Scott Coker gets to do what they always say you can’t: He’s going home again.
The Bellator MMA president will see his fight promotion make its debut on Showtime on Friday night, as Bellator 255 comes to Mohegan Sun Arena in Uncasville, Conn., for an event headlined by featherweight champion Patricio “Pitbull” Freire defending the title against Emmanuel Sanchez in a rematch of their 2018 brawl.
But while this will be the first time with Bellator, the 13-year-old organization which has for years been considered the second most-prominent mixed martial arts outfit behind the omnipresent UFC, Coker made his name in combat sports as the founder and CEO of former Showtime partner Strikeforce. In speaking with The Post via Zoom last Wednesday, Coker compared the restored working relationship to “a family reunion.”
That partnership enjoyed a successful run, consistently running shows from April 2009 through January 2013 prominently featuring future UFC champions Daniel Cormier, Fabricio Werdum, Luke Rockhold, Tyron Woodley and Robbie Lawler as well as all-time greats Fedor Emelianenko and Dan Henderson. It also embraced women’s MMA before the UFC did, giving contemporary and future stars Ronda Rousey, Amanda Nunes and Cris “Cyborg” Justino a bigger platform than women in the sport had received before.
“When I sold Strikeforce [to the UFC] in ‘11 and we continued to operate until , I felt like there was some unfinished business,” Coker said. “To me, when I joined Bellator [in 2014], I said I don’t know what’s gonna happen, but at some point, it would be nice to get back on Showtime.”
Coker noted that the Viacom-CBS merger opened the door for a transition from Paramount Network, which mostly featured non-sports programming such as “Bar Rescue,” to longtime combat sports home Showtime.
Although nothing is finalized, Coker said the goal would be to hold two to three Bellator events per month, or about 20 to 22 events for this year due to the later start to Bellator’s schedule — which he chalked up to finding the right alignment with their new broadcast partner after initially planning to start earlier in the year. Mohegan Sun will host the fights through June “for sure,” Coker said.
“Right now, the company feels we should stay inside the bubble and quarantine and test and do exactly what we’ve been doing,” Coker said, pointing to the success they’ve had with it since resuming events in July. “… The worry is that we’ll go [to Florida or Texas], and we’ll be one of the super-spreader events.”
“I think we’re so close, and with the vaccines kicking in … they would like us just to wait,” he continued. “And then, when it’s time, when the country opens up, then we’ll go. And I’m fine with that. We have to be a little bit patient right now.”
The broadcast presentation will take on the typical Showtime combat sports aesthetic as well, according to Coker.
“Bellator is going to have a stylized Showtime style to it. You’ll see the change,” Coker said.
Coker confirmed that the broadcast team will include returning John McCarthy, Josh Thomson and Jenn Brown. Mauro Ranallo, who has called everything from Strikeforce and Pride MMA to boxing and pro wrestling, was already announced to be returning to Bellator for the move to Showtime, providing a familiar voice to those who remember his work with Strikeforce.
Bellator also will be utilizing more active fighters on their broadcasts, beginning with A.J. McKee on Friday. McKee will meet the winner of Pitbull (31-4, 22 finishes) and Sanchez (20-4, nine finishes) in the $1 million-prize final of the pandemic-delayed Featherweight World Grand Prix Tournament in what Coker hopes will be decided around the end of June into July, barring injuries. The Bellator president said they would aim to have a fighter from the about-to-begin light heavyweight tournament join the broadcast for one of their next few fight cards this month as the multi-stage event gets underway.
Not accompanying Bellator to Showtime is Mike Goldberg, the former UFC play-by-play man who had been with Bellator since 2017.
“Mike Goldberg is not going to be part of the mix moving forward,” Coker said. “But I think we had a great run with Mike, and the door’s always going to be open.”
Additionally, Michael C. Williams will continue as Bellator’s ring announcer, a role he has held since 2010.
With Alistair Overeem’s recent release from the UFC, following a knockout defeat at the hands of Alexander Volkov, the natural fit for the 40-year-old heavyweight’s next home would appear to be Bellator. Coker first met Overeem two decades ago, considers him an all-time great, and employed the former kickboxing world champion during his time with Strikeforce.
But there’s more to making that pairing work, Coker says.
“Here’s what I told Alistair’s management, I said, ‘Look, we’re not gonna sign Alistair to a two-year deal or a three-year deal for so many fights.’ We’re gonna build him for what? He’s already done it all, right?” he said. “… But I did tell him, ‘Look, if you get another deal somewhere else that’s a multiyear deal and is good for Alistair, then go do your thing. But if you can carve out superfights, then we might sit down and we could do maybe a fight with Fedor [Emelianenko] or maybe down the line we could put something together’ because Fedor will fight sometime this year. I just want to talk to him first, make sure he’s good.”
Emelianenko, perhaps the greatest heavyweight in MMA’s brief history who once lorded over Pride and it’s legendary stable of big men, remains contracted to Bellator at age 44. An Overeem vs. Emelianenko fight was a dream matchup from Strikeforce’s World Heavyweight Grand Prix of a decade ago that never came to fruition, one that could hold some nostalgic appeal as both approach the respective ends of their careers.
Coker said that Emelianenko will attend the April 16 fight of protege Vadim Nemkov, Bellator’s light heavyweight champion, as he defends his belt for the first time against Phil Davis as part of the opening round of the light heavyweight tournament. The two sides will meet and discuss what’s next for the Russian.
Without Overeem under contract, that fight is off the table for now, but it’s still a bout Coker “would love to see” happen eventually.
“The door’s always open for [Overeem],” Coker said.
Coker and Bellator appear to see the unbeaten McKee as a potential face of the organization, sooner or later. It makes sense, given that his entire pro career had been contested under their banner since his 2015 debut.
A second-generation fighter, McKee is the son of Antonio McKee, who went 30-6 between 1999 and 2019, with his final bout coming with Bellator via TKO. The elder McKee once went unbeaten (14-0-1) over eight years before losing his only UFC bout by split decision. Antonio’s grinding wrestling style was not as aesthetically pleasing as that of A.J., who has three wins via knockout and four by submission over the past four years.
Coker admitted that, while he and Bellator “love the McKees, and they’re great people,” Antonio “wasn’t [my] favorite fighter to watch.”
“In fact, when A.J. fought and he actually started kicking, I said, ‘You know, I think you threw more kicks in this fight than your dad did in his whole career.’ ”