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Scott Coker is one of the most important promoters in the history of mixed martial arts. You really can’t tell the tale of this sport without detailing Strikeforce, his baby and blueprint. When Viacom bought Bellator MMA and ousted its founder, Bjorn Rebney, who did it turn to? Coker. No doubt about it, in a fickle business where nearly everyone fizzles and few seldom sizzle, he has had more successes than failures.
So how is it that such an influential and successful promoter can consistently do positively ill-advised, unconscientious and ridiculous things? Worst of all, why are they almost always centered around women?
Let’s get the jump before we get to the backstory. Bellator MMA recently signed taekwondo star Valerie Loureda, who is just 20 years old and 2-1 as an amateur. With her traditional martial arts background and her youth, she’s a prototypical Coker signing, and frankly, there’s nothing wrong with that. One of Coker’s skills as a promoter is to identify and promote nascent fighters, especially women, and put them on the map. After all, this is the man who made stars out of Cristiane “Cyborg” Justino and Ronda Rousey. Few promoters have helped advance women in this sport and done so successfully. Unfortunately, this particular case isn’t so forward-thinking or clever. In fact, it’s downright lamentable.
The promotion was hoping to have Loureda make her promotional debut at Bellator 216 on Feb. 16 at the Mohegan Sun Arena in Uncasville, Conn. Now, that’s all well and good, but it attempted to line up Loureda against Anastasia Bruce, who is 0-12 … as an amateur. Director of the Mohegan Tribe Department of Athletic Regulation Mike Mazulli on Tuesday refused to bless the Loureda-Bruce fight, denying Bruce’s role in the contest and forcing Bellator to seek out a new opponent for Loureda. That was a stellar decision on his part.
In all seriousness, how do you get this far out of your own head? This legitimately blows my mind. Coker has made a promotional career out of always being a little off the beaten path. He embraced women’s MMA at a time when UFC President Dana White said women would never set foot inside the Octagon; he is relentlessly fastened to old-school MMA tournaments; he put football star Herschel Walker in the cage; and he even staged Kevin “Kimbo Slice” Ferguson-Dhafir “Dada 5000” Harris. At times Coker can be goofy, maybe even sensationalist, but he typically does a smart job at taking potential stars and matching them ever-so-smartly to put the spotlight on them before figuring out whether or not they can be a drawing factor. In this case, I truly can’t fathom what the he and his crew were thinking. A 0-12 amateur fighter? Are you kidding me?
There is no precedent for this kind of insane stupidity. Take for instance when Coker signed boxer Heather Hardy in 2017. How did Bellator match her? Against a 4-5 fighter in Alice Yauger. Sure, it was not great competition, but at least it was someone who had won a fight in her competitive life. Hardy has more or less been a flame-out for Bellator through just three fights, but every step of the way, the promotion at least found her legitimate competition. Kristina Williams, who upset Hardy at Bellator 185, did not have a single pro fight to her name, but she was 3-0 as an amateur and has gone on to post a 3-1 pro record since. Ana Julaton at least had five MMA bouts and was 14-4-3 as a pro boxer. What is the angle here? Is Coker so desperate to build a good-looking Olympic traditional martial artist that he thinks it is imperative to put her against a complete jobber? Isn’t this allegedly the second-biggest MMA promotion in the world?
Kudos to Mazulli -- the head of the Association of Boxing Commissions and probably the most sensible and righteous regulator that we have in this sport -- for shutting down this pathetic attempted sham. As MMA fans, even in 2019, we need to confront promotional malpractice. You mean to tell me on the same night that Paul Daley and Michael Page are finally going to square off -- even if bizarrely it’s not in England -- that I’m going to watch an Olympic-level taekwondo artist kick the face off of a 0-12 amateur fighter? Coker is not stupid, and his right-hand man Rich Chou is a solid matchmaker. What went wrong here?
I can’t chalk this up to anything other than desperation. As I’ve said, Coker is a smart, inventive and enterprising MMA promoter, but when you’re putting your blessing on decisions like this, it’s hard to believe that you’re not feeling the grind. In 2018, Bellator averaged 532,000 viewers when factoring in DVR +3 ratings. That’s not exactly immaculate. It has two champions on the roster under 30 years of age in Ilima-Lei Macfarlane (28) and Rory MacDonald (29). The fire is under Coker. He has got to make something happen, in terms of creating Paramount ratings, DAZN subscriptions or just interesting stars in general. However, I can guarantee you how it doesn’t happen, and that’s with 0-12 amateur fighters.