Negotiations are a major part of sports business that occurs behind the scenes. Fans see all the action that goes down on game or fight night; but the talking between executives and lawyers that helped create the show is often overlooked. Bellator MMA's CEO Bjorn Rebney has proven himself to be very keen at such conversations. The recent scenario with current free agent Ben Askren points to such once again.
Ben Askren is the 12-0 free agent who also currently holds Bellator MMA's welterweight title. After defeating Andrey Koreshkov at Bellator 97 in July he made it very apparent that he intends to head towards the UFC. This meant he was willing to sit out the Bellator matching period if needed. Unlike other fighters, Askren had other sports ventures which would have brought in suitable income during his time away from the cage.
However, in recently passed days Rebney has made a very interesting proposition to the Ultimate Fighting Championship that has raised a lot of eyebrows. According to multiple reports, Rebney has agreed to waive Bellator MMA's matching rights to Askren if the UFC signs the former Olympic wrestler and gives him an immediate title shot against welterweight kingpin Georges St. Pierre. A bold move for sure, but one that could potentially pay off for not only Askren, but Bellator and other Bellator fighters as well.
Step back a few months to a year when the UFC and Bellator got into a bidding war over former lightweight champion Eddie Alvarez. While everything has been “patched up” now, that situation led to Alvarez and Bellator facing off in court over the matching rights situation. The UFC offered Eddie a very lucrative deal that included Pay per View points and higher fight sums that Alvarez felt Bellator could not match. Now that Bellator is stepping into the world of PPV they were able to convince their former champion to come back into the fold. Still, the promotion was left with a very black eye in the opinions of both fans of the sport and the fighters coming up with potential to be stars.
This situation could pay off very big for Akren. St. Pierre is set to defend his title against Johny Hendricks next month at UFC 167. If the Canadian can get past Hendricks that would leave him atop a division that is devoid of many challengers. In looking at many top ten rankings the only two names come up who haven't been defeated by the champion or suffered a loss recently within the UFC: Rory MacDonald and Matt Brown. Brown faces off against Carlos Condit in December so his schedule is booked. Dong Hyun Kim is coming off of a major win but wouldn't be considered an immediate challenger without one more victory over a top ten opponent on his ledger. Enter Ben Askren.
One may think that the UFC would balk at this idea but the Hector Lombard example stands out to the contrary. Lombard was signed to a very lucrative deal after ruling Bellator's middleweight division and was almost awarded an immediate shot at Anderson Silva. While the situation didn't play out as such, it shows that the UFC takes pride in being the home to the "best" fighters in the sport and are willing to pay and meet demands for their services if it is best for business.
Ben has the ability to talk up a bout in a way that is reminiscent of one Nick Diaz. Diaz came into the UFC with an opportunity to fight GSP right out the gate mostly because he didn't have any problems calling out the champ in a way that created interest in the fight. Ben can do the same thing and with the UFC's promotional strength still growing this fight could easily be sold to the MMA community.
Michael Chandler and Pat Curran should also be very interested in how this situation plays out. While Chandler has recently signed an extension with Bellator MMA, if he can hold onto his belt during that time then there is no doubt that the call would be for him to move to the UFC. Curran has been a growing name within the promotion as well and can become an even bigger star if he continues winning. If the UFC comes calling for both of these fighters, it would be too shocking for Rebney to take the same stance. A win for a former Bellator fighter over a current UFC champion would speak volumes for the promotion and their legitimacy. A defeat would save Viacom money in a bidding war. Either way, a win for the second largest promotion in the sport.
The business side of mixed martial arts shows its head from time to time as the sport continues to grow. Ben Askren's journey to become the best welterweight in the world is yet another example of an area that fans don't see too often. However, this is a situation to watch that may have an important outcome for both promotions and the fighters involved.