Since news broke this past Friday that top ranked lightweight contender Gilbert Melendez has agreed to a deal to join Bellator MMA, the mixed martial arts community hasn’t stopped buzzing. Gilbert failed to come to an agreement with the UFC brass, and Bjorn Rebney (Bellator Chairman) swooped in and capitalized, potentially bringing in a world ranked talent to his already interesting lightweight division. While the UFC still has the right to match the deal and keep “El Nino”, this is a bigger story than most realize.
The real question is; What does this mean for the MMA landscape and all of the fight game’s free agents going forward? This is the first time since 2009 that the UFC could potentially lose a major fighter to a rival promotion. Remember when Dan Henderson capitalized on the momentum he generated after knocking Michael Bisping out at UFC 100 and signed a lucrative deal with Strikeforce? Following his Fight of the Year candidate fight with Diego Sanchez, which took place this past October at UFC 166, Melendez has done the same and earned himself a nice payday and brand new contract with a rival promotion. There is no arguing that with Bellator stepping up and offering big bucks for a free agent, this is good news for all fighters when their negotiating new contracts. Now the UFC has learned that they aren’t the only promotion that could muster up a nice paycheck for it’s athletes, so the days of low balling fighters may be over. Which of course is a good thing, but that’s not all that is worth taking away from this story.
Let’s take a second and look at Melendez’s situation here, he came into the UFC with two fights remaining on his existing Stirkeforce deal. He earned a reported $175,000 flat rate per fight, which included no win bonuses, for both his UFC bouts. When the contract expired, the UFC didn’t feel he was worth that same amount of money considering he went 1-1, including losing to Ben Henderson in a very close title fight (which wasn’t a barn burner by any stretch of the imagination). He then rebounded with a win over the unranked, but popular Diego Sanchez, which earned each man an additional $50,000 Fight of the Night bonus check. How far apart the UFC and Gilbert were on numbers for the new contract remains a mystery. I’d imagine they were pretty far apart considering UFC President Dana White told reporters last week that “It’s not going well. I couldn’t care less about it anymore.”
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If you follow the UFC’s “system” to pay fighters, Gilbert’s situation isn’t much of a surprise. It took the former lightweight champion Benson Henderson two-title defenses before they renegotiated his contract. While current lightweight champ Anthony Pettis, only made $27,000 to show and $27,000 to win his last time out (maybe he should be the one throwing a tantrum with how much more Gilbert and Benson are making than him, but that’s a topic for another day). The point is Gilbert came into the UFC as the final Strikeforce champion, and he wants to remain being paid like a champion. Which is fine, he has been a top lightweight for over seven years now. The problem is the UFC doesn’t really do business like that until you actually win the belt, or generate Pay Per View buys for their company. Gilbert is a proven and exciting fighter, but he did come up short in his bid to be a UFC champion. He also isn’t a marque draw that generates big Pay Per View buys. So the UFC brass was holding off on paying top dollar for Melendez, but now with Bellator coughing up the cash the UFC either has to open up their checkbook, or let “El Nino” walk.
To think it was just in 2011 and 2012, when Gilbert was begging Zuffa to send over top UFC talent to Strikeforce so he could prove that he was the best 155-pound fighter in the world. What Gilbert learned then was that without the UFC belt, that illustrious number one in the world ranking would never come. Nothing’s changed since then, so going to Bellator will earn him a bigger paycheck than staying with the UFC, but he won’t accomplish his goal of being ranked number 1 in the world. That is what is really worth taking away from this signing that I think is being grossly overlooked by the MMA community.
It has gotten to the point that when fighters become free agents they have a choice (unless of course you are either the current world champ or a huge Pay Per View draw like I stated above). You can bolt from the UFC and make a little more money while being a big fish in a small pond, but in the process pretty much forfeit your chance of being seriously considered the best in the world by the media and fans. Or you can play the UFC’s game. Which is make a little less than what you think you are worth, with the chance of achieving the same goal most fighters have when they start their careers, being the best in the world and hoping the big pay day comes then.
With the UFC expanding internationally and putting on more events then ever before, I imagine we will see a lot of nasty contract negotiations going forward. The UFC is only opening up the checkbook for the fighters that help their bottom line and draw big in the form of Pay Per View buys, and everyone else, it’s simply take what is given or choose not to fight for the biggest MMA promotion in the world. It will begin to come down to what free agents value more. Getting paid or taking less in hopes of achieving their lifetime dreams of being the best in the world?
It appears Melendez has made his choice, and green wins.