The false cross-promotion hopes of Patricio ‘Pitbull’

May 11, 2019; Rosemont, IL, USA; Patricio Freire (blue gloves) celebrates with his championship belts after defeating Michael Chandler (red gloves) during Bellator 221 at Allstate Arena. Mandatory Credit: Jerry Lai-USA TODAY Sports

Patricio Freire is undoubtedly the best fighter in Bellator MMA’s 11-year history. He’s set promotional records for number of wins (19), and for victories in championship fights (9). In 2019, he joined Ryan Bader to become the second two-division champion in Bellator history. Over the last year, it seems he has found a new mountain to climb. That being to land a cross-promotion fight with a top Ultimate Fighting Championship talent. When you’ve had the success “Pitbull” has, all things seem possible. However, when Bellator’s current featherweight and lightweight champion calls for fights with competitors like Max Holloway, and tells UFC President Dana White to send over some fresh meat, he starts to blur the lines of mixed martial arts fact and fiction.

Don’t get me wrong, I admire and respect Freire’s strategy in pushing for cross-promotion between the two biggest MMA organizations in the world. The fans want it, and certainly, the fighters do as well. He is doing all he can to will this thing into reality. Yet in the end, he is wasting his time. Especially, when the notion of co-promotion without the UFC is very possible.

An admirable but impossible pursuit

History lesson time. The UFC has tried cross-promotion in the past, and with a major rival. In 2003, the organization allowed one of its biggest stars in Chuck Liddell to compete for Pride Fighting Championship in their middleweight (205) grand prix, with the intention that Pride FC would reciprocate, and have a top star in Wanderlei Silva compete in the Octagon. That never happened, and the sting has stayed with Dana White. Since that point, the promotion has not shown any evidence they would again be interested in cross-promotion. What they have shown interest in, is buying up the competition. Which they did when they purchased World Fighting Alliance and World Extreme Cagefighting in 2006, Pride FC the following year, and Strikeforce in 2011.

Freire is well aware of this MMA history and is wise enough to realize a UFC and Bellator cross-promotion is never going to happen. In a brand-driven business world, the UFC is not going to elevate a competitor’s brand using the global clout that they have. However, the core idea that the 33-year-old Brazilian is pushing for is an admirable concept; he explained his thoughts on cross-promotion to MMAJunkie recently.

“There’s something more that I would like to add to this sport,” Freire said. “I’d like to be part of this big movement to make this change (and) force the UFC. So let’s put everyone together and see who’s really the best. The fans would want that. The sport needs that. No more, ‘This promotion or that promotion.’ There is a business side of things, but people want to see the best fighting the best. It’s not that the UFC interests me most. I’d like to create history, something new in the sport – to create a big cross-promotion, like in boxing (where) you have the champions sometimes fighting each other. That’s what we’re missing in MMA right now. I’d like to be the guy to start that.”

Patricio “Pitbull” Freire to MMAJunkie, February 2019

History can be made, if you leave the UFC out of it

The UFC has maintained its position as the top MMA organization in the world by counter-programming against its rivals, perceptive marketing, and often snapping up the best available talent in the world. However, they’ve also been helped by other promotions choosing to work against, instead of with each other to combat the UFC’s grasp on the industry. Upstart professional wrestling organization All Elite Wrestling has made news in their industry by forming co-operative relationships with “rival” promotions Impact Wrestling, and New Japan Professional Wrestling. How different would the MMA landscape be if there was consistent talent sharing, and co-promotion between Bellator, ONE Championship, Professional Fighters League, Rizin, Konfrontacja Sztuk Walki (KSW), and so on?

Freire has the name value and resume such that when he says something notable, it becomes news. Imagine if he chose to go a more realistic path with his proclamations, took to social media, and said, “I want in on PFL season three, to hand Lance Palmer his first league loss, and hold up that million dollar check at the end of the season.” How interesting would it be if he said, “I could crush Thanh Le, and Christian Lee in ONE. Get me a plane ticket to Singapore, so I can be a two-promotion champ.”

Organizations working together in MMA is not unheard of. Even in recent years. Bellator already has a co-promotion history with Rizin. The PFL recently allowed their most marketable talent in Kayla Harrison to move down in weight, and compete for Invicta Fighting Championship. Even ONE Championship and Combate Americas have shared some talent in the past. Unlike the UFC’s history over the last two decades, there is evidence that cross-promotion among current organizations is possible right now.

When Harrison likely wins another PFL championship in December, she should call out Cris “Cyborg” Justino for a Bellator featherweight title fight. If Demetrious Johnson wins the ONE Championship flyweight title on TNT in April, the former UFC flyweight champion should proclaim he wants to add a third promotion’s gold to his trophy case, by fighting whoever has the Bellator bantamweight title after Juan Archuleta and Sergio Pettis face off in May. ‘Pitbull’ can lead the way and send an open invite to all the best featherweights and lightweights in the world, stating he is the best of both divisions, in a vision of a new shared MMA universe. And that he doesn’t need the UFC to prove it.

That is what MMA needs. Fans would love it, and he could be the force behind charting new ground in the sport – a world of big cross-promotions fights without the UFC. Think about it. Imagine it, and listen to some John Lennon when you do it.

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