Can you name the current Bellator heavyweight champion without looking it up? What about any of the fighters from the recently completed Bellator heavyweight tournament that aren’t named Brett Rogers? Unless you pay unusually close attention to MMA’s second-best promotion, you probably can’t. That’s okay, though, because neither can probably 95 percent of MMA fans.

So if the company had the opportunity to scoop up a big-name, big-talent big man to challenge Alexander Volkov for his belt, or at least up the publicity for its next heavyweight tournament, wouldn’t it make sense for Bjorn Rebney to take advantage of the opportunity? Not according to the Bellator CEO.

Earlier this month, when asked about the prospect of signing some potential Zuffa fighters who are or will soon become free agents, Rebney specifically noted that former UFC heavyweight champion and recent Strikeforce veteran Josh Barnett was probably not among the fighters Bellator would hypothetically pursue.

The reason has nothing to do with Barnett’s skills in the cage, but rather with the amount of money “The Warmaster” would likely demand for his services. In his last fight, a quick submission victory over Nandor Guelmino, Barnett earned $260,000. That’s a hefty sum compared to the majority of professional MMA fighters, but it’s especially staggering considering the Strikeforce event on which Barnett fought only took in $132,905 at the gate. Given that Barnett would not likely accept a pay cut, and that Bellator’s live gates typically hover somewhere around that of the final Strikeforce event, it just doesn’t seem to make good business sense to sign him up.

Rebney’s instincts are likely correct here, as Bellator’s role in MMA is more to provide a high-quality opportunity to up-and-coming fighters, rather than to shine its spotlight on the MMA superstars of today. Perhaps if Bellator was running pay-per-views this year and could count on a little extra income from that revenue stream to assist with Barnett’s earnings, and Barnett was willing to co-promote with a stint in TNA Wrestling (possibly as part of a tag team with fellow MMA fighter/pro wrestler Muhammed “King Mo” Lawal), then it might make it worth Bellator’s while. Even that might be too little, too late, however, as TNA is, for lack of a better comparison, the Bellator of pro wrestling. It is far, far behind the WWE, despite being in second place in its industry, so the bump Bellator would get from Barnett’s appearance there would not likely be significant.

Given Rebney’s reluctance to sign a guy like Barnett—who, despite his price tag, would immediately become the best heavyweight in the promotion—it’s a bit curious that the Bellator CEO did express interest in Quinton “Rampage” Jackson. The former UFC light heavyweight champion has been a high earner since arriving in the UFC in 2007, earning a reported $200,000 in his last fight, and that was after he was docked $50,000 for missing weight. Had Rampage actually won that fight, he would have doubled his money, which puts him well beyond the practical reach of Bellator.

Rebney, in his discussion of Jackson, contemplated whether the 34-year-old fighter was still capable of competing in Bellator’s rigorous tournament format, should he sign with the promotion following his current contract’s expiration on Saturday. Assuming he is, though, he would almost certainly demand the sort of money that is well beyond that Bellator pays the majority of its fighters, and Rebney seems at least willing to consider it.

This is because Jackson is one of those fighters who transcends the sport. He, like Randy Couture, has broken into Hollywood and increased his fame through projects outside the cage. There are few fighters in MMA who are as well known as Rampage, and it’s for that reason that Bellator would apparently be willing to spend the money to sign him. His mere presence in an event will increase its viewership by several thousand, and unlike Barnett, Jackson would be a draw for casual fans as well as the more dedicated. Given his enormous fame compared to most people in the sport, the investment in Bellator would likely pay off, at least in the short run.

Bellator’s seemingly contradictory approaches toward Josh Barnett and Rampage Jackson make sense when one considers Jackson’s unique position among fighters, so it will be interesting to see if Rebney actually decides to pursue him in 2013. On the other hand, the discussion of Barnett in Bellator is probably moot, since he is likely to sign with the UFC in the near future. Still, it’s interesting to see how a non-Zuffa entity judges its possible signings, and that apparently most of the company’s big earners might need to look elsewhere to get paid if they ever leave the UFC.

Photo: Josh Barnett (Jerry Chavez/The MMA Corner)

About The Author

Eric Reinert
Staff Writer

Eric Reinert has been writing about mixed martial arts since 2010. Outside the world of caged combat, Eric has spent time as a news reporter, speechwriter, campaign strategist, tech support manager, landscaper and janitor. He lives in Madison, Wis.