Fan and fighter reaction has been overwhelmingly positive: Bjorn Rebney is being edged out of Bellator. In his stead is former Strikeforce CEO and founder Scott Coker. The reason behind the celebratory atmosphere surrounding this news can be divided roughly into two halves, the first having to do with who Bjorn Rebney has become in the eyes of the public, and the second having to do with how we remember the work and leadership of Scott Coker.
Objections about Bjorn Rebney's leadership are well established: strong-arm tactics, favoritism, and then there's Rebney himself. An adamant promoter who's been, at times, a little too eager to spar with media and talent, who's done his share of dubious boasting. Thus various fighters' gleeful Twitter posts, and the fans' enthusiasm for a new Bellator, sans Rebney, avec Coker.
In the eight years he served as the CEO and corporate face of Strikeforce, Coker transformed his organization from a high-end regional product into a compelling alternative to the UFC. Compelling for high-level talent like Dan Henderson, Fedor Emelianenko, and Alistair Overeem because of good paydays, flexible promotional practices, and relatively lax obligations; compelling for fans, because of the signings of Henderson, Emelianeno, and Overeem. What we remember is that Coker was able to develop a strong competitor to the UFC without engaging in the hardline practices taken by his other promoters. So, when it comes to the future of Bellator, as far as fans and fighters are concerned, only good can come of Coker's leadership.
I'm here to say that's wildly optimistic.
I was a huge fan of Strikeforce. I was excited about their stable of fighters, I liked their promotion of women's MMA, and I thought they played an essential role in the marketplace. But, finally, most of what I liked about Strikeforce laid in its great potential. The actuality of Strikeforce was something decidedly, frequently disappointing.
There was Strikeforce's sluggish schedule--in 8 years, a total of 63 events, a hefty third of which came under the "Challengers" brand (and those cards that may as well have) which more or less defined the very outer limits of hardcore interest. There were the championships that went undefended--as heavyweight champion, Overeem fought for Strikeforce twice in four years, not due to injury, but because he preferred to pursue interests outside that organization. And there were the complaints from the likes of Gilbert Melendez and Tim Kennedy who grew frustrated waiting for an opportunity to fight. But no single one of these issues quite defines, comprehensively, what the real, endemic problem with Strikeforce was: narrative.
A fight will always have a certain sensational draw, but to hold fan interest and keep them coming back to one specific show, an organization needs to offer more. There must be a connection established between fighters and fans. There needs to be a feeling that these fights are building towards something. Fighters must be made known and credible relative to their peers in the promotion. This all falls under narrative.
Coherent narrative, self-contained, is largely why the UFC has enjoyed such sustained success. You didn't need to go to a fighter database to understand why Rich Franklin was important, because he was regularly, in the UFC, showing you. He had history within the promotion. And this was important when Anderson Silva blew into town--Silva's dismantling of Franklin would have been a hell of a sight no matter what, but it had particular weight because we knew who Rich Franklin was. PRIDE also excelled in this respect. Rivalries, win-streaks, title-runs, and campaigns of redemption were all to be found, and they were largely to be found in PRIDE alone. Again, no fighter database necessary. You didn't have to know what had happened in another promotion two years ago, you didn't have to look up bootleg clips online. All you had to do was watch.
Coherent narrative is not something that Strikeforce was really able to develop during its time as a big league promotion. It's bad storytelling when half of the challengers to Gilbert Melendez's lightweight title had never fought in Strikeforce before; when Luke Rockhold's run to the middleweight championship takes place on little-seen Challengers shows; when the great majority of the undercards are full of fighters you'll never see in the organization again.
Storytelling is, however, something that Bellator has managed to do fairly well. Why?
121 Bellator events in five years. Dozens of fighters made recognizable through their organization. That's pretty damn good. And it is, of course, due in large part to Bellator's tournament format. However, that tournament format only remains functional because Bjorn Rebney's Bellator, like PRIDE and the UFC, have had fighters competing for them consistently, if not exclusively. That is key, and you need look no further than Strikeforce's heavyweight tournament for proof. A talent-rich competition that should have solidified Strikeforce as a major player, the tournament was instead undermined by delays and drop-outs that were a clear product of the soft commitments Coker elicited from fighters. Obligating fighters is simply not something that Scott Coker and Strikeforce were ever very interested or adept at.
Let me be clear, I've never been a fan of the bullying that fighters have suffered by the UFC, or Bellator. Fighters absolutely deserve the lion's share of credit, financial and otherwise. They deserve respect and recognition. And let me be clear, also, that Strikeforce put on a lot of fun fights.
But Strikeforce was also, by the end, a bit of a mess. Muddy title pictures, errant fighters--long-term, it wasn't a great look. And unless Coker is more willing to be the bad guy once in a while and find a better balance between accommodating and compelling his fighters, MMA's latest best chance at a viable UFC alternative will wind up in the same mess again.