“Break Out” Stars: Bellator Struggles to Keep its Champions Caged In

By Raphael Garcia

The world of combat sports is quite different than those of the other mainstream sports that capture the attention of fans. Major organizations in boxing, kickboxing, and mixed martial arts are only as strong as their champions. Titleholders garner all the attention, which is one of the factors in how much revenue is generated. As the second largest mixed martial arts promotion, Bellator MMA has struggled to develop stars within its ranks that fight fans want to see. Even worse, when they do so, those individuals have often chosen to leave the promotion. This situation raises questions about how the promotion will continue to cultivate champions.

At Bellator 109, fight fans witnessed Alexander Shlemenko defeat Doug Marshall to retain the middleweight title that he won earlier this year. It was also his 12th straight win since a 2010 loss to Hector Lombard. At 49-7, the 29-year-old competitor has continued to cement himself as one of the better 185-pound fighters that does not compete under the Zuffa banner. If he continues to win at this clip, which is very possible, what will happen when the UFC does come calling for the Russian’s talents? That is the conundrum that Bellator faces.

At this point in time the organization doesn’t have the best track record when it comes to dealing with champions who have wanted to leave the promotion. Hector Lombard had been Bellator’s first middleweight champion, and held the title until he left the promotion in January of 2012.

Eddie Alvarez was next to attempt to leave, and while he wasn’t champion at the time, the company put up a massive fight to keep its first-ever lightweight titleholder. A lengthy court battle ensued, resulting in his return to the promotion to face Michael Chandler for a second time. As the organization sets up their third fight, Alvarez is now positioned to potentially keep the belt and become a free agent with Bellator unable to do anything about it.

Then there is Ben Askren, who was recently released. After defeating Andrey Koreshkov this past July at Bellator 97, his contract expired, and he made it well-known that his intentions were to sit out for a year so that he could leave for the UFC. Bellator cut contractual ties with him earlier in November, but UFC President Dana White has assured the MMA media that they aren’t interested in Askren’s talents. While that may or may not be truth, the fact remains that Bellator has lost another champion that it helped build up.

The promotion seems to be working hard to close the gaps that some fighters have found their way through, recently signing both Chandler and Pat Curran, who was the featherweight champion before his loss to Daniel Straus, to long term deals. However, Shlemenko has publicly voiced his concerns with the lack of available fights within the promotion where he reigns. In the past he has talked about his love of competition, which is why he’s amassed so many fights in a relatively short amount of time. This could become a sticking point when contract negotiations begin with the Russian fighter.

If this pattern continues, Bellator faces a challenge in keeping homegrown talent. If those athletes continue to want to seek higher challenges and paydays within the UFC, how will Bellator compete with Zuffa and the growing World Series of Fighting brand? The black eye that the promotion suffered during the ordeal with Alvarez has already set off alarms among rising talents, who are now reluctant to sign long-term deals with the organization, a development that has the potential to have long term affects on the organization as a whole.

As Bellator MMA continues to solidify itself as the second largest MMA company in the sport, the promotion strives to build a roster that fans can recognize. Unfortunately, as those fighters become bigger names, many will desire to leave for greener pastures. It will be interesting to see how Bellator deals with this problem, which will continue for as long as the promotion exists.


Bellator 109 took place on November 22, 2013 at Sands Casino Event Center in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania.

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