Bellator president Scott Coker returned backstage in San Diego a proud man. The promotion he has led since 2014 celebrated its 300th show, where three of its champions, Usman Nurmagomedov, Cris Cyborg, and Liz Carmouche, all defended their titles at the Pechanga Arena. But, while the night was a celebration of a milestone event in the company’s history, there was a sizeable elephant in the room as Coker fielded questions from the media.
Before talk turned to the in-cage action, that elephant was addressed head-on, as Coker was asked about the rumors constantly linking Bellator with a sale. The Professional Fighters League (PFL) has been identified as the frontrunner to acquire the promotion, with speculation suggesting they would either absorb Bellator into their own roster, or even continue to run Bellator as a separate product.
When he was asked about the situation in the lead-up to fight night in California, Coker had light-heartedly told journalists to revisit the topic with him after the event. When the same journalists, led by MMA Junkie’s Matt Erickson, duly did, Coker remained guarded as he fended off the questions with a smile, and a distinct lack of concrete information.
“Yeah, as you guys know… I mean, listen, two weeks ago, it was like, ‘Oh, this thing’s going down in a week.’ A month ago, it was, ‘This thing’s been going back and forth for how long? For the last six months.’ And so, for me, I don’t want to really engage in any speculation or see where the future goes, as far as, is the deal gonna happen? Is it not gonna happen?” he said.
“These things take time. And until the time gets solidified, to me it’s just speculation. So I can’t engage in that, because it’s really unfair, I think, to the promotion of the 300th event.”
The event itself was a huge success. Despite losing its heavyweight championship main event bout between Ryan Bader and Linton Vassell in the lead-up to fight night, the show went on, with a championship triple-header at the top of the card. But the championship futures of the likes of Nurmagomedov, Cyborg, and Carmouche – as well as the other champions on the Bellator roster – remains unclear. Coker admitted there was a lack of clarity, but also explained that, despite his hands-on involvement in the day-to-day operations of Bellator as a fight promotion, when it comes to commenting on the machinations of a potential sale or merger, that’s something that’s above his pay grade.
“We had some great fights tonight, we’ve been doing some great fights over the last eight, nine years. And this company has grown so much. Tonight’s a celebration,” he said.
“So, as far as like, from two days ago till today, I honestly don’t have an update. It’s basically the same. So I’d be making something up just to make you happy. But really, it’s the same situation it was two days ago. So, you know, hopefully, there is some clarity soon, and it will find out what’s going on.
“Keep in mind, guys, I don’t own Bellator. Bellator is not my company to own, to sell, to keep, to merge. It’s owned by Viacom, and they have a process that they do, and they’re doing what they need to do. But it’s not something that I own to sell or not, so that’s the truth.”
Coker has been in a similar position in the past. He owned and ran the popular Strikeforce promotion that was eventually purchased by the UFC in 2011. The key difference, however, was that Coker was in the thick of the negotiations as the deal was done. This time, he isn’t.
“The difference is, I owned Strikeforce, right? This is something that I don’t own,” he explained.
“So it’s hard for me to really comment on that, because it’s completely different now. There are some feelings that feel the same. But, at the end of the day, it’s not my company.”
It was a tricky spot for Coker to find himself in. As the promotion’s popular front man, he has engaged the media throughout his career, with his affable, laid-back approach winning him plenty of fans among fighters and media alike. With Bellator’s future looking far from clear, questions were obviously going to be asked of him. But Coker was both careful not to get ahead of himself, and also mindful of the need for the questions to be asked. He kept his good humour as the session wore on and talk turned to his own contractual situation, and the possibility of him being subject to a non-compete clause.
“Ah, you guys thought I was gonna have some kind of speech today and make some kind of announcement? Well, here it is. There’s no announcement!” he grinned.
“I have a contract with Viacom (and) I’m gonna honor my contract with Viacom, or Paramount actually, now. So to me, there’s a lot of uncertainty and a lot of unknowns right now. But hopefully we’ll have some clarity soon and everybody can figure it out.
“I don’t want to get into my contractual status with Viacom, but I will say this, you can only do a non-compete when you when you’re the owner, right? So, I’m not the owner of a company. But I’m not gonna get into the details of when it expires or how it goes or any of those details. But, especially when I live in California, it’s a much different, work environment there. But, you know, it’s a good question.”