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Bellator? ONE? RIZIN? KSW? ACA? PFL… Which Promotion Really is #2?

A post shared by Johann Castro (@thejohanncastro) on Aug 5, 2018 at 2:33pm PDT

On a weekend in which Bellator hosts two events, ONE hosts one (ba dum tiss), and the UFC just so happens to host one outside of its regional empire (the West), your’s truly decides to embark on a study to answer one of the sport’s most intriguing questions. With the UFC still, and likely forever to be, at the very top of the mixed martial arts promotional landscape, the question that always arises but never really gets answered: which promotion really is number two? Which promotion is the de facto go to for MMA fans in the event of a non-UFC weekend?

Let’s start by looking at the candidates, starting with North America’s default number two, Bellator.

A post shared by Bellator MMA (@bellatormma) on Oct 21, 2019 at 9:39am PDT

Bellator has slowly but surely built themselves up both in North America and Europe by creating an atmosphere of comfortability among fighters uncomfortable with the UFC’s methods of business, along with the desires of many fighters to retain their sponsorships and an alternative opportunity presented with fewer eyes but a perception of an easier route to a title or stardom given the proper circumstances. In recent years, Bellator has also become the home to many high profile free agents departing the UFC, looking for growth and possible profit gains elsewhere. Fighters like Cris Cyborg, Lyoto Machida, Gegard Mousasi, Rory MacDonald, Benson Henderson, Lorenz Larkin, and a great many others have either left the UFC with hopes of an extra promotional push in Bellator, or joined Bellator out of the gate- prospects like Aaron Pico, AJ McKee, and Neiman Gracie to list a few- with the hopes of becoming the promotion’s equivalent to a megastar. Another potential positive for Bellator, and almost every other nominee on this list, is that the promotion only averages a small number of events per year, as Bellator specifically averages around 22 events per year. While not nearly as many as the UFC’s 42, many fans will argue that the product is superior and not nearly as diluted as such.

The big negative for Bellator, however, is the lack of notoriety outside of main cards. It is extremely common for the promotion to host guys with less than five professional fights on the prelims, most of whom are making a one time appearance due to locational purposes. Bellator also hosts “postlims,” fights that take place after the conclusion of the main event, which gets the promotion panned from many people, myself included.

Overall, though, Bellator puts on outstanding fights, outstanding events, and brings MMA to some of the forgotten areas where MMA fans are far more abundant than we may think. Bellator’s main events are also the most impactful of the group, usually due to the perception of star-building going on within the promotion. On a grading scale from A to F, with the UFC epitomizing the A grade, Bellator probably gets a B+ to B grade when it comes to relevancy. Not nearly as high as the UFC, but without a doubt carries plenty of weight with their massive free agent signings and sometimes massive, sport-rattling main events.

Bellator Grade: A-

From Bellator, North America’s number two promotion, we go to Asia’s likely number one, ONE Championship.

A post shared by ONE Championship (@onechampionship) on Oct 24, 2019 at 6:58am PDT

Similar to Bellator, ONE has really built itself up and skyrocketed massively in popularity over the last few years, in both Asia and even in North America, with their recent television deal signing in the United States with TNT. Recently apexing with their 100th event in Tokyo, ONE has also been doing a terrific job of expansion into the more traditional Asian market of Japan, where each event hosted (three altogether, as ONE Century was unofficially two events in one) has been a mega event for the company, analogous to how UFC 200 and UFC 205 were both massive for the enterprise building of the UFC. Most importantly, though, ONE has built an MMA empire in Southeast Asia the same way the UFC has in North America and Western Europe, and ONE is arguably (along with possibly KSW in Poland and the Baltics) the only promotion on this list that can stake a claim to having a regional grip on the sport, massive for a promotion other than the UFC, in a sport where the UFC’s power within MMA is sometimes equated to the NFL’s power in American football, or the NBA in basketball.

Why is this so massive? Because ONE controls the vast majority of the talent circulating in a region with so much untapped talent. To give any idea, how many Thai fighters are in the UFC? The answer is one, Loma Lookboonme, who coincidentally fights in Singapore this weekend. Outside of her, ONE has almost every successful Thai fighter in the sport, also within the sport of kickboxing as well. How many Singaporean fighters does the UFC have rostered? None, at the moment. Briefly, they had Singaporean flyweight Royston Wee under contract, but he lost his only two Octagon appearances and was shipped back the way he came. The same question could be asked about Indonesian fighters, or Burmese fighters, or pretty much any indigenous Southeast Asian fighters. That regional control alone puts ONE firmly in that conversation of being the UFC’s biggest competitor, rivalling that of only Bellator- if not bigger than Bellator, itself.

There are few complaints about ONE. Some fans have a tendency to complain that their events typically include more than just MMA, as they often include and are, in fact, sometimes headlined by kickboxing or Muay Thai bouts. Those complaints are typically drowned out vastly by the appraisal that the majority of fans have for the presence of something alternative to just the base MMA event. It’s hard to find a weakness with ONE. Perhaps another could be that aforementioned regional control, hosting all events in a singular region in the same 10 or so cities, but again, the vast majority of fans could honestly care less, especially now with American fans having the luxury of catching the fights on tape delay on TNT. To grade ONE, honestly, I’d probably have to give them a grade of A-, not quite on the level of the UFC, but massive in other areas of the world- in a sport where global relevance is, obviously, massive.

ONE Championship Grade: A-

From Asia’s de facto number one promotion, we move on to the successor of PRIDE, Asia’s original number one, and look at RIZIN.

A post shared by RIZIN FF OFFICIAL (@rizin_pr) on Oct 4, 2019 at 2:16am PDT

Now, RIZIN is like that old school MMA promotion with that “f*ck you” attitude of anything goes. I’ll stick to that mindset regarding any promotion that lets Bob Sapp fight in 2019. Despite its “freakshow” nature, RIZIN does have a handful of highly elite fighters who could easily squeeze into a multitude of pound-for-pound divisional rankings in many classes. An example of this would be Kyoji Horiguchi, quite possibly the best bantamweight and flyweight in the world (yes, still so, despite the loss to Asakura. Sorry, haters.), and Jiri Prochazka, a light heavyweight who continues to push into the pound-for-pound discussion at 205. So, to discount RIZIN just as being one for craziness and freakshow fights would be disparaging to the promotion, as it has produced quite a bit of top flight MMA talent.

As for the complaints, or weaknesses, of RIZIN, well, let’s start with that “f*ck it” attitude and that old school PRIDE mentality of anything goes. In the world of MMA in 2019, that just simply won’t draw eyeballs like it once did. MMA used to be popular because of its freakshow nature, but has evolved drastically since then, becoming well…a sport, as opposed to a sideshow attraction like it was when PRIDE was really making its run atop the mixed martial arts universe. Don’t get me wrong, it’s cool as f*ck to have something like that for us MMA-loving degenerates to watch early in the morning when the adrenaline of a UFC card hasn’t yet worn off, but to consider that as the second most powerful MMA entity in 2019 would be nothing short of a vast overstatement. Another downside of RIZIN, depending on point of view, is their extreme lack of events. RIZIN hosts, on average, roughly a massive grand total of a whopping six events per year. As mentioned above, some MMA fans love fewer events, and it probably wouldn’t hurt the UFC to cut back on some themselves, but just having six events in a calendar year just simply doesn’t cut it for the hardcore MMA fan in 2019.

One thing RIZIN always does is puts on outstanding fights, regardless of how infrequent they are. Again, it’s fun for MMA fans to catch crazy bouts involving semi-circus freak fighters like Gabi Garcia, but when it comes to grading RIZIN as the number two promotion, especially behind the UFC, it would be moot to put them even close to the same tier. Because of the fun fights and entertaining atmosphere, I’ll give RIZIN a grade of C. But ultimately, they won’t be on the level of Bellator, ONE, nor of course the UFC when it comes to promotional prestige.

RIZIN Grade: C

So we checked Asia’s two biggest promotions, now let’s check Europe’s, starting with the Poland-based KSW.

A post shared by KSW (@ksw_mma) on Oct 1, 2019 at 2:30am PDT

One thing I’ve noticed from my scouring of research for this writing is that, they’re may not be a better live MMA spectacle than KSW. From the walkouts, to the fights themselves, to what occurs in between fights, KSW always brings a ton of entertainment to the MMA fan. In fact, I’d go as far as to say seeing a KSW event live has hit my bucket list, and if I ever make a trip to Poland, that’ll likely be the primary piece on my agenda. As for the fights, entertainment is always a given, as is the case with almost every single MMA promotion. Keep in mind I’ve watched local amateur MMA for a very long time, and I’ve seen all I can see, from a 56-year-old man participating in a kickboxing bout on roughly 10 minutes notice, to even volunteering to step in myself for a fight that fell out when the card was “too shallow.” So, anything to get the fight going, I’m all for. BUT REMEMBER, this isn’t about entertainment, at least necessarily. This is about which promotion truly is number two globally behind the UFC. KSW has produced and still has a great deal of elite fighters. Ariane Lipski, Marcin Tybura, and Adam Wieczorek all originated from KSW, and Michal Materla has been slated to make his UFC debut twice, once in a headlining spot against Thiago Santos. So, KSW has talent. But are they number two?

Short answer and long answer, no. Not even close. No disrespect to the Polish based promotion, it, similar to ONE, has somewhat of a regional hold on the Baltic Region, but considering a great deal of Western fans have no clue it even exists, it’s hard to hold it on the same pedestal as Bellator or ONE, even RIZIN. I’d grade KSW a D in promotional prestige. Again, they put on an outstanding show, I want to see it live myself. But, come on now. It’s not the global number two promotion. Get a US TV deal, gain a footing in the West, and maybe that can change, because god knows it’s a lot of fun to watch for those of us who are aware of it.

KSW Grade: D

Now on to the successor of M-1 as the biggest promotion in Russia and the former USSR region, ACA.

A post shared by ACA MMA (@aca_mma) on Oct 21, 2019 at 8:10am PDT

ACA is the biggest wildcard on this list, because talent-wise, they rival ONE and Bellator in terms of depth. Zabit Magomedsharipov, Petr Yan, Askar Askarov, and Anatoly Tokov among a great deal of others all found their professional footing in ACA, formerly ACB and WFCA. ACA undoubtedly produces top notch talent, but similar to KSW, its biggest problem is exposure, at least in the West. ACA has held events in the United States, Germany, and the Netherlands among others, but considering many MMA fans lack knowledge of its existence remains a problem. M-1 still exists in Russia, and while it’s not nearly what it once was as a formidable rival to the UFC, I’d venture to guess more fans are aware of its existence as opposed to ACA, even though ACA has far surpassed it in terms of talent acquisition, promotion, and popularity in Russia and Eastern Europe. Perhaps that’s all ACA wants, or needs, to be successful, but to be the number two MMA promotion globally, that, unfortunately will not cut it. No relevance in North America or Western Europe will not breed a great deal of success on a global scale. Oh, and I would imagine being the go-to entertainment hub for Ramzan Kadyrov can’t help your success outside of that region too much either.

I’d grade ACA with a B-, strictly on talent alone. But prestige wise, again, so few outside of Eastern Europe are actually aware of just what ACA produces. If ACA can somehow gain some footing in the West, I could honestly see it rivalling Bellator in the future.

ACA Grade: B-

And finally, time to tackle the red-headed step child of this entire list, the only MMA promotion that does nightly tournaments and doesn’t allow elbows in competition…ugh, PFL.

A post shared by PFLmma (@pflmma) on Oct 7, 2019 at 4:55pm PDT

Now, before I completely tear into PFL for its asinine rule about elbows, let me be the first to say that I am a big proponent of the one-night tournament. The PRIDE and old school UFC feel alone make it something to marvel. Pair that with their ESPN+ streaming deal, and PFL is all of the sudden a more relevant name and more present in the minds of people than it ever could’ve dreamed of being when it was on that weird network that like six people in the entire US have access to, I think it’s called NBCSN but I honestly don’t remember, or care to be honest. PFL does have an originality factor that provides a unique taste on modern MMA, blending the old school format with the modern day rules, except for…elbows.

And yes, this alone is the reason I rank PFL so low. With Muay Thai being my mother art, the idea of not being allowed to use elbows in MMA is insulting to me. Now, I understand why they don’t allow it, because too much blood and too many lacerations would prevent a fighter who potentially could’ve won from competing any further, which then creates worlds of chaos, thus rendering the tournament format almost unusable. My response to that: TOO. F*CKING. BAD. This is MMA. Elbows, blood, and lacerations, among so many other things, are part of this sport. And even though I probably sound like the “Just Bleed” guy right now, to sit there and completely eliminate an aspect of MMA that literally every other promotion on the planet allows makes me discount the product you’re serving forth. It almost makes me not view PFL wins as real, traditional MMA wins, because if your rules aren’t really the same, then are your champions legit worldbeaters? Eliminating a rule for the sake of a desired format will lead to skepticism such as this, and you only bring it on yourself with rules like, “NO ELBOWS.” The no elbows rule alone makes me grade PFL with an F. And it’s sad, because the promotion really has a lot of potential, but eliminating one rule for the sake of some archaic format makes me lose all my faith in you.

PFL Grade: F

Now, there are other great promotions, like LFA, CFFC, M-1, Island Fights, Invicta, and so many others that I could’ve included but I simply couldn’t compare, as the six I gave, along with the UFC, of course, are widely considered the seven largest promotions in the world in terms of talent, live gates, prestige, attention, media, entertainment value, and a whole slew of other factors.

A post shared by ufc (@ufc) on Oct 12, 2019 at 2:37pm PDT

Ultimately, what I really take away from this article is that, there are two promotions that can really stake claim as the global number two, Bellator and ONE. And while this may not serve as a surprise to the vast majority of fans, it really comes as a more of a shock to me than you’d probably think. Being an MMA purist, I have this optimistic, and sometimes foolish, idea that all MMA is created equal. And hey, I’ll still think that when it’s all said and done, but from a business standpoint, there is one singular takeaway. The UFC is, and likely always will be, the kingpin of the mixed martial arts landscape.■

Follow Johann on Twitter: @thejohanncastro

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