For those of us that devour MMA news with a bottomless hunger, the Eddie Alvarez’s Bellator contract dispute of recent weeks is a tasty morsel that leads to bigger questions. In particular, it raises the question of whether it is better for a smaller promotion to let the talent it has helped to build move on to greener pastures—namely the UFC—or, in the case of Alvarez, who is ready to move on, to battle to retain the athlete, even if the company could not offer equal compensation and takes a hit to its public image in the process.

Alvarez has been Bellator’s biggest star, one that has been there since the promotion produced its first event for television in 2009 on the ESPN Deportes network. Now, after winning nine of 10 fights in the promotion and establishing himself as one of the best lightweights in the world outside of the UFC, his current contract has expired, and he and his team are ready to move on to the UFC’s Octagon.

As we say in the south, he “got too big for his britches.” But Bellator isn’t ready to let go.

The current legal wrangling between the two sides all boils down to how a court interprets whether or not Bellator offered an equal contract under Alvarez’s free agency “matching clause” as the one the UFC has offered. Obviously, there are key differences that put the UFC ahead of its competition, such as the ever-profitable pay-per-view revenue and a broadcast network television outlet. But Bellator is choosing to fight this one out and argues that it has offered an equal deal to Alvarez, even when the promotion cannot seemingly do any such thing.

We saw a similar scenario with fighter Tyson Nam being rendered unable to accept other offers outside of Bellator, even though the promotion didn’t use him for an extended period of time. In Nam’s case, Bellator did not produce a star, but blocked other promotions from snagging Nam after he defeated reigning Bellator bantamweight champion Eduardo Dantas outside of the promotion.

Fighters like Nam and Alvarez have made it clear that they aren’t interested in fighting for Bellator. However, Bellator has chosen to sit on their contracts in hopes of fitting them into future plans and preventing other organizations from profiting off of the fighter’s names. It is not an approach that leaves Bellator with a good public image, regardless of the nature of the contracts signed between the two parties. In the court of public opinion, Bellator is the jealous lover not willing to let go and is simply stifling the fighters from moving forward.

That has not always been the case for Bellator talent. Middleweight Hector Lombard was another of Bellator’s well-known champions that was widely considered to be among the world’s best fighters, and Bellator happily obliged his departure.

In Bellator CEO Bjorn Rebney’s words (via MMA Fighting): “We have a business model where we make decisions based on analyzing data. Since the first day we came into being, we made decisions based on real models, not hypotheticals. The UFC model is largely based on pay-per-view, and the offer they made to Hector is going to be monetized via pay-per-view. While pay-per-view could play a role in our future, today it doesn’t. So, we did our due diligence to review the UFC contract, analyzed it in terms of charging our audience to see Hector vs. putting him on free TV, and we decided to allow the UFC to sign Hector, where I am extremely confident he will win the UFC middleweight title on pay-per-view.”

In that last sentence, Rebney seems to grasp the best course of action for a promotion such as Bellator. Fight to keep Lombard, and there’s no way to give him what the UFC is offering. It’s a futile battle. Let him go and hope he wins the UFC title, and then Bellator can benefit from the fact that it spawned a UFC champion.

With Alvarez, Bellator is singing a different tune, and suddenly those “hypotheticals” are something that have become important to keeping fighters in the promotion’s stables. Both sides are headed to court this Friday to dispute if Alvarez is in breach of his Bellator contract by declining to re-sign. Bellator argues that it simply copied the UFC’s offer and extended Alvarez the same exact contract, which is puzzling because Bellator does not offer pay-per-view broadcasts and arguing that it could match the UFC’s options for PPV revenue is dubious.

In fairness, Bellator helped to build the careers of its championship fighters, including Alvarez and Lombard, and the promotion deserves credit. But it is not equipped to effectively keep and use that top talent. Instead, it should strive to see those individual talents go on to the UFC and find the highest levels of success there. A UFC title around the waist of Alvarez (or Lombard) benefits Bellator’s reputation in ways far exceeding what it can squeeze out of having Alvarez continue to compete.

When Alvarez lost his title to Michael Chandler at Bellator 58, his options within the promotion became less than desirable. He could join the next lightweight tournament with mostly unknown fighters or take main-card fights, like he did, to finish out his contract. Alvarez earned a co-main-event win over Shinya Aoki at Bellator 66 and a main-event win over Patricky Freire at Bellator 76, which completed his contract and has led to the current crossroads between him and his former employer.

It’s doubtful that there are many fans asking the top-10-ranked Alvarez to participate in another tournament or fight against lesser competition. That is what makes the move to the UFC all the more appealing. There, Alvarez can test himself against the world’s best instead of being a big fish in Bellator’s small pond.

That’s not a knock on Bellator in any way. The promotion has helped to produce more than a few of the world’s best fighters, but eventually the promotion is going to hit a ceiling with its tournament format and the ability to offer intriguing and competitive matches. Fans know that they can tune in to Bellator to watch a few of the world’s best fighters and the best MMA tournaments in North America, which is a great alternative to the perceived monopoly of the UFC. Yet, in business, our sentiments are not what matters. The people with the biggest bankroll are the ones that decide what does. That is a fight that the UFC is guaranteed to win almost every single time.

We’ve now seen with UFC’s courting of Lombard and Alvarez that Bellator is in the business of developing some of the world’s top fighters. Yet, Bellator isn’t a promotion that is watched to see the best fighters face one another. That is what the UFC does best.

It just doesn’t fit Bellator’s model to keep guys like Alvarez around if they aren’t the champion. Fans won’t stop watching because of his departure, because they understand that Bellator can produce more of its own highly-regarded talent to take Alvarez’s place. If anything, fans would want to tune into Bellator to see the next big thing, especially if Bellator veterans go on to win UFC championships. That serves to prove the promotion’s credibility as a competitive MMA organization in the shadow of the UFC, whereas fighting things out with Nam and Alvarez have proven to cast the promotion in a bad light.

If the fans are savvy enough to know what they want to see and can enjoy and distinguish the difference between the two promotions, then Bellator needs to realize that some of its fighters are just a better fit elsewhere.

Photo: Eddie Alvarez (L) battles Patricky Freire (Dave Mandel/Sherdog)

About The Author

David Massey
Staff Writer

David Massey studied Humanities and Art History at the University of Central Oklahoma. He first found interest in MMA from the first TUF show and has been hooked ever since. He began posting on mmajunkie then submitting Sunday Junkie entries and that began his interest in writing about MMA. Through twitter David found other MMA enthusiasts and began contributing articles to marqueemma.com. He looks forward to growing as a writer and being a part of the sport he loves.

  • Robby C.

    Nice read. One problem is that Bellator really doesn’t have anyone else for Chandler to fight right now. But I think it’s even more complicated than that. Jungle Fights is an example of where being a feeder league hasn’t really panned out. They’re still trying to recover from losing all their champs. I’m not saying Rebney’s doing the right thing, it’s a tough call.