Analyzing Bellator’s Prospect Building Efforts
Although the UFC has recently placed an emphasis on their “developmental deals” with prospects like Chase Hooper and Greg Hardy, the company still primarily signs fighters with well-established records. Contrarily, Bellator MMA is very much in the business of signing highly-touted debutants and cultivating their careers.
For example, if you turn on any live Bellator event, you are likely to see someone like Dillon Danis, Jake Hager, Joey Davis, Aaron Pico, Tyrell Fortune (the list is seemingly endless) fighting on the card. However, Bellator’s handling of their young talents has been confusing to say the least. Some careers are kept embryonic for too long, some careers are pushed too early, and some receive the Goldilocks treatment and are handled just right. Recently, the company has received backlash regarding its inconsistent treatment of up-and-coming fighters.
Perhaps Bellator’s first mega-prospect was Michael “Venom” Page, who fights Shinsho Anzai at the company’s year-end show on Saturday. Page has long-been criticized for fighting less-than-stellar competition. Despite having an 11-1 record in the promotion, many fans argue that his first formidable threat came in the form of Paul Daley, which occurred after Page amassed an 8-0 promotional record. After edging Daley in a close fight, Page fought Douglas Lima (30-7), losing by second-round knockout. After the first loss of his career, Page next fought Richard Kiely (3-1) and Bellator debutant Gianni Melillo (13-4), defeating them both via first round knockouts. Many critics argued that Page should not have received such a step-down from Lima and perceived Bellator as simply trying to keep Page winning. Daley, his former rival, noted in an interview with Bloody Elbow: “This is ridiculous, you can’t continually beat these kind of opponents. Yes, he knocks them out. But he’s expected to knock them out. What does this prove? The fact that he knocked out a guy nobody will remember? It proves nothing. It proves nothing at all. Why didn’t he do that to me? Why didn’t he do that to Douglas Lima? Because he’s not of that caliber.”
Whereas Page is a case of Bellator feeding prospects easily winnable fights for a bit too long, Aaron Pico is an example of a fighter being pushed far too soon. The narrative on Pico when he entered Bellator at 0-0 was that he was destined to become the champion one day, and that everyone from Daniel Cormier to TJ Dillashaw was singing his praises as an elite talent. Instead of fighting another 0-0 or 0-1 fighter like most people making their debuts, he was matched against Zach Freeman (8-2) and was dropped with an uppercut and guillotined in just 24 seconds. After amassing three wins via stoppage, he was matched against former title challenger, Leandro Higo (18-4), and scored an impressive first round finish.
With the hype-train travelling full steam ahead once again, he next faced hard-hitting Henry Corrales (16-3), suffering perhaps the most brutal Bellator knockout of the year defeat in the first round. To rebound, he battled Hungarian prospect Adam Borics (12-0), losing via flying knee knockout in the second round. Once deemed unbeatable, Pico is now 4-3 and on a two-fight knockout loss skid. Many pundits have blamed Bellator’s matchmaking for his troubles, asserting that he should have been facing competition more suitable for a blossoming fighter. Others have blamed his extensive upbringing in combat sports potentially taking its toll on his durability. Whatever the case, Bellator must right the ship if they hope to make a star out of Pico.
Then of course, there are the few times that Bellator gets their prospect building right. Enter AJ McKee, the 16-0 featherweight prospect who just earned his ticket to the Grand Prix semifinals. McKee made his debut in Bellator against a 1-1 fighter, which is a suitable matchup for a newcomer. His next seven fights were against opponents with the following records: 4-0, 1-1, 5-0, 8-4, 8-2, 6-2, 12-1. No single fight was too difficult or too easy on paper; rather, they were each appropriate for the skill level. Bellator was able to provide McKee with respectable opposition while he built his craft. Recently, he has earned victories over Pat Curran, Georgi Karakhanyan, and Derek Campos, and is widely considered one of the elites of the division. McKee is the perfect example of how Bellator should cultivate all of their prospects – by providing them with respectable competition as they continue to hone their abilities as opposed to throwing them to the wolves or coddling them.
There are other prospects like Dillon Danis and Jake Hager who are still early in their careers. Nonetheless, critics may still argue that their level of competition is not exactly “must-see” television. Admittedly, regarding prospects such as Fabian Edwards, James Gallagher, Joey Davis, and Logan Storley, I believe Bellator has done a fine job thus far in nourishing the seeds of future stars. However, only time will tell if they continue to remain underground and fight competitors well-below their level or if they burst through the soil and blossom into home-grown elite talents.