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Bellator’s rise a bittersweet change for MMA

Bellator CEO Scott Coker is seen during a weigh-in before Bellator 180 on Friday, June 23, 2017, in New York. (AP Photo/Gregory Payan)
(AP Photo/Gregory Payan)

Mixed martial arts is changing. A brief glance at the current landscape of the sport can attest to such a vague yet comprehensive notion.

Today, and for plenty of days to come, the UFC is king in the MMA world. It’s the company that has come closest to adequately promoting not only the sport, but the dozens of superstars that have made a claim to fame from fighting inside the cage. Offering the sport’s athletes the greatest amount of recognition and, at times, money, the UFC has the luxury of being recognized as the premier MMA organization on the planet. Such recognition often results in the Octagon housing the world’s best fighters, luring the cage’s biggest names away from other banners.

That — albeit very, very slowly — is starting to change.

Bellator MMA, a distant silver medalist in the race for mixed martial arts supremacy, is steadily gaining ground — just as it has for the past several years. The Viacom-owned promotion has benefited greatly from the prospect of free agency, a powerful platform fighters have only recently started to wield to better control their futures. With just about every member of the UFC roster opting to fight out their contract and test the open market, several big names have jumped ship from Dana White’s world to Scott Coker’s.

The latest to do so is Gegard Mousasi. A former champion under the Dream and Strikeforce banners, Mousasi first joined the UFC in 2013 as part of the Strikeforce buyout. He enjoyed a rather successful career inside the deepest waters MMA has to offer, going 9-3 with his only three losses coming to elite fighters Lyoto Machida, Ronaldo Souza and Uriah Hall, the last of which he avenged a year later in 2016.

Mousasi leaves the UFC on a five-fight winning streak, ranked within the promotion’s top five at 185 pounds. He was perhaps only one victory away from finally getting the elusive chance to fight for UFC gold, but he now sets sail to compete for a different organization for the first time in four years.

“The Dreamcatcher” made several notes on why he decided to leave the UFC, varying from higher pay to general transparency from those he is now contracted with.

“It’s not just basically the money,” Mousasi told MMA Fighting. “Like I said, I’ve worked with Scott. When Scott promises something, he delivers. He’s an honest guy. He’s a mixed martial artist himself. He treats fighters with respect.”

In essence, Mousasi left the UFC because he had a better opportunity with Bellator. Good for him. After fighting professionally for 14 years and stepping inside the cage or ring to compete 50 times, a veteran like Mousasi deserves to fight under a contract he deems worthy of his services. If the UFC wasn’t willing to offer him that, so be it. That’s on the organization.

Mousasi’s voyage to Bellator is worthy of celebration for those in the sport, signaling that the grass is sometimes greener on the other side. It provides fighters with options. It also prompts the UFC to step up its game and start competing.

However, as celebratory as Mousasi’s deal is, it’s also a reminder of this system’s competitive shortcomings. “The Dreamcatcher” now leaves the UFC’s middleweight division to join Bellator’s, one that currently features Rafael Carvalho as its champion. Whether or not Mousasi automatically qualifies as the best middleweight on the Bellator roster may be up for discussion, but it’s likely going to be a short talk. Carvalho is undoubtedly a talented fighter who is capable of giving Mousasi a tough go, but the same can’t be said of the remaining 20 or so middleweights on the roster.

Meanwhile, potential matchups against truly elite 185-pound fighters — Michael Bisping, Robert Whittaker, Yoel Romero, and Luke Rockhold — are now off the table. It’ll be another six fights, or possibly two years, before Mousasi can begin to entertain the idea of coming back to the UFC and fill the void that could remain on his resume as a result of leaving.

There’s a reason the more dedicated fans of the sport were so excited to see Mousasi debut with the UFC in 2013: He was finally going to be surrounded by the best fighters on the planet. No matter the sport, the world always calls for the best to meet the best.

Unfortunately, that’s what makes MMA so unique in a world of major professional sports. LeBron James wouldn’t consider leaving the NBA, nor would Tom Brady take his talents to Canada. But the UFC, plagued by a number of business-related problems that have since prevented it from reaching the heights of the NBA and the NFL, doesn’t have complete autonomy of the market in mixed martial arts.

Again, that’s only to the benefit of those involved in the actual competition of the sport. Fighters have options today, something they didn’t necessarily have for a majority of the UFC’s tenure as top dog.

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