In 2021, Anthony Johnson vs. Yoel Romero would be an easy UFC on ESPN main event. Or the type of pay-per-view co-main event that lures in fans who are on the fence about buying.
“Rumble,” owner of some of the most devastating knockouts in UFC history, returning after a nearly four-year retirement, still the winner of 12 of his past 14 fights. Romero, admittedly on his career back nine, looking to prove he’s relevant coming off a lackluster loss to Israel Adesanya for the UFC middleweight title.
This is a no-brainer of a fight. It will very likely be made. But it will happen in Bellator. And that’s in part due to decisions made by the UFC, which is opening the door for a more interesting MMA landscape outside of the sport’s leading promotion heading into 2021 than we’ve had in quite some time.
Earlier this week, UFC president Dana White put out a video congratulating himself for doing his job during the coronavirus pandemic. You know who else adapted to the circumstances and got back on with their lives under trying conditions? Literally every other person, family, and company on earth who had their routines disrupted. And they did it without declaring war on imaginary enemies, or without taking a victory lap as if they were the only person alive who figured a path forward.
Mentioned almost as an aside in the video was a technically true but misleading claim – the bit about no one from the UFC losing their jobs.
Technically, this is accurate. But this ignores that the UFC’s parent company, Endeavor, went through massive cutbacks earlier this year and is reportedly eyeing another round. That’s important context when you remember the UFC is releasing, in White’s own words, 60-80 fighters. The fighters legally speaking are independent contractors, which enables the UFC to make a “no layoffs” semantic dodge.
That brings us back to Johnson and Romero, two of the biggest names to recently part ways with the UFC. Romero made a disclosed $350,000 for his loss to Adesanya at UFC 248. “Rumble” made $500,000 for his last fight, a loss to Daniel Cormier at UFC 210.
Releasing those two fighters alone, let alone 60-80, pays for dozens of fights involving fighters signed fresh off Dana White’s Contender Series. In cobbling often-slipshod cards this year in a mad scramble to fill its ESPN contract, Endeavor’s bean counters appeared to come to the conclusion they can simply replace the likes of “Rumble” and Romero with any random fighter and the fans will still tune in. And they may be right.
But this is also the point where the UFC cuts so much that Bellator is able to make real inroads. Johnson vs. Romero is a gift-wrapped outstanding fight, and it could come as part of a light heavyweight tournament that would also feature the likes of champion Vadim Nemkov, Ryan Bader, Phil Davis, Lyoto Machida, Gegard Mousasi, and Corey Anderson. That’s a world-class list of MMA talent.
Make no mistake, this isn’t a reprise of Bellator putting Tito Ortiz and Stephan Bonnar together in a Hail Mary attempt to garner attention that actually connected. Nor is it the days of putting together fights like Royce Gracie vs. Ken Shamrock or Kimbo Slice vs. Dada 5000.
This was the year in which it became apparent Bellator’s investment in blue-chip prospects is beginning to pay dividends. Most notable is featherweight A.J. McKee, who is likely to meet Patricio Freire in the finals of the grand prix – barring a “Pitbull” upset loss to Emmanuel Sanchez in the semifinals – in what will be one of the sport’s most anticipated bouts. Or Aaron Pico, who got back on track in 2020 after nearly crumbling under the early hype.
Consider, also, smart signings of Eastern European standouts such as Magomed Magomedov, who’s already proven himself capable of beating current UFC bantamweight champ Petr Yan.
What you have here is the makings of a Bellator roster that’s better than anything we’ve seen outside the UFC since Strikeforce’s heyday. The only thing missing for many of these competitors, both the up-and-comers and the Euro imports, are the type of name-brand victories that casual fans will recognize.
That’s where the UFC’s ongoing cuts get all the more interesting. As the releases start to trickle across weight classes, opportunities to snag exactly the right opponents to help Bellator’s youngsters “get over” — to steal a pro wrestling term — are almost certain to keep popping up, and right at the moment the sport’s best crop of prospects in any major promotion in quite some time is starting to come of age.
This is not to imply the UFC is in any danger of losing their No. 1 spot now, next year, or at any point during our lifetimes. But sometime in 2020, the promotion made the decision it’s going to let fighters go despite their fan followings and not being finished, and fill their slots with cheap, unproven replacements. And that, in turn, appears primed to make major league MMA outside of the biggest group a more interesting place than it’s been in quite some time.