Coker has overseen a thrilling tournament, with increasingly adored prospect AJ McKee booking his place in the final with a stunning win
It has been four months to the day, almost, since Bellator MMA started back after the coronavirus pandemic shutdown and perception has shifted, new stars have been created, new signings secured, and president of the fight league Scott Coker is content with developments in fourteen events in that period.
AJ McKee, Vadim Nemkov, Juan Archuleta, have all made names for themselves, four events in Europe kept momentum going, and in Paris, there was even a crowd, while Bellator there was shown on the BBC iPlayer for the first time.
Back in the USA, where Bellator has held ten MMA events at Mohegan Sun, Conn. since July 24, Gegard Mousasi proved once again that if he is not the biggest middleweight in the world in stature, he is certainly one of the sport’s most skilled fighters ever. In spite of his size as a welterweight, Douglas Lima could not dent Mousasi.
Bellator star Patricio Pitbull, moreover, has proved himself to be the best featherweight on the planet and would make short work of any UFC rival, including champion Alexander Volkanovski.
That is the view of Bellator boss Scott Coker, who this month watched his champion dismantle Pedro Carvalho in one round in the semi-final of Bellator’s featherweight grand prix.
Coker has overseen a thrilling tournament, with increasingly adored prospect AJ McKee booking his place in the final with a stunning submission victory over Darrion Caldwell last week.
The Bellator president is licking his lips at the possibility of Pitbull taking on McKee in the final, which he believes will crown the best featherweight in the world.
“Pitbull is the best 145lb-er on the planet,” Coker told the Telegraph.
“Whoever wins this tournament deserves that title as well. People always compare us to the UFC, but I’m telling you right now he will beat the UFC guy. This guy’s a killer.”
“AJ McKee is telling me all the time he’s the best 145lb-er in the world and he’s going to beat Pitbull so either way we’re going to have a great fight,” he continued.
“I think the fans want to see AJ fight Pitbull. That’s the beauty of the tournament, big fights happen, big stars and careers are made in these tournaments.
Fans will see the next stage early in 2021, revealed Coker.
“I’m looking forward to the next round which hopefully we can have in late January and have the final some time in early April. We’ll give away another $1million prize money.”
McKee’s effortless destruction of former bantamweight champion Caldwell in his semi-final has brought a fresh wave of fanfare for the 25-year-old.
The young American set a record for the longest winning streak in a single promotion with his 17th win in Bellator and Coker remembers seeing a then 18-year-old McKee in action for the first time.
“It was a high school gym or rec centre in Orange County, there’s this one kid probably 18 years old fighting in a cage and it was AJ McKee,” Coker said. “He was fighting main event, he submitted the guy and I knew he could something special.
“His father, a great lineage of fighting. He has the experience, the physique, the looks and a certain swagger about him – even back then! I said I could use him.
“I came to Bellator two months later and I called his dad straight away, ‘We want to sign AJ’.
It is in keeping with the way that Coker is building his roster, and indeed, has always done during decades as a martial arts promoter.
“I always said we’ve got to by free agents from the top down but build for the bottom up. I did that at Strikeforce and we’re doing that here.”
Like the rest of the sporting world, Bellator has had to drastically reshape how it does business during the Covid-19 era.
Testing, strict restrictions and staging fights behind closed doors – it’s been a testing time for Coker and his Bellator team.
A return in July kicked off a relentless schedule for the MMA promotion, but the recent flurry of vaccine announcements has offered hope to sport organisers that normality could return in 2021.
Coker is cautiously optimistic, but insists Bellator’s top priority will continue to be the safety of their fighters, and the wider public.
“There are pockets in America where you can still have a crowd even though it might be small,” Coker said.
“We’ll explore it but we have to make sure it’s health and safety first. We want this pandemic to go away, I don’t want it to keep lingering on and on and on. We can’t do something on our part that contributes to it lasting longer than it should.
“To me I’d rather hunker down for the next six months.”
He added: “It’s a very trying time for everyone in the world but I do think this will pass. Just like the Spanish Flu went away after a couple of years.
“I think it will take us time and hopefully the vaccine can speed that up. But we will be back to big arenas with crowds and I want to say that will be by third quarter of next year in the USA. That’s what I think.”