As the Bellator fight promotion has grown over the years, they’ve taken part in some of the typical “big-time” organizational rites of passage – signing a major cable network deal, inking big-name free agents and, of course, suing their own fighters over contracts.
After the UFC made an offer to Bellator-restricted free agent Eddie Alvarez, the fledgling promotion exercised its matching rights clause in the contract with the fighter to keep him from signing with the UFC.
Alvarez and Bellator sued one another over their differing interpretations of “matching,” and for over a year, the only fighting that the lightweight has done has been in courtrooms. Alvarez and Bellator finally settled on his fighting against Michael Chandler in the organization’s first ever pay-per-view event.
Now Bellator’s most dominant champion, Ben Askren, is a restricted free agent. Despite Askren’s back-and-forth insults over the years with UFC president Dana White, the promoter/executive has said that he is interested in talking money with Askren.
The sticking point, of course, is that Bellator has the right to match any offer that Askren may accept from another promotion through July 31, 2014. It seemed that even if the UFC wanted to bring in the Olympic wrestler and Bellator champ, another protracted and ugly Alvarez-type situation could ensue.
According to Askren, however, Bellator is fine with him taking an offer from the UFC and not even exercising their matching rights…on one condition. Askren told ESPN in an interview that Bellator CEO Bjorn Rebney called him last week and shared some interesting news with him.
"He just called me and said straight up, 'I think you're the best welterweight in the world,'" Askren said.
"’How about I let you go free if you fight GSP?’," Askren said Rebney told him.
Bjorn Rebney apparently now claims that if the UFC makes an offer to Askren that includes a bout agreement for a welterweight title shot as his first fight, Bellator will let Askren walk. The UFC’s welterweight strap is next on the line in November when champion Georges St. Pierre and Johny Hendricks fight.
There is no reason to believe that Rebney’s offer is serious or likely, of course. Has he had Viacom (Bellator’s corporate owner) lawyers draft up a new agreement for Askren that put in writing the offer he extended verbally? Will Rebney take away his handshake deal if St. Pierre loses to Hendricks?
What if Askren signs a deal with the UFC, is promised a title shot in his first fight for them but then the UFC champ gets injured? Will Rebney then sue to prevent Askren from fighting anyone else but that injured champion?
Just a couple weeks after Askren won the final bout on his Bellator contract, in August, Dana White told reporters that the UFC would “talk to Ben.” According to Askren, however, the UFC and his management have not gotten down to any detailed contract talks yet.
"It didn't really get down to any nitty-gritty details and work on the contract," Askren said last week.
Askren has made it known that he wants to fight St. Pierre.
Only time will tell if: A. The UFC will make Askren an offer that he wants to accept and then; B. if Bellator will indeed try to match it or not. Even after those two steps, messy litigation is still entirely possible. History suggests, in fact, that it may be likely.
Follow Elias Cepeda on Twitter @eliascepeda