Bellator MMA has taken some heat when it comes to free agent signings in the past, having taken the plunge on former Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) cast-offs such as Quinton Jackson, Tito Ortiz, Cheick Kongo and Joey Beltran, among others.
But, Bellator and its CEO, Bjorn Rebney, are feeling a different kind of heat lately with the huge news over the weekend (read it here) that Gilbert Melendez has reached an agreement with the Viacom-owned mixed martial arts (MMA) promotion on a "multi-fight, multi-year deal."
Granted, UFC has the opportunity to match Bellator's offer to Melendez -- similar to the situation Eddie Alvarez was in last year (read more on that here) -- but if it goes through, the signing would set the stage for 155-pound "super fights" against former champion Michael Chandler and Eddie Alvarez, if he doesn't ultimately bolt for the Octagon.
In a recent interview with MMAfighting.com, Rebney gave some insight about how the marquee deal came about, as well as revealed that this type of bold move might be the rule, rather than the exception, moving forward.
"We're gong to continue to sign the best fighters, whether they are from a favela in Brazil, the frozen tundra of Siberia, or they are fighting in the UFC. That's the mission. The fighters are the ones fueling pay-per-view buys or fueling cable television ratings. You're not fueling ratings by promoting Bjorn or Bellator. Promoting the fighters should be first and foremost."
Season nine of Bellator on Spike TV saw the promotion experience its best ratings ever; in fact, Bellator 106 raked in 1.2 million viewers and earned the distinction of the "most-watched" event in promotional history.
With a signing the magnitude of Melendez, more eyes would be on the product than ever. And MMA fans can expect Bellator to continue to try signing the biggest names in the sport much to the chagrin of UFC and its passionate president, Dana White.
"We're going after everybody, more-and-more often. I think there's a bigger picture issue. The biggest thing is there are two major players in MMA. It's far and away better for the fighters. When a fighter has one option, he has no power at the negotiating table. But, when he has two options, the fighter has all the negotiating power. That's actually counter intuitive, coming from the CEO of a fight company. But that's the truth. And my checkbook may take a shot because of it. But, if the fighters can earn what they feel they deserve, overall we and the sport will be in a better place. You're going to see much more of this as we move forward, guys coming from the smallest regions where we find undiscovered talent, to the superstars from the UFC and other guys we find in the United States."
Plans are already set for what Bellator would do with "El Nino" if UFC does not match the contract offer. Indeed, all roads lead to Melendez facing the aforementioned Chandler and/or Alvarez, who will collide in a trilogy match on pay-per-view (PPV) sometime later this year.
Alvarez -- who has just one fight remaining on his current Bellator deal -- might be a stretch all things considered. But, if he sticks around, there are certainly some fun options on the table.
"We'd like to get Gil busy. Gil would like to fight at the same time as Ed vs. Michael III on that pay-per-view or on a major Spike show like we did with 'Rampage.' There are some very legitimate other options and we're looking at all of them. But, for now, we have to wait out and see what UFC does."
As has been the case with other high-profile Bellator recent signings, Melendez's deal includes room for growth outside the realm of fighting inside a cage, according to Rebney.
And, fortunately, in the case of Melendez, it doesn't appear to include appearances on TNA. On the contrary, it would be more of analyst/talent role.
"I can't be too specific, but it includes on-air opportunities, entertainment opportunities behind-the-scenes, some marketing opportunities, really, the whole genesis is Gil-specific. The key to the deal is building the Gilbert Melendez brand, not the Bellator brand or the Bjorn Rebney brand. The fighter's brand is what's important. The focus was on talking to Gil and his team. How do we leverage all the different resources to build the 'El Nino' brand, and that's what got us all on the same side of the table to put this structure together."
For now, the ball is in UFC's court. But, if Melendez ends up being the newest member of Bellator, the MMA landscape will continue to trend in a direction that is beneficial to all within the combat sports world.
Except the fan, and promoter, who wants all the best talent "under one roof."