Saturday night at The Forum in Inglewood, California, Bellator featherweight champion Patricio Freire will defend his title against A.J. McKee in the finals of Bellator’s Featherweight Grand Prix, a bout many have called the biggest and/or most important fight in Bellator history. While it is doubtful that it will generate the ratings of Kimbo Slice vs Dada 5000, the highest rated fight in Bellator’s history, and we’ll be blessed if it as entertaining as Eddie Alvarez and Michael Chandler’s first fight, the importance of this contest for the promotion, the fighters, and the sport are hard to exaggerate.
Currently, Patricio “Pitbull” is ranked #3 by both MMAFighting and MMAJunkie, and #4 by Sherdog and Fight Matrix. McKee in turn is ranked anywhere from #5 to #9 by all 4 sites’ rankings. These of course are independent rankings of all promotion and not the promoters own exclusive rankings.
A victory by Pitbull should cement his place as not just Bellator’s best fighter of all time, but one of the greats in the sport, an accolade that is almost impossible to attain nowadays outside the UFC. Meanwhile a win for McKee would signal the arrival of a major talent, one that could compete with any fighter in any promotion, at 145 lbs.
A bout between two fighters outside the UFC this highly ranked is almost unheard of. The most relevant fight in Bellator history before today may have been Michael Chandler and Eddie Alvarez rematch at Bellator 106, in which Chandler entered #5 in the consensus rankings and Alvarez was #10. Outside that match, one would have to go back to Strikeforce or the Japanese promotion Dream to find as relevant of bout.
We of course are talking about relevance as defined by a fighter’s position in the rankings. This isn't to say that Freire and McKee, or other fighters for that matter, aren’t superior to the fighters ranked above them. There are numerous cases of a fighter being better than those who hold a higher ranking, but rankings are not predictive, they are reflective of a fighters current position in a division. Thus one fighter could easily be superior to another if they were ever given the opportunity to demonstrate it in a cage, but will not be recognized as such in the rankings because they have yet to do so.
This is one of the major reasons this bout is so important for both the fighters involved and Bellator. While it became much harder following the purchase and closing of Pride, it is has become near impossible for non-UFC fighters to attain the recognition of best in the world since the acquisition of Strikeforce by Zuffa. Since then, a fighter who wished to be recognized as the best had to sign with the UFC. But this Bellator match proves that it may now be possible to at least be in the discussion if one signs with Bellator.
The winner may not be in the same position as Fedor Emelianenko was when he signed with Strikeforce. At that time he was the consensus number one, and a number of fighters from the UFC willing to make the pilgrimage to his current promoter, in order to fight in. The winner instead will likely be in a similar position as Shinya Aoki and Gilbert Melendez during that same period - ranked no lower than number two, with a serious case to make for their placement at number one and always one fight away from attaining that position.
Freire or McKee are also not alone in this potential outcome. The eventual winner of the Light Heavyweight Grand Prix will surely have a case to make that they should be number one in their weight class.
The importance of this for Bellator is simple: fighters want to be recognized as the best in the world. If they can do that in Bellator, then they should have an easier time recruiting or retaining more top fighters, which should in turn lead to more interest in the promotion.
For the fighters a side effect of a higher ranking is often more money, which is also generally the primary concern for participants in something called prize-fighting. Tonight’s bout is no different, as both fighters are looking to walk away as one of the higher paid fighters in the sport.
An additional $1 million prize is waiting for the winner of tonight’s Bellator featherweight Grand Prix finals. That's on top of the Bellator featherweight belt that’s also up for grabs and the contestants’ regular purses, which has been reported by the California State Athletic Commission as $250,000 for Pitbull and $150,000 for McKee. The combination of their purses and the Grand Prix prize will guarantee that the winner of tonight’s bout will be one of the highest paid 145 pounders this year.
Those numbers should highlight a recent phenomenon. It was long a given that the UFC paid more than all its competitors. That has changed somewhat in recent years. While it’s true that no other promoter has anything close to a $12,000 minimum or the millions earned by PPV attractions, it’s an open secret amongst MMA managers that for that next tier of fighters — the well known or highly ranked, non-PPV star contender — there is more money generally to be found outside the UFC.
While some have perhaps inflated or exaggerate the amount, it’s still true that for many high ranked fighters the competitors are willing to pay more, at least in guaranteed amounts. As Freire’s manager, Matheus Aquino, told me, “When Patricio says he’s happy with his pay, he means it.”
Other fighters in the Light heavyweight Grand Prix, or in ONE Championship and the PFL, are earning sizably larger amounts than they did in the UFC. While Corey Andersons claims that he earned twice as much in his two fights in Bellator than he did over a 15-fight career in the UFC are likely incorrect, if he wins his next two bouts it will surely be true.
The reason this doesn’t lead to a stampede of fighters out of the UFC is, as more than one manager of UFC athletes told me, because for the majority of fighters, the gamble they are taking still only pays off in the UFC. While money is important, they still want to stake a claim to the title of best in the world, something that still requires them to sign with the UFC. And their confidence that they’ll eventually hold the title is met by an equal confidence that once they do so, they will make millions off the PPV sales as a champion. This is of course a gamble, but fighters have always taken a gamble of themselves. The UFC counts on this calculation by fighters to retain their market dominance.
This is partly what makes tonight’s bout so important for Bellator, it demonstrates that a fighter can achieve both professional and financial success in a promotion without the letters U-F-C. Something they will have to continue to demonstrate if they want succeed in this business.