Scott Coker is in an expansive mood, like the fight league Bellator that he oversees. Never resting, always adding, forever pioneering. Here’s the Coker mantra, as he discusses cross-brand promoting in MMA, the biggest Bellator stars coming from Europe right now (in which he names Irishman James Gallagher) and celebrates the rise of broadcasting here in the UK – ‘I want astronomical numbers’ – as the sport seeps with more acceptance and more fans into the landscape. Fighters first, though.
“It’s always about the fighters. That’s what it is. If you don’t have the fighters, you don’t have anything. You need a brand, but if you don’t have any fighters, what are you going to sell?” says the president of Bellator MMA, alighting on London this week with a hard-hitting, “stacked” 19-fight card, number 223 in the fight league’s history, replete with some of the biggest names.
Names such as the brilliant Gegard Mousasi, the man facing him in a middle world title challenge in Rafael Lovato, striker Paul Daley, Dutch menace Melvin Manhoef, and rising Irish star Gallagher in a running order of cleverly matched fights.
Coker is fresh from a major night in New York last Friday night, where Bellator stamped authority for the second time at The Garden, arguably creating one of the best events it has ever produced.
The brand is clearly growing, well placed in the market and serviced in the USA by Paramount and DAZN and in the UK with Sky Sports and Channel 5. In Coker’s view, it could not be better. Four years ago Coker was placed in charge of the branded fight league, after it was bought my media giants VIACOM. A roster which has grown four-fold, two tournaments at heavyweight and welterweight and a huge deal with DAZN worth over 100 million US dollars over three years have elevated the brand to new levels, and given it a war chest for signing heavily to the roster. At VIACOM, the brands has also been given freer reign to leverage itself as a profitable business.
“Going to Madison Square Garden is always a major event. The Garden can be considered the fight capital of the world and it has been for a long time,” explains Coker, who rarely takes his eye off any sector of the fight game, including such things as the British heavyweight boxer Tyson Fury – the Gypsy King – who made a major impact upon Las Vegas last weekend, as showman and fighter. Fury has also found resonance in the USA with his openness about how he suffers with mental health.
“He’s the Pied Piper,” says Coker, with a grin. “How can you not love him?” offered the fight impresario recalling the video he had seen of Fury with thousands of fans walking through Manchester last year after his return from the abyss after 30 months away from the sport. “Muhammad Ali did that — I think it was in Harlem. Thousands of people started following him. I saw it happen to Bob Sapp in Japan when he was a big star. We walked out of the hotel and people saw him. Started following him down the street.”
“They’re rockstars. They have this certain energy about them. People respect the champion. Tyson Fury, I respect him. He’s a lot better than people give him credit for. I will pay to watch him.”
Royce Gracie, an ambassador for Bellator and the first star of MMA back in 1993, when he won the first UFC. has a similar effect, reflects Coker. “I was out in Israel and someone tapped me out me on the shoulder. There he was. I was still on the phone 30 minutes later and he’s run from his hotel and back. Probably about 13 mile run back and forth. This was last year. But he is loved wherever he goes.”
Gallagher, the young fighter from Strabane, is another who Coker believes can develop into a major star. Gallagher, never ever short on confidence, has already self-styled the London card ‘The Jimmy (Gallagher) Show’ as he faces Jeremiah Labiano on the main card. Gallagher and Paul Daley’s fight with the explosive Brazilian Erik Silva will be shown between 9pm and 10pm live on Sky on Saturday night. Then the show will switch to Channel 5, live, for two hours from 10 until midnight.
If the broadcasting algorithm is a complex one on Saturday night, so is promoting. No book is written on it; it comes down to feel, to knowing what works.
“It’s a weird thing, because people ask what it is about these people. And you don’t know. This just have this magnetism to them. And even if they do, it doesn’t mean they can always fight,” explains Coker, chewing the fat on how you promote stars, or whether they just naturally promote themselves.
“They can have great charisma and bark a lot, but can they fight? If they can’t, that’s a problem. Along comes a guy like James Gallagher. Or AJ McKee. They have the gift of gab and the kind of personality people love. Or hate. And they go out and take care of business. I think in Ireland they love Gallagher. I watched his fight in Ireland from the USA and we had 8,000 people in there. I think he can sell out every time.”
It is a measure of how well Gallagher is thought of that Coker lists him as “the most exciting talent” currently emerging from this side of The Pond for Bellator. Michael Venom Page remains a favourite, too. “Douglas Lima said MVP was the fastest human being he’d ever fought. To me, MVP is still a big star. I was watching his walkout and I felt I was at a rap show, it was that entertaining,” explained Coker of the welterweight tournament semi final in Rosemont, Illinois, just over a month ago. “He hurt Lima. He moved back and I thought ‘oh, boy’. Lima said he rehearsed it over and agin. When he gets into that stance sideways and starts feinting, that’s when he’d kick the leg. Because he’s not going to mobile enough. When he gets into a deep horse stance and starts reaching in, he’d kick him and take him down. Lima is a dangerous striker. I’m excited for the UK because we’ve signed a lot of young kids.”
There is middleweight Fabian Edwards, too, the powerful, explosive fighter from Birmingham, and brothers of Leon Edwards.
“Of course he’s got a lot to learn. The nice about the UK circuit is he has a lot of reps to fight. We’ll continue to do that with a big headliner.”
Overall, though, Coker is happy with the viewing numbers, content that Bellator is platformed on Sky Sports and Channel 5. “I don’t have all the numbers. But from what I’m hearing the numbers are good. We want the numbers to be astronomical. We will build towards that. The London fight will be a good reference. I think Sky has been great for us. We have the best distribution in the UK.”
So, too in the USA. “I think DAZN has been a great partner for us. They’re committed to combat sports. When I think about the old days in 2008, there were other affiliations out there. There was King of the Cage and Pro League our three that wasn’t the UFC or Strikeforce.” Nothing new, he reckons, just another television or broadcast revolution. But it’s still about the fighters.
“My feelings towards my fighters are sincere. My feelings towards my former fighters are sincere. We still talk. This has too be a business. So the thing is how do you run your business? Do you run it like a hobby? Don’t sweat the small stuff. Sweat the big stuff and take care of your athletes. Because they’re the business. That’s really what it comes down to.”
We are back on Bellator London, with a press conference at The Luxe Cinema in Leicester Square on Thursday morning from 10 until 1pm. There will be quite the parade of fighters. “Even though it’s a one night show, it really is two separate fight events. It’s a Paramount (USA) tentpole and a UK series event. We’re filming for two events. Five hours of primetime television. Sky Sports and then Channel 5. It’ll be on Paramount that night and DAZN will get the first part of it. Simulcast, I don’t think we’ve done that for the UK yet.” It is certainly heavily ambitious, complex moreover.
The fight line-up makes for many storylines, but there is intrigue with Lovato challenging middleweight champion Mousasi, a magician of a fighter, for the Bellator 185lb title. “This is the best submission fighter Mousasi has ever fought. Gegard has got to have his A-game. Gegard is an example of a guy who has come a long way. When I first saw him he was fighting for Heroes against Jacare Souza. He got up-kicked by Gegard and knocked out. Gegard never gives up. ”
Just like Coker. Taking Bellator MMA to the next, next level.