Gilbert Melendez, Bellator and a History of Bad Ideas
Yesterday, the MMA Twitterverse was simultaneously brought to a halt and a boil by free agent (and, for the time being, still free agent) Gilbert Melendez agreeing to terms with Bellator on a multi-year contract. The official numbers have not been released – and, given Bellator’s affinity for locales that don’t require the disclosure of payouts, may yet remain so – but the rumored compensation ($200,000 to show, a signing bonus and PPV points) represents a raise over Melendez’s previous deal, which was widely regarded as an albatross contract for Strikeforce (his previous employer). The UFC retains the ability to match until the end of next week; if they refuse to do so, Melendez is Bellator-bound, potentially providing an additional ingredient to the two ingredient stew atop their lightweight division.
Letting Melendez go makes eminent business sense for the UFC, but I hope they do not. As a fan, my interest isn’t in Zuffa’s bottom line or whether or not Gil, by way of his 1-1 record in the UFC since coming over from Strikeforce, is worthy of a raise; my interest is in seeing the best in the world fighting the best in the world as frequently as possible. I am, in effect, rooting for Zuffa to spend more money than it feels it should in order to keep Bellator from making a bad signing. And yes, it is a bad signing – not because Gilbert Melendez is a bad fighter, but because, on free TV, there seems to be no Earthly way he can produce more for Bellator than the guaranteed $200,000 he’ll receive simply for showing up. How often do you see UFC fighters making that much money on TV cards that aren’t Fox? Rarely, right? There’s a reason for that. Spending more to save their opposition from making a mistake – that is what I’m rooting for Zuffa to do. I will be disappointed if they don’t; I will not, however, be surprised.
It goes without saying (at least for those of us versed in the aforementioned Twitterverse) that this spells doom for Zuffa. No, really. Can you think of another time when a competing organization outbid Zuffa for a free agent?
Roger Huerta – Hell, this isn’t even the first time BELLATOR has outbid the UFC for a free agent. Following his (first UFC) loss to Kenny Florian, Huerta turned down a new Zuffa deal and announced a sabbatical from MMA in order to pursue opportunities in Hollywood (no word on whether these opportunities included Laura Prepon). During his free agency, Bjorn Rebney and Bellator (then located on ESPN Deportes) saw a potential new star for the Spanish-speaking MMA market and offered him a $250,000 signing bonus. Huerta fulfilled his last contractual bout (a unanimous decision loss to Gray Maynard) and entered Bellator’s LW tournament for the right to fight Eddie Alvarez; Huerta went 1-1, losing to Pat Curran, before receiving the title shot anyway when Curran bowed out due to injury. Alvarez-Huerta was stopped by the ringside doc after the second round in favor of the champion; Huerta would never fight in Bellator again, going on to lose to War Machine in Texas and receive a soccer kick in the head in Malaysia. Not the greatest signing bonus in the world.
Andrei Arlovski – Cited by Dana as the only free agent Zuffa wanted to keep but couldn’t, Arlovski was kept in UFC contract purgatory for almost 12 full months before receiving his farewell fight against Jake O’Brien on the undercard of UFC 82. Arlovski, a former UFC heavyweight champion, was hotly pursued by the upstart Affliction organization (run by Tom Atencio, a.k.a T-Shirt Guy), which was looking for potential opponents for Fedor Emelianenko (Tim Sylvia, following his loss to Big Nog at UFC 81, requested and was granted his release in order to take the Fedor fight. Compare this with, say, Bjorn Rebney and Eddie Alvarez).
Remember EliteXC? Their final event featured two – two – fighters receiving $500,000 to show: Kimbo Slice (who clearly earned that money via his drawing power) and Andrei Arlovski (who just as clearly did not). The silver lining for EliteXC in this instance was that Affliction footed Arlovski’s bill, making him the most expensive runway model in the history of the universe.
Arlovski’s deal – a half million dollars to show and another quarter million dollars to win – received quite a nice little bump just in time for Affliction’s next event: opposite Fedor Emelinenko, Andrei Arlovski received $1.5 million. $1.5 million! With those kinds of expenditures, it’s amazing Affliction is still putting on events… oh, right.
Dan Henderson – This situation is the one that fills me with dread regarding whether or not the UFC will match/keep Gilbert Melendez. Following his UFC 100 triumph over Michael Bisping (which, by the way, it is unfathomable Hendo was not resigned beforehand), the UFC made an offer to Dan Henderson that H-Bomb/Hollywood/Decision didn’t find acceptable. Zuffa refused to budge from its offer, leaving it on the table, and Henderson passed it up for a competing one from Strikeforce, including a debut title shot against 185 champion Jake Shields. Despite nearly thermonuking Shields in the first, Henderson showed signs of age and fatigue as he was outwrestled en route to a decision loss. Acknowledging the cut may have impacted his performance (especially in a five round tilt), Hendo moved up to 205 (as Zuffa signed Shields, who did not even receive an offer from the organization whose belt he held at the time) and captured the 205 title from Feijao Cavalcante after defeating Babalu Sobral for the title shot. The payout numbers are only available for the Feijao fight; there, Henderson made $250,000 to show.
At this time, Fedor Emelianenko – a perfect example for this piece, but one that is worthy of his own – was on a two fight losing streak to actual heavyweights, so why not match him up against someone that hadn’t competed against a heavyweight since 2002? In what may be one of the most expensive fights in Zuffa history (the purchase was complete by this point), Hendo KO’ed Fedor in the first round for at least $250,000 and, if the history of Fedor’s opponents are any indication, a good chunk more. In four fights, Henderson had traversed three weight classes (including being a 206 lb “heavyweight), gone 3-1 and made, at bare minimum, a million dollars from Strikeforce. Other than the Shields fight, it was a great signing for Henderson; one thinks that Scott Coker probably feels a little differently about how successful it was.
This isn’t the first time a subpar MMA organization has valued a fighter higher than Zuffa has, and it won’t be the last. Zuffa, however, has made a number of decisions regarding what fighters are actually worth, and coupled those with a steadfast refusal to pay anyone (not named Fedor) more than they feel they are worth. It’s a large part of why they are where they are today, and letting Melendez walk would be wholly in keeping with that track record. I just hope they don’t. My goals aren’t Zuffa’s goals in every instance, just in most; here, I care more about the sanctity and unification of the title pool more than whether Dana White plays five hands of blackjack tonight.
(PS, that’s a joke, and so is everyone that thinks Dana White makes these decisions alone. It reminds me of when the GOP liked to pretend that Mahmoud Ahmadinejad ran Iran. This is a business decision, and it will be made by the Fertitta brothers. Here’s hoping they keep him – and then bench him until he agrees to fight Khabib Nurmagomedov.)