When UFC president Dana White told Gilbert Melendez he should "hit the bricks" and seek employment elsewhere, little did he know that Melendez had already done so. Two days after White threw down the gauntlet, Melendez took to Twitter to announce that not only had he looked elsewhere, but that he found a suitor and signed a deal with Bellator.
That signing put the ball back in the UFC's court. With matching rights written into the UFC fighter contract, the promotion had some time to look over the offer that Melendez (22-3) and Bellator had agreed on. They could then decide to match that offer or pass. On Sunday, the UFC decided to match the Bellator offering, keeping Melendez, the No. 2 ranked fighter in the UFC's lightweight division with the promotion.
The players in the short-lived saga all seemed happy with the outcome.
Melendez told MMAJunkie.com, "I never wanted to leave the UFC. It's the best organization in the world, has the best fighters in the world, it's where I wanted to be, but I had to put that aside to think about my family and my future."
Bellator CEO Bjorn Rebney released a statement after the UFC matched, "This process has shown that in MMA, there are two legitimate options for fighters. And, as I said last week, with two large scale options for fighters in MMA, fighters negotiating power is dramatically improved. Our actions throughout this process accomplished that for Gilbert right now, and in the future it will do the same for countless additional fighters. Some will end up in Bellator, and some will end up in the UFC. But, either way, the sport benefits."
The UFC did not offer a statement on the signing other than it had been completed, but the fact that they matched the deal tells you all you need to know about their desire to not let Melendez leave the UFC fold.
Some other individuals that should be happy about the outcome of Melendez's deal are other high profile fighters.
According to MMAFighting.com, some of the terms of the deal:
75 percent of Melendez's fights will be on pay-per-view.
PPV points will kick in at a lower buy rate than any other contract in UFC history
PPV income no matter where Melendez fights on the PPV card
What wasn't disclosed was the show money Melendez will earn per fight. Regardless, I expect Melendez's deal to open the eyes of any fighter that is the top five of their division and nearing the end of their contract.
So, why should this deal make other top-level fighters happy? While I won't go as far as Rebney and say fighters negotiating power has been drastically improved, I will say that fighters in the prime of their careers with known drawing power, strong management, strong stomachs, confidence in their skills, a good sense of what they are worth, and the ability to remain unemotional will benefit from Melendez's deal.
All of the above will be needed in equal measure for any fighter that decides to test the waters outside the UFC.
Let's look at these points one by one.
If a fighter is on the downside of their career they may get an offer from a rival promotion, but don't think the UFC will jump right into the fray and match that deal. If that fighter has lost a couple in a row and is clearly slipping in the rankings or as a draw, odds are good the UFC will think long and hard about matching that deal.
If a fighter with an expiring contract does not have a strong manager with a proven history of getting the best deal possible for their client, testing the waters may not be a good idea. An inept manager will not get a fighter a good deal. Remember, White was very vocal about his unhappiness with Melendez's manager when he told the fighter to look elsewhere. That's the kind of manager a fighter needs, one that will not be afraid to get in the UFC crosshairs and fight for the best deal for their client.
A strong stomach. Maybe a better way to put this is the fighter needs the courage of their convictions. Melendez never wanted to leave the UFC, but he did want a deal that would benefit him and his family. Had the UFC not matched the deal, Melendez may have been disappointed, but he still would have had a pretty sweet deal with Bellator to salve that wound. If a fighter isn't willing to leave the UFC for whatever reason, it's best not to try a bluff.
Why would a fighter need confidence in their skills when looking to get a new deal with one promotion or another? Simple, when these deals are announced as multi-fight and multi-year they aren't really either. Scratch that, they are from the promotion's side.
If a fighter wins and continues to draw they have a good chance to fight until the deal ends. If that same fighter loses a few fights in a row, that fighter could be released. In other words, these contracts are not guaranteed. So, if a fighter is suddenly really expensive, they better be confident that they are going to continue to go out there and put on the type of performance that puts fans in the seats or that sweet deal they thought they had will be utterly useless.
Finally, a fighter and his management have to know where the fighter stands as far as value. If a fighter overvalues their worth, they could end up with a poor deal. If a fighter undervalues their worth, they could end up with a poor deal. Melendez, a former Strikeforce champion who was coming off a Fight of the Year type bout and a close decision loss to then UFC champion Benson Henderson had a very high value. A fighter coming off a few lackluster performances or even a winning fighter with a "boring" style may not have the same value in the eyes of the UFC or a rival promoter.
In talking to MMAJunkie.com, Melendez said, "I have a great team and I left most of it to them. They're a great management team. I voiced my opinion, and they helped me keep my emotions in check. When it comes to stuff like this, you have to take your emotions out of it and think of your family. It's about more than just the title shot."
Without that team, or with a less confident team, Melendez may have never even talked to Bellator, much less signed a deal with the promotion. A lot of credit needs to go to that group of people for keeping Melendez calm and seeing the end game; a deal that will hopefully set him up for a prosperous future.
With all this being said, don't be fooled into thinking this is a new day for MMA fighters, and that the bags of money are waiting for each and every fighter that has an expiring contract. That is definitely not the case. The road Melendez travelled down is only applicable to the top-level fighters, and even then it is a very risky proposition.
This is not the UFC's Curt Flood moment, but it's a start.