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Scott Coker has big plans for Bellator as it closes out its tournament format

The world’s No. 2 MMA promotion is under new management and though you won’t see much of a difference when the new Bellator MMA returns this Friday for its 11th and final tournament season (8 p.m. ET/7 CT, Spike), big changes are afoot behind the scenes.

In late June, Bellator’s CEO and co-founder Bjorn Rebney abruptly left the promotion, only to be replaced the same day by former Strikeforce President Scott Coker. The 30-year promoting veteran was only a week removed from his three-year employment with UFC promoters Zuffa LLC. – a by-product of the UFC swallowing the market’s No. 2 competitor in early 2011.

Coker’s time with the UFC had been more like a paid non-compete period once the Strikeforce brand was completely retired in 2012 and Zuffa made no attempts to retain its former competitor longer, said Coker. There wasn’t a final meeting with UFC owner Lorenzo Fertitta or UFC president Dana White; there wasn’t even an exit interview, said Coker. It was a curious move, given that Coker was bombarded with phone calls the day his Zuffa contract expired.  There were offers from existing leagues, among them Glory kickboxing, and investors on hand to fund the start of a fresh promotion.

But then came the call from Spike president Kevin Kay. The two agreed to meet over dinner in Los Angeles, where something just clicked, they both said.

“I really got a good vibe from him and that’s really the reason I took the job,” said Coker. “[My decision] was really based on that initial conversation because I was really heading in a different direction with a different company to do a new fight league. It was a very prominent entertainment company that wanted to get into the content business. [The Spike deal] had all the right pieces. This was the kind of opportunity where if I didn’t look at it, it could be something I regret for a long time.”

Chael Sonnen conspiracists be silenced -- Kay said that Coker was Spike’s one and only choice for the job.

“I think where I was coming from was there weren’t a lot of people who promote mixed martial arts and it’s a really short list who do it well and have a lot of experience doing it,” said Kay. “There’s one guy over there at the UFC that does it very well, and then there’s Coker. I looked at the landscape; I know it pretty well and I felt Scott was the guy for the job and it was my job to convince him to do it.”

Starting in January, Bellator will move to 16 fight shows a year, abandoning the eight-man tournament shows that Rebney’s Bellator spurted out in 12-week “seasons.” Not coincidentally, Kay said Rebney’s departure stemmed from their “creative disagreement” in switching to MMA’s more traditional format.

“We agreed with Bjorn that it was time to make a change, that he was committed to the tournaments and continuing down that path -- that’s what he’d built,” said Kay. “We all felt here [at Spike], over the long term, that the tournaments were not sustainable in the way they were being run. It was too hard on the fighters. It was too confusing for the viewers and we just fundamentally disagreed on that.”

Kay said there were no other reasons for Rebney’s exit, though Rebney was known for his aggressive leadership style, which strained relations with numerous Bellator fighters publicly, as well as some of Rebney’s office staff and business partners behind closed doors.

The boxing promoter-turned-MMA visionary and Bellator president Tim Danaher, a hedge-funder who helped birth the promotion in 2008, were both minority owners of the promotion. Citing a non-disclosure agreement, Kay wouldn’t discuss if majority owner Spike bought out their stakes or if some of those shares were transferred to Coker as part of his multi-year contract and compensation package.

Given carte blanche in the day-to-day decision-making and a budget to which to adhere, Coker looked to strengthen Bellator’s fighter roster first. Bellator’s old roster held about 150 fighters, while the new one will will settle at about 125 fighters. Coker said a majority of the cuts have already been made.

“Unfortunately, we’ve had to release some of the fighters to make room for our new athlete acquisitions,” said Coker. “There’s only going to be so many TV slots next year, and we have to weigh it altogether. Its just part of the business.”

One cut that the fans applauded was the release of Bellator lightweight champion Eddie Alvarez, who had one fight remaining on a taped-together contract mediated out of a nasty, one-year court battle with the promotion. Coker’s decision to set Alvarez free to pursue a UFC deal did a lot to smooth over the damage the dispute had caused to Bellator’s image.

On the coin’s other side, the July signings of Dutchman Melvin Manhoef and Brit Paul Daley were indicative of Coker’s matchmaking style. In this case, both are explosive strikers with some edge to their personas and a penchant for firefights.  Most notable, though, is that both fighters had extensive business dealings with Coker in the past.

“Coker has great relationships with fighters,” said Spike’s Kay. “They really respect him. He has great relationships with fight camps. Everybody wants to work with him. We went to the Glory pay-per-view together [the weekend after he’d been hired] and I just watched as every athletic commissioner, every other fight manager, every fighter that was there came up to congratulate him on taking this job. Everyone seemed thrilled for him and thrilled for Spike to get into business with him… if you’re me, that’s what you want to hear.”

By far, the most controversial move that Coker and his three-man matchmaking team has made is the signing of Stephan Bonnar, a disgraced UFC Hall of Famer who tested positive for anabolic steroids two times during his seven-year run with the promotion. What message does it send when a promotion open its arms to a “cheater”?

“It’s something we took into consideration. We talked to the California commission and commissions in other states about it. Wherever we end up fighting him, he’s going to be tested multiple times from the commission prior to the fight,” said Coker. “He’s assured us that he’s clean. He’s paid his dues and been out of the sport and now he wants to come back in. He made mistakes. Should he be punished for life? I don’t think so.”

In Bonnar’s case, the pros probably outweigh the cons. Bonnar will be a familiar face to fans that watched the first season of The Ultimate Fighter on Spike in 2005. The multi-purpose Bonnar has also fared well as a UFC and WEC commentator in the past.

“He’s half of one of the most historic fights in UFC history [against Forrest Griffin],” said Coker. “That’s the fight that really gave [the UFC] its break. That’s the fight that made the UFC happen.”

Coker said Bonnar could fight a few candidates on the current Bellator roster, though Bonnar has expressed interest in facing fellow UFC Hall of Famer Tito Ortiz. Coker wouldn’t readily commit to the light heavyweight bout.

The return of women fighters to Bellator was a given with Coker’s hiring: he promoted the first regulated women’s MMA fight in California in 2006.

He was the man behind Carano-Cyborg, the first-ever female main event for a major televised promotion in 2009. Among his first female signees was Dutchwoman Marloes Coenen, a former Strikeforce champion, whose manager contacted Bellator directly when she became a free agent, said Coker. Even with the UFC and Invicta Fighting Championships now promoting female fights, Coker is optimistic he’ll be able to stack up two women’s divisions (145 and another) over the next two years.

“There's plenty of women fighters [available] and more will become free agents over time,” said Coker. “We’re getting applications sent to us from females -- probably 10-12 a week. “

If they’re lucky enough to get the call, restructured fighter contracts will be waiting for them. The old Bellator contracts, written under lawyer Rebney’s litigative eye, were a concern among many fight camps who believed they’d be signing too many of their fighters’ rights and assets away. Coker said the old contracts will be replaced with ones currently being drafted.

“I reviewed the contracts that are now in place and it’s way too confusing,” said Coker. “I don’t think a contract needs to be big, just straight to the point. How many fights? What’s the terms? What’s the pay and that’s it. The contracts we're going to move everybody over to are going to be fighter-friendly and basically very direct and straight to the point.”

On Friday, these major shifts in management tactics probably won’t be discernable. There will be less emphasis on the tournament style, the one factor that made Bellator unique, but also caused it to stagnate somewhere down the line.

By January, Bellator will be back to what Coker calls the promoting basics.

“Going to arenas, bringing in big fights, putting on big fights – that’s something we’re very good at,” he said. “And recruiting fighters. We’re very good at building fighters from the ground up,” he said.

This business is pretty simple. You have to put butts in seats and you’ve got to drive the TV ratings. And if you can do that, you can have a long career in the martial arts fight business."