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Free agents moving to Bellator means a better future for MMA fighters

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We do things for money. Despite what the altruists would have you believe, financial compensation remains one of the strongest motivators for human beings. Couple our hunger for green dyed paper with the risk management skills of most MMA fighters, and you have a clear cut path to either eventual bankruptcy, or a comfortable life of means.

The thing is, though, that most fighters fail to ever crack the shell of niche-stardom that is professional MMA. We can count on one hand the number of athletes to ever walk away from the sport with both their brains and a comfortable nest egg intact. So when opportunities arise for fighters to cash in on their marketable skills, it’s cause for celebration.

Enter the Scott Coker era of Bellator MMA. For a guy who made his name promoting kickboxing events in the Bay Area of California decades ago, Coker has not only succeeded in staying relevant in the crowded bubble that is MMA, but, even more unlikely, managed to make fighters like him.

From the junior-leaguers in Strikeforce that managed to eventually win UFC gold, like Luke Rockhold and Daniel Cormier, to fighters that haven’t worked for him in years, people are drawn to Scott Coker. Aside from the obvious qualities that make him a successful businessman (not wearing torn jeans and band shirts to official press events helps), Coker just seems like a good dude. He doesn’t cuss people out on Twitter, and while he can be tough to get a straight answer out of sometimes (“I’ll have to look into it”), Coker doesn’t engage in any of the behaviors that have made his peer and rival, Dana White, a target for criticism.

More importantly, though, he has access to people who have money. Coker, while surely a wealthy man, has always followed rule number one when it comes to opening up the purse strings: use other people’s money. Many of his initial kickboxing shows were supplemented by Chuck Norris or various other luminaries in the sport. Similarly, Coker made great use of the deals and friendships he’d formed over the years when it came time to launch Strikeforce in San Jose, California.

Now, as the leading man for Viacom-owned Bellator MMA, Coker has access to one of the greatest checking accounts on earth, and he’s wasted no time putting it to use. Whether you want to look at Bellator as “UFC Lite” or not, Coker knows when to open the promotion’s wallet and for who. From Josh Thomson to Phil Davis to, more recently, Benson Henderson and Matt Mitrione, Coker has made some smart plays for free-agent fighters. Of course, the argument can be made that the UFC didn’t want those guys to begin with, but regardless of whether or not that’s true, fans still recognize big names.

And why not capitalize on athletes that have built in fan bases? The UFC spent years building the star of Ben Henderson when he was their lightweight champion. Similarly, though not as successful, Matt Mitrione was promoted to relevancy through the Ultimate Fighter Heavyweight season. People know who these fighters are, and for the long-sought after “casual fan”, it makes sense to pay for athletes who will tune in on a Friday night when they hear Phil Davis is fighting somebody like ‘King’ Mo Lawal.

Ultimately, though, smart business maneuvering aside, this is good for the fighters. They got into this game to support themselves and their families, and given the immense physical risks that accompany a sport like mixed martial arts, they deserve to be compensated handsomely for their efforts.

From recent signees like Ben Henderson, who left the UFC on a winning streak, to burgeoning stars like Rory MacDonald who plan to fight out their existing contracts, Bellator is clearly on to something. And if that something ends up being higher base salaries for fighters across the board, all the better.

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