Bellator at the Crossroads (or, the problem with tournaments)


In the past few days, Bellator have been receiving a metric fucktonne (that’s slightly less than an imperial fuckton but more comparable to other measurements of internet bile, being exactly ten times later than a trollocaust) of criticism for their decision to award Pat Curran an immediate title rematch with Daniel Straus for the Featherweight title despite there being two tournament winners, Patricio Freire and Frodo Khasbulaev waiting for a shot.


This is even more rage inducing as a year ago, Curran narrowly beat Freire via split decision, leading to many calls for a rematch, but Bellator then stuck with the format, compelling Freire to re-enter the tournament. The Freire-Curran match was MUCH closer and more entertaining that Curran-Straus, yet Freire (never mind Khasbulaev & Straus) is the guy left feeling undervalued by the company.


I’ve seen quote a few respected MMA journalists opining that this criticism is an example of how the tournament format is holding Bellator back and they should dispense with the format if they intend to truly compete with the UFC.


To me, thats an insane notion.


Bellator attained #2 status on being markedly different from the UFC, scouting wider, growing their own stars and being slavishly devoted to the understandable, promotable concept that title shots are earned through tournaments, not just awarded willy nilly as in most promotions.


That is an idea which works brilliantly in sport, as shown with the major soccer tournaments, Wimbledon and even in contact sports with the enduring success of kickboxing tournaments (K-1, Glory) and the much beloved PRIDE FC grand prix events.


Of course, Bellator have had troubles with the format, with injuries delaying tournaments and scheduled title shots or a lack of tournaments compelling a champion to go years without defending their belt


Hector Lombard is a great example. He was the Bellator champion for 2 1/2 years between 2009 and 2011 and between his title win and leaving the company for the UFC he fought ten times, only five of them under the Bellator banner and only once in defence of his title.


Now, tournaments seem to have become an annoyance to Bellator’s brain trust, with them preferring to give relatively big names like Eddie Alvarez and Pat Curran rematches for the belt without the indignity and uncertainty of having to go through a tournament first.


I understand that. They want to compete with the UFC by keeping their most bankable stars in main event/title matches. Thats understandable, and it’s the M.O. of almost every promotion on the planet.


However, it sells out their unique selling point, effectively shits on the rest of their roster, devaluing their tournaments and effectively shooting themselves in the foot.


Bellator need to grow stars and they do that via the tournaments. Now, if a tournament win doesn’t lead to a title shot and there is nobody in the tournaments who is already considered a bit of a star, then what’s the point?


What made Pat Curran a star? Winning a tournament, losing a close fought title match and then winning another tournament to go and win the title. What made Alvarez a star? Winning a tournament and then defending his belt against tournament winners.


The same is true of Mike Chandler, Ben Askren, Hector Lombard – fighters who made their name via Bellator’s transparent and compelling platform.


The fact that Bellator have fighters who they built up via the tournaments who are now considered by the promotion to be exactly the guys they want in main events is a testament to the success of the format.


The problem with tournaments, isn’t that they restrict a promotion’s booking, that they can be delayed by injuries or that they can result in champions having nobody to defend their belt against or just as likely having a backlog of challengers…


…it’s that promotions so easily lose faith in them.


Fans understand injuries, they understand champion vs. tournament winner, they will wait for the RIGHT match and rail against a fighter cutting to the front of the queue, reeking as it does of murky back room deals, favouritism and hypocrisy.


Tournaments provide a narrative, a structure, a credibility that the usual (UFC-esque) model of MMA promotion just doesn’t have.


Bellator have spent over a year trying to get away from the model that brought them to the dance, shortening tournaments to two fights instead of three, placing big name fighters in situations where they are clearly intended to progress (Emanuele Newton is one of my heroes of 2013 for twice upsetting Bellator’s preferred story of Mo Lawal cruising to the gold), and offering big stars rematches for titles that weren’t earned through the tournament format.


Combine that with the reversal of their policy to not sign former name UFC stars as Tito Ortiz, Rampage Jackson and Cheick Kongo being signed in 2013 and their nonsensical decision to cut their women’s divisions just as WMMA starts drawing and it all seems a little reactionary, a little desperate…


There is a cautionary tale here – if there is a big dog in an entertainment industry, you don’t compete by imitating everything about them because you will inevitably come across as a cheap knock-off.


Look what happened to WCW when they started trying to win back the Monday Night Wars with increasingly car crash TV, trying to out-Attitude the WWF.


Yeah, that company doesn’t exist anymore, it’s name an a byword for failure, hubris and waste.


If I was Bellator, I would stick with the tournament format, but eliminate the problems of yesteryear by using their now greater TV footprint, budget and schedule.


Basically, if you have a champion in a division, you run a tournament in that division. If a champion leaves the company or is injured, the two backed-up tournament winners face off for the (interim) belt.


If there are no fit challengers, the champion should have to spend no more than one season on the shelf as a new challenger will and could easily face a former champion in a non-title main event ‘super fight.’ The key phrase there is NON TITLE.


This model allows Bellator to produce an ongoing stream of episodic television, building stars and eliminating any concept of a glass ceiling or favouritism.


Perhaps they could arrange their PPVs around their TV schedule, with mid-season and end-of-season pay per views, with the tournament finals, perhaps some title bouts (although these should be sprinkled through the free TV cards as well) and even some one-shot big stars, who are ‘above’ the tournaments but are worth the buck to add meat to the PPV card.


WWE have been doing exactly this with some success for over twenty years…


As things stand, by promoting fallen UFC stars over home grown talent, devaluing their tournaments gaining bad press via disputes with fighters, releasing dominant champions and playing fast and loose with their own stated booking conditions – not to mention running scared of World Series of Fighting’s challenge to a cross-promotional pay per view, Bellator are starting down the barrel of irrelevancy, apathy and a demise that could come faster and more completely than you might imagine.


I’d prefer not to see that. The MMA world is big enough for variety, for more big companies, indeed MMA NEEDS Bellator and it’s formerly distinct nature on the scene. they could so easily be the Yin to the UFC’s Yang and be a major, credible and well received player on the MMA scene for the foreseeable future.


They just need to take a step back, cut away the more parochial elements of their broadcast, go back to basics and promote events on the model they first came to the dance with, but taking advantage of their greater profile.


Then again, I’m not Bjorn Rebney or a Viacom executive, just an idealistic blogger watching on from afar…



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