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Can Free Agency Finally Level the MMA Playing Field?

By Chris Huntemann and Jared Jones

A few years ago, when it was time for free agency in the NBA, LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh all decided to each take a little less money and play together for the Miami Heat. How did that turn out? Oh, not too bad. While they failed to live up to the expectations placed upon them, they still managed to win back-to-back championships and made the NBA Finals four years in a row.

What does this have to do with mixed martial arts?

Much like James, Wade and Bosh are considered three of the very best players in the NBA, there are currently three MMA fighters on the free agent market that have the opportunity to introduce a sea change to the sport.

Those three fighters are Benson Henderson (no. 13 welterweight, no. 15 lightweight), Aljamain Sterling (no. 5 bantamweight) and Alistair Overeem (no. 3 heavyweight).

Before his victory over Junior Dos Santos in Dec. 15, Overeem stated his intent to test the free agent market when his UFC contract was up. Henderson announced just this morning that he had signed with a multi-fight deal with Bellator, while Sterling, who is represented by the same firm as Henderson, continues to mull over his options as a free agent.

The signing of Henderson to Bellator is a landmark deal for the sport, less so for the figures the former lightweight champion will making under the new promotion, but rather for what it represents in regards to the UFC’s lock on the sport’s top talent. Ever since the Fertitta brothers and The Baldfather took over the joint, the UFC has prided itself on housing “the world’s best fighters” while quickly eliminating any other promotion claiming the do the same. Following the dissolvement of Strikeforce back in 2013, the UFC’s status as the biggest game in town seemed more secure than ever, more or less forcing prospects and veteran fighters alike to sign with the promotion or start picking out their spot in the soup line.

But just as pride is the downfall of man, the UFC might have overplayed its hand (or underestimated Scott Coker) when it decided to get into business with Reebok.

From the moment the now landmark deal was signed, speculation began to arise from the UFC’s formerly contented roster. How would this affect my sponsors? Will I be making less money per fight? What the f*ck is a Fight Kit and do I have to wear it? And when the figures were released, all hell broke loose.

As it turns out, the only thing that motivates fighters more than championship gold is cold hard cash, so when it was revealed that they would be losing boatloads of it — all in the name of “legitimizing the sport,” mind you — well, it didn’t exactly sit well with them. Champions with exclusive sponsorship deals suddenly found themselves left out in the cold. Prominent figures in the sport suddenly found themselves making pennies to headline pay-per-views and FOX cards. Hell, even tentatively-connected MMA celebrities were taking to social media to trash Reebok, and not simply because the uniforms themselves are pieces of sh*t.

But amidst the madness a familiar face emerged. Under the reign of former Strikeforce founder/CEO Scott Coker, Bellator slowly began to increase their profile, starting with the acquisition of former UFC light heavyweight contender Phil Davis back in April.

How did they do this? By not being the UFC, more or less.

The UFC might be the biggest game in town, but it’s not the ONLY game in town, and while you can debate the merits of the product that Bellator puts out vs. that of the UFC, it’s not an issue that fighters really seem to care about when money is on the line. Does Bellator continue to book ridiculous main events like Ken Shamrock vs. Kimbo Slice? They sure do, yet more and more of the world’s best fighters are preferring to call Bellator home for one simple reason: freedom.

And this is only the start. In an interview on yesterday’s MMA Hour, Coker unveiled his plans to start buying free agents “from the top down” in an effort to continue building Bellator’s brand.

“I think this is just the tip of the iceberg,” said Coker. “Fighters are fighting out their contracts. They want to negotiate. They really want to see what their value is. We’re going to help them to define what their value is. It’s always good for the industry to have more than one bidder.”

With the UFC moving closer and closer to a totalitarian state by a day, guys like Henderson, Sterling and Overeem have a real opportunity here. They have the right to make whatever choice they feel is best for their careers, and for once, that might not necessarily mean the UFC. Can you imagine if all three decided to pull a “Big Three” like James, Wade and Bosh in the NBA and sign with Bellator? The organization’s profile instantly rises 10-fold and at least enters the same neighborhood as the UFC, while the latter’s lock on “the best fighters in the world” continues to slip as a result of their own stubborn frivolousness.

Imagine Henderson facing the likes of Michael Chandler, Will Brooks or Michael “Venom” Page in Bellator. Imagine Sterling squaring off with Marcos Galvao, or WSOF bantamweight champion Marlon Moraes, for that matter. Talk about fireworks. With Bellator and WSOF’s heavyweight divisions in the state they are, Overeem would have a golden opportunity to have a division, or even an organization, revolve around him in a way in never truly has in the UFC.

While it’s likely that Sterling and Overeem will re-sign with the UFC, it is interesting to play fantasy booking and imagine the possibilities if they decide to “take their talents” elsewhere, to quote King James. I mean, I don’t know about the rest of you, but I’m absolutely dying to see Scott Coker announce the next Bellator “tent pole” card will feature Overeem facing Kimbo Slice in the main event. Imagine the ratings!

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