Fan Questions | Martial Arts History

What Is The Difference Between UFC And Bellator?

MMA can be quite confusing, especially as a new fan. You may be wondering why there are so many different fight promotions. Why is it not like boxing, where fighters can choose who to promote their fight? In MMA, fighters get signed to an organization, and they fight under that promotion only. Of these promotions, two of the biggest are Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) and Bellator. But what is the difference between UFC and Bellator?

The difference is that the UFC is thought by many to have the highest-caliber MMA fighters in the world. For the same reason, it eclipses many other promotions in terms of value and revenue. In contrast, Bellator fighters are considered less competitive than UFC fighters, despite Bellator being one of the biggest promotions outside the UFC.

Bellator also tends to set up fighters that it wants to grow with easier fights. This is something that the UFC doesn’t usually do, as they often just sign fighters who have already established themselves as high-level fighters.

Difference In Size (Value, Revenue, Viewership)

As an MMA fan, I can almost guarantee that the first fight you ever saw was under the UFC banner. This is due to the gigantic growth the UFC has had since its inception.

A major reason for this is the amount of time each organization has had to grow. The UFC was one of the first MMA promotions, holding its first event in 1993. In contrast, Bellator was founded in 2008, about 15 years later. By 2008, the UFC had already solidified its place as a top MMA organization, with stars such as BJ Penn, Georges St. Pierre, and Brock Lesnar on their roster.

UFC 1 is a historically noteworthy event in the MMA world, as it demonstrated the effectiveness of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu.
UFC 1 is a historically noteworthy event in the MMA world, as it demonstrated the effectiveness of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu.

Another interesting fact is that the UFC sold pay-per-views for its events since its inception. However, Bellator only started using the pay-per-view model in May 2014. This is likely due to the fact that Bellator wanted to air shows on television in an attempt to gain recognition, which it did successfully.

Bellator managed to grow very quickly, becoming arguably the second most recognizable MMA promotion in the world, after the UFC. However, it is not well known if Bellator is actually profitable, as there has been rumors of Bellator’s parent company (Viacom) wanting to sell.

Viacom reportedly acquired a majority stake in Bellator for about $50 million in 2011. A majority stake means that they own at least 50% of the company, meaning that Bellator’s total valuation was between $50 million and $100 million. Viacom did this after their subsidiary, Spike TV had a falling out with the UFC, whose events they used to broadcast. In response, Viacom decided to enter the MMA business themselves, and televise on their own platform.

The cast of The Ultimate Fighter 1. Spike TV was the perfect channel for the show, as its viewers were generally males aged 20-40, making Spike TV a catalyst for the UFC's success.
The cast of The Ultimate Fighter 1. Spike TV was the perfect channel for the show, as its viewers were generally males aged 20-40, making Spike TV a catalyst for the UFC’s success.

However, the UFC’s valuation is much higher than Bellator’s. In 2016, the UFC’s parent company, Zuffa, was sold to WME-IMG for a reported $4.025 billion. And while Bellator has grown a lot since its acquisition by Viacom, I doubt that it is anywhere close to $1 billion.

According to Owler, Bellator’s estimated annual revenue is $15 million, while in 2018 the UFC’s revenue was over $600 million. I would take Owler’s estimate with a grain of salt, as we don’t know the inner workings of Bellator.

Differences In Fighter Quality (Level Of Competition)

I must say that both the UFC and Bellator have quality fighters and quality fights. However, there is simply an undeniable gap in the skill level of fighters between fighters from the two organizations. Let’s talk about why this is, and if it even matters when considering the quality of the company.

UFC has the best fighters in the world in terms of skill level, without question. This is because the UFC signs top talent from major organizations, such as Bellator, Legacy, and Invicta, as well as acquiring the major organizations that existed previously, such as Pride, Strikeforce, and WEC.

However, I must note that Bellator’s top fighters can all compete in the UFC, and put up a good fight. There is a difference in skill level, but I believe it’s only a slight one when it comes to Bellator’s champions and top contenders. Of course, Bellator’s up-and-coming prospects are a lot less qualified to be in the UFC.

Alvarez (right) defeated Chandler (left) in their second fight by split-decision. But Chandler knocked Alvarez out in their first fight.
Alvarez (right) defeated Chandler (left) in their second fight by split-decision. But Chandler knocked Alvarez out in their first fight.

For example, Eddie Alvarez won the Bellator Lightweight championship over Michael Chandler by split-decision in November of 2013. After winning the championship, he got signed by the UFC. By the summer of 2016, he was already the UFC Lightweight champion, beating Rafael Dos Anjos by knockout.

I’d say Eddie Alvarez is proof that at least some Bellator fighters can compete with the best in the world. In fact, the guy Eddie beat, Michael Chandler, is currently ranked #9 in the world of all MMA lightweights.

Despite Eddie Alvarez’s ability to compete against high-level UFC fighters, there are many examples of ex-UFC fighters who dominate in Bellator. A good example of this is current Bellator champ-champ Ryan Bader.

Ryan Bader had competed for the UFC for a while, about 8 years in fact. During that time, he was a very good competitor, but always fell short when getting near a title-shot. However, his losses were only to very skilled fighters, each being either a champion or a title-contender at some point.

Ex-UFC competitor Ryan Bader is currently Bellator's heavyweight and light-heavyweight champion, simultaneously.
Ex-UFC competitor Ryan Bader is currently Bellator’s heavyweight and light-heavyweight champion, simultaneously.

As a good UFC fighter, he probably could have competed for a title at some point. Instead, he decided to sign with Bellator in 2017. In his first fight, he won the Bellator Hight-heavyweight Championship. His first fight!

Since then, he has gone undefeated in his 6 fights with Bellator, winning a Heavyweight Title on top of his Light-Heavyweight title.

Differences In Promotion Style (Tournaments, Buildup)

Fight Setup

Both the UFC and Bellator started out with a tournament-style format. The first few UFC events were held this way in order to demonstrate to the public how effective each martial art was.

In the first UFC event, each fighter was dedicated to one martial art. So to find out which martial art is the best, the UFC put the top representatives of each martial art into a tournament. This was part of the excitement around the initial UFC events, as nobody knew which styles really worked.

Of course, we know that Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu prevailed, and that a mix of all types of martial arts is necessary to compete in a real fight. This became apparent at UFC 2, where Jiu-Jitsu practitioner Royce Gracie claimed that other competitors were stealing his techniques, after seeing his success at UFC 1.

The UFC will occasionally hold tournaments under special circumstances, such as in the tournament seen here, when they declared an inaugural flyweight champion. Demetrious Johnson emerged the champion.
The UFC will occasionally hold tournaments under special circumstances, such as in the tournament seen here, when they declared an inaugural flyweight champion. Demetrious Johnson emerged the champion.

Well unfortunately for Royce, this wasn’t against the rules, so the fighters were free to fight how they wanted. This started to make the tournament-style less appealing, as the fighters all had similar styles. Also, at some point the UFC was not allowed to let the fighters compete several times in one night, meaning they would have to stretch the tournaments out.

But stretching out a tournament is an issue, because what happens if a fighter gets injured before the semi-final? Someone who is fit to fight replaces them, which is unfair to the other competitors who had to work harder to get to that position.

Anyways, all this is to make it clear why the UFC doesn’t create tournaments anymore. However, Bellator actually does! They have certain rule changes to ensure the fighters can make it to the next round, and they try to keep them small. The biggest Bellator tournaments will only include 8 fighters.

Fighter Promotion

UFC and Bellator also have different strategies when it comes to signing fighters and promoting them. The UFC takes an approach related to the fighter’s skill-level combined with their level of marketability.

If the fighter has proven themselves as a skilled fighter, and if they are decently marketable, then the UFC will sign them. All it comes down to is how much many they can make from the fighter. If the fighter increases viewership, then the promotion will sign them.

Because they were both popular in the UFC, Bellator saw a great opportunity in signing both Gegard Mousasi and Rory MacDonald.
Because they were both popular in the UFC, Bellator saw a great opportunity in signing both Gegard Mousasi and Rory MacDonald.

But Bellator takes a more interesting approach. Bellator does occasionally sign well known fighters, such as Rory MacDonald and Gegard Mousasi. However, it also signs relatively novice fighters in an attempt to build them up inside the promotion.

A perfect example of this is the high-level grappler turned MMA fighter Dillon Danis. Danis is well-known in the Jiu-Jitsu community, and has also received attention for being Conor McGregor’s training partner. However, he doesn’t have much MMA experience.

In fact, he became a pro MMA fighter without any amateur experience. Bellator took the opportunity to sign him under their promotion, seeing the opportunity to get viewership from his growing popularity.

Dillon Danis (left) seen here with MMA superstar Conor McGregor.
Dillon Danis (left) seen here with MMA superstar Conor McGregor.

Under their promotion, Bellator can create fights that are favorable for Danis, making the fights exciting and growing Danis’ stock at the same time. I should be clear, I am not accusing Bellator of fixing fights. But it is well known that they hand pick opponents for their rising prospects.

A perfect example of this method of growing their fighters has been used with Taekwondo specialist Valerie Loureda. Bellator signed Loureda in early 2019, despite her never fighting pro. Loureda seemed like a good signing for several reasons. The most important is that, as a good-looking female with a traditional martial arts background, she is very marketable.

So Bellator REALLY wanted her to win her fights. So for Loureda’s debut, they attempted to sign model and MMA fighter Anastasia Bruce. Let me show you how much of a mismatch this fight would have been if it actually cam to fruition.

Bellator thinks Valerie Loureda has the potential to be a star, for many good reasons.
Bellator thinks Valerie Loureda has the potential to be a star, for many good reasons.

Anastasia is a strawweight (115) and Loureda is a flyweight (125) meaning a weight advantage for Loureda. Loureda had an amateur record of 2-1, with her only loss being by split decision. In contrast, Anastasia was 0-12! On top of that, Loureda has years of experience in combat sports and trains at American Top Team, one of the best MMA gyms in the world. Of course Loureda would win!

But that is the way Bellator does it. Unfortunately for Bellator, the commission wouldn’t approve this fight (I wonder why), and Loureda was given another opponent.

All this to say that Bellator is willing to grow their fighters from nothing, even if it means feeding them hand-picked opponents. In contrast, the UFC requires a fighter to have proven their ability in other promotions.

Miscellaneous Differences

There are also several small differences between the promotions, although that does not mean that these differences are not important.

Fighter Sponsorships

As you probably know, UFC fighters are required to wear official Reebok fight gear since Reebok’s sponsorship deal with the UFC. Unfortunately, this meant that fighters were no longer allowed to wear sponsors on their fight shorts, with many fighters saying they have lost thousands of dollars in sponsorships since then.

UFC fighters are only allowed to wear official Reebok-sponsored fight gear. The UFC made this deal in order to give the sport a cleaner and more official look.
UFC fighters are only allowed to wear official Reebok-sponsored fight gear. The UFC made this deal in order to give the sport a cleaner and more official look.

However, Bellator does allow fighters to wear sponsorships on their shorts, which helps the fighters earn more money.

Drug Testing

According to many fighters, drug testing is a lot more stringent in the UFC than it is in Bellator. This is because the UFC pays additional fees to USADA to have fighters tested more often. In contrast, Bellator lets the athletic commission test the fighters, meaning they only get tested when they have a fight lined up.

Weight Classes

As for weight classes, Bellator has less than the UFC. For men, the eight weight classes go from Flyweight (125) to Heavyweight (265) in the UFC. For women, they have four weigh classes ranging from Strawweight (115) to Featherweight (145).

Bellator shares most of the same weight classes, with the exception of a few. Bellator does not currently have a men’s Flyweight division, nor does it have a Strawweight or bantamweight (135) division for the women.

That should sum up most of the differences between the UFC and Bellator. If you liked the post, consider checking out the Martial Arts History page, where I answer similar questions to the one in this post. Thanks for reading!