Mixed martial arts-Bellator set to go toe-to-toe with UFC in Europe

DUBLIN, Feb 22 (Reuters) - A new TV deal in Britain and a focus on the European market from American mixed martial arts promotion Bellator will open more opportunities for fighters outside of the dominance of the UFC, Conor McGregor's coach John Kavanagh has told Reuters.

The Irish MMA pioneer says that Saturday's event in his hometown of Dublin, which will be broadcast on Sky Sports in the UK and Ireland, will mark the start of a new era in the sport.

"Saturday night is a changing point for what it is to be an MMA fighter in Ireland and the UK. Until now if you're a pro on the local scene, you're fighting for a couple of hundred euros.

"Now with Bellator and the Sky Sports deal, there's opportunities for guys to make a living, and not just the top guys," explained Kavanagh, who shepherded former two-weight champion McGregor and many others to success in the UFC.

Aspiring pro fighters like McGregor who trained at Kavanagh's Straight Blast Gym previously aimed to get to the UFC. But Kavanagh says that Bellator's rise has opened up more opportunities, and that the vast majority of his current fighters have signed deals with them.

"The UFC is going to do what the UFC is going to do, think they are more invested in the American and maybe the Chinese market now as of late, and Bellator are more in the European market," he said.

"My relationship is very strong with Bellator and I'm committed to helping them corner the European market."

Fighters and officials spoke to the media on Thursday ahead of Saturday's Bellator 216 card at Dublin's O2 Arena where brash 22-year-old James Gallagher, thought of as the heir to McGregor, tops the bill in a bantamweight bout against Steven Graham.

Asked what made him choose Bellator over the UFC or another rival promotion, Gallagher laughs.

"A load of money! I've always wanted to display my skills on the biggest stage, and the offer they made me changed my life. It enables me to train day in, day out. I've got no worries, only to show up, train and win," the submission specialist from Strabane in Northern Ireland told Reuters.

European fighters trying to make their mark in the sport often struggle to make ends meet financially, and former amateur world champion Leah McCourt says Bellator's investment and the Sky TV deal will make it easier for them.

"It's life-changing for all of us, to be able to make a living rather than being in debt after every fight and paying our expenses," she said.

"I think we work harder than any athletes in the world to be able to step in that cage and fight, so it's so exciting to have such a massive audience now."

STRUGGLE TO COMPETE

Started in California in 2008, Bellator has previously struggled to compete on an equal footing with the UFC, which celebrated its 25th anniversary in 2018 and boasts big names like McGregor, Jon Jones and the retired Ronda Rousey.

The UFC introduced the concept of staging fights with very limited rules in an octagonal cage back in 1993 and generates much of its revenue from pay-per-view events staged mostly in the U.S.

It was sold in 2017 for around four billion dollars to Talent agency WME-IMG and no other promotion has ever really threatened its dominance.

More recently, Bellator has tried to take them on by signing popular ex-UFC fighters and staging high-profile fights of their own. But the sudden pivot to Europe and the announcement of deals in Britain with Sky Sports and Channel 5 is a huge boost to the promotion's credibility and visibility.

"We are coming here and it's not just a toe in the water – it's coming in fully-fledged with a really big proposal, to come into Europe and put on some really big shows, showcase the talent and give them a roadmap to fighting all over the world," David Green, Bellator's Head of Europe, told Reuters.

Though the TV deal with Sky Sports is only for one year initially, Green says that the promotion is taking a long-term view.

"We don't need a quick win. We're trying to build this in the right way, building public awareness, brand awareness, the size of the gates... certainly, there is an opportunity to be the biggest in Europe, without a doubt."

Can they be the biggest in the world?

"Well, you know, you've got to aim high," Green said with a wry smile. (Editing by Christian Radnedge)

02/22/2019 7:41

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