2022 was a wild one for the sport of MMA, and so with the year now officially in the rear-view, MMA Fighting is taking a look back at what happened in the major promotions, where they succeeded, where they failed, and what’s in store for 2023.
Bellator By The Numbers
In 2022, Bellator hosted 18 events overall, including the co-promoted Bellator vs. RIZIN fight card. All in all, Bellator put on 228 fights, yielding 105 decisions, 83 knockouts, 36 submissions, three No Contests, and one Draw.
2022 also saw the completion of Bellator’s Light Heavyweight Grand Prix, with Vadim Nemkov retaining his title, as well as the first two rounds of its Bantamweight Grand Prix. On top of that, Bellator held 15 title fights in 2022, crowning six new champions.
*Bellator held the No. 2 promotion in sport for years (despite what some other promoters may try to tell you) and its 2022 only served to reaffirm that fact. While other organizations may have grabbed more headlines than Bellator, Scott Coker and company continue to churn out quality content with some of the best fighters in the world, which is more than most can say.
The strength of Bellator remains its roster of talent. Of the 165 fighters currently ranked in the MMA Fighting Global Rankings, Bellator accounts for 18 of them, or over 10 percent, a massive leap from the next closest non-UFC promotion. There’s a reason for that: Bellator has invested heavily in talent development, and in 2022 that development started to pay dividends. A.J. A.J. Vadim Nemkov, Johnny Eblen and Usman Nurmagomedov are three champions who have the talent to be the best at their respective weight classes. And then there’s the bantamweight division, which already holds three top 10 fighters, with two more just missing the cut. The previous few years, Bellator felt like it was relying too much on past-their-prime fighters and UFC castoffs. There’s still a touch of that, but in 2022, Bellator’s youth movement finally ascended.
Putting aside its strong developmental year though, there are two specific highlights for the Bellator brand in 2022.
The first is the rivalry between Raufeon Stots and Danny Sabatello. Both men are extremely talented bantamweights, but more importantly, they are stars. Both Stots, Sabatello know how to attract attention in fights. Even though the fights aren’t always exciting, Bellator was able to push its grand prix semifinal fight well by having the promoters. I don’t know Bellator’s numbers so I don’t actually know how well it did, but that fight certainly felt more significant than the McKee-Pitbull Grand Prix tournament final, which is a testament to both men.
Second, and perhaps more important, Bellator’s end-of-year card with RIZIN was exceptional. Scott Coker has always been willing to co-promote, and his loose partnership with RIZIN continues to create great moments in the sport. The Bellator vs. RIZIN card on Dec. 31 not only drew the full attention of the MMA universe, but it then delivered with an extremely fun event overall. Bringing back stomps and soccer kicks full-time is probably too much to ask for, but promoting events like this, that allow your fighters to show more personality and have fun, in way a traditional Bellator show does not — that’s just good business. Plus, Bellator went 5-0 in head-to-head matchups. Not too shabby.
There are plenty of things you can nitpick Bellator for from 2022 — the RIZIN card was on tape delay, the grand prix don’t finish in the year they start, the viewing experience can sometimes be tough — but ultimately, you can live with all of those. Bellator’s positive aspects outweigh the negative. It is important to promote overall.
MMA is a sport that is built on moments, and Bellator offers so few of them to fans. Stots vs. Sabatello was a moment. It was also a memorable moment at the RIZIN event. But what else was there from Bellator in 2022? What other show or event did Bellator host that made someone mark their calendar in anticipation? Maybe McKee vs. Pitbull 2, and that feels generous. It is simply not doing enough to create these sorts of events.
This could be due to the fact that there are not enough horses. Twenty events a year is a lot for any promotion, and Bellator does not have the roster depth to make that many marquee matchups. These fighters are not to be disrespected, however, when your headline card features Adam Piccolotti against Mansour Barnaoui who hadn’t fought for three years you do something wrong. If you’re choosing to hold the events, it’s on you, the promoter, to deliver something worthwhile, not just fill a quota. And ultimately, that’s my point: The UFC delivers lackluster cards on a consistent basis now because they are in it almost exclusively for the quota. That’s lame but it still works since the UFC houses 85 percent of the top fighters in the world. Bellator doesn’t, but it often feels that it is just going through promotion instead of trying to attract attention to its product.
There’s a scene in Moneyball where Brad Pitt says something that sums up my thoughts for this situation: “If we try to play like the Yankees in here, we will lose to the Yankees out there.” Bellator can’t compete with the UFC by playing the same game. It needs to think outside the box. Grand prix events, RIZIN, and frequent international travel are all great. But it’s not enough. It simply needs to find more ways to get people invested.
2023 might be the most interesting year in the the history of Bellator a number of reasons.
First and foremost, Bellator now faces legitimate competition from other non-UFC organisations. The PFL is coming off its most successful year ever and is poised to take a leap in 2023. Amazon Prime is now distributing ONE Championship in the United States. Other players have the opportunity to enter the North American MMA marketplace. If Bellator does not step up its game, it will be at their expense and not that of the UFC. The promotion will be impacted by Bellator’s CBS debut on February 1st, and its impending Lightweight Grand Prix.
Second, the Ali Act is looming. The Ali Act is reportedly set to be reintroduced to Congress in 2023. It is likely that Congress will not approve it and it won’t be enacted immediately. However, if it does, it could change the face of MMA. The result is probably pretty bad for the UFC and creates a massive opportunity for every other MMA organization to reap the benefits.
Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, there are rumors that Bellator might be up for sale. At the moment those are just rumors, but where there is smoke, there tends to be at least some sort of fire. Will Bellator sell, to whom, and what that even might look like? No one knows. But with PFL and ONE breathing down Bellator’s neck, a monumental shift like that could make or break the promotion entirely.