Bellator, America's #2 mixed martial arts promotion, doesn't seem to have gotten the memo about being #2 means you need to try harder. They are currently embroiled in a very public and very ugly legal battle with Eddie Alvarez, that is doing significant damage to their image with MMA fans and fighters.
In its five year run, Bellator has established a reputation as a promotion that can put on a lot of great fights with an easy regularity. It's also established a reputation as a promotion that will not hesitate to run over fighters every time it contractually can, happily holding fighters hostage and wasting precious years of their athletic primes, frequently when they have no intention of even using those fighters.
The list goes way beyond just Eddie Alvarez. Fighters as varied as Dave "Pee Wee" Herman, Ultimate Fighter winnerJonathan Brookins, Tyson Nam, and former Bellator Bantamweight champ Zach Makovsky all have spoken publicly about their bad experiences with the promotion.
In this context I thought it was interesting to see what Muhammed "King Mo" Lawal had to say. For those who've forgotten, King Mo is the fighter that Spike TV, Bellator and TNA Wrestling all staked high hopes and a LOT of hype in before their most recent season.
King Mo was the subject of a full hour-long hype program King Mo Unrivaled that attempted to build up the man who was widely expected to waltz through the Light Heavyweight tournament, beat then-champ Christian M'Pumbu while simultaneously becoming a major star of TNA pro wrestling.
Of course that was all before Mo's sloppy and arrogant habit of fighting with his hands down by his waist caused him to lose via first round KO to the utterly unheralded Emanuel Newton.
Mo did finally limp along and make his pro wrestling debut this month. Dave Meltzer documents the atrocities at MMA Fighting and points out just how far Lawal has to go to even make the TNA Spike TV broadcast as an aspiring sports entertainer.
Meanwhile Bellator has booked King Mo into a special four-man "you better win this one" summer tournament to get him that much closer to a title shot.
Mo, not surprisingly, is the Bellator company man. Here's what he had to say to MMA Weekly:
"They're respectful and they just want you to go out there and fight," he said. "I'm very satisfied with Bellator. I don't ask for too much, and they treat me like a real king. I'm grateful I'm with Bellator.
"I've been exposed to the fight fans for a long time, but getting the call to do things like walk the red carpet (at the MTV Movie Awards) and get exposed to new people has been great. Even the pro wrestling piece (that aired on Spike TV), I have a lot more pro wrestling fans and people who want to help me with the pro wrestling part and that's cool.
"You'll have a lot of guys who will go out there and do an interview and blast you, but then when they see you, they shake your hand and tell you that you're a hell of a fighter. (Bellator CEO Bjorn Rebney) isn't like that," said Lawal. "That's why I respect him and like him.
"Contract disputes are part of sports," said Lawal. "When you're dealing with money, you're going to have contract disputes here and there. Somebody's going to be mad with the Eddie Alvarez thing; it's either going to be Viacom or Eddie Alvarez. I hope they come to a good resolution.
"I hope Eddie gets the money he wants and what he deserves and I hope Viacom gets what they deserve. But I know it's not going to happen, so I'm just going to sit back and wish them both the best."
Another would-be star on the Bellator roster is Paul "Semtex" Daley. Daley, an exciting UK striker who was booted out of the UFC for a blatant post-fight foul, has been prevented from fighting a second time for Bellator due to legal issues that have prevented his getting a visa to enter the U.S.
As recently as last December, Daley was amongst the chorus of unhappy fighters pouring scorn on Bellator, claiming they were preventing him from fighting in the UK while he was unable to come to the U.S. to fight for them. Now that he's apparently worked out those issues, he's more sanguine about the promotion. Well he's not really talking about the relationship, just about his prospects of sorting out his legal issues and coming back to fight in the U.S. Again from MMA Weekly:
"Bellator Fighting Championship have given me official clearance," said Daley in an official statement. "I'm happy to represent them, and promise another knockout victory, en route to my return to the USA based promotion televised on SpikeTV."
Meanwhile Bellator's reputation with fighters and contentious relationship with the UFC means that someone like Leonard Garcia, finally booted from the UFC after 5 straight losses, won't even consider signing with the promotion:
I've already gotten offers from Legacy, Bellator, and ONE FC. There's not a shortage of people that want me to go fight for them, so that's a pretty good thing. The fans still want to see me fight, too. I'm getting a big response on Twitter and Instagram. It's a good feeling to know that I've got support.
The organizations that seem to be the right ones for me are Legacy, WSOF or ONE FC; something that won't try to bind me into a long contract. I want to go somewhere that will give me a couple fights and then see what happens.
I disagree with the thing Bellator did with Eddie Alvarez. I feel like a company shouldn't try to hold a guy back like that. That's one of the things that makes me not even want to consider Bellator. After I talked to Sean Shelby, then I knew for sure that Bellator wouldn't even be an option.
In fairness, King Mo is not the only fighter currently on Bellator's roster who is willing to publicly defend them. Here's what Middleweight Brian Rogers told Damon Martin:
"I've always been treated extremely well and never really felt like an employee. I never felt like a piece of meat as a fighter.
"Let me first say I like Eddie Alvarez a ton. I've only got to meet him a handful of times, I saw him in April at the Bellator season finale and hung out with him at the club a little bit afterwards. I'm an Eddie Alvarez fan. He's a cool and good dude. A lot of it seems to come out of right field and I think it's a lot of frustration," Rogers stated. "I'm kind of surprised how this whole thing has developed. I'm kind of shocked just reading it. I'm just surprised by the whole thing.
"I don't know if this is how he really feels or his attorneys are advising him to say this or Zuffa's advising him to say this or what the deal is, but it's just the exact opposite from any experience of anyone I've known that's had with Bellator."
Bellator has enough handicaps in their attempt to compete with the UFC without developing a reputation as a merciless bully that will put fighters on the shelf for months or years without a second thought.
Jeremy Botter pointed out just why Bellator's actions are so self-defeating (text below bolded by me for emphasis):
Alvarez wants to go to the UFC, and Rebney-despite repeatedly saying in the past that he would allow Alvarez to leave if he wanted to-has gone back on his word.
I understand it. When Rebney made those comments, Bellator wasn't owned by Viacom. Now that it is part of the media conglomerate, he doesn't have the final authority to make those decisions anymore. Viacom doesn't want to lose any of its homegrown stars to the UFC, and so it is doing everything it can to keep Alvarez around.
I get that Viacom wants to protect its investments. Allowing Alvarez to go to the UFC would be a huge blow. Bellator doesn't have many marketable names on the roster; when I watch Bellator events, I typically only recognize four or five fighters. Alvarez is the biggest star in the organization, and it's not even close. Permitting him to walk into the UFC's arms doesn't seem like a sound business decision.
But Bellator also needs to face reality: If the promotion wins an ugly court battle with Alvarez, what has it gained? Sure, its most marketable star is forced to stay but at what cost? Alvarez will have to spend a ton of money on his lawyers; he even tweeted on Thursday that he had to sell his investment home.
Does that sound like the makings of a happy employee? Does Rebney believe that Alvarez will be a willing partner on the promotional end of things? Does he believe that Alvarez will do more than the absolute bare minimum required of him contractually?
Either Rebney hasn't considered the answers to those questions, or he just doesn't care. But either way, it's not a good situation. It's not good for Bellator or its efforts to build a sustainable brand. And it's isn't good for Alvarez and his dreams of fighting in the UFC and making enough money to support his family for the rest of his life.
Bellator and Spike TV need to check themselves and really reconsider what is best for their business. If they truly want to compete with the UFC for talent they have a lot of work to do to restore their reputation as a place where the world's top fighters can actually build their careers.
Currently Bellator is seen as a backwater in MMA, the kind of swamp where you might find some buried treasure but you just might get stuck in the quicksand and never come out the same.