Many fans vented their anger this week over UFC cutting top 10 Middleweight Yushin Okami. It is understandable, Okami has been with the UFC since 2006, earned a title shot along the way, won 3 of his last 4, and was still ranked inside the top 10 of the sport in his weight class. While it is easy to point a finger at UFC President Dana White, or head matchmaker Joe Silva, I content that UFC's hand has been pushed to make cuts like Okami, and previously Jon Fitch by BellatorMMA.
When BellatorMMA first came onto the scene in 2009, many MMA fans were very intrigued and saw potential for a fun tournament format, and outlet for talent development. For their first couple of years, Bellator was overshadowed not just by UFC, but by Strikeforce that was just coming into it's best years, and even Dream was still putting on quality shows with guys like Jacare, Mayhem, and Mousasi on their roster. Established fighters such as Eddie Alvarez, and Hector Lombard provided the organization with a level of credibility, and it was cool to see that these guys would be able to earn a good living while fighting for this new organization.
Everything was going nicely, as it should in the perfect MMA world that exist in my mind. Hector Lombard cashed in on his high profile can crushing crusade with a massive contract from UFC, and hints were being dropped that he would be getting a UFC title shot with only 1 or 2 wins. This should have resulted in two things happening, first, every elite prospect in MMA should have been looking at Bellator as a conduit to great professional development, with a solid fight-to-fight payday and the potential of a massive UFC payday on the back end if they played their cards right. The second thing that would have happened in a perfect MMA world was that the elite talent like Eddie Alvarez, Ben Askren, Michael Chandler, Pat Curran, and Patricio Freire should have begun cashing in nice UFC contracts and being match with the top 15 talent that the fans want to see them fight on a regular basis, while at the same time making way for the elite prospects coming in behind them to restock Bellator's ranks.
It all started to go astray when Eddie Alvarez tried to cash in his chips, and sign a very nice, but not quite Lombard territory contract with UFC. Bellator decided to play the legal game and exercise their right to match the contract, and Alvarez ended up in court with his dream of fighting in the UFC during his physical prime slipping away. The back-log in the court system meant that the legal proceedings would drag out for years, instead of months, and this reality pushed Alvarez to reach a settlement, and re-enter the Bellator fold.
Also around this time, with multi-billion dollar corporation Viacom as the new majority owners of Bellator, CEO Bjorn Rebney started talking about eventually overtaking UFC as the number 1 MMA promotion, and that the top of MMA had become a 2 horse race. Bellator started signing a string of washed up, and washed out former UFC fighters such as Tito Ortiz, Rampage Jackson, Clifford Starks, Cheick Kongo, Lavar Johnson, Vinicius Queiroz, Vladimir Matyushenko, Houston Alexander, Aaron Rosa, Kendall Grove, Marcus Davis, Rich Clementi, John Alessio, Efrain Escudero, and Rob Emerson to fill its cards. To be fair, Bellator did sign a couple of former UFC fighters that were not completely washed up with Diego Nunes at FW, and Paul Sass at LW, but a closer look shows that these fighters fight in Bellator's two strongest divisions headlined by legitimate top 5 fighters Michael Chandler, and Pat Curran, as Champions, where they almost certainly won't make much of an impact. While they were signing this murder's row of fighters they passed up chances to sign guys like Jon Fitch, and Anthony Johnson.
So, how does this play into Okami being released? The UFC only has so many roster spots, and they need to keep a steady flow of top prospects coming through their system. If you look at the UFC Champions right now, they did not make their name, and come from other major organizations outside of the Zuffa fold, with the exception of Ronda Rousey. Demetrious Johnson, Renan Barao, Jose Aldo,
Ben Henderson, Anthony Pettis, Georges St. Pierre, Chris Weidman, Jon Jones, and Cain Velasquez were all discovered and given their first big break through either UFC, or WEC. With the exception of Velasquez who made his pro debut on the bottom of a Strikeforce card, they never fought a day for any of UFC's chief competitors over the last decade, Strikeforce, Bellator, PRIDE, Dream, OneFC or EliteXC. Despite gaining some serious star power from the PRIDE acquisition, UFC prefers to bring the best prospects into their fold, and see them develop, control their contracts, but to do this they need roster spots.
These days UFC cannot wait on prospects with the intention that they will always be there, as Bellator has become very aggressive early in fighter's careers, signing fighters Ben Askren, Michael Chandler, Joe Warren (Young in terms of MMA career), and Cole Konrad who all had less than 4 pro fights when they signed with Bellator but emerged as champions for the organization in short order. This trend has continued with US Freestyle wrestling world team member Shawn Bunch who had zero professional MMA fights, just as many as Kick boxer Cosmo Alexandre, and NCAA National Champion Bubba Jenkins was signed away from UFC's favorite developmental organization RFA to a Bellator contract with only three fights to his record. It is very rare for UFC to sign a fighter with less than 5 pro fights, but Bellator is taking advantage of their situation and current talent level to cast a wide net over young and promising talent. UFC already came close to losing out on current UFC Middleweight Champion Chris Weidman, who had a deal in place with Bellator, before it came apart with one final legal review from Weidman's lawyer uncle who noticed some language they were not comfortable with. A few years ago a top prospect or free agent going to Bellator would not be a big deal, but with Bellator using its lawyers to tie up some fighters in court, and Viacom's money to re-sign others (Michael Chandler, Pat Curran) before they even reach free agency, UFC needs to maintain as many roster spots and flexibility as possible for the next big thing.
But still... why Okami, there are at least 25 or 30 guys on the roster who should go before him? The MMA world took notice when Bellator by passed Jon Fitch earlier this year after he was released by UFC. At the time Fitch was still ranked in the top 10, and 100% free and clear to negotiate with any organization he wanted to. Bellator did not even make an offer, it helped make it transparent that Bellator was not interested in bringing in the best fighters in the world, just those that would advance their agenda. Okami is round 2 of this debate, because like Fitch he is a grinder who has never been known for consistently producing exciting fights. I have no doubt that if Bellator had shown serious interest, or successfully signed Jon Fitch, that Yushin Okami would still be on the UFC roster today. UFC is not going to hand top 10 fighters to it's serious competitor, because it would help legitimize the fighters that eventually defeat him. He was also in a position inside UFC where he will knock off some solid contenders, and prospects while never putting himself back into UFC title contention, or inspiring a fan base that could move the needle. Bellator does not want a fighter like Okami who would be a big time favorite to run the table in a Bellator MW tournament, and title fight against either Champion Alexander Shlemenko, or his next challenger Doug Marshall. Bellator wants it's fighters to beat up the washed up former UFC guys in a sorry, and unnecessary attempt to legitimize their talent, not be on the receiving end of a grinding 30-27, or 50-45 decision. Okami is a victim of the game going on between the two organizations, and was released because it will make the MMA fan think about why Bellator did not pick him up. Why is a top 10 fighter signing with WSOF, KSW or OneFC, and not Bjorn Rebney's number two MMA organization in the world? That is what Dana White wants fans to think about over the next few weeks.
To sum it up, Bellator open bid to not complement, but compete with Zuffa is to blame for Yushin Okami's UFC release. Bellator's policy of locking down young prospects very early in their careers, and now resigning them, has caused a UFC reaction. Okami is also not the type of former UFC fighter (good enough to be Bellator Champion) that Bellator is looking for and UFC just wants to remind all the MMA fans out there of that fact, while freeing up a roster spot that they can sign an untested prospect to in the hope that the new prospect exceeds Okami's impressive resume in the long run.