As the interests rise for combat sports worldwide, navigating the perils of building young stars presents challenges for promotions looking to build organic and long-lasting talent.
For the last 25 years, the UFC has dominated Mixed Martial Arts. Reality shows like The Ultimate Fighter, training complex meccas like the UFCPI, and the newly minted UFC Apex have led to the UFC juggernaut having a hold over much of the top talent and opportunities in fighting across the globe. Not to mention being under the wing of the greatest sports business conglomerate in WME/IMG led by Ari Gol… Ari Emmanuel.
Luckily, in the modern day of digital media, the proliferation of niche audiences and the prevalence of streaming for the modern consumer, other fight promotions have been finding their footing across the fighting globe. Bellator, Rizin, and One have all began to collect legitimate talent and the production value has risen tenfold in recent years. Much of that improvement has come as new streaming deals have opened doors not previously available to smaller organizations, such as the recent deal in place between Bellator and OTT network DAZN.
But as promotions grow in reach and credibility, one of the biggest challenges for young promotions, as with any professional league, is finding an identity. Finding the “face” is constantly at the forefront of marketing executives minds as they look to penetrate the mainstream circulation and hit the big bucks.
NBA: Magic &Bird. Jordan. LeBron. Swaggy P.
NFL: Namath. Montana. Aikman. Brady. OBJ.
MLB: Babe. Jackie. Reggie Jackson. Bonds. Jeter. Trout?
The NBA had Magic and Bird, Jordan, Swaggy P and LeBron. Transcendent stars. The NFL had Broadway Joe and Tom Brady. Those guys can make anything look cool. The MLB had the Babe, Jackie, Barry Bonds, Derek Jeter. World-tilting talent. The UFC has Connor McGregor. You get the point. These leagues (in the UFC’s case: promotion) found needle-movers and these athletes were pivotal in the growth and assimilation of the leagues into everyday culture and conversation.
But they don’t grow on trees. They have to be built up, tutored and groomed. Too much too early, and they end up like most child movie stars. Build them up with softballs and you get the over-inflated boxing records only to set the stage for Gods to be sat down by Gravy.
(Yes, the intricacies of the Ruiz v Joshua outcome are well reported: Ruiz is much better than his appearance, and Joshua was clipped in sparring just a few days before the fight. Nonetheless, if a photo could tell a thousand words…)
Which leads us to the precarious situation that Bellator has found itself in: establishing two young and supremely talented fighters with established fanbases and track records that hold up in any cage, octagon, or ring.
The difference? The approach Bellator has for one fighter is in stark contrast to the one it has for the other.
Yes, I’m talking about Scott Coker’s burgeoning stars: Former NCAA D1 All-American wrestler and WWE champion Jake Hager (Ring name: Jack Swagger) and his Featherweight counterpart: amateur wrestling World Champion, boxing golden glove winning, 3-seconds away from an Olympic team, Aaron Pico.
To break down typical promotional approaches to fighters, there have long been two theories. One being “throw them to the fire”, which is essentially the opposite of traditional boxing and also how the UFC cut its teeth early on. Find a strong opponent and test the kid. The other being “fluff the record”, give them experience and “mat-time” while letting them develop their skills against inferior opponents. A slow build that increases highlight reels and fanfare as undefeated records balloon into the 20’s and 30’s.
Now, Bellator has realized that they have two young studs who are able to sell tickets – and appear to have very successful careers ahead of them. The trick is how patient the promotion will be when it comes to these trained savages. Bellator has put their chips in the pot, signing the DAZN deal and stuffing their rosters with ex-UFC talent to help bring in sponsors and interest from fans. The time to move the needle seems to be now. Patience to get results may not be a resource for a promotion that has been seeing positive results and is pushing to continue that momentum.
So, they have two essentially homegrown, organic fighters that they can turn into stars. What do they do?
Well, Aaron Pico has dispatched a “disappointing” 4-3 record and is in the middle of a two-fight skid. For someone who was heralded as the Next Big Thing, this is troubling. But digging a little deeper, the combined record of his opponents is 95-29. That’s a win percentage of 77% and an average record of roughly 14-4. That much time in the cage gifts maturity and patience when fights get into deep waters. Youth might not recognize this as well, leading to some wild combinations and “rock ‘em sock ‘em” exchanges. While the willingness to bite down on the mouthpiece and swing until the lights go out is an admirable trait, it isn’t a recommended course of action for anyone, let alone a 22-year old. Racking up 3 quick losses against cage veterans hurts his star power for the near future, but everyone in the fight game is still holding the expectations high for Pico, and the popular belief is that if Bellator re-assesses their approach, they can get him on back in the win column with some developmental fights to grow his game before throwing him back into the fire.
Jake Hager? Well he’s enjoying a little different start. His only two opponents in the Bellator cage have held records of 0-2 and 1-2, respectively. I don’t need to do the math to let you know that’s quite a different caliber than the average 14-4 of Pico’s challengers. He is off to a good start getting his feet wet in the promotion, but it does raise some eyebrows when you see the stature of his opponents. Sorry, TJ.
Hager has done his job, finishing both fights early in the first round. But there aren’t too many part-time mechanics willing to take these fights, or at least there aren’t too many people willing to watch. Bellator is going to have to up the competition level and find a fight that, at its very least, doesn’t give us photos reminiscent of a poor man’s 21 Jump Street remake.
Now of course, Hager and Pico are not the same caliber when it comes to their fight experience and acumen. Pico is expected to be facing better talent, and likely is demanding to have those veteran fights due to his killer mentality and track record. The battle comes for Bellator to regain their patience and allow Pico to develop while growing his game as he mixes boxing with wrestling and puts together a full 15 or 25 minutes. Hager just needs to fight someone who can tie their shoes without getting winded and that will be a step up.
There is no special sauce when it comes to fighters, and no minor league system like the MLB to weed out talent and let prospects cut their teeth. In a kill or be killed game, sometimes you just have to bite down on the mouthpiece and see what happens.
I’m confident it will shake out positively for both Pico and Hager, but only time will tell.