Are Bellator's recent ex-UFC fighter signings an indicator of things to come?

Jon Kopaloff

Bellator CEO Bjorn Rebney has been vocal in the past about not going after many ex-UFC fighters. Yet he has signed a bundle of them in recent months. Are they changing their tune? And why?

Bellator FC has grown in leaps and bounds since their debut in 2008. They've steadily moved up the chain in terms of TV exposure and now have a legitimately good platform on Spike TV. They were also bought by Viacom (who owns Spike TV), which gives them some financial freedom to go out and acquire talent. And this morning, they pulled the trigger on one of their biggest signings to date - ex-UFC light heavyweight champion Quinton "Rampage" Jackson.

The organization has never been shy about aggressively pursuing fighters that they think will help their brand. What is a bit odd is the glut of ex-Zuffa fighters they've signed lately. It should be made very clear that, despite public opinion on the matter, Rebney has never stated that they absolutely won't sign ex-UFC guys. Just that it wasn't their focus in terms of building their business. The decision to sign Roger Huerta in 2010 (with a rumored $250,000 dollar signing bonus) and the fact that Huerta turned out to be a dud in the organization seemed to help shape their thinking in that regard.

While guys like Ben Saunders have been brought in directly from the UFC, they've mostly steered away from using ex-UFC guys since then. Rebney has explained one of the reasons for it is that it's a good way to keep salaries in keep salaries in check (from March 2012):

"We’ve grown from within and created our own stars. We know them better than anyone and it’s been a great control mechanism in terms of [salary growth] in that we’re not paying a guy based upon what he did for anyone else."

He re-iterated their "grow from within" stance when the idea arose of potentially signing released ex-Strikeforce fighters (from January 2013):

"One of my focuses when I built up the business plan was to build from within, to create our own superstars and to not be like the EliteXCs and the IFL’ and the Bodogs and the Afflictions and all of these different groups who tried to grab the fighters that had been released by the UFC and ultimately try to re-ignite a fire that had once existed under those guys. I think that’s one of the things that set us apart."

But did leave the door open for special cases:

"That’s going to stay our focus, but look at King Mo Lawal, when a guy like that becomes available and we are able to get into a bidding war and ultimately win on a guy like King Mo, and do a deal like we did with Dixie Carter (from TNA wrestling), that’s a no brainer.."

More recently, especially after the UFC released a glut of fighters in February, Rebney has repeated his credo in interviews - they're looking to develop their own talent, but they're open to signing free agents (via Sherdog):

There could be some UFC guys that end up in the end of their reign or contract and we'll take a look at them."

"We're not afraid to sign guys from other organizations."

And on The MMA Hour:

You’ve seen it, there’s not a hard and fast rule. We signed Mo out of Strikeforce. We signed Ben Saunders. We’ve signed guys before. Every once in a while you’ll see a guy bounce in. But our format is one to look from within. That’s the mainstay of what we do. But there will be guys who come around. We’ll see a guy who may have lost but has wicked talent. We’ll make a signing like that. It’s not the focus of what we do.

It seems that they've taken that a bit further in recent months though. Whether it's been signing guys right after they were released by Zuffa, or waiting for them to get a couple of wins on the regional circuit, they've complimented their roster with a variety of prospects and vets that have fought in the Octagon or Strikeforce. Just look at the list:

Straight out of UFC/Strikeforce

Quinton Jackson
Matt Riddle
Vladimir Matyushenko
Paul Sass
Muhammed Lawal

Indirectly from Zuffa

John Alessio
Wagnney Fabiano
Mike Guymon
Renato Sobral
Seth Petruzelli
Marcus Davis
Marcus Aurelio
Maiquel Falcao
Brett Rogers

The big question is - why? Is this just following the path that Rebney has stated? That sometimes an ultra-talented fighter comes along and you can't pass him up? Sure, there's potential money to be made with Mo and Rampage, that's completely understandable. If they see potential in Riddle (especially with them running shows where limited testing is done and with the marijuana threshold likely going up across the board anyway), I can see that. Even Paul Sass was absolutely a good pickup.

But Alessio? Matyushenko? Sobral? Davis? All of them are older fighters on the downside of their careers to a degree. It almost seems like they were brought in for one of two reasons - a) name value; or b) to lose to their own guys. They're all talented fighters and I'm not slighting them by saying this, but signing them seems to go against a lot of what Rebney has put out there in terms of their philosophy. Combine that with Bellator's willingness to sign fighters that have legal issues now or have had them in the past (Paul Daley, War Machine, Brett Rogers, Ryan Ford, Rampage himself), and you've got a very curious method for fighter acquisition in my eyes.

Maybe it has to do with their homegrown guys becoming unhappy? They've been having major contract issues with a bunch of their fighters as of late - Eddie Alvarez is undoubtedly the biggest name, but there have been many others. Zach Makovsky, Cosmo Alexandre, Tyson Nam, Roger Hollett, and Vyacheslav Vasilevsky all come to mind. Are they just happier signing some guys that will keep the status quo now?

To me, it seems like Bellator is going after three distinct types of fighter right now - legit prospects; select multi-level money draws (Rampage, Mo); and fighters with some name value that will just be happy to have a contract and be on TV occasionally. Is that wrong? No. But it seems like a departure from what Rebney's been saying for years about how they're building their company.

And I'm willing to bet there's more of that to come as they continue on into the future.

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