the billboard drew an average of 1.1 million viewers, the most ever for a Bellator show.
“We knew that Alvarez and Chandler was a fight that people who never saw Bellator were going to watch,” former Bellator commentator Sean Wheelock told ESPN. “And they did.”
Quinton “Rampage” Jackson vs. Muhammed “King Mo” Lawal (Bellator 120, May 17, 2014)
This was Bellator’s first foray into PPV. The event was supposed to be headlined by a trilogy fight between Alvarez and Chandler, but Alvarez withdrew due to injury. Despite that, “Rampage” versus “King Mo” was a monetary rivalry for Bellator. Jackson was still among the most popular light heavyweights in the world as a former UFC champion. Lawal was also elite, as a former Strikeforce light heavyweight champion. The bad blood between Jackson and Lawal was real, and it was emphasized as the end of Bellator’s season 10 light heavyweight tournament approached.
Tito Ortiz vs. Stephan Bonnar (Bellator 131, November 15, 2014)
There were fights that had more star power and that were more exciting, but historically, Ortiz vs. Bonnar was a great starting point for Bellator. It was the first big event of the Coker regime, and a “pole” show (one of the biggest events of the year), as Coker likes to call it.
Ortiz and Bonnar held grudges and were well-known names. Bonnar brought in Ortiz’s former sparring partner-turned-enemy McCully as second to build things. Everything felt like professional wrestling, including new Bellator production items with a stage and jumbotron for dazzling entrances. It was an outright hit for Spike TV, with Bellator 131 beating the Chandler vs. Alvarez 2 as the highest rated in the history of the promotion up to that point.
“I remember saying to my staff: Look, we’re going to raise the bar here, because this is not going to be acceptable,” Coker said. “We have to have big stages, we have to have big fights and we have to have a great production look.”
Kimbo Slice vs. Ken Shamrock (Bellator 138, June 19, 2014)
Slice and Shamrock were originally supposed to fight each other in 2008 under the EliteXC banner. At the time, Slice was one of the hottest stars in all of MMA. Shamrock, of course, had built his legend in the early days of mixed martial arts and was also a former WWE star. That original fight would have been on CBS, but Shamrock withdrew hours before the event due to what he said was a cut. There were doubts about the legitimacy of said court, which became the plot that led to this confrontation of rancor six years later.
Sportingly, both men had seen better days. But the fight delivered, with Slice coming back to knock out Shamrock after getting in trouble over the matre. And the ratings were phenomenal averaging 1.7 million viewers for the event, beating Bellator’s previous record. The show peaked at 2.4 million viewers for the main event Slice vs. Shamrock, numbers that would even make the UFC blush today.
Fedor Emelianenko vs. Chael Sonnen (Bellator 208, October 13, 2018)
The silent “Last Emperor” of Russia against the noisy “American Gangster”. Sonnen, whose brilliant mic skills led him to be one of the UFC’s most profitable stars, criticized Emelianenko for years, saying that many of his victories in Japan were fixed. No one thought they would face off in the cage until Sonnen surprisingly signed with Bellator in 2016.
To add even more flavor, it was a semi-final of the Bellator World Heavyweight Grand Prix. Long Island, New York, was the setting. Emelianenko, one of the greatest heavyweights of all time, stopped Sonnen in the first round in a classic Fedor performance.
Michael Chandler vs. Patricio “Pitbull” Freire (Bellator 221, May 11, 2019)
He may not have had big names headlining in the UFC, but this was the biggest fight in Bellator history at the time. Chandler and Freire were local promoter talents who started during Bjorn Rebney’s pre-Coker era. They had a rivalry dating back to Chandler’s knockout of Freire’s brother Patricky years earlier.
“Pitbull” rose as featherweight champion to challenge Chandler for the lightweight belt. But it was even bigger than all that. The winner could really bet his claim as the most successful fighter in Bellator, which Freire did when he finished Chandler by TKO in the first round.
Cris Cyborg vs. Julia Budd (Bellator 238, January 25, 2020)
Cyborg’s signing was different than many of Bellator’s high-profile free agent signings in the past. Cyborg, at the time, was without a doubt one of the best fighters in all of mixed martial arts and one of the best female fighters in MMA history. Still is.
In her debut, Cyborg challenged the dominant Budd for the Bellator women’s featherweight title. She stopped Budd by TKO in the fourth round to become the only fighter in MMA history to win titles in four major promotions (UFC, Strikeforce, Invicta and Bellator).
With some of the aging stars Bellator has signed closer to retiring, Cyborg has taken her place as perhaps the biggest draw in the promotion.
“That was a really big fight for us with Cyborg coming right in and making history,” Coker said.