In every sport, players come and go. And fans and analysts will always debate whether the team is better off with the new additions brought on to replace the departed stars. MMA might not have teams per se, but in the current landscape, one can look at the various promotions in a similar light. While the UFC can add and subtract without causing Dana White or Joe Silva to lose much sleep, the hungry promotions chasing that top dog might suffer from a little more anxiety when a champ says farewell. Case in point: Bellator Fighting Championships.

Not that long ago, Bellator lost one of its biggest stars in middleweight champion Hector Lombard, who signed on the dotted line with the UFC. Though Bellator truly lives and dies through its tournament format, and Lombard’s status as a champion actually meant that fans could go extended periods of time without seeing him in a meaningful bout, the loss undoubtedly left Bellator without one of its biggest stars.

Enter Muhammed “King Mo” Lawal, Brett Rogers and Paul Daley. Although Bellator is always signing up-and-comers and UFC castoffs, including Maiquel Falcao and Ben Saunders, these three recent acquisitions are unique in the fact that all three have been featured at, or near, the top of Strikeforce cards. Lawal is a former Strikeforce light heavyweight champion, Rogers battled Fedor Emelianenko in a heavily promoted match-up and competed in the recently concluded Strikeforce Heavyweight Grand Prix, and Daley has been in contention for the welterweight crown in both Strikeforce and the UFC.

These signings can be a double-edged sword for Bellator, though.

Paul Daley (Esther Lin/Strikeforce)

Regardless of how the athletes fare, in the short term they arguably bring to the table more drawing power among casual fans. Lombard might have been champion, but outside of the diehard MMA fans, he likely ranks last of the four in terms of name recognition. Throw in Lawal’s forays into pro wrestling, and Bellator is potentially looking at an uptick in interest thanks to these guys.

However, that short-term gain could be coupled with the issue of three fighters dominating their respective divisions. If these guys come in and storm through the competition, people outside of the organization could point at that outcome as a sign that Bellator’s talent is inferior to that of the UFC, and that fighters like Lombard and Ben Askren do not deserve to be held in the same regard as their counterparts.

Although that scenario is possible, it’s highly unlikely that all three newcomers rise to the throne in their respective divisions. The other possibilities bring much more upside to the situation.

First, there’s Lombard’s role as a champion. The man decimated his competition, but out of his five fights after claiming the belt, only one contest was a title defense. Meanwhile, he took on Falaniko Vitale and Herbert Goodman, two fighters not perceived as legitimate threats to Lombard, and fought Trevor Prangley and Jay Silva in catchweight affairs. In reality, the risk versus reward of Lombard’s outings with Bellator didn’t look great—in the end, he won his fights, but what would fan perception look like had that not been the case?

With the addition of Lawal, Daley and Rogers, Bellator not only adds three well-known Strikeforce veterans to its roster, but in the long run, the fighters help the promotion in an important way beyond just their own drawing power.

Brett Rogers (Sherdog)

The three will likely see tournament action at some point, at least if they have title aspirations within Bellator. That means we can count on as many as three fights within one season from that select tourney participant. When was the last time we saw Lombard compete in three meaningful fights inside the Bellator cage in a single year, let alone one season? Given that his 2010 Bellator campaign included two non-title outings, the answer to that question is 2009, when Lombard initially captured the title via Bellator’s season-one middleweight tournament.

If they indeed compete in the tournaments, each of these stars will face as many as three opponents. That amounts to three chances to lose a fight. We’ve seen the tournaments elevate its winners up the ranks and into the collective consciousness of MMA fans already, but what if the tournament winner’s path to glory came through a victory over an established fighter such as Rogers, Lawal or Daley? Such a win would further legitimize Bellator fighters alongside their UFC and Strikeforce peers. If a Bellator welterweight is good enough to defeat Daley, his argument for being on the same level as UFC’s 170-pounders has some added substance.

This also extends to the division champions. If Rogers survives a gauntlet of Bellator heavyweights and earns his way to a title shot, Cole Konrad will finally have an opponent that has stood toe-to-toe with the world’s best big men. Sure, Rogers is still a far cry from fighting a Fabricio Werdum or Frank Mir, but he would still provide a better measuring stick of Konrad’s proper status among the heavyweight rankings. And Rogers is really the fighter with the least credentials of the three new arrivals; Ben Askren defeating Daley or Christian M’Pumbu taking out Lawal would hold even more significance for both Bellator and each respective fighter.

So, does Lombard’s departure hurt Bellator? Sure, but the promotion might have found a better formula in exchange, one that allows it to create more interest in its product and possibly create new stars from within along the way.

Top Photo: Muhammed “King Mo” Lawal (Dave Mandel/Sherdog)

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  • Richard

    While I agree 100% that the 3 newcomers have bigger names in the sport to casual fans, each one also has pretty big strikes against them. Daley was cut by the UFC for sucker-punching Josh Koscheck after their fight in an act that was viewed as both cowardly and being a poor loser; King Mo tested positive for PED’s in his last fight and it has since been ruled a No Contest; and Rogers vicously attacked and beat his wife in front of his children. While these signings may draw more eyes to the promotion, will they help Bellator keep its integrity or improve the org?

    It reminds me of how the Cincinnati Bengals signed questionable character guy after jailbird after questionable character guy a few years ago. The signings didn’t improve the team but drew more eyes waiting to see what criminal activity was going to happen next.

    I understand Bellator needs known fighters to get bigger audiences and sponsors…but they may be starting down a slippery slope. How do they respond if King Mo pops again, Daley attacks another fighter, or Rogers is arrested? They can’t plead ignorance or fake shock because it has all already happened once.

    Hopefully, everything goes great and there are no problems…but replacing one high character guy for 3 troubled may not be the best move.

    • Bryan Henderson

      I agree they aren’t model citizens, and there are a lot of things that could go wrong. However, Paige covered how Bellator could be a path to redemption for guys like this in Wednesday’s Turn the Paige feature.

      Bellator is taking risks, but they took risks with Lombard too, just in a much different way. With Lombard, it was taking a top-ranked fighter and putting him against low level competition in non-title bouts. With these guys, it’s PED’s or behavioral issues. Either way, things could blow up in Bellator’s face. But it seems Bjorn Rebney doesn’t mind seeking the high reward, even when there’s high risk involved.

      • Richard

        Here’s the difference I see…the risk with Lombard taken on unproven fighters are that if he does lose to one you have another star and start to build depth in the division. When Chandler beat Alvarez in an amazing fight, Bellator gained a new star ( at least to their fan base). The same could have happened if Lombard lost.

        With these guys having a drug or behavioral issue, no positive can come out of it.

        The amazing part is you can almost see the writing on the wall for trouble to strike. Reports are Rogers is back with his wife and while maybe all is forgiven and he has learned his lesson, I am not a firm believer that dropping yourself back in the same situation will somehow get different results. Also, Daley had extreme frustration with Koscheck who took him down at will and Daley felt didn’t do anything to hurt him during the fight so he hit him…what will happen if he either makes it through a WW tournament or gets a superfight with Ben Askren?