Bellator MMA released lightweight champion Eddie Alvarez on Tuesday. One of the most recognizable and talented fighters on its entire roster -- gone.
Additionally, president Scott Coker released Alvarez knowing full well the likelihood he will appear in a cage for a rival company, the UFC, sooner rather than later.
Sounds like a lose-lose, but make no mistake -- Tuesday was a good day for Bellator.
Losing Alvarez (25-3) does hurt in the short term. In addition to holding the promotion’s lightweight belt, Alvarez was a fixture in that division and had essentially grown up in the Bellator cage, having fought for the company 10 times since April 2009.
In the long term, however, Alvarez represented a potential headache. He was clearly disenchanted with the Bellator brand, thanks to a falling-out with former CEO Bjorn Rebney, who was forced out of the company in June.
In late 2012, Alvarez had accepted a multifight offer from the UFC but was drawn into a legal battle by Rebney, who elected to exercise his right to match the offer and keep Alvarez in Bellator.
One can’t necessarily fault Rebney for wanting to protect his assets. As much as any fighter should be allowed to fight for whom he or she wants, Rebney felt that Bellator had a contractual right to Alvarez’s appeal and he had a business to run.
It was always questioned, however, if Rebney lost more than he gained by attacking Alvarez in the court system. Was Alvarez really worth so much individually that it offset the negative press and feelings that were created when Rebney essentially blocked him from leaving?
Current Bellator president Scott Coker, a former Strikeforce CEO who was hired to replace Rebney in June, is among those who would say "no." Shortly after accepting the job, he made it a point to personally meet with the fighter’s camp in Miami, where Alvarez trains.
Very early in the conversation, Coker read the writing on the wall. Alvarez was not going to sign any long-term deal with Bellator, despite the changing of the guard. The meeting transitioned from a business feel to a friendly one. Coker didn't see a reason to play hardball with Alvarez after two frustrating years.
“He told me some things in private, and some of it I was pretty shocked by,” Coker said. “It was something I would never do. I would never treat fighters like that. He got into that situation and they took him to court and -- I just don’t believe in that.”
So, Coker released Alvarez. It probably wasn’t a completely altruistic move. It allows Bellator to move on and eliminates the possibility of Alvarez leaving the company off back-to-back wins over lightweights like interim champion Will Brooks and Michael Chandler (whom the company are trying to build). It also should stop Alvarez from bashing Bellator publicly after he leaves, which he might have done otherwise.
What it does most, however, is send a strong message to everyone in the world of mixed martial arts -- athletes, trainers, managers, fans and media -- that Bellator has embraced a level of professionalism it has perhaps lacked before.
It sends the message the promotion is not going to tie Alvarez’s career in knots for its own gain and it’s not going to keep an interim champion like Brooks wondering on the sidelines whether he’ll be unfairly bypassed for a title shot (as Rebney alluded to when he was still in control).
Really, every move made by Coker thus far has sent that message. The promotion is doing away with the messy tournament format it was built on and switching to a more traditional, 16-event schedule in 2015.
Rather than bombard viewers with one live event per week, promoted within small markets, Coker will aim to build significant cards once a month, aided by shoulder programming intended to take advantage of Spike TV’s reach to 100 million homes.
Up to this point, Bellator has succeeded despite a difficult competitive landscape and, since the Viacom buyout in 2011, it is well funded -- but it’s felt stuck in adolescence at times and its fighter and manager relationships have struggled as a result.
When Coker joined the company this summer, he was expected to add experience and professionalism along with him. Tuesday’s announcement on Alvarez, which Coker followed with a personal tweet wishing the fighter luck, showcased that.