2022 has been a wild year for MMA and now that the year is officially on the back burner, MMA Fighting is looking back at what happened in the big promotions, where they succeeded, where they failed and what lies ahead. shop for 2023.
Bellator in numbers
In total, Bellator hosted 18 events in 2022, including the co-promoted battle card Bellator vs. RIZIN. In total, Bellator had 228 fights with 105 decisions, 83 knockouts, 36 submissions, three no contests and one draw.
2022 also saw the end of the Bellator Light Heavyweight Grand Prix, with Vadim Nemkov retaining his title as well as the first two rounds of the Bantamweight Grand Prix. In addition, in 2022, Bellator held 15 title fights, winning six new champions.
Bellator has held the title of the #2 promotion in sports for years (despite what some other promoters may be trying to tell you), and its 2022 year has only proven that fact. While other organizations may have gotten more headlines than Bellator, Scott Cocker and company continue to put out quality content with some of the best fighters in the world, which is more than most can say.
The strength of Bellator remains on the talent list. Of the 165 fighters currently in MMA Fighting Global, Bellator accounts for 18 of them, or more than 10 percent, which is a huge jump from the nearest non-UFC promotion. There is a reason for this: Bellator has invested heavily in talent development, and in 2022 this development began to pay dividends. AJ McKee now has a real rivalry with Patricio Pitbull and is active in the lightweight division. Usman Nurmagomedov, Johnny Eblen and Vadim Nemkov are champions with elite talent who will one day claim to be the best in the world in their respective weight divisions. And then there is the bantamweight division, which already has three fighters from the top 10, and two more simply did not make the list. For the past few years, Bellator has felt it relied too heavily on former UFC fighters and underdogs. It’s still there, but in 2022, the Bellator youth movement has finally resurfaced.
However, leaving aside its strong year of development, the Bellator brand has two special moments in 2022.
The first is the rivalry between Raufeon Stots and Danny Sabatello. Both fighters are extremely talented at bantamweight, but more importantly, they are stars. Stots and Sabatello both know how to generate interest in their fights (even if the fights themselves aren’t always interesting), and Bellator did a good job of promoting their Grand Prix semi-final fight by making them promote it to hell. I don’t know the Bellator numbers, so I don’t really know how well they did, but this fight definitely seemed more significant than the McKee-Pitbull Grand Prix tournament final, which is a testament to both men.
Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, the Bellator card at the end of the year with RIZIN was exceptional. Scott Cocker has always been up for co-promoting, and his loose partnership with RIZIN continues to create great moments in the sport. Bellator vs. card RIZIN December 31st not only caught the attention of the MMA universe, but was an extremely fun event in general. Bringing back stomping and football kicks on a full-time basis is probably too much to ask for, but promoting events like this that allow your fighters to show more personality and have fun that a traditional Bellator show can’t do is just good business. In addition, Bellator went 5-0 in head-to-head matches. Not so bad.
There are a lot of things to quibble about with Bellator since 2022 – the RIZIN map has been delayed, Grand Prix don’t end the same year they start, the viewing experience can sometimes be hard — but in the end, you can live with it all. The good sides of Bellator certainly outweigh those bad points. But what should change is a common progress.
MMA is a sport built on moments, and Bellator offers fans so few of them. Stots vs. Sabatello was the moment. The RIZIN show was an instant. But what else was from Bellator in 2022? What other show or event hosted by Bellator has someone marking their calendar in anticipation? May be McKee vs. Pitbull 2 and it seems generous. It just doesn’t do enough to create these kinds of events.
Some of this may be due to the fact that horses can’t do more. Twenty tournaments a year is a lot for any promotion, and Bellator doesn’t have enough rosters to host that many outstanding matches. Don’t disrespect these fighters, but when you’re headlining with Adam Piccoloti against Mansour Barnaoui, who has not fought for three years, you are doing something wrong. If you decide to host an event, you, the promoter, must do something worthwhile, and not just fill the quota. And, ultimately, this is my point: the UFC is now constantly issuing lackluster cards, because they are in it almost exclusively by quota. It’s not convincing, but it still works because the UFC has 85 percent of the best fighters in the world. Bellator doesn’t, but it often feels like it’s promoting instead of doing its best to get attention for its product.
there is a scene in moneyball where Brad Pitt says something that sums up my thoughts on this situation: “If we try to play like the Yankees here, we’ll lose to the Yankees there.” Bellator cannot compete with the UFC by playing the same game. He must think outside the box. The Grand Prix is great, the RIZIN is great, the schedule for frequent trips abroad is great. But this is not enough. He just needs to find more ways to attract people.
2023 could be the most exciting year in Bellator history for a number of reasons.
First of all, Bellator is now facing legitimate competition from other non-UFC organizations. The PFL is wrapping up its most successful year ever and is poised to take the leap into 2023. ONE Championship is due to debut in the US this year and is now distributed by Amazon Prime. Everything is set for other players to invade the North American MMA market, and if Bellator does not step up their game, they will most likely do so at his expense, not at the expense of the UFC. Bellator’s debut on CBS in February will be pivotal to the promotion, as will his upcoming lightweight Grand Prix.
Secondly, Ali’s law is brewing. Ali’s law is reportedly due to be re-submitted to Congress in 2023. It will likely take a long time for Congress to clear out and pass it, if it happens at all, but if it does happen this year, MMA as we know it is changing almost overnight. The result is probably pretty bad for the UFC and creates a huge opportunity for every other MMA organization to reap the rewards.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, Rumor has it Bellator could be up for sale. At the moment it’s just a rumor, but where there’s smoke, there’s usually at least some fire. Will Bellator sell to whom and what might that look like? No one knows. But with PFL and ONE breathing down Bellator’s necks, such a monumental shift could completely change the promotion.