Opinion: Win or Lose, Just Help Us Draw

Nearly nine months since signing with Bellator MMA, Rory MacDonald finally makes his debut for the promotion this Saturday in London, England against Paul Daley. MacDonald, a former Ultimate Fighting Championship title challenger, was viewed as more than just a free agent boon when he inked with Bellator last August, he was a sign of the times and a testament to MMA’s changing power structure.

That sounds lofty and imposing, as if oh so much is riding on MacDonald’s shoulders. That’s not the case, however. I’m sure Bellator would love to have to have a free agent signing swoop in heroically and galvanize its audience, but it can do without one. Bellator doesn’t need a free agent savior.

MMA free agency isn’t a unilateral even playing field, but that’s an idea usually realized through the UFC’s brand power and ability to help set market value. If someone is pointing out how unbalanced the system is, they may point to Eddie Alvarez jilting Bellator and taking off with the company’s lightweight title to go to the UFC; a key part in Alvarez’s decision-making as well as his legal backing was the fact Bellator could not offer him legitimate pay-per-view money like the UFC, simply because Bellator had no developed PPV structure in place for him to reap those benefits. Realities like this go hand-in-hand with whatever prestige the UFC brand still has and the notion of fighting “the best in the world” and create a compelling, but inherently advantaged pitch for the UFC in any given free agent case.

However, people tend to see free agency strictly in terms of dollars and cents, how much a fighter got guaranteed per fight, how long the contract is, what promotional freedoms they have outside of the cage and so on. But what happens if the actual expectations for a free agent, the terms their “success” will be governed by, are different depending on their suitor?

This is where MacDonald stands. In the run-up to the fight, he’s expressed the usual platitudes you’d expect from a man so charmingly devoid of conversational charisma. MacDonald has compared the UFC’s Reebok aesthetic and the homogenization to fighters being just “numbers” and “sheep.” He says he’s happy to have control over his own public persona and to have a say in how he’s promoted. Even if he’s due to make less money in sponsors for the Daley bout, the 27-year-old Canadian says that it’s better this way, so he can court long-term, professional and personal relationships with brands he feel compliment him as an athlete.

These are, of course, exactly the positives everyone pointed to when Scott Coker and company started making major plays for UFC talent and they’ve been extolled even more profoundly as the UFC’s new ownership appears clueless in its larger approach to talent relations. An established MMA free agent signing with Bellator instead of the UFC — especially if it’s an established UFC talent jumping ship — is different by its very nature, though, and it’s a dynamic that at least on the surface is beneficial for the fighter and promoter.

Bellator has nowhere near the overall divisional depth of the UFC, so the promotion’s prized acquisitions get fast tracked immediately and in turn, have quick opportunity to gain promotional leverage. MacDonald is debuting against Daley in what Bellator CEO Scott Coker has essentially called a title eliminator, with the victor going on to face the winner of Douglas Lima’s forthcoming 170-pound title defense against Lorenz Larkin at Bellator 180 on June 24. Larkin, another UFC-turned-Bellator welterweight, will make his promotional debut in a title fight. On that same card, another UFC standout, Ryan Bader, will make his Bellator debut while challenging for a title when he meets another top-10 talent the UFC let go, Phil Davis.

It is hard for established athletes signing with Bellator to “fail” in the ways we typically associate with free agent letdowns. Yes, a coveted developmental talent could crash and burn; it would definitively suck for Bellator if Michael Page turned out to a dud in the long run or if Aaron Pico was straight up no good. That being said, the worst case scenarios for these Bellator signings are gently padded ones.

What if MacDonald loses to Daley, and takes his third loss in a row? Daley may be a well-traveled veteran, but he’s a Scott Coker favorite through and through and I’m sure the company would love to do a title rematch between him and Lima, or a striker’s ball with him and Larkin. If Daley’s left hand smashes MacDonald’s nose inside out again, Bellator will just push Daley as the guy who just beat the last guy to beat UFC champion Tyron Woodley and his top challenger Demian Maia. The upset of the favored, free agent commodity ends up legitimizing the existing product. Given the tape delay airing of Bellator 179 on Spike, a Daley upset might even help the rating by galvanizing some folks who just saw the result online.

Television ratings are one of the critical barometers for judging the value added of UFC-to-Bellator signings, yet it’s in context, it’s an incredibly forgiving metric. While this particular card is a bit different due to the aforementioned time difference in London and the broadcast delay, the expectation for MacDonald and former UFC talents like him is that they will provide viewer familiarity and bolster cards on Spike. If MacDonald provides Bellator with another fighter who can anchor a live event, produce 800,000-1 million viewers for an average and peak over that million for the main event, the promotion and parent company Viacom will be happy. This isn’t Strikeforce, Scott Coker isn’t trying to help grow Showtime’s subscriber base of 24 million. Spike is available in over 91 million homes, leaving Bellator with a much larger base of casual Friday night TV watchers to be seduced by a familiar face from a former UFC run.

Consider former UFC lightweight champion Benson Henderson, now 1-2 in his Bellator tenure. He was absolutely thrashed and embarrassed in his April 2014 promotional debut, dropping a 25-minute decision to then-welterweight champion Andrey Koreshkov. “Smooth” then cut back to 155 pounds, beat now-featherweight champ “Pitbull” Patricio Freire via injury, then dropped into another title fight, losing a split decision to lightweight champ Michael Chandler last November. Given Henderson’s achievements and being one of the first notable fighters that Bellator signed away from the UFC, you’d think people would consider Henderson’s Bellator run a disappointment, perhaps even a gaffe. In actuality, no one pays it any mind at all. Henderson’s two losses helped legitimize two homegrown Bellator champs and he helped hit the necessary Nielsen numbers once the DVR +3 ratings came in. Considering Bellator’s goals, there’s not a thing wrong with Henderson’s performance.

That legitimization process doesn’t go both ways. Despite a slew of recent missteps, the UFC is still the top MMA promotion in the world by several standard deviations and so when the promotion signs a free agent, they’re almost invariably targeting a fighter that hasn’t fought the level of competition present at the top of the UFC’s divisions, or at least not consistently. When the UFC acquires free agents, they’re not typically bringing in athletes that can help them reach lofty PPV or cable TV benchmarks, they’re signing Bellator or World Series of Fighting champions. Justin Gaethje and Marlon Moraes are brilliant, overdue additions to the UFC roster and they may eventually become fan favorites, but in the interim, their purpose is to be potentially viable title contenders and exciting to boot.

If they succeed in that capacity, they’ll then be judged on whether they can become champion. If they win a belt, they’ll be judged on how well they can draw on PPV. Any single loss could be surprisingly disruptive if not catastrophic to this process. Think of what I just said about Benson Henderson, then consider the calamitous UFC run of Will Brooks and the extent to which he’s seen as a free agent bust at this point.

The UFC still holds the vast majority of the best fighters in the world and the promotion is still the greatest expression of elite MMA. Nonetheless, the new, unenthusiastic, rudderless era of the company is letting more quality talent walk out the door than ever, on top of the fact that Bellator is already offering a sweet deal, one in which the currency of UFC celebrity has an incredibly favorable exchange rate, one in which you’re always just one win away from a title shot in a cable TV main event, where the usually deleterious consequences of high-profile losses are mitigated by roster size and drawing ability. Bellator can actually utilize these fighters to meet their more achievable goals, while the UFC can never turn a Rory MacDonald or Ryan Bader into the second Conor McGregor they covet.