Gilbert Melendez (Esther Lin/MMA Fighting)Gilbert Melendez and What Could Be a Seismic Shift in the MMA Landscape Trey Downey February 20, 2014 Spotlight There are very few instances where it can be said that a certain negotiation could change the course of an entire sport. Yet, here we are at one of those instances in mixed martial arts. Late last week it was announced that the UFC’s No. 2 lightweight contender, Gilbert Melendez, had agreed to a contract with Bellator.This isn’t the first time the UFC and Bellator have entered into a dispute over a fighter contract, but it is the first time that a high-profile UFC fighter that the promotion still wanted has decided that Bellator might be the better place for him to spend his career. Although this may eliminate the possibility of some intriguing Octagon match-ups featuring Melendez, Melendez’s move to Bellator might end up being a great thing for both the fighters and the sport in general. The significance of it being Melendez who is the defecting fighter has largely been overlooked. That’s a huge deal in all of this. For years, Melendez was in purgatory over in Strikeforce. He was compensated fairly, but he made it no secret that he believed that the top-flight competition was in the UFC and that was where he wanted to be. After what seemed like an eternity of waiting, Melendez finally entered the cage as a member of the UFC roster in April 2013. Now that he has fought twice in the past year under the UFC banner, he has decided the promotion might not be the pinnacle that he once believed it to be. Zuffa has yet to comment on the situation since it was announced that Melendez has agreed to terms with Bellator. The Cesar Gracie fighter was heavily rumored to be fighting Khabib Nurmagomedov this weekend at UFC 170. The UFC even went as far as to print the bout as part of the poster for the event that was handed out at the UFC 168 post-fight press conference. Later in the week, though, the bout was removed from the lineup due to the uncertainty of Melendez’s contract. Now that Melendez has decided to sign with a different organization, we know the full extent of that dispute. This isn’t a done deal yet, however. The UFC still has matching rights for Melendez’s contract. But would it end up being a double standard if the promotion were to try to do the same thing that Bellator did to Eddie Alvarez? UFC President Dana White took Bellator CEO Bjorn Rebney to task on the situation numerous times. If Zuffa lets Melendez go, it could signal a big shift in the promotional landscape. Quite frankly, it wouldn’t hurt the UFC’s stacked lightweight division all that much, but it would raise the profile of Bellator’s lightweight ranks. The Bellator division would be home to a trio of known standouts in Melendez, Alvarez and former champion Michael Chandler, as well as up-and-comers like Will Brooks and Dave Jansen. More importantly, if this move goes well, other fighters might follow the path blazed by Melendez and jump ship. It might be a little premature to compare the two promotions, but it is fair to compare the type of deal that they can offer. Melendez already enjoyed perks with the UFC. He was featured in the main event on network television in his debut fight. He was featured on studio shows leading up to cards on Fox Sports. ESPN had Melendez as its own personal analyst for numerous fights. It will be interesting to see what perks Viacom/Bellator plans to give “El Nino.” Rebney specifically stated that there were plenty of opportunities outside of the cage included in the deal. Fight Master isn’t coming back and as of right now there isn’t any supplementary studio programming. There has to be something in the works. Melendez has done plenty of television work and has shined in that capacity. It’s doubtful he would have signed with Bellator if he would have to give up that aspect of his career. Pay-per-view bonuses are also an obvious perk that could be included in the deal. Bellator will make its pay-per-view debut this year with the final chapter of the Alvarez and Chandler trilog. Melendez certainly has an interest in the outcome of that bout, and he could end up challenging the winner in the headlining attraction of the next Bellator pay-per-view offering. Melendez would instantly step right in with Alvarez, Chandler and Quinton “Rampage” Jackson as Bellator’s biggest draws. The question would be how much Melendez stands to make from being on a Bellator pay-per-view card. No matter how stacked of a card Bellator rolls out, there is no way that it draws anywhere close to the UFC average. So either Bellator or Melendez is taking some sort of financial hit in this deal. The smart money says it’s Bellator taking that hit. The promotion has to be either offering Melendez more money up front or a higher percentage of the buys. This might seem risky, but it would be worth it to sign a fighter the caliber of Melendez. The other question—and the downside of this scenario—is in the competition that Bellator can put in front of Melendez. Tournaments to determine No. 1 contenders are Bellator’s calling card (though the promotion has strayed from that philosophy on several recent occasions). The Alvarez-Chandler saga has created a logjam in the division, where there are two tournament winners already waiting in the wings with guaranteed title shots. Where would Melendez fit in that scenario? Bellator could give him an immediate title shot, but that would virtually signal the end of the tournament format. However, it’s impossible to shake the feeling that Melendez, who would be just a win or two away from receiving another crack at UFC gold, isn’t going to have to go through an entire tournament to earn a shot at the Bellator title. There are plenty of unanswered questions and possible downfalls to Melendez signing with Bellator, but the end result could turn out great for all parties involved. Competition brings out the best in competing parties, no matter the situation. Melendez jumping ship to Bellator could signal the beginning of the MMA wars. More fighters could certainly follow, and they would end up holding more leverage in negotiations with whatever company bids for their services. There are enough high-caliber fighters out there to have two top-flight promotions, and although fans might sour on the notion of being robbed of some dream fights, news dream match-ups would develop. Every professional fighter out there would come away a winner, and fans would ultimately win as well. Melendez might run into some roadblocks as he travels down this road, but trailblazers usually do.