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Former lightweight champion Benson Henderson has cut ties with the UFC, electing to pen a multi-fight deal with the Viacom-owned fight league, Bellator MMA.
News broke on Tuesday morning that Henderson had joined the California-based promotion, officially ending his long-standing relationship with Zuffa, the parent company of the UFC.
The split between both parties appears to be amicable, with Henderson thanking UFC president Dana White, CEO Lorenzo Fertitta, and over two dozen behind-the-scenes workers on his website.
White, the UFC figurehead, also spoke with MMA Junkie, calling the former two-division fighter a “great guy” who “got the best deal for him”.
To those paying close attention to this story, it wasn’t exactly a jaw-dropping announcement when ‘Bendo’ confirmed the move.
The conversation of free agency continues to pop up each time a fighter completes all their contracted bouts on a UFC deal.
Just a year ago, most fighters re-signed extensions with the company long before their final bout, but things have surely changed. And there’s no denying the UFC’s $70 million Reebok deal is a massive part of the problem.
For the 32-year-old Henderson, being handcuffed with a single sponsor ultimately led to a pay cut, and was a big reason behind his move.
“I won’t lie, it was a very big deal,” Henderson told ESPN when discussing the Reebok uniform agreement. “The ability to get sponsors on your own and not have to rely on the amount that Reebok dictates to you was a huge factor. I’d be straight up lying if I said it wasn’t a very big part of my decision to go to Bellator.”
Henderson could soon be joined by a few familiar faces in Bellator’s circular cage, as well.
At the time of writing, there are three noteworthy talents who could be Bellator bound if they are unable to come to terms with the UFC on a new agreement.
The most lucrative free agent on the market right now is Alistair Overeem, a former Strikeforce, DREAM, and K-1 World Grand Prix champion.
The herculean heavyweight has won four of his last five matches, and could be in line for a crack at UFC heavyweight champion Fabricio Werdum – a man he holds a 1-1 record against – if he puts pen to paper on a new deal.
Aljamain Sterling, the fifth-ranked bantamweight challenger, has also rolled the dice, testing his worth in the market, as well as former New York Giant and current heavyweight bruiser Matt Mitrione.
All three of these fighters are top 15 contenders in the UFC’s media-decided rankings and their departures would leave a sizable dent in two of the company’s weaker divisions.
High-profile stars exiting the UFC is only half of their concern, though. The Reebok deal is making it significantly harder for the company to attract the top rookies, as well.
Ed Ruth, a four-time All-American out of Penn State, is a former three-time national wrestling champion. The 25-year-old super athlete plans to win an Olympic gold medal at the 2016 Games in Rio de Janeiro, then start his campaign to get MMA gold around his waist.
Ruth is already contracted to debut in Bellator, with his MMA premiere set to take place sometime after the Olympics in August.
Currently Team USA’s number-one-ranked freestyle wrestler at 189 pounds, Ruth confessed that the free sponsorship market was a big reason behind choosing Bellator over the UFC.
“I didn’t really pay too much attention to the (Reebok sponsorship) tiers, but from what I understand it was $2500 for the first fight to five fights and then they go up from there,” Ruth told Sherdog.
“Being a wrestler, the numbers we see, they kind of don’t go up that quick. But still, somebody with my background and my credentials, everybody’s just looking to make as much as they possibly can. That was one of the big things for me. I was like, ‘Man, I can do a lot better than that.'”
And Ruth isn’t alone. Russian Muay Thai champion Anastasia Yankova fielded offers from both the UFC and Bellator before opting to sign with the lesser-known MMA promotion.
“All that matters is that I know the conditions of that offer in the UFC, and I know the conditions of Bellator,” Yankova told Russian news outlet MK.ru. “At this stage, Bellator had advantageous conditions, including in financial terms.”
When you factor in that Bellator has also acquired the contract of Aaron Pico, another 2016 Olympic hopeful who many have dubbed “the greatest prospect in MMA”, it’s clear that many believe the grass is greener in the controversial fight league.
Bellator’s recruiting team will surely continue hunting the hottest free agents, targeting former champions and pay-per-view magnets to bolster their burgeoning roster.
Scott Coker, the Bellator president, believes that Henderson’s signing is just the “tip of the iceberg”, and at this stage it’s hard to call him a liar.
“Fighters are fighting out their contacts,” he said on Ariel Helwani’s MMA Hour. “They want to negotiate. They really want to see what their value is. We’re going to help them to define what their value is. It’s always good for the industry to have more than one bidder.”