If the UFC is ever to engage in meaningful co-promotion, Bellator commentators John McCarthy and Josh Thomson suggest it start small by taking belts off the table.
“You don’t have to do your champions, just certain fighters that I think you could put a team of five fights together with guys that are somewhere in your top-15 – you could put together some really interesting fights … and you have the right to each promotion [saying], ‘Hey, we like this matchup, what do you think?’ And if you agree with it, then do it,” McCarthy said Monday on the Weighing In podcast he co-hosts with Thomson. “It is not going to take away anything from the UFC.”
“I think if he believes he has the best fighters, then eventually he would go out and try and show some dominance,” Thomson added. “I think doing it now for him wouldn’t make any sense. But if Rizin and Bellator and PFL and ONE all decided to join in and it starts to work for them, and they do one of these shows a year and build their fighters again, who knows?”
Collaboration closed 2022 with Bellator MMA vs. Rizin featuring a five-on-five matchup between the promotions. The Paramount-owned promotion won big, running the table against its Japanese counterparts in what amounted to an away-game at Saitama Super Arena in Japan. The event followed several years of cooperation between the promotions as they lent out fighters for particular events. Bellator MMA President Scott Coker and RIZIN Chairman Nobuyuki Sakakibara have worked cooperatively for several decades in the combat sports industry.
In an interview on UFC featherweight star Paddy Pimblett’s podcast, UFC President Dana White downplayed the idea of cross-promotion, saying the best fighters would eventually wind up under UFC contract. But McCarthy pointed out the most famous example of one that got away in former PRIDE champ Fedor Emelianenko.
“Sorry, it’s already been proven that that’s just not true, and there’s a lot of guys out there that …look, this guy’s good, he deserved to be fighting against guys in the UFC,” McCarthy said. “But he decided, I don’t want to put up with some of the things that are there, and decided, ‘I’m not going there. I’ll continue to fight, and I’ll continue to fight where I want to fight and I’ll make my money this way,’ and they have.
“I’m not saying [White is] wrong. But to say that all the good ones are going to end up here anyways, that’s not true. He’s not lying, but he’s not looking back and saying that one, this one [didn’t go to the UFC].”
McCarthy pointed out that White has, in fact, worked with Sakakibara under the now-defunct PRIDE, which the UFC acquired in 2007. In its heyday, the Japanese promotion was considered superior to the UFC in audience and a hub of major MMA talent. White lent out fighters Chuck Liddell and Ricco Rodriguez in 2003 for a middleweight grand prix and superfight with ex-heavyweight champ Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira, respectively, and the cooperation was not reciprocated.
“They said, ‘Oh, we’re going to send over [Kazushi] Sakuraba’ – they never did, so he was like, ‘I got burned. I’m not going to allow someone to burn me again,’” McCarthy said. “And so he looks at it now like, we are the biggest organization. He is absolutely right, and what’s it do for my organization? What does it do for me as the promoter, and he’s saying that, no, it’s only a benefit for the other promotions, and I’m not here to benefit them. So his choice is to say, ‘I’m not going to do it.’ I wish he would.”
Of course, White and co. benefited tremendously by one instance of co-promotion, a boxing match between Floyd Mayweather and Conor McGregor. “The Money Fight” netted hundreds of millions of dollars for all promotional parties, including its co-promoter UFC and new corporate parent Endeavor.
Since then, White has entertained the idea of another collaboration with Mayweather, and with the UFC’s heavyweight champion demanding a boxing match to accompany his next contract, the MMA promotion could be motivated to join forces with another party.
But at the moment, White and the UFC’s priorities are aligned against its MMA competitors.