When Scott Coker first met with Spike president Kevin Kay in the spring of 2014 to discuss the opening at the top of Bellator, the two bonded over a shared vision of the future: they both wanted to be No. 1. Neither will deny there is still work to do to reach their lofty goal, but on at least one front, the organization has gained ground on its longtime rival the UFC.
The ability to find and sign emerging talent has long been one of Coker’s strengths, and it’s a skill that has well served the executive as he’s sought to make over the Bellator roster. On Friday, that focus will be on full display as a pair of former collegiate wrestling powerhouses are showcased on the Bellator 186 card.
Ed Ruth and Logan Storley once competed against each other for an NCAA Championship; now they are fellow building blocks in Bellator’s plan.
For Ruth, a three-time NCAA champ at Penn State, it will be his first starring role on a U.S. primetime main card, and it comes just three fights into his pro career.
“I feel like the organization is established, but if I take it in a different direction or become a star, I would love that,” Ruth told MMA Fighting. “If that’s what my career mounted up to, I’d love it. That’d mean I did something that got somebody’s attention.”
He already has the attention of many who project the most promising talent. After completing his collegiate career with a gaudy record of 136-3, Ruth, now 27, has begun his MMA career with similar success, going 3-0 with three technical knockouts.
While his potential has had many within Bellator giddy with anticipation since his signing in 2015, his featured slot on this main card is no coincidence. With Bellator 186 emanating from Bryce Jordan Center on PSU’s campus, it is an opportunity for the organization to present one of their marquee young talents in a venue that will receive him like a star. While doing so, it is also offering him a step up in competition against veteran and former UFC fighter Chris Dempsey.
Bellator’s match-making has occasionally been criticized as it relates to their young talent. The most notable example of that was the much-heralded Aaron Pico, who made his pro debut earlier this year against 10-fight veteran Zach Freeman, only to lose via knockout in 24 seconds. (He recently rebounded with a highlight-reel KO of Justin Linn.)
Both Ruth and Storley though say that Bellator has offered a receptive ear in regards to their development, and that their growth processes have been more a collaboration than a force-feeding.
“Our guys work closely with their camps and we let them decide when they’re ready to make their debuts or if they’re coming off big collegiate wrestling backgrounds and they’re ready to go, we’ll put them in with someone comparable,” Coker said recently. “If not, we let them develop for another six months, eight months, a year, however much time they need to feel comfortable to come here and do it. That’s been our philosophy; we’ll be ready when they’re ready.”
Storley, who faces Matt Secor on Friday, is also believed to have a big future in front of him. A four-time All-American at the University of Minnesota who compiled a 119-27 record, the 25-year-old has only needed more than a round once in his six pro matches, all TKO victories.
Though Ruth was the more successful wrestler of the two, Storley was the one who always saw MMA in his future. Growing up in small-town South Dakota and attending the same high school as former UFC champion Brock Lesnar, Storley was a schoolboy wrestling star who fell in love with MMA after spending time with Lesnar as a freshman.
“It was a great experience for me as a 14-year-old kid to see him getting ready for a world title fight,” he said. “Wrestling and MMA became the two things I spent time watching and learning about. I have notes and notes and notes looking at what guys were doing in training camp, Tito Ortiz, Georges St-Pierre, Brock Lesnar, Sean Sherk. I was always thinking about this.”
Two years later, he took a dry run at it. Just 16 years old, he called a local fight promotion, asking if there were any available slots to participate. There weren’t. Two weeks later, however, the promoter found himself with an opening on fight night. He immediately called Storley, who got his parents’ blessing to face a 26-year-old. With his wrestling coach cornering him and half his high school in the stands, he promptly won a decision. From that moment, he’s always seen MMA as a career objective, and even while going through his amateur career, began the preparations for his future.
Ruth also continues himself a student of the sport, although he was later to arrive to MMA as a career possibility.
“It’s funny because when I was in college I didn’t like watching videos on opponents,” he said. “But once I got into MMA, I really started liking to watch video on fighters. At first I wanted to see what they were doing, like, ‘What’s this guy’s style like?’ But then you go off that slippery slope and it leads to others and there’s so much you want to see.”
With just a year of pro MMA under his belt, Ruth will eventually have to prove whether his striking is up to the challenge of any rival capable of keeping the fight standing. He’s shown positive signs—his last fight was a TKO via knee to the body—but says he also prioritizes work on the transition game, an area that often goes unnoticed despite making a major impact on many fights.
Both Ruth and Storley will walk into the cage Friday as favorites. While Coker and company seem to be content in moving them both up the ladder carefully—alongside fellow young prospects Pico, James Gallagher and Tyrell Fortune, among others—both have their own paths in mind.
From the beginning, Storley’s goal was to be champion by the time he’s 27, just two years from now, but after measuring himself through training with partners like Luke Rockhold and Robbie Lawler, he believes he will be able to put himself into position to accomplish it ahead of schedule.
“I’m very confident in myself,” Storley said. “I’ve spent a lot of time with [One welterweight champion] Ben Askren. Look what he did with those guys. I’m confident I have what it takes. I’ve spent time with Robbie Lawler, a guy who takes guys into deep waters and drowns you. I know where I’m at, and I’m excited. [Current Bellator welterweight champion] Douglas Lima is a tough guy. He has nasty strikes and some pop, but I don’t think there’s a guy at 170 in Bellator that can handle me or my wrestling.”
Ruth similarly thinks he matches up well with Bellator middleweight champ Rafael Carvalho, today, just a year into his career. But he knows he has work to do. In his first taste of the primetime spotlight, he thinks fans will see something special in him.
“They’re going to see a complete fighter,” he said. “I don’t want people saying, ‘He’s just going to take them down.’ They’re going to say, ‘He’s a guy to watch. He boxes and he kicks and he fights.’ Everybody wants to watch someone who’s going to keep the action going. I’m going to show them I deserve to be on the main card.”
Bellator has its building blocks in place. Coker did his part. Now it’s time for the primetime prospects to deliver.