Bellator MMA was in the news this week for a very perplexing reason.
Despite having a fighter many considered to be one of the top 10 welterweights on the planet and is currently the reigning defending champion of the promotion, Bellator CEO Bjorn Rebney said they weren't interested in signing him, were willing to help expedite his transition to Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) and even downplayed his fighting style.
That doesn't exactly sound like a promoter who wants to keep one of his top talents, but what if a more complicated game is afoot?
Just two weeks ago, Rebney sounded much more optimistic about signing the former Olympic wrestler:
"At this point, we're having communications with Ben and we'll see how it goes. It'll probably just happen naturally. We'll see. Ben and I have always had a pretty open line of communication. I like Ben."
So why the change of heart? With Bellator backing out of the Ben Askren sweepstakes, there isn't much credible competition for UFC to sign him. Thus, with much less demand for Askren's services, his price could potentially plummet.
UFC wouldn't need to offer the "Funky" fighter Eddie Alvarez or Hector Lombard money if they wanted to sign him to a multi-fight contract, but this is where things get interesting. Rebney's almost offhand remark about what happens once Askren is offered a deal is very interesting:
"If the UFC does make an offer, we'll take a look at it and move on from there."
That quote may sound harmless, but if Rebney does his job and drives Askren's price down, the promotion still is within its rights to match the offer as Askren will be in the "matching clause" of his contract for quite some time now. If the offer doesn't break the bank, a surprise match from a suddenly much more interested Bellator would not be out of the realm of possibility.
Granted, it wouldn't be making the champion very happy in the process, but that's business.
So why did we get to this point in the first place? Current Bellator Lightweight Champion Michael Chandler signed a long-term contract extension earlier this year before his deal ran out. When Askren's contract was about to expire, a deal was never made and he became a restricted free agent.
Perhaps Askren and Bellator were at odds over how much they thought he was worth. Askren, after all, has been tearing through the promotion's welterweight roster, making exciting 170-pounders like Karl Amoussou, Andrey Koreshkov and Douglas Lima look completely helpless in the cage during their respective title fights. Having such a dominant and intimidating champion isn't exactly the most enticing goal to look forward to for prospective Bellator welterweight free agents and top prospects.
How this game plays out is anybody's guess, but don't be surprised if a few more curveballs are thrown.