Bellator MMA President Scott Coker: Transforming the American sports landscape

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Founded in 2008, Bellator MMA has been a staple of the combat sport world for over a decade, and is the second largest combat sport promotion in the United States. In 2014, Mr Rebney was replaced by the founder of MMA and Kickboxing organization Strikeforce, Scott Coker, who was bought in to make the promotion less tournament focused. Born in Seoul, Korea, Mr Coker relocated to the US as a child, settling in San Jose, CA. Executive America spoke with Mr Coker to discuss his love for martial arts and the future of Bellator.

Martial arts

“It’s been an interesting journey,” Mr Coker says of his career so far. “It really goes back to martial arts. I was a student of [American martial artist] Ernie Reyes Sr., and I just fell in love with martial arts. I had a school, I used to teach children, teach adults. I dedicated my whole life to helping grow martial arts and helping educate people about martial arts.”

For Mr Coker, the eventual move into the growing sport of MMA was a natural extension of this love for the discipline. Since MMA has become more accessible, with shows airing on prime-time television, its reputation and appeal has grown rapidly. Mr Coker has certainly been a driving force behind that growth.

“Mixed Martial Arts is an eclectic style of different disciplines, combined into one discipline, which is becoming its own discipline. That’s what the future of martial arts is. It’s proven in the cage every Friday and Saturday night somewhere on the planet.”

As a taekwondo student in the San Jose region, Mr Coker began his journey into promoting by starting to organize kickboxing events. The first show he promoted was at the San Jose Civic Auditorium, the largest venue in San Jose at the time despite holding just 3,200 people.

“[It was] in 1985, at the Civic Auditorium. No TV, no sponsorship, just a live event where you sell tickets. We had a big support group in the martial arts community in the Bay Area, which at that time had probably about 80-100 [martial arts] schools, just in the San Francisco Bay Area. We would go out and get the community to support us.”

This first fight attracted around 2,800 spectators, nearly 80% of which came from local martial arts schools. Mr Coker made around $5k that night, and immediately realized the potential of promoting fights again in the future.

“That was my start, and within a year I started doing fights for an organization called PKA [Professional Karate Association], which had fighters like Ray McCallum and Dan Anderson. It was on ESPN, and the ratings did very well.”

After the collapse of PKA, one of Mr Coker’s team contacted ESPN to see if the network was still interested in kickboxing. The answer was ‘yes’, and the result was a new show called Strikeforce, which began in 1993. This was the beginning of the brand that Mr Coker would go on to establish several years later.

“It was strictly kickboxing,” he says. “We did Muay Thai, we did fights all over the world. It was 22 shows a year, all kickboxing. Then I got an opportunity from that to meet [karate master Kazuyoshi] Ishii from K-1. The greatest fighters in the heavyweight division at that time were fighting in Japan, and they asked me to run their North American operations.”

After considering his options, Mr Coker agreed to work for K-1 for a while, gaining huge experience from his time there. In 2006, MMA was made legal in California and he wasted no time founding Strikeforce MMA, which opened with a fight between Frank Shamrock and Cesar Gracie at the SAP Arena in San Jose.

“Working for Mr Ishii in Japan was like going to get your Graduate Degree. I felt like I had a Master’s Degree already. What he taught me was the international side of the business. Coming from martial arts, we just spoke the same language, and he took me under his wing and showed me the ropes, which I’m forever grateful for. He was a great mentor.”

Free form fighting

The evolution of MMA as a discipline over the last few decades has introduced many martial arts fans to newer, more free form fighting. For Mr Coker, the evolution was no surprise, as he had grown up with an eclectic Filipino master as an instructor, gaining experience in styles other than just traditional taekwondo. 

For the fighters, the evolution was slower. After different styles of fighter joined the discipline over the years, they had to adapt their styles to the demands of the sport, and this meant learning techniques from multiple disciplines.

“It took about fifteen years until people understood – I’ve got to do jujitsu, I’ve got to do wrestling, I have to do striking, boxing and Thai boxing. Georges St-Pierre I believe was one of the first fighters who put it all together. Now what you see is a complete fighter.”

It soon became clear that if a fighter wasn’t able to learn all these different styles and successfully combine them, they would be at a disadvantage when facing others that were able to do so. The modern MMA fighter was born out of this need to compete across styles.

After Strikeforce was sold off to Ultimate Fighting Championship owner Zuffa LLC in early 2011, Mr Coker briefly became an employee of the UFC, needing to wait out a non-compete clause before he could invest his time into his next venture.

“I didn’t really know what I was going to do when the non-compete ended,” he admits. “Probably about 3 or 4 months before the non-compete ended, I started getting offers from different people to meet.”

One of his first meetings was with Kevin Kay from Spike TV, which is owned by Viacom, to discuss taking over Bellator MMA. At this point, Mr Coker wasn’t sure that he wanted to build something for someone else, and was determined to branch out on his own.

“I felt like Bellator was not doing that well at that time, it did not have the roster that it has today. Today it has one of the greatest rosters that I’ve ever been associated with; the best roster in the history of this company, that’s for sure.”

The problem was that Kevin Kay came across as a genuinely good guy, with the power of persuasion on his side. Mr Coker pretty quickly liked his vibe, and bought in to the ideas he had about the future of Bellator.

“I thought, I wish I didn’t like this guy this much as far as wanting to work with him. I think I could learn a lot from this guy. I woke up one day and I said: ‘alright, let’s just do it.’ That was probably about five and a half years ago.”

Bellator MMA

By the time Mr Coker had agreed to take over Bellator, previous CEO and Chairman Bjorn Rebney had already been let go. On arrival at the company’s offices, Mr Coker reassured staff that their jobs were safe, and that there was a lot of work to do to get up to speed.

“The very first Bellator fight I went to after taking over, it made me realize that we had a lot of work to do, and a lot of growth to do. It’s taken five years to get there. These fighters, it takes about 4 or 5 years to build them, to get them competitive to where they can fight anybody in the world. It’s not going to happen overnight.”

When Mr Coker came in, the biggest change needed was to invest in talent, to start signing fighters and building them. In addition, Bellator had so many overlapping tournaments running that fans would struggle to follow everything that was going on.

“So I said, we’re going to take a step back. We’re not going to do the tournaments, we’re going to do single fights, start building from the ground up, buying free agents from the top down. We did what we needed to do to survive the first couple of years with the talent base that we had, which was moderate at best.”

Today, Bellator’s strength is in building a roster from the bottom up. Mr Coker has helped to make the company good star identifiers and builders, with a real solid background in finding and recognizing talent.

“We have access to every gym in the country, every manager in the world. When you pluck somebody from a boxing or jujitsu tournament, it’s not going to be a very quick process. Now people are able to see the fruits of our labor for the last five and a half years. It’s the exact same formula I used in Strikeforce, and I think we’re going to have great results.”

Bellator now has 250 athletes signed under contract, having built the best roster it has ever seen. The whole model is relationship-based, and Mr Coker has made it his mission to gain trust in the players and managers in order to recruit the best talent. 

“It’s been quite a ride,” Mr Coker concludes. “Thirty-six years. When I sold Strikeforce, I remember saying to somebody – it only took 24 years to become an overnight success. Now, thirty-six years into it, it’s been a rollercoaster ride, but so many great high points and I just love it. It’s been a lot of fun.”

To find out more about Bellator MMA, visit https://www.bellator.com.

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