By Philip O’Connor
(Reuters) – Mixed martial arts promotion Bellator is continuing its efforts to bring the sport into the mainstream at the Accor Arena in Paris on Saturday with the first major card in France since the sport was legalised and a streaming deal with the BBC.
Famously described in 1996 as “human cockfighting” by U.S. senator John McCain, MMA is growing in popularity and the deal to stream the 10-fight card on BBC iPlayer is another watershed moment, Bellator’s European head David Green told Reuters.
“It gives us that little bit more legitimacy,” he said in a telephone interview from Paris. “We’ve been talking about this for a long, long time and we are very, very pleased to have access to such a huge platform.”
Headlined by a welterweight bout between England’s Michael “Venom” Page and Ross Houston of Scotland, the card features six French fighters who can fight on home soil after a decision in February that put the sport under the French Boxing Federation.
Though playing second fiddle to the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) in the United States, Bellator has made a concerted push to establish itself in Europe, signing a slew of fighters and staging cards in big European cities.
The promotion was quick to act following the recent legalisation of the sport in France, and the Paris card will be the first top-level event to be staged in the country.
For fighters like Northern Ireland’s Leah McCourt, whose fights had only been available on cable TV, the BBC deal marks a paradigm shift for the sport, which combines a vast array of striking and grappling techniques in often bloody bouts.
“It’s revolutionary for us, it’s a massive step forward for MMA and it’s a massive step forward for Bellator … and it’s just about time that we’re on the platform that we deserve,” she told Reuters.
The 28-year-old featherweight has temporarily swapped the grit of the cage for the glamour of the commentary booth as she recovers from shoulder surgery. McCourt will be at the Accor Arena with a limited number of fans when the card takes place.
“It (the BBC deal) is going to bring more eyes and more audience, and educate the wider population to how fantastic our sport is and how amazing the athletes are that fight in MMA,” she said.
(Reporting by Philip O’Connor; Editing by Ken Ferris)