Bellator Fighting Championships won’t make its live debut on SpikeTV until early 2013, but the first great challenge of the company’s brave new future may come much sooner than that.
Three months from now, Bellator’s longest standing and best known star will become a free agent. Whether or not the organization can re-sign him -- show him the money, I guess, or lose him forever -- might tell us a lot about its overall prospects, even as the promise of an increased market share, ad revenue and exposure all loom just beyond the end of the Mayan Calendar.
Eddie Alvarez, after all, has been there since the beginning.
Alvarez was around during Bellator's ESPN Deportes days; the tape-delay days; the shoestring, wing-and-a-prayer days back before Bellator was welcomed into the Viacom family and destined for a cushy programming spot on a cable network with a proven record of success broadcasting mixed martial arts. As Bellator’s first lightweight champion and the guy who (almost by default) was the face of the company prior to the rise of Michael Chandler, it will be a shame if Alvarez isn’t there as the promotion officially begins its 2.0 phase.
A shame for everybody -- except maybe Eddie Alvarez.
The 28-year-old Philadelphia-native has already spent three of the most precious years of his athletic career -- specifically, those where he was considered one of the world’s top five lightweights -- marooned on Isle Bellator, fighting whoever matchmakers could turn up on loot. Josh Neer. Roger Huerta. Shinya Aoki. Alvarez’s list of previous opponents reads like a who’s who of nomadic journeymen. His loss to Chandler in a fight-of-the-year-caliber brawl in Nov., 2011 badly hurt his standing in the division, reducing him to (at best) a peripheral member of the 155-pound top 10 and given the dearth of big names on Bellator’s current roster, there isn’t a lot of opportunity to rebuild his reputation, short of one day avenging that defeat.
You think Gilbert Melendez feels like an exile because he’s stuck in Strikeforce? Imagine how Alvarez must feel.
At this point, it’s pretty much Chandler-or-bust for him in Bellator and the notion of sticking around in the smaller company likely seems less and less appealing the longer it remains committed to its current tournament format. If I were Alvarez or his managers and Bellator really expected me to wade through another eight-man bracket to earn a rematch with the champ, I’d have two words for them: Bye. Bye.
Even if Alvarez did battle his way back into a rematch with Chandler -- heck, even if he did all that and beat him to reclaim the Bellator belt -- then what? Alvarez would have to believe pretty wholeheartedly in the organization’s future and believe that SpikeTV is the missing piece of the puzzle in order to play out the string any longer than he already has.
Either that or he’d have to be kind of insanely well paid.
Alvarez earned a reported $100,000 for blitzing Aoki in two minutes, 14 seconds in April, so it’s not like he’s currently making chump change in Bellator. Still, you’d have to imagine his suitors in free agency -- or, ahem, his suitor (singular) as the case will probably be -- will come loaded for bear in order to lure him away.
According to reports, Bellator has a three-month grace period during which it can match any competing offer made to Alvarez after his contract expires. Organizational honchos have also said they’ll try to re-up with him on a longterm deal before he even makes the last appearance on his current agreement.
If you’re Bellator brass though, at some point you have ask yourself how much Alvarez is worth to you. Do you break the bank to try to keep him, if it comes to that? Or do you stick to what has been a fairly successful formula for your company so far, keeping the budget under control and relying on your tournaments (and, now, the promotional power of Spike) to try to build new stars?
In any case, Alvarez’s final obligation for the company is currently expected to be on Oct. 12 in Canada. No opponent has yet been announced. Smart money says no one, not even Bellator itself, is quite sure who that’s going to be.
Maybe that’s as good an indicator as any of where all this is headed.