Around a year ago, Bellator set out to make a significant move into the European market with their own fight series in order to raise the promotion’s profile in the territory. The argument was made that other major organisations would hold one or two shows a year in different countries over the continent but wouldn’t really do anything to try and grow the sport or cultivate local talent. That is exactly what Bellator Europe set out to achieve.
During 2019, they held 6 shows in the European Series which saw the company travel to three different countries: England, Ireland and Italy. The events featured a host of local talent early in their careers to give them experience of competing under the bright lights in large arenas as well as some of the biggest international names in the company. Head of Bellator Europe, David Green, made it known on a number of occasions that he didn’t want the European Series to come across as a ‘second tier’ branch of Bellator which it didn’t due to the significance of many of the fights booked for these cards.
There were many high points when it came to action inside the cage for Bellator Europe over the past 12 months. The inaugural event of the series occurred in February and saw Patricky Pitbull pick up a closely contested split decision victory against Ryan Scope in Newcastle, England and former Bellator lightweight champion, Brent Primus, overcame local favourite, Tim Wilde, in Birmingham around three months later. Elsewhere on the second show of the year, fans in attendance were treated to three highlight-reel knockouts back to back to back when Raymond Daniels, Pedro Carvalho and Fabian Edwards all impressed.
Arguably the most high-profile event of the European Series came in June at Wembley Arena, London when Rafael Lovato Jr. took the middleweight title from Gegard Mousasi in an action-packed, five round affair. Melvin Manhoef also had a successful return to MMA competition as he defeated the Englishman, Kent Kauppinen. Later on in the year, Bellator Europe set up shop in Dublin, Ireland and drew a huge crowd to the 3Arena. James Gallagher picked up another win in front of a partisan crowd as he submitted Roman Salazar, Michael ‘Venom’ Page steamrolled Richard Kiely and Peter Queally pulled off a miraculous comeback to stop Ryan Scope. One of Bellator Europe’s biggest successes this year has been kick-starting the Irish market again in terms of live shows and talent development after the UFC seemingly abandoned it after their last visit in 2015.
The penultimate of the years shows took place in Milan, Italy for the first time in the company’s history where an enthusiastic and knowledgeable crowd were packed to the rafters to support their own. Stefano Paterno led the way for upcoming Italian talent when he put on a highly entertaining contest en-route to getting his hand raised over Ashley Reece. Local hero, Alessio Sakara, picked up another first round knockout to send Canaan Grigsby back to the United States and Melvin Manhoef added another stoppage to his record when he separated Yannick Bahati from his consciousness.
Bellator’s European Series returned to London for their final event of the year in November but the show was disappointing in terms of attendance. Wembley Arena was scaled down due to a lack of ticket sales but headliner Michael ‘Venom’ Page sent those fans who were in the building home happy when he produced a memorable, one-punch knockout of his late replacement opponent, Giovanni Melillo. Fabian Edwards squeezed past Mike Shipman in a grudge match which English fans had been dying to see for years and former Cage Warriors lightweight champion, Soren Bak, made a successful promotional debut against Terry Brazier.
In the UK, all of the European Series shows are broadcast on Channel 5 (a free to air television station) during primetime so that is a big deal in terms of exposure to the general public. More people in Europe would have watched the Bellator product than ever before. It is still early days in the project but it will be hoped that over time the Bellator brand will be more recognisable in the market in order to contribute to more ticket sales and sponsorship deals. Virgin Media picked up the European Series part way through the year to ensure a similar deal was in place throughout Ireland so they had the same access to the product.
Furthermore, Bellator Europe have done a solid job at building up a talented group of athletes and are allowing opportunities for younger fighters who are looking to build their name. Fabian Edwards, Peter Queally and Kate Jackson have benefited from performing on a bigger platform and have established themselves within their own divisions while youngsters such as Akonne Wanliss and Justin Burlinson have set themselves up for an exciting 2020. The company have received some criticism for booking too many non-competitive fights, especially in Ireland, but that can be overlooked while Bellator Europe try to build stars in new markets for the brand. However, if this continues into next year and beyond with the same group of fighters, then questions can be asked.
Another big success for the European Series is the amount of money they are paying many of their fighters on the roster. A significant number of athletes from the continent who signed for Bellator over the year made it known they were able to leave other jobs in order to pursue their mixed martial arts dream full time. Everyone likes to see fighters get paid as much money as possible so it’s been great to see athletes fully invest in themselves without having to worry about financial hardship. To add to this, by using crossover stars like Aaron Chalmers and more recently, James Haskell, Bellator Europe will draw more eyes to their product rather than just having the average MMA fans tuning in. To try and grow the brand in Europe by expanding the fan-base further, this approach is really important although MMA purists may disapprove of the strategy.
Despite a strong year on the whole, there are still some issues that need ironing out for Bellator Europe to really flourish. One of the fans’ biggest areas of contention during last year was the inability to watch certain, important fights live. This scenario was always the case when European Series shows were coupled with standard, numbered Bellator events on the same evening. For example, during the London show in June, the Fabian Edwards v Jonathan Bosuku and Mike Shipman v Costello van Steenis fights weren’t broadcast anywhere on the night which caused mass annoyance. There is no excuse for the company not allowing fans to watch some of the hottest prospects in Bellator live - as simple as that. It is essential that this isn’t repeated again.
Other areas for improvement include some of the personnel Bellator Europe have as part of their production in terms of on-screen personalities. Aidan Power, who heads up the analyst desk, has definitely improved and appears more comfortable compared to when he started, but isn’t as slick as presenters in other promotions yet. Paul Daley has come across quite well when discussing and analyzing the action, but the commentary team of Dave Farrar and Josh Thomson could be improved on due to lack of MMA knowledge and difficulty giving concise information, respectively. These are areas that could definitely be tweaked to improve the overall quality of the broadcast.
Finally, one of the downsides of building such a large stable of fighters is the number of fights that need to take place in order to showcase them all. This has led to European Series cards often being overcrowded with as many as 19 fights. Fan interest both online and in arena is almost impossible to sustain for around seven hours straight - it’s just too much. Hopefully this can be reviewed going forward, especially with the increased number of cards next year, so that anticipation can build and peak during the main card rather than risk it petering out.
Overall, it’s been a successful inaugural year for Bellator Europe with some impressive landmarks achieved. An increased number of organisations looking to stage shows across Europe is healthy and raises the standards of everyone involved in the business on the continent. The European Series will expand to new territories this coming year, with Stockholm and Amsterdam heavily rumoured, and the debut of international rugby star, James Haskell, will garner mainstream headlines. During 2020, the number of shows being promoted by Bellator in Europe will edge further towards ten and it will be interesting to see how the brand grows in the territory. Scott Coker has revealed that his goal for the European Series is to be self-sufficient and sustainable as its own business under the Bellator umbrella. That appears to be a long way in the future at this time but the company will be looking to make strides towards that over the next 12 months.