01 Jan Bellator 252 notebook: Scott Coker on best 145er in the world, Jake Hager’s future, SBG vs. ‘Pitbull’ brothers
Before Bellator 252, featuring the restart of the promotion’s featherweight grand prix, Bellator President Scott Coker spoke to MMA Fighting about the stakes of the tournament, his promotional strategy since taking the reins in 2014, the biggest team rivalry under the Bellator banner, and more.
Will the featherweight grand prix winner be the best in the world at 145 pounds?
Esther Lin, MMA Fighting
Coker: I think so. That’s just how I feel, but I definitely think so. When I think about this main event, Pedro Carvalho is no joke. I think he calls himself ‘The Hunter,’ and he’s coming after ‘Pitull.’ He wants to be the champion. But I went through some of [Freire’s] fights, even before I got here, and the guy is just a machine. He reminds me of a young Roberto Duran. He’s just scruffy, and he’s going to bring it. He does not care if he’s in your face. I’ve never seen the kid in a boring fight. His knockout and style of fighting is something I personally love. And Pedro is coming to fight, and you never know what’s going to happen in a fight. But he’s going to have his hands full.
On recent signings of up-and-coming talent versus big-name talent
Photo via Khabib’s IG
Coker: We’re still in the business of signing free agents. We’re still in the business of signing the next generation. It’s just that what happens is it takes time to build the talent. For instance, one of the guys we signed early on is Aaron Pico, a blue-chip prospect, and Ed Ruth, right out of the wrestling program. I don’t think we weren’t [signing up-and-comers] [earlier in his time with Bellator], but to fill the fights we had to sign some of the free agents that we brought on and let the veterans fight each other. Because it takes years to build a prospect, or have a prospect that you can build into your semi-main event or main event. It just took a little bit more time than I thought – maybe a year or two.
But now, we have a ton of super young kids that are really talented, and the top blue-chip prospects have been coming here. If you look at Usman [Nurmagomedov], he’s one of the kids we’ve been trying to sign for the last six months, so he finally comes here, and Magomed Magomedov, he’s another we’ve been trying to get to come over here. We’ll definitely find diamonds in the rough. The guys that are coming straight from wrestling and jiu-jitsu, those are the ones who take a little longer. So yes, we just signed some fighters, we had some big free-agent fights, and now, I feel really good about where our roster is. But we’re not out of the free agency business. But we’re also in the business of building the next stars of MMA like we did in Strikeforce. It’s the same formula. It just took a little bit longer.
On Bellator’s new home on CBS Sports Network
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Coker: If you talk to anybody at CBS or Viacom, they are fully supportive. They really enjoy Bellator. It’s a company owned by the parent company. The merger happened, and then COVID hit. So everything got stalled out. But I think CBS has been a great partner. I love seeing all the stories and interviews and all the additional thing that CBS.com brings to the table. And this is just the beginning. I think in the future you’ll see our fights on different locations. We won’t be on one network, but two or three networks in the future.
I know that [CBS Sports Network is] extremely happy with the fights we’ve been putting on, and it’s definitely gaining momentum.
On Jake Hager’s future in Bellator
Coker: I’ll tell you, people give this guy a bad time. I’m a fan, and I’ll tell you why. This guy does not need to be doing this. It takes a lot of guts to step in that cage to fight, especially with a guy who’s had success in pro wrestling. He’s got a lot of people – he’s got a lot of fans that love him, and a lot of fans that hate him. I think a lot of people are too harsh on this guy, because he really is a beginner fighter. This guy is just starting, and it’s going to take time. The guy that he fought, he was tough. That guy could punch. They were in a slugfest, and he won, and he gets my respect for some of the shots he took.
He was going to go home, and they took him to a specialist the next day so he was OK to travel, and then he went home. They wanted the swelling to go down [in his face] before he went to the doctor to see if he had an orbital fracture. I think we’ll check in on him by the end of the week to see how he is.
When I think about guys like him, even Bobby Lashley in Strikeforce, he’s a guy that I always felt like if this guy can just focus on MMA, he can really become something. Not that he didn’t get all these great successes, but if they could just focus on fighting, they have such athletic ability, they just need consistency to expand their skills. With both of those guys, if they could just stay in the cage, they could develop into something really special.
On the SBG vs. Pitbull brothers rivalry
Coker: These guys don’t like each other, and there is a little bit of a hatred between the gyms. But unfortunately, because of COVID, everybody’s on the same floor [at the Mohegan Sun. They’re going to see each other in the halls somewhere along the way. But I’m being very, very conscious at the weigh-ins. When they get into each other’s face at the weigh-ins, the one thing I tell them, ‘Boys, no one gets paid today. Don’t fight for free.’ Something happens? The fight’s off. The commission calls it.
On Brandon Girtz’s dustup with Mohegan Tribe Department of Athletic Regulation Executive Director Michael Mazzulli
Coker: I think that was an unfortunate situation, and Mike did apologize to him. I think it was the right thing to do, and we just move on. Everyone’s entitled to having a hiccup. In all the years I dealt with Mike, he’s been very professional and straightforward. I just think it was just an unfortunate situation, but he made it right. I think they fist-bumped it – they didn’t high-five – but everybody’s OK.