Q&A: Bellator CEO Scott Coker on the Current Landscape of the Promotion

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Bellator CEO Scott Coker at a press conference

Scott Coker is known for his work building Strikeforce, the promotion he founded in 1985 and sold to UFC in 2011. A decade later, Coker is creating his next masterpiece. As president of Bellator, he is developing a top-tier MMA promotion, providing a home for established fighters and emerging stars.

Bellator’s new broadcast deal with Showtime is a key factor in its continued growth. (Bellator and Showtime are both owned by ViacomCBS.) On Friday night, for the third straight week, a slate of live fights will air as part of Bellator 257, a card headlined by a light heavyweight bout pitting Phil Davis against Bellator light heavyweight champion Vadim Nemkov. This is a rematch of their November 2018 fight, which Nemkov claimed by split decision. It is also part of the Bellator Light Heavyweight World Grand Prix Tournament, where Ryan Bader has already advanced.

Before Bellator 257, Coker spoke with Sports Illustrated, discussing the build of the Bellator roster, Fedor Emelianenko’s next bout, and the potential of airing a special event on CBS.

Sports Illustrated: As evident in your work with Strikeforce, you possess the gift of patience. That is extraordinarily hard to have when building a roster, but you have revamped the Bellator roster since your arrival in 2014. Was it difficult to use patience as one of your guiding principles in the development of the roster?

Scott Coker: This is definitely a ‘now’ business. Fans expect greatness. When we got this roster turned over to us, there was some talent, but we needed a lot more. I knew we couldn’t just go out there and buy free agents; they just weren’t there at the time. We picked up people when we could, like Phil Davis, and then Ryan Bader came over shortly thereafter. We sprinkled some free agents in, but I’m from the old school and believe you have to build from the ground up. That takes time to cultivate.

Fighters like A.J. McKee, who’s fighting Pitbull [Freire] likely late this summer, is an example of taking a fighter and building up. Now he’s matched up with Pitbull, who’s pound-for-pound our number one fighter in Bellator. It takes fighters three, four or five years to get ready to fight anybody in the world. That’s the process; it just takes time. We’re good star identifiers and star builders, and this is just our beginning. We have added free agents, we’re going to add more, and we mix that with guys we’ve built from the ground up.

SI: Speaking of building, you now feature a light heavyweight division in Bellator that can compete with any promotion in the world.

SC: We have the greatest 205 weight class on the planet. This tournament has eight killers in it. It started last week with Bader and [Lyoto] Machida, and now there’s the two fights this weekend. Vadim Nemkov–Phil Davis, that’s going to be an amazing fight. I’m also really excited to see what happens with [Corey] Anderson–[Dovletdzhan] Yagshimuradov. Whoever wins this gauntlet, he’s more than World Grand Prix Light Heavyweight Champion. He’s the best 205-pound fighter on the planet.

SI: Airing on Showtime is also a significant part of the growth of the Bellator brand. Big picture, what does this partnership mean to Bellator?

SC: I’m excited about this new relationship. We’ve had a lot of different partners, but Showtime, this is our home. Working with their executive team, it’s very much been a reunion. When I had Strikeforce, we had a Showtime/CBS deal. The people that were then back in ’11 when I sold Strikeforce to the UFC, they are still there today. Stephen Espinoza is still the man in charge there. David Dinkins, Sheila Mills, Chris DeBlasio, Gordon Hall—it’s the exact same team. That’s why we were able to dive in together the past two weeks and you’ll see it again this week.

I can’t wait to get these fights on the CBS network. The executives here really see the vision, and that excites me. The roster we have now is the best roster in the history of the company, and now we’re with a network that really knows how to promote combat sports. When you think about Showtime, with Bellator and boxing, we are the best value in combat sports.

SI: Are there any potential dates you can share for a card on CBS?

SC: That hasn’t been picked out yet, but I think you’ll see a Bellator special by this fall.

SI: In terms of branding, your lead broadcaster, Mauro Ranallo, is a perfect representation of Bellator.

SC: The knowledge Mauro has of mixed martial arts is quite spectacular. I’ve known him for a long time, since he was doing Pride in the ’90s. When I think about the voice of mixed martial arts, and combat sports in general, and someone who possesses that knowledge and passion and ability to tell a story, he’s number one.

SI: Looking ahead, the legendary Fedor Emelianenko is ready to return to the cage. Junior dos Santos and Alistair Overeem have both been rumored as potential opponents. Is there an update on Fedor’s future?

SC: A.J. versus Pitbull is likely happening in July. We just announced Cris Cyborg’s fight, we’re announcing Douglas Lima’s next opponent at Bellator 257, and we’re hashing out Fedor’s next opponent. We’re talking to everybody—Alistair, JDS and some of our guys internally make sense.

It’s going to be a spectacular event. There are two fights left on his retirement tour. He’s the greatest heavyweight of all time as far as I’m concerned, and I can’t wait to see him compete in his next two fights. Then he’ll probably retire, and maybe he’ll be a brand ambassador for us. We should have something to announce within the next two or three weeks for Fedor, and it’s a very exciting time for Bellator.

SI: Are there any details you can share on Fedor’s next fight?

SC: I’ll give you a little nugget. Fedor’s fight will be in his home country [Russia].

SI: You mentioned Fedor as a brand ambassador, and another fighter doing just that is Michael Chandler. Though he is now fighting with the UFC, so much of his greatness was built in Bellator—and every win in UFC only enhances Bellator.

SC: This is the co-promotion, Bellator versus UFC. That’s what people want to see. When Michael and I last spoke, I said, “Go kick some ass and win that belt.” I really enjoyed his time here at Bellator. He’ll be in the Hall of Fame someday, and he’s done so much for martial arts. I’m all about supporting Michael.

It’s not fighting for the name of a company that makes you great. It’s all about the individual fighters. And in every weight class, we have fighters that can fight anywhere in the world, including UFC.

SI: Why should fight fans invest in Bellator 257?

SC: This light heavyweight tournament is really special. The fights this weekend are going to dictate the next matchups, and Showtime is going to put on some great content.

This is like sudden death. If you win, you move on. If you lose, you go home. And we’re giving a million-dollar bonus check to the tournament winner, so the fighters are pumped up. I’m looking forward to watching live. Unfortunately, the fans can’t be here in-person. I do see light at the end of the tunnel, but it might be a couple more months. Until then, tune in to Showtime.

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Justin Barrasso can be reached at JBarrasso@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @JustinBarrasso.