I like to compare the concept of free agency to my annual struggle with my phone company. After months of paying an extortionate price to a huge conglomerate for a measly 2gb of data & an unlimited amount of un-sent texts, the power is in my hands as I threaten to leave for another phone company. What ensues is an awkward, staggered phone call of mutual hatred where I finally agree to pay a slightly smaller amount for slightly more benefits. Pleased, I put the phone down feeling like I accomplished something that day, only to realise at a later date that 4gb of data still isn’t enough for my mindless scrolling and I still hate my phone. Good metaphor right?
Basically what I’m trying to say is no matter how fighters negotiate their contracts, unless they are one of the unicorns of the sport, they are probably getting less than what they are worth. The lack of a free agency market has meant that the UFC has been able to monopolise contracts with fighters fearing that if they don’t agree to the demands they will be cut from the only ‘esteemed company’ in the sport of MMA.
Go back just over one year and we were awaiting, with freighted breath, Bellator 149: Old School Legends Edition. The original street fighter Kimbo Slice was to take on childhood friend, turned bitter rival (who writes this) Dada 5000 in a goliath war of one-punch prowess.. and that was the co-main.
In the Bellator 149 main event, Ken Shamrock and Royce Gracie, with a combined age of 103, faced off in the “Battle of the OAP”… Old Aggressive Personthatcouldbreakeveryboneinmybody.
Violent keyboard smashing proceeded, all manner of Wotsit warriors cussing Bellator out for putting on an event that showed more resemblance to a school play than an MMA show. At that moment who could honestly point to Bellator as being a reputable option to challenge the UFC? Well, Benson Henderson did. The straightjacket of the UFC contract, with the new Reebok deal in place (20% off Reebok trainers at Sports Direct for all UFC fighters), meant that Bellator suddenly offered something that the UFC did not; Freedom.
Signing former Lightweight Champion Henderson, the guy on a two-fight UFC win streak, was the first signpost that a new home for fighters was open. Rory Macdonald, Ryan Bader, Lorenz Larkin, Joe Duffy amongst others, have all followed over the past 15 months. What is the difference between those fighters and the previous UFC defectors? AGE. These aren’t fighters that are moving because of disrespect, dismemberment or something that begins with U and ends in A (yes you guessed it…Umbra…which is a synonym for a shadow…the shadow of an unjust contract…which the fighters have found themselves in HI-OHHHH). These fighters chose to go to Bellator because they felt that Bellator would do right by them.
Fast forward to the present day and we have seen a change comparable with singer Adele… you know, looks lovely and glammed up now but still blurts out a hilariously abrupt laugh just to remind you she’s just a ‘Landan gal’. Bellator has quickly turned itself around into a promotion carrying a lot of energy, good quality fights have created little niche MMA superstars, the sort of fighters that hardcore fans like to say “bro, I’ve been following that guy since his first uppercut” (conceding to the outdated broseph MMA stereotype there folks), cards have included the odd circus headliner but have been stacked throughout with promising talent and most significantly, upcoming events involving the new free agents have created a sense of belonging next to, if not slightly in the Umbra, of the UFC.
As much as we fight fans want the best to fight the best. It is a great thing for the average fighter that the UFC has a promotion able to provide a genuine alternative. Fighters coming to the end of their contracts and being open to talking to Bellator has meant that other MMA promotions have also been able to hold talks. Suddenly a fighter doesn’t have to buy the one brand of toilet paper they’ve always bought, maybe they want the kind of toilet paper that will let you have your favourite tire brand printed on its sheets and still welcome you with open arms? Maybe they want one that quietly encourages you to use toilet enhancing substitutes for a more powerful toilet performance? Or maybe they want the all female toilet paper that is just damn good fun? Subtle metaphor allusion covers me from being sued, right?