One thing people hate the most about boxers is their obstinate refusal to fight the best among them. This is not a reflection of cowardice. It actually demonstrates that picking your opponents has been normalized in the culture of boxing. While development is important, the sport of boxing has taken this mentality to the extreme.
Mixed Martial Arts, on the other hand, is a lot faster paced. The UFC generally rushes their prospects and many of them lose marketability immediately. Bellator, on the other hand, has done a much better job and seems to have a fluid strategy for promoting prospects and marketable contenders.
Aaron Pico is an exception to Bellator’s general practices. MMA is just starting to bring in young athletes who began martial arts as children with a career in MMA in mind. Pico is one of those athletes, but he was rushed too quickly.
As much turbulence as Pico has faced in his career, he was not losing rounds in any of the fights he lost. The issue was never his skills. On the contrary, the losses he suffered were caused by shots he was not ready for or did not have the awareness to avoid. Pico lost due to a lack of experience.
On the other hand, Bellator deserves a lot of praise for how they have brought along talents like Michael ‘Venom’ Page. MVP is criticized for fighting unworthy opponents assigned to him by Bellator. Some of it is deserved, but understand this; MVP is a top European draw for that promotion and his brand is flashy KO’s and showboating. Mixed Martial Arts is a star-driven sport. Stars headline and thus are paid accordingly. So you want to keep expensive stars in the spotlight for as long as possible.
When it was possible to give MVP a challenge, Bellator put him into the Welterweight Grand Prix. Everyone cried that MVP got exposed when Douglas Lima KO’d him. Then Lima went on to win the title. The point is, Bellator gave MVP his opportunity at an appropriate time; he just came up short. Scott Coker, Bellator’s promoter, quickly went back to giving MVP opponents that would rebuild his mystique.
Fans want to see MVP flying-knee KO someone and then dance. If fans hate it, they will watch to see it done to him. Eventually, MVP can earn another shot at top talent, but throwing him right back in with a killer could have been so wasteful.
AJ McKee is a young contender with a huge upside. The promos Bellator shot with AJ in the bucket hat holding all of the shopping bags were clean. They did a great job putting his swagger on display. Even better, AJ made his pro debut under the Bellator banner. His first opponent has a professional record of 1-1. AJ McKee’s second opponent was 4-0.
Valerie Loureda is another homegrown talent, and both of her opponents so far have had losing records. James Gallagher came into Bellator with three fights, his first opponent had twelve fights and almost as many losses as wins. Gallagher’s opponent after that was 1-1. There is a trend here.
Bellator typically allows these young, marketable fighters to ease into the spotlight. With Aaron Pico, Bellator made a grave mistake. His first few opponents were way too experienced and some too proven to be in the cage with him. However, this should not outshine all of the careers that they are currently handling perfectly.
MMA promoters should use this approach more for both prospects and contenders. Give these fighters the opportunity to cement their fan bases, especially when they are so marketable.
Promotions should not cosset anyone or push them too quickly either. Bellator is setting a blueprint for MMA right now that is a compromise between the UFC’s rushing and Boxing’s lagging. When the Featherweight Grand Prix concludes, fans can trust Bellator to keep doing what is best for their fighters.
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