Although Dana White recently proclaimed that contract negotiations between the UFC and Gilbert Melendez weren't going all that well, it was still a surprise to see that "El Niño" had signed a deal with Bellator. Regardless of the fact that the UFC president had gone as far as saying Melendez should "start looking elsewhere," it seemed to be -- to me, at least -- a foregone conclusion that the former Strikeforce champion would ultimately come to terms with the world's most prominent MMA organization, especially in light of how close the lightweight contender is to obtaining a second crack at UFC gold.
But alas, things do not always play out as expected in the world of professional cage fighting. Sure, the UFC has matching rights, but it is a very real possibility that we see Melendez standing across the cage from the likes of Eddie Alvarez or Michael Chandler in the near future. (Or even starring in his very own Dave and Buster's commercial. I'm sure that's on his bucket list).
The motivation on the part of Bellator is abundantly clear. Melendez is one of the world's top ranked lightweights, as well as one of the most exciting, and has been for the better part of the past decade. Bringing him into the Bellator fold would not only increase the legitimacy of the organization's talent pool, but it would bring them one step closer to being viewed as a legitimate competitor to the UFC.
The Cesar Gracie-trained fighter's reasons for inking a deal with the Viacom-backed Bellator are seemingly clear as well: at this point in his career, his biggest concern should be padding his bank account as much as possible in order to provide financial security for his family in the future. He's already proven to himself, and to the world, that he's one of the very best lightweights on the planet. If Bellator can offer him bags of money that the UFC isn't willing to put on the table, then Melendez will simply have to jump ship.
Beyond that, the repercussions this will have on UFC contract negotiations going forward are somewhat cut and dry, too, as recently discussed by Dave Meltzer. In short, competition can only help fighters obtain better contract terms, which might hurt the UFC's bottom line in the short term but will only be good for the sport in the long term.
The most interesting piece of this puzzle, however, is how the UFC will respond to the Melendez-Bellator agreement in light of the company's matching rights.
On one hand, matching Bellator's offer to keep Melendez on the roster will set a precedent that will ultimately lead to larger fight purses, which will in turn affect Zuffa's bottom line. The UFC has also been an organization that seems to favor fighters who are loyal, whereas Melendez's actions coupled with his mentor Cesar Gracie's public comments on Twitter seem anything but.
On the other hand, allowing Bellator to steal a legitimate contender -- who is still in his prime and who consistently puts on exciting fights, mind you -- will further legitimize that organization as a viable Zuffa alternative, especially if the Spike-based MMA league is able to do the same with other UFC contenders down the road. Letting Melendez jump ship will also send a message that the UFC is simply not willing to pay fighters what the market deems they are worth, despite deep pockets that will seemingly only be getting deeper in light of the company's international expansion. Such news will only give further fuel to critics of the UFC's pay structure.
All things considered, Dana White and company have a big decision to make; one that has implications on the big picture beyond the immediate result of keeping Melendez under contract or letting him go. While the UFC president often seems to have knee jerk, emotional reactions in such circumstances (which might be part of the reason why Melendez signed with Bellator in the first place), this is one instance where cooler heads need to prevail. This decision needs to be made objectively and based on what is good for business in the long run.
The way I see it, what's good for business in the long run is to match Bellator's offer and keep Gilbert Melendez on the UFC roster. Unless Bellator's offer is so large that it will set a prejudicial precedent to the UFC in future contract negotiations, Zuffa should keep "El Niño" under contract.
Perhaps most important is maintaining the perception that the UFC is where the greatest fighters on the planet ply their trade, albeit with some rare exceptions (see: Askren, Ben). Keeping Melendez under contract will help support that mantra. And with the UFC's ever-increasing sources of revenue, and public criticism regarding the issue of fighter pay, it's only a matter of time before the fighter purses of the best fighters on the planet start to increase. It's bound to happen at some point, so the UFC might as well maintain a bullish stance on being the home to the best of the best, regardless of the short-term cost.
The long-term cost of letting Melendez leave could not only mean further Zuffa fighters jumping ship, but it could also call into question whether the UFC is home to the best lightweight in the world, especially in light of the reaction to the Melendez-Ben Henderson fight. Imagine if Melendez becomes the Bellator lightweight champ, or even if he loses to Chandler or Alvarez in a title fight. Bjorn Rebney would have a legitimate argument in saying he has the best 155-pounder on the planet. Some observers might not agree with his claim, but it would still have some legitimate weight nonetheless.
At the end of the day, the cost-benefit analysis of the Bellator-Melendez news seems to weigh in favor of the UFC matching Rebney's offer. Not only does that decision appear to be the best for Zuffa in the long-term, but I doubt any fans will complain about Melendez continuing to entertain MMA fans by competing in the Octagon.
Your move, UFC.