MMA's Quiet Giant Makes a Monster Move
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because it’s the quiet ones you have to watch out for.
By Eugene S. Robinson
If the stories are to be believed, R&B singer and “Mr. Personality” Lloyd Price once told boxing promoter Don King that fighters come and go, but the promoter? Well, the promoter could and would be around forever. And, despite former heavyweight champion Mike Tyson calling him “a wretched, slimy, reptilian motherfucker,” Don King has been. Bigger, louder and now in the spotlight longer than almost all of his fighters, King has set down a template followed by lots of promoters — but is bigger necessarily better?
One look at the resurgent son of Silicon Valley, the president of Bellator MMA, Scott Coker, seems to suggest not necessarily.
Starting with how hard it is to get ahold of him. But after half a dozen emails and calls, he finally contacted us and apologized for having been difficult to reach. “We’re on a 24-hour schedule here,” says Coker, 54, from his San Jose redoubt, sounds of chaos aplenty on the phone line behind him. “And we’re international.” We don’t know if he shrugs when he says it, but it sounds like it. And like any other hard-charging CEO, there’s an understanding that if you don’t know that this is the cost of doing business? Well, you should just stay at home. Which is where he was back in June 2014 when the phone rang.
You see, Coker, the son of a Korean mother and an American father, born in Seoul and raised in San Jose, was relatively underemployed back then. Having sold the Strikeforce mixed martial arts organization to the 800-pound gorillas over at the preeminent fight org, the Ultimate Fight Championship (UFC), he was waiting out a noncompete clause and chilling. For Coker, a lifelong tae kwon do guy, that meant getting another degree on his black belt.
Bellator has fighters enter on raised platforms with jumbo screens and fireworks and goddamn production values.
But when Viacom calls, you go where Viacom has called you to. In this instance, to the MTV offices. Bjorn Rebney, Bellator’s founder and CEO, had been summarily dismissed days before (or after, depending on whom you’re talking to) and did Coker want the gig?
“I started out promoting fights back in 1985,” Coker says, “and Viacom, which was running Bellator, was as legit of an option as you could find.”
Which is probably what they thought when they found Coker. Thirty-two years in the fight game, owner of the first MMA show in California, deals with fight orgs like Pro Elite and time spent with the UFC after they bought Strikeforce added up to this: If anyone had a sense of what to do and what not to do, it had to be Coker.
“I think Coker has always been one to mix the fights and the spectacle,” says Mark Mazon, founder and owner of fight equipment outfitter GFY. “And he’s done a great job of it.” This is the most significant difference between Coker’s Bellator and the UFC: Bellator has kept the bells and whistles. Whereas the UFC uses a boxing approach, with fighters entering the eight-sided fight cage, aka the Octagon, on the floor level, Coker’s TV-savvy Bellator has fighters enter on raised platforms with jumbo screens and fireworks and goddamn production values.
“Our shows today stick to that K1 or Pride production models,” Coker says, referring to the Japanese fight promotion companies that firmly believed in putting the entertainment into sports entertainment. “Big screens, big sounds all add up to the biggest and best shows.” That’s amazingly P.T. Barnum for a guy whose public profile is so sub rosa.
A statement that is quick to generate critical comment from the famously fractious fight community. Eddie Goldman, host of the No Holds Barred podcast and veteran fight analyst whom many call the “conscience of combat sports,” says he stopped covering mainstream MMA because he deemed it “coarse.”
“What it’s turned into has nothing to do with warrior values like honor,” Goldman adds. Or, to put a finer point on it, sports commentator Zane Simon says, “I feel like Coker has a very set method for the fights he wants to put on. He has his attractions, guys like Gracie, Shamrock, Tito. He has his talent: the Pitbull Brothers, Michael Chandler, Rory MacDonald, Phil Davis. And then the chaff, the guys used to make the talent look good while the attractions headline. And in Coker promotions, it feels like the chaff rarely rises.”
And yet? Coker’s fighters have appeared on Goldman’s shows, and with minor exceptions — Quinton “Rampage” Jackson, specifically bouncing between Bellator and the UFC — they love being at Bellator, if multiple press reports are to be believed. For reasons Coker is pretty vocal about.
“The Reebok deal is not healthy.” Coker’s referring to the exclusive sponsorship deal the UFC signed with Reebok that greased the skids to its $4.2 billion sale to William Morris. But it also made it hard for fighters to sign side deals, costing lots of them considerable cash. “Telling [the fighters] what to wear, what they can put on? No. We’re happy for our fighters to make money by fighting here.”
So while the high-profile defections from the UFC continue — most recently the top-ranked fighter Gegard Mousasi, who left for a significantly better deal at Bellator — something else has happened too. Bellator fights are pulling 16 percent better viewership numbers each of the past three years while, according to Coker, the UFC’s Fox Sports 1 deal is down 13 percent this year.
“Look, we’ve got a great free agent roster, we’re selling out of 80 percent of the places we’re doing fights,” Coker says. “But you know, the reality is if there are not at least two buyers, it’s not a healthy industry. So we’re glad to be making the industry healthier.”
Then, laughing: “Our 2018, with all our international shows? Will kill too.” In the quietest way possible, no doubt.