A few days ago, I planned on writing up a look at the reaction to Sage Northcutt’s first UFC loss, and while it has since been done a couple of times, I still might – it’s well worth examining, after all. However, while I was bouncing the idea around and looking for comparison points, Bellator went and did exactly what they needed to do, and made a splash in the free agent market.

And so now I find myself once again turning my thoughts to the “number two” MMA promotion in the world.

If consistency is a measure of standing than Bellator is a distant second place to the UFC at the moment, but it seems as if, at long last, the promotion is starting to make the right signings. A week ago, I wrote that Bellator needed to go big, or go home. Now, they’ve signed former UFC lightweight champion Benson Henderson, and one of the biggest heavyweight free agents on the market, Sergei Kharitonov.

That’s how you go big.

Neither of these were names I’d suggested a week ago, though that’s only due to the fact that in all honesty, it didn’t seem like the UFC would really let “Bendo” slip away, and Kharitonov seemed happy taking fights in Europe, and had spoken openly of being disinterested in the UFC at the very least.

However, Bellator managed to scoop up both, and make no mistake — there is some serious egg on the face of the UFC at least in the Henderson signing, no matter how Dana White would like to spin it.

Lets take a look at each situation in depth: in Benson Henderson, you have a former lightweight champion very familiar to Fox audiences. He was pretty much a company guy, always saying the right thing, and not afraid to step into the cage on short notice. He went up in weight for his last couple of fights, won them both, and realistically looked like he could be very successful in the welterweight division at just thirty-two years old and still with a couple of good fighting years left (and depending on how things play out, as many as six or seven).

Dana White claims he’s a fighter on the decline barely ranked in the top fifteen. Of course, he’s talking about the welterweight division, not the lightweight division where Benson Henderson held the strap. Potato, Potatoe, right? It’s all in how you spin it, but if you really want to spin it in your favour, you don’t let slip from the other side of your mouth that you also offered the man a contract with massive potential — based on performance, at least.

The bottom line here is that the UFC were bitten by the Gilbert Melendez contract, and once bitten, twice shy. Bellator offered Melendez a whole whack of cash, pay-per-view points, an instant title shot, TV exposure, and the UFC, not to be outdone, went ahead and matched all that — only to have Melendez, frankly, flop as a top star. He’s not a bad fighter, mind you — he’s a really good one — but he’s also 0-2 since that big contract signing, and Giblert shirts aren’t exactly flying off the shelves for Reebok. His Ultimate Fighter appearance was no better than any other in recent memory, and not nearly as entertaining as some, and now he’s out on suspension.

So the UFC let Benson Henderson walk other than risk overpaying (in their eyes) again. In doing so they let Bellator steal away a former UFC champion still capable of being a tough fight for anyone in two weight classes, who can headline a card, and who will draw numbers for Spike TV.

Oops.

It’s a calculated move for all parties involved, as it always is. MMA is a business in the end — and everyone’s in business for themselves. Henderson is looking at secured money, which is what Bellator offered him. The UFC offer, supposedly, was for more money — if he became champ again. That’s a big if in a company where title shots are gifted and taken away on the whims of a charismatic dictator. Henderson was likely also gambling that since he was fighting mostly on free TV anyway, he wouldn’t see much of a difference when it comes to audience numbers over on Spike. He’s probably right, as Bellator has shown it can draw, and sometimes even outdraw, the UFC in the ratings game. That means his sponsors — and outside the UFC, he’ll be allowed to have those — should be happy with the number of eyeballs on their logos.

The UFC is looking at setting a precedent, and getting stuck with another big contract for a fighter who doesn’t sell as many tickets as they’d like, and Bellator is simply doing what’s best for business for them: they have the money, they need stars, and Henderson was the biggest one out there.

In the whole affair, the biggest surprise was that the UFC even let it come to this, but more and more fighters seem to be looking outside the company, and you need look only to Reebok for the reason why. The exclusive deal with the sports apparel company remains as unpopular as ever.

Kharitonov is a slightly different story. Speaking to Russian news outlet MK in August, he cited the UFC’s lack of interest in pushing Russian fighters combined with what he perceived as the company’s inability to keep fighters like him active as reasons he was not interested in signing with the promotion. Kharitonov has kept himself busy between MMA and kickboxing in the years since he left Strikeforce, and managed to build a 5-0 record on the MMA side. With past wins over the likes of UFC vets Pedro Rizzo, Alistair Overeem, Mike Russow, Andrei Arlovski, and current UFC heavyweight champion Fabricio Werdum, he’s a known quantity in a thin heavyweight division, and in Bellator’s heavyweight landscape, almost any name value is valuable.

That’s not to say the UFC wouldn’t be interested either. This is a win as well for Bellator, just not as big as the Henderson victory. Still, Kharitonov was one of the biggest heavyweight’s outside the UFC and Bellator itself, and adds instant credibility to a division that basically has Bobby Lashley, Cheick Kongo, an aging Kimbo Slice, a couple of guys who really shouldn’t be in the cage anymore (Gracie, Shamrock) outside of an oldies fight with each other, and Vitaly Minakov, a champion who hasn’t defended his belt in over a year and a half, despite fighting three times in Europe during that period (Minakov may be back this year, but we’re not holding our breath). And King Mo whenever he feels the urge to go up in weight.

There are a few smaller prospects, but Bellator needs to land some names for the heavyweight division. Kharitonov is one. Alistair Overeem and Matt Mitrione remain at large on the free agent market, and either would be huge for the promotion. Not to mention a certain Russian known as the Last Emperor.

Scott Coker, having dealt with so much talent in Strikeforce, and being regarded as a standup guy in a business that can get a little… lets say oily, at times, has as good a shot as anyone for names like these. Just as he does with Aljamain Sterling, the hot bantamweight fighter who fought out his UFC contract and is also waiting to get paid. Sterling happens to have the same agent as Benson Henderson, so could a similar jump to the competition be in the works?

Benson Henderson may just be a signing of things to come.

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.