Scott Coker took the reins of Bellator MMA in 2014 with a firm plan for growth. The longtime combat sports promoter was going to apply some of the principles that worked well when he ran Strikeforce, from its first MMA event in March 2006 until it was acquired by the UFC's parent company in 2011.
Basically, the idea was to build prospects from the ground up and sign high-profile free agents from other promotions. That led to some unconventional matchups early in Coker's Bellator tenure.
Ultimate Fighter legend Stephan Bonnar unveiled a masked Justin McCully leading into a fight with former UFC star Tito Ortiz, trying to tap into a hard-to-follow grudge from when Ortiz and McCully were training in the same camp. Bellator signed YouTube backyard fighting cult hero Kimbo Slice and pitted him against 50-something MMA golden-era luminary Ken Shamrock. Then Royce Gracie, champion of the first UFC event way back in 1993, came out of retirement after nine years to face old-school rival Shamrock. Slice went on to face fellow Miami street brawler Dada 5000 in one of the most reviled MMA fights of all time. (More on all of these later.)
Along the way, though, Bellator was signing and developing some of the top prospects in the sport, such as Aaron Pico and Joey Davis. The crown jewel of those blue-chippers has ended up being the undefeated 26-year-old A.J. McKee, who fights the most accomplished Bellator fighter ever, Patricio "Pitbull" Freire, for the featherweight title Saturday night in the main event of Bellator 263 in Los Angeles.
"Some [fights] were fun to watch," Coker told ESPN. "Some did great ratings. But at the end of the day, this is where we wanted to be. In the best-fighters-in-the-world business."
"Pitbull" vs. McKee is also the final of the Bellator Featherweight World Grand Prix. The winner will receive $1 million. And the victor could also stake a claim to being the best featherweight fighter in the world, regardless of promotion. Bellator has not always been able to boast that its champion is better than the UFC's champion in the same weight class -- former three-time Bellator lightweight champ Michael Chandler was definitely in that mix -- but the argument could be made for Freire or McKee at featherweight after Saturday.
Plainly, this is one of the biggest fights in Bellator history, a pivotal moment for the Viacom-owned promotion still trying to cement a firmer stronghold in a crowded American mixed martial arts space on a new network, Showtime.
"I think it's right up there with probably the top two or three fights in the history of this company," Coker said. "And arguably it could be the most significant fight."
How did Bellator get here, from the era promoted by founder Bjorn Rebney to Coker's ultimate vision? Let's take a look at the biggest fights in the history of the company.
Michael Chandler vs. Eddie Alvarez 2 (Bellator 106, Nov. 2, 2013)
For pure action, the first fight between Alvarez and Chandler in 2011 might be the best in Bellator history. But in terms of importance, the rematch trumped it. Chandler had become a viable star for the promotion after his win over Alvarez in the first fight, and here Alvarez was looking to get his belt back -- and he did. Chandler and Alvarez were considered among the best lightweight fighters in the world at the time. And the card drew an average of 1.1 million viewers, the most ever at the time for a Bellator show.
"We knew that Alvarez and Chandler was a fight that people who never watched Bellator were going to watch," former Bellator play-by-play man Sean Wheelock told ESPN. "And they did."
Quinton "Rampage" Jackson vs. Muhammed "King Mo" Lawal (Bellator 120, May 17, 2014)
This was Bellator's first foray into pay-per-view. The event was supposed to be headlined by a trilogy fight between Alvarez and Chandler, but Alvarez withdrew due to injury. Despite that, "Rampage" vs. "King Mo" was a money rivalry for Bellator. Jackson was still among the most popular light heavyweights in the world and a former UFC champion. Lawal was elite as well, as a former Strikeforce light heavyweight champion. The bad blood between Jackson and Lawal was real, and it built as the finale of the Bellator Season 10 light heavyweight tournament approached.
Tito Ortiz vs. Stephan Bonnar (Bellator 131, Nov. 15, 2014)
There were fights that had more star power and that were more exciting, but historically, Ortiz vs. Bonnar was a huge jumping-off point for Bellator. It was the first big event of the Coker regime, a "tentpole" show (one of the biggest cards of the year) as Coker likes to call it. Valley View Casino Center in San Diego was the site.
Ortiz and Bonnar had a grudge and were well-known names. Bonnar brought in Ortiz's former training partner-turned-enemy McCully as a second to build things up. The whole thing felt very pro wrestling, including Bellator's new production elements featuring a stage and jumbotron for glitzy entrances. But it absolutely worked for Spike TV, with Bellator 131 overtaking the Chandler vs. Alvarez 2 card as the highest-rated one in promotion history to that point.
"I remember telling my staff: Look, we're going to raise the standards here, because this is not going to be acceptable," Coker said. "We have to do big arenas, we have to do big fights and we have to have a big production look."
Kimbo Slice vs. Ken Shamrock (Bellator 138, June 19, 2014)
Slice and Shamrock were originally supposed to fight each other in 2008 under the EliteXC banner. At that time, Slice was one of the hottest stars in all of MMA. Shamrock, of course, had built his legend in the earliest days of mixed martial arts and was also a former WWE star. That original bout would have been on CBS, but Shamrock withdrew hours before the event due to what he said was a cut. There were questions about the legitimacy of said cut, which became the storyline that led to this grudge match six years later.
Athletically, both men had seen better days. But the fight delivered, with Slice rallying to knock out Shamrock after being in big trouble on the ground. And the ratings were phenomenal at an average of 1.7 million viewers for the event, surpassing the previous Bellator record. The show peaked at 2.4 million viewers for the Slice vs. Shamrock main event -- numbers that would even make the UFC blush today.
Fedor Emelianenko vs. Chael Sonnen (Bellator 208, Oct. 13, 2018)
The silent "Last Emperor" from Russia against the loud-mouthed "American Gangster." Sonnen, whose brilliant microphone skills led to him being one of the most bankable stars in the UFC, had run down Emelianenko for years, saying many of his wins in Japan were fixed. No one ever thought they'd meet in the cage until Sonnen surprisingly signed with Bellator in 2016.
To add even more spice, it was a semifinal of the Bellator Heavyweight World Grand Prix. Long Island, New York, was the scene. Emelianenko, one of the greatest heavyweights of all time, stopped Sonnen in the first round in a vintage Fedor performance.
Michael Chandler vs. Patricio "Pitbull" Freire (Bellator 221, May 11, 2019)
It might not have featured big names who had headlined in the UFC, but this was the most significant fight in Bellator history at the time. Chandler and Freire were both homegrown talents who started during the pre-Coker era of Bjorn Rebney. They had a rivalry that dated back to Chandler's knockout of Freire's brother Patricky years earlier.
"Pitbull" was moving up as the featherweight champion to challenge Chandler for the lightweight belt. But it was even bigger than all that. The winner could truly stake his claim as the most accomplished fighter in Bellator, which Freire did with a flourish, finishing Chandler by TKO in the very first round.
Cris Cyborg vs. Julia Budd (Bellator 238, Jan. 25, 2020)
The signing of Cyborg was different from many of Bellator's high-profile free-agent signings in the past. Cyborg, at the time, was undeniably one of the best fighters in all of mixed martial arts and one of the best women's fighters in MMA history. She still is.
In her debut, Cyborg challenged the previously dominant Budd for the Bellator women's featherweight title. She stopped Budd via TKO in the fourth round to become the only fighter in MMA history to win titles in four major promotions (UFC, Strikeforce, Invicta and Bellator). With some of the aging stars Bellator has signed moving into retirement, Cyborg has taken her place as perhaps the biggest draw in the promotion.
"That was a really big fight for us with Cyborg coming in immediately and making history," Coker said.
And then there was the worst night of big fights ... (Bellator 149, Feb. 19, 2016)
It's a day that will live in MMA infamy. Looking back now at this card at Toyota Center in Houston, one has to do a double take. The headliner was a rematch of UFC 1 from 1993: Royce Gracie vs. Ken Shamrock. Shamrock was 52 years old and Gracie was 49. The bout was one that many thought should not have even been sanctioned, but the Texas Department of Licensing and Regulation obliged. The co-main event featured Kimbo Slice against backyard fighter Dada 5000 (real name: Dhafir Harris), who had no MMA experience to speak of and whose work on the heavy bag during fight week raised serious concerns about how much of a fighter he even was.
Defying belief, these two fights were actually even worse in practice than they looked on the bout sheet. Gracie vs. Shamrock decided their career rivalry when Gracie landed a knee below the belt (which the referee missed) and then follow-up shots for a first-round TKO. Shamrock vehemently protested the result. Luckily for everyone involved, Bellator never granted a rematch.
There was nothing funny about the co-main event. Slice won by knockout in the third round when Harris essentially passed out. Harris was rushed to the hospital, later saying he was "pronounced dead" in the ambulance after suffering cardiac arrest, severe dehydration, fatigue and renal failure. The result was later overturned by Texas to a no contest when Slice tested positive for the steroid nandrolone. (Shamrock also tested positive for nandrolone and the pain killer methadone.)
Harris recovered, but four months later Slice was pronounced dead in Florida. The medical examiner said he suffered from congestive heart failure.
This was essentially the end of Bellator doing novelty fights.
Five years later, the show that Bellator is putting forth Saturday could not be more different from Bellator 149: two of the best featherweight fighters in the world scrapping for $1 million, a grand prix title, the Bellator title and potentially the designation as top guy at their weight in any promotion.
"It just shows where the company is now and how far we've come," Coker told ESPN's Brett Okamoto. "To grow a roster like we have now -- really, really deep divisions -- it takes a lot of work. It's not easy. You're building your future talent base. ... And I'm sure you've noticed we've gotten away from going after the old guard, and now we're putting a lot of energies into growing the youth and the future of this company."