For years, Bellator MMA was considered the “retirement home” of MMA, a promotion where fighters who do not or cannot retire can continue fighting. All one has to do is go down the list of former UFC fighters on their roster today, including Rampage Jackson and Tito Ortiz, and it becomes apparent Bellator has provided several older fighters a new lease on life. As a matter of fact, three fighters who are over 40 – Ken Shamrock, 51, Royce Gracie, 49, and Kimbo Slice, 42 – will be featured in Bellator MMA’s upcoming premier event, Bellator 148.
Today, Bellator MMA is trying to advertise themselves as a promotion where both younger talent and female talent can find success outside of UFC. Not only that, they are identifying themselves as a place were “fighters come first,” especially when it comes to sponsorship contracts. This doesn’t mean Bellator MMA has shied away from their past habits of signing on veteran, and at times, welcoming a fighter who was urged to retire by their previous promotion. Case in point, Bellator MMA recently signed on Chris Leben, a fighter favored by fans when he was competing in UFC.
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Bellator MMA made the announcement public on the Spike TV official website. Spike is the station that airs the promotion’s events primarily in the United States. Chris Leben, also known as “The Crippler,” was signed to a multi-year, multi-fight contract. His record thus far is 22-11-0, and he is a former World Extreme Cagefighting Middleweight World Champion. Leben was also part of the inaugural cast, along with fellow Bellator MMA fighters Stephan Bonnar and Josh Koscheck, of The Ultimate Fighter back when the new reality television show made its debut.
Needless to say, Scott Coker, the president of Bellator MMA, was happy with the signing. He provided a statement describing Chris Leben as a perfect fit for Bellator MMA. Coker praised Leben for his charisma in the ring, and the amount of excitement Chris generated in his previous fights.
“If I were to draw up the prototypical Bellator MMA competitor, there would be parts of Chris [Leben] in there. The guy has never had a boring fight and as I’ve said from day one, we’re going to continue to grow from the ground up and buy from the top down. I know that Chris still has a lot of fight left in him and I’m excited to see him fight We are hoping to see his Bellator debut this Spring.”
Although many who heard about Chris Leben returning MMA were supportive, some fans and sportswriters wondered why Bellator MMA wanted to sign him at this stage of his career. The obvious reason is his popularity with the fans. Very often, a fan favorite will help sell tickets, even if they are no longer in their prime.
Yet, it is a legit question if one were to analyze Leben’s statement of giving an “olive branch” to Bellator MMA to come back, as reported by 5th Round. Symbolically, olive branches are given as peace offerings, mostly as a form of apology when one transgresses. Leben was less than diplomatic when he retired and soothing any ruffled feathers at Bellator was a smart move.
Chris Leben’s transgression happened back when he originally retired. During an interview with Ariel Helwani, Leben intimated that UFC is the only legit MMA promotion out there right now. No other promotion was even worth his time in the ring.
“If I’m not fighting in the UFC, I’m not fighting. I’ve been with the UFC for almost 10 years and I kind of feel like I’ve really grown in parallel with them. You’re either moving forward or moving backward. I just can’t imagine myself, having had so many amazing fights in the UFC, and then to be stepping back into a smaller show. It would be so crazy.”
Now, it appears Chris Leben is aware that his retirement speech was over the line, and it looks as if Bellator MMA is willing to forgive him for it. To be fair, it is possible Leben tried to go back to UFC, and Dana White wouldn’t sign him. In the end, what matters is how Chris Leben performs in his next fight, and fans are looking forward to his return.
[Photo by Jon Kopaloff/Getty Images]