Joe Long has had an interesting and influential role in the growing popularity of mixed martial arts (MMA) in the UK, being at the epicentre of numerous combat sports events, including both the UFC and Bellator MMA’s presence on British soil. Long is one of two co-owners of sports management and marketing agency, Fighters Inc which, he co-founded with former world Karate champion, Paul Alderson. The two friends (and training partners) went into business together after Joe was forced to retire from competing (aged 22) in international Karate due to a serious knee injury; and would go on to manage the early professional boxing career of British heavyweight boxer, Dillian Whyte; promote the UK’s first ‘hybrid’ combat sports event; and much more over the last 21 years.
With the UFC returning to London on March 17, 2018 at UFC Fight Night 127, K1ANOOP interviewed Joe Long for his perspective on the development and current state of niche combat sports (especially MMA) in the UK. Back in July 2002 when the promotion initially arrived for UFC 38: Brawl at the Hall, it was the first time that the UFC had hosted an event outside of the USA which, would undoubtedly impact the strong growth of MMA in the UK. A healthy volume of British fighters has since emerged on the world stage including: former UFC middleweight champion, Michael Bisping and former Bellator light-heavyweight champion, Liam McGeary. The evolution of British based MMA promotions, most notably: BAMMA and Cage Warriors, has also been impressive to witness; and provides British MMA athletes with more opportunities of making a viable sporting career too.
The Joe Long interview took place at The Troxy in East London which, had survived ‘The Blitz’ during World War 2 and was recognised by English Heritage as being a Grade 2 listed building in 1991. The Art Deco designed venue which, has been entertaining Londoners since the 1930s, was once England’s largest cinema and in recent decades, has been hosting a variety of combat sports events too. Spending an hour and a half with Joe towards the end of February and having a candid conversation with him about his vast experiences and plentiful stories resulted in a YouTube mini documentary interview (playlist) series with Joe Long; sharing his stories from the last 21 years including: the UFC, Bellator, GLORY Kickboxing and so much more from the world of Kickboxing, Karate and MMA.
In this first instalment of articles derived from the Joe Long mini documentary interview, we discuss his relationship with Bellator and their CEO Scott Coker which, initially seemed to be heading in a very positive direction for both parties (but would badly disintegrate). As well as his opinion on how and why Bellator have not been anywhere near as successful in the UK compared to their closest/biggest rivals, the UFC.
Joe Long says Bellator have “diluted the brand” via BAMMA partnership
In 2014 and then 2016, GLORY Kickboxing were supposed to have returned to the UK and Fighters Inc were ready to facilitate GLORY’s return as they had done for GLORY 5 London, only for both of these proposed return-events falling through in the final stages, according to Long. Following the first and very costly mishap for Fighters Inc with GLORY, Long and Alderson had been in-talks with other global promotions as a precaution and when GLORY again didn’t complete, Bellator MMA would take the date and The O2 Arena via Fighters Inc instead, resulting in Bellator 158.
“Scott Coker came over here, see the arena. Fell in love with the arena and said that they wanted to do the show. They’ll either run it as their own show or they’re gonna sub-license the promotion out. Either way they wanted the date.”
“So we was running a lot of shows with the The O2. We literally booked the whole of The O2. We couldn’t sub-licence it because to would’ve been too much money for us to sub-licence it. Another company sub-licenced it and they run the Bellator show as part of the SENI weekend. We were supposed to do a hell of a lot that never happened through no fault of our own.”
“However, we were responsible for bringing that show to the UK, whether it was sub-licence or not, we was the ones that opened the door and got them in-front of the UK audience and the arena and secured them the arena. So that was the Bellator story and then; I’ve got to say, really let down by Scott Coker, really let down. Talking about Dillian Whyte – a bit of a downtime in my career – same with Scott Coker.”
“Everyone talks so highly of Scott and he is without doubt very professional. However, he didn’t – as far as I’m concerned – didn’t fly straight with the UK market.”
“The last show that they did in London, Fighters Inc were supposed to be working on that on a full-time basis and it never come to fruition. We was told we had a deal and it never come to fruition; and when I say we had a deal, I got a phone call off Scott Coker on New Year’s Day that year; saying we’ve got a deal, we wanna work with you; then it just went quiet for so many months. Never heard from him.”
“It was really weird, it was almost like there was other people involved trying to again that mentality of block us out. Whether or not that happened, I don’t know. whether it was Scott’s own decision, I don’t know. Whether or not it was Viacom’s decision, I don’t know but we as Fighters Inc were promised a gig from Scott Coker, to do the promotion – same sort of thing as GLORY – for Bellator for the London show and that never come to fruition.”
“Scott knows we were disappointed with him. I’d say the same thing to you on camera as I’d say to Scott on the phone or to his face. We felt let down and that was a kick in the teeth, last year, year before – kick in the teeth.”
“Our PR person actually done the PR for them for the whole show but we didn’t get to do what we was told we were going to do, which was; execute different marketing, staffing etc etc. So the relationship with Bellator kind of went its own way. But then you know, Scott invited Paul [Alderson] and I to the show. Went and watched the show, great show, I enjoyed the show.”
“I think the brand is a great brand but I also think that they’ve made the wrong moves in the UK with Bellator. I think they’ve diluted the brand by what they’ve done with BAMMA, personally that’s what I think.”
“As far as I’m concerned, Bellator’s the second biggest MMA brand in the world. You should be coming over here doing what UFC done and that’s actually what excited us as a a company that someone else was coming to the UK; with a great promoter as I say he’s a great promoter, Scott. But they didn’t for us do what they said they’d do and we felt kinda let down by that.”
How Bellator could re-strategise their marketing in the UK and Ireland
For someone with 21 years experience in sports marketing to complain about the (lack of) communication skills at one of the biggest MMA promotions in the world which, just happens to be owned by a global media conglomerate in Viacom, is very alarming indeed. Usually, this kind of problem is something that one would stereotypically expect to find with an inexperienced small-scale promoter on a local/domestic scene, lacking resources.
If MMA is to continue developing as the fastest growing sport in the world then surely the leading MMA promotions who, are fortunate enough to be their own media companies (Viacom also own Spike TV which is Bellator’s broadcasting partner), should have much better lines of communication both internally and externally?
“BAMMATOR” – Bellator’s partnership with BAMMA in both the UK and Ireland, has so far involved three co-promotions from, February 2017 to March 2018 but unless Bellator were to takeover BAMMA is this really the best branding exercise Scott Coker can be executing in the UK let alone Europe?
Nevertheless, in an interview with Peter Carroll, Bellator featherweight James Gallagher who, fights out of SBG Ireland, made some strong but fair points of view that correlate with some of what Joe Long had to say about Bellator’s branding and marketing strategy in Ireland and the UK:
“Bellator definitely has it in their power to become the biggest international promotion when it comes to the European market, but they need to drop BAMMA if they want to do that. They need to come over here with a proper Bellator card and f**k all the rest of the mixing promotion stuff. If they put on their own card they can really show people what they’re about. BAMMA’s involvement takes away from Bellator.”
After all, how many British MMA fans were entirely happy with the initial announcements about the UFC Fight Night 127 London fight card earlier this year?