When Bellator cut their women’s MMA divisions in 2013 under the Bjorn Rebney regime, fans and pundits alike were confused. Why cut the women when WMMA was one of the fastest growing areas of the sport? Rebney’s answer was that they couldn’t provide the ladies enough fights to keep them busy, and were going to focus on building the men’s side from the bantamweights on up. Okay. Gotcha. A promotion that holds weekly events in a seasonal format, airing on Spike TV (where content is always required) couldn’t find a spot on the card for a few women’s MMA bouts?

It simply wasn’t an answer that made sense.

That was August 2013, and Bellator released Jessica Eye and Jessica Aguilar, to name a few. Eye moved on to the UFC, which at the time had only the women’s bantamweight division, anchored by mainstream crossover star Ronda Rousey. Aguilar, meanwhile, became a big signing for the World Series of Fighting. Over the years, Megumi Fumi, Felice Herrig, Jessica Penne, and Carla Esparza also fought for Bellator. In short, they had a who’s who of women’s MMA at a time when the women’s side was just breaking out — and they dropped the ball. Badly.

Fast-forward to just under a year later, and there’s a little house cleaning at Bellator. Gone is Rebney, in as CEO is former Strikeforce head honcho Scott Coker. You know the tune by now, so we won’t sing it again. The point is with Coker came changes. One of the best to date: aiming high, literally, and bringing in a women’s featherweight division. After allowing some top names to defect to the UFC, finally the ladies were back in Bellator.

It’s not perfect: Bellator saw more female talent get away in 2013, arguably, than it took in this year. That said, the best lighter fighters are mostly taken, at this point, by the UFC and Invicta (plus Aguilar, who will fight anyone the WSOF can bring in to face her). Bantamweight is basically locked down, and when the UFC announced they would launch a strawweight division, and crown a champion on The Ultimate Fighter, their flagship reality show desperate for a boost in popularity and relevancy, most of the top talent in that weight class (including the bulk of Invicta’s strawweight division) wound up under the Zuffa/UFC banner.

So Bellator and Coker, as mentioned, aimed high – and went to 145lbs. The argument for a while has been that the ranks there were too thin for it to be worth it for the UFC. Plenty of featherweights drop to bantamweight, or so the theory goes. Cyborg Justino was almost the lone big-name holdout, the other former champion Marloes Coenen. With Justino seeing red over Ronda Rousey, however, it was clear she would eventually drop to bantamweight to meet her rival – leaving very little, at first glance, left at featherweight.

The UFC’s loss, however, is Bellator’s gain. In a surprise announcement in August, Bellator MMA stated that they had signed both Marloes Coenen and Julia Budd, another top ten featherweight according to the Unified Women’s Mixed Martial Arts Rankings. They would go on to sign two more top ten featherweights in Annalisa Bucci and the undefeated Talita Nogueira. That’s four of the top ten women’s featherweights, not a bad start. When you consider that Cyborg is officially dropping to bantamweight, that also makes Coenen first in the division.

This Friday night at Bellator 130, Coenen will take on Annalisa Bucci in Bellator’s first women’s featherweight bout. It’s a main card fight with one of the biggest female fighters (we’re talking name value) outside of the UFC. At some point, the promotion will be looking to crown a featherweight champion, hopefully not too far into 2015. There are still a couple of solid featherweight fighters out there outside the big leagues, including Pannie Kianzad over in Cage Warriors — with luck, Bellator can lock up a couple of them.

Bellator really has nothing to lose, after all, and women’s MMA has everything to gain — and the fans as well.

About The Author

Senior Staff Writer

Covering the sport of MMA from Ontario, Canada, Jay Anderson has been writing for various publications covering sports, technology, and pop culture since 2001. Jay holds an Honours Bachelor of Arts degree in English from the University of Guelph, and a Certificate in Leadership Skills from Humber College under the Ontario Management Development Program. When not slaving at the keyboard, he can be found in the company of his dog, a good book, or getting lost in the woods.