I wrote about Bellator's Moneyball Philosophy back in March, and I just wanted to add a little piece about. To sum up the original article, I talked about the different ways that Bellator has sought to compete by targeting a section of the MMA market that was under valued, and how they continue to use this approach. I think the article was well received as I've seen the terms Bellator and moneyball used together by MMA writers not just on BE, other MMA sites since.
Bellator has invested, and taken chances on many top notch wrestlers very early in their careers. Why wouldn't they... just look at the top of the UFC right now, Johny Hendricks was a 2 x NCAA champion, Cain Velasquez, and Chris Weidman were Division 1 All-Americans, Jon Jones was a NJCAA national championv, and Dominick Cruz, and Demetrious Johnson came from solid high school wrestling backgrounds. Wrestling is a proven skill set in MMA, and if an organization is going to take a chance on a fighter very early in their career, it makes since that it is someone from an outstanding wrestling background.
Early in Bellator's run they signed 2 x NCAA Champions Cole Konrad, and Ben Askren to be fighters that the company could build around. Both men had 2 NCAA Division 1 National Championships to their name and were 3-0 when they signed with Bellator. Neither man lost a fight during their time in the organization, winning Bellator titles along the way. Konrad retired as the undefeated Bellator HW champ, and Askren recently left the organization as Champion, and top 10 fighter in the world. These men along with some other were very successful as Mixed Martial Artist proving the concept that a quality wrestler can often be counted on to find success in MMA if managed properly.
Other top notch wrestlers they have signed early in their careers -
Joe Soto was 4-0 when he entered the Bellator's first Featherweight tournament. He was a two time NJCAA All-American wrestling at Iowa Central Community College along side guys like Cain Velasquez, and Jon Jones. He won the Featherweight tournament becoming Bellator's first FW champion. He lost the belt to Joe Warren in 2010, and then missed a year with a detached retina.
Joe Warren was 2-1 when he first fought for Bellator in 2010. Prior to MMA he was a Greco Roman World Champion in 2006, and one of the best in his world at the discipline. His loss had come to Bibiano Fernandes who was and still is an outstanding fighter, especially for someone so early in their career to be matched up with. Warren rewarded Bellator by winning the Featherweight Title, and also the most recent Bantamweight tournament.
Michael Chandler was 3-0, and had fought twice for Strikeforce before signing with Bellator in 2010. In college Chandler was a teammate of Ben Askren's and an All-American wrestling at Missouri. Chandler is one of the best fighters in Bellator today, and will be a participant in the most highly anticipated fight in company history when he settles his trilogy with Eddie Alvarez in 2014.
The most notable former All-American wrestler that Bellator went after is the one that got away. UFC Middleweight Champion Chris Weidman was a 4-0 prospect when he reached a verbal agreement with Bellator. Only when his uncle a lawyer reviewed the document, and noticed some language that was contrary to the agreed on deal did Weidman back out of singing the contract. Two weeks later he was contacted by UFC, and the rest in history.
The 2013 Wave of talent - Bellator viewed the talent above and
Bubba Jenkins was 3-0 when he signed with Bellator, and it came as a surprise to many. Jenkins previous fight had been in RFA, which is quickly becoming the express lane for prospects into the UFC. Jenkins won a World Junior Freestyle wrestling championship, and an NCAA Championship prior to moving to MMA. He was widely regarded as one of the top prospects in the sport at any weight class prior to signing with Bellator. Bubba was upset in his 2nd Bellator bout, but has rebounded with another victory to bring him to 5-1 overall.
Shawn Bunch had no professional fights when he signed a deal with Bellator. Shawn is a former US Freestyle wrestling world team member, and came close to the Olympic team in 2008, and 2012. He was also an All-American at Edinboro University during college. So far his MMA results have been less than spectacular, as he has achieved a 2-1 record, with two decision victories (on a split decision), and the most recent fight was a TKO loss.
Darrion Caldwell has great wrestling credentials, and they would almost certainly be among the best ever if he hadn't been derailed by injuries for part of his NCAA career. Caldwell was a National Champion, and looked dynamic doing it in 2009. Bellator just recently signed him, and he is expected to make his debut in early 2014 for the organization.
Brandon Halsey was 4-0 when he made his debut at Bellator 109. He was a former NCAA qualifier, and had finished as high as 5th at the US World Team trials. Halsey's NCAA credentials do not stack up with some of the others listed here, but he has a very solid wrestling background to his credit.
Bellator's history has been defined with great wrestlers getting the chance early in their careers to develop while making an impact. Konrad, Soto, Askren, Warren, and Chandler have all held Bellator Gold, as many of their amateur wrestling peers have done in the UFC. Bellator has also found a measure of success with other wrestlers such as Daniel Straus, Mo Lawal, and Ryan Martinez but all were much more established as MMA fighters before joining the organization. It makes sense that Bellator has continued to sign top wrestler turned mixed martial artist as they hope to compete with UFC in the future. I also wonder if they will be making a play for more fighters that fit this profile like Steve Mocco (4-0), Patrick Cummins (4-0), Chris Honeycutt (3-0), Kyle Cerminara (3-0), Bekzod Abdurakhmonov (4-0), or Jamal Parks (3-0) in the near future.