When Scott Coker signed on to take over Bellator last month, a part of me was thrilled. As hard as Bjorn Rebney was hoping his tournament format would create stars for his one-time budding promotion, the results have been lackluster at best and the promotion is in dire need of some fresh ideas. The Bellator roster has plenty of talent, and there’s little doubt that guys like Eddie Alvarez and Pat Curran would be right at home in the UFC, but Bellator is still decidedly B-level MMA in the minds of many fight fans. The promotion’s tendency to spotlight former UFC stars as of late has only made the gap between Bellator and its primary competition feel that much wider. With Coker aiming to make “every event feel BIG and special” and dramatically cutting back on tournaments, there was hope that the gap would be able to close a bit over the next year or so. After just a handful of fight announcements, though, we’re not exactly off to a great start.

With the UFC coming to town on the same night as the Bellator card that will kick off the Coker era, it’s clear that the Bellator brass felt the need to give the show some firepower. The UFC came out strong with a lineup including multiple former Strikeforce champions combined with New England favorites like Joe Lauzon. Bellator was going to have to deliver a quality card if it didn’t want to get blown out of the water in ticket sales. After previously announcing a featherweight title headliner between the aforementioned Curran and challenger Patricio Freire, Bellator added well-known fighters Muhammed “King Mo” Lawal and Cheick Kongo to the fight night in Connecticut and pitted them against a couple of former UFC veterans. It’s a smart play by Bellator, and another popular fighter or two on the card could help the promotion hold off the ever-improving UFC lineup. However, it’s Bellator’s decision to add pro-wrestling superstar Bobby Lashley to the card that makes it seem like Bellator’s nearly impossible attempt to gain some ground on the UFC is going nowhere.

To be clear, Lashley isn’t a terrible heavyweight. He’s amassed a 10-2 record over the last five years, and although the regional MMA heavyweight scene features more than enough pushovers to pad a record, Lashley has still earned double-digit wins and has looked good doing so. Still, it’s been pretty clear that the vast majority of promotions have opted to protect Lashley instead of giving him an actual test. When given a slight step up in competition, he’s struggled against even modestly well-known fighters like James Thompson and Chad Griggs.

Luckily for Lashley, he probably won’t be in for too much difficulty when he steps into the cage next. Instead of taking a chance and seeing exactly what Lashley could do against a credible heavyweight, Bellator decided to throw “The Dominator” into the cage against Josh Burns, an 8-7 heavyweight who’s gone winless in four Bellator appearances. It’s the same type of gimme fight that Lashley has been fed the majority of his MMA career, and it’s doing neither Lashley nor Bellator any favors.

At 38 years old, Lashley needs to either be on the fast track to a Bellator title shot or he just needs to get out of the way. Continuing to beat down outmatched opposition while taking a main-card spot from a hungry fighter is inexcusable.

To be completely fair, all of the blame for this decision can’t be placed on Coker and Bellator. The company is still owned by Viacom, and as long as TNA Impact Wrestling is airing on Spike TV, Viacom is going to look to use Bellator and Impact to help promote each other in any way possible. When Lashley showed up on Impact not too long ago, it seemed like his Bellator debut was inevitable, and fight fans could only hope they wouldn’t be insulted by the matchmaking. Instead, Viacom and Bellator decided on protecting their star instead of giving the fans a meaningful fight. Now, Lashley will get to channel his pro-wrestling career in a glorified squash match.

The sad thing is that, no matter what happens, Lashley’s MMA career is likely going to take a beating. His fight with Burns is doing nothing more than giving the media and fans an opportunity to ridicule Lashley’s less-than-stellar resume on Twitter, and even a dominant win is likely going to be met with sarcasm and lackluster enthusiasm. On the other end of the spectrum, a loss may as well signal the end of any title aspirations Lashley may still be holding onto at this point. To top it off, Lashley is currently the TNA champion and a loss on the same channel as Impact can only hurt his reputation as an alpha male in the pro-wrestling world. In the sports entertainment world, appearances often mean everything. For TNA to have its champion legitimately get his butt kicked on cable television (by a guy with a record barely hovering above .500, no less) would definitely be a tough pill to swallow.

If Bellator eventually wants to be at the UFC’s level, the promotion might as well start learning from what its competition did right. Brock Lesnar had been in just one professional MMA fight in his life when he made his UFC debut, but instead of slowly feeding Lesnar wins, UFC President Dana White and company immediately threw the former WWE champion to the wolves and gave him former UFC champ Frank Mir in his first appearance. Lesnar may have ended up losing that fight, but he put on an admirable performance against a fighter with 10 times the amount of experience. Lesnar was on the fast track to MMA superstardom by the time the fight was over.

I’m not saying that Lashley is Lesnar or that he can generate even half the amount of interest as Lesnar did during his MMA career, but wouldn’t have Bellator been better off taking a shot at throwing Lashley a semi-credible opponent and hoping for the best? Bellator doesn’t exactly have a star-studded heavyweight roster, but even giving Lashley a rematch with Thompson, whose recent Bellator appearance provided some highlight moments before, during and after his fight, would have made far more sense than booking Lashley in a throwaway fight with an unknown opponent.

Throwing meaningless fights in the spotlight has been a problem for Bellator for a while now, and it appears that problem may not change during the Coker era. This month’s Bellator 122 main card features a welterweight bout between Karo Parisyan and Phil Baroni, which would be fine in 2005 but is almost laughable in 2014. The fact that the two former UFC stars hold the main-card spot over one of the semifinal fights for the current 205-pound tournament Bellator is holding only adds to the ridiculousness of the situation. Bellator is constantly trying to prove it can be the next face of MMA, but its insistence on using UFC washouts in order to draw interest for its events is only hurting Bellator’s reputation among fight fans. The situation with Lashley is no different, only this time the promotion is using the WWE/TNA’s leftovers in order to try to jump a spot or two in the ratings.

The solution to trying to make Bellator into a legitimate threat to the UFC is incredibly obvious, yet incredibly difficult for Coker and company to accomplish. The fact is, Bellator needs to start finding promising young prospects and giving them the TV time, rather than filling the airwaves with yesterday’s talent and a few sideshow athletes. This needs to be done sooner rather than later, too. It’s going to take new stars for Bellator to end up even in direct competition with the UFC, and those stars aren’t going to have a chance at being made if Coker and company don’t make a concerted effort to get those potential stars some exposure. If we’re being honest, banking on former UFC veterans hasn’t worked all that well anyway.

Bellator needs to try something new in order to stay even remotely relevant over the next few years. If it doesn’t, then that B-level status is going to end up being permanent, and there won’t be a fight fan alive looking to dispute it.

About The Author

Vince Carey
Staff Writer

Vince Carey has been writing about the sport of mixed martial arts since 2010. Although he is just 21 years old, the Omaha-based writer is looking to provide readers with interesting content on all things related to MMA.