Back in April of 2009, the North American mixed martial arts market welcomed an interesting newcomer to the promotional ranks. At first glance, Bellator Fighting Championships probably wasn't the most appealing idea to fans. We had watched while the International Fight League struggled to bring the team aspect to mixed martial arts, and we saw what a major promotion like EliteXC managed to do in trying to create a star in a deficient MMA competitor in Kimbo Slice. Why would the very intriguing idea of weekly shows and tournaments work out any better?
Surprisingly, the formula worked out exceedingly well with a little luck and some very skillful fighters in the mix. Most detractors, including myself, felt that the format and the timeframe would cause some conflicts as commissions would be medically suspending some fighters who won their fights. Luckily, most of those problems were avoided and some fights were simply moved back to later events or events were shuffled to a week later. Problem solved.
It's now looking like their 2010 season could bring them even more success and vault them into the spotlight in North America. They have secured new television deals that will put the promotion on NBC, Fox Sports Net, and Telemundo, giving them both an English and Spanish-based audience to gain ratings.
Even more important is the product, and 2009 might very well be one of the most impressive showings from any promotion during any given year. Not only did Bellator produce some very exciting battles, but we saw some unbelievable finishes that easily attracted both hardcore and casual fans.
Most fans have seen Toby Imada's inverted triangle choke of Jorge Masvidal, but they also brought us Nick Pace's flying knee knockout of Collin Tebo, Yahir Reyes spinning backfist knockout of Estevan Payan, and many, many more impressive performances. Fortunately for us, 2010 has some high quality fighters already signed on the dotted line with an impressive list of 2009 champions awaiting their title contenders. Let's take a look at Bellator's upcoming 2010 season so far...
Eddie Alvarez, Lyman Good, Joe Soto, and Hector Lombard will all await their challengers as four eight-main tournaments will play out to find the next contenders in their respective divisions. Bellator is currently leaking news about the signings very slowly as they are brilliantly maintaining their name in the media from week to week, but the names we know about definitely give fans the thought that this season will be just as good as the last.
Steve Carl (7-1): The 25-year-old U.S. Army sergeant and Iraq war veteran has apparently garnered offers from every major MMA organization in North America, but he's settled on trying to battle his way through the heavily skilled minefield of Bellator's second season welterweight tournament. Carl's only loss came to current UFC fighter Brian Foster, and much like Frank Mir -- he also suffered a traumatic leg injury that set him back nearly 18 months.
"Judo" Jimmy Wallhead (18-5): One of the more impressive acquisitions during the offseason was the acquiring of top British prospect Jim Wallhead. The Judo black belt and Team Rough House fighter was snubbed during The Ultimate Fighter 9 tryouts for being "too experienced", and the UFC's rejection has turned into Bellator's gain. A very well-rounded fighter who will easily improve his striking abilities over time with guys like Dan Hardy and Paul Daley helping him train.
Dan Hornbuckle (19-2): Hornbuckle should be the favorite to come out of the tournament as the eventual challenger to Lyman Good's crown as he has a much stronger strength of competition over the other participants. Defeating Nick Thompson and Akihiro Gono in impressive fashion in his last two fights under the World Victory Road banner have helped his stock, and his lengthy frame, solid jiu-jitsu, and good stand-up game should give any opponent a lot to think about.
Ben Askren (3-0): The 2008 U.S. Olympic wrestler and two-time NCAA Division I wrestling champion Ben Askren is probably one of the more green fighters scheduled to appear in the tournament so far, but he has managed to finish all three of his opponents in quick first round stoppages. This will be a major step-up in competition for Askren, but he has shown solid ability in his jiu-jitsu in MMA bouts and at ADCC.
Jacob "Tick Tock" McClintock (6-0): The 21-year-old Arizona Combat Sports member is currently riding an impressive six-fight undefeated record with all first round stoppages. He's mainly a jiu-jitsu fighter with a laundry list of credentials to prove his skill, but he's also showed the ability to control opponents on the ground to win by TKO. He'll be one of the intriguing weapons to watch in this tournament.
Bellator Season Two Lightweight Tournament
Mike Ricci (5-0): TriStar Gym is dubbing Ricci as potentially the next Georges St. Pierre as a lightweight, but he has a long way to go in becoming that dominant of a fighter. Still, TriStar's training regiment have been sold as some of the most cutting edge stuff in the business, and a young fighter like Ricci training within that system could create a monster. It should be interesting to see where he's at in comparison to who else Bellator can bring in.
Ferrid Kheder (16-5): The Shawn Tompkins-trained 2000 Olympic judoka will be one of the older fighters in the tournament at 34 years old, but his experience and vast array of abilities should give opponents some real trouble in trying to squeak past him in the bracket.
Who we'd like to see: Roger Huerta (20-3-1) although he has a "matching" clause in his contract until November. UFC can match any promotion's offer., Williamy "Chiquerim" Freire (14-2), and plenty of other suggestions in smoogy's lightweight post.Bellator Season Two Featherweight Tournament
Patricio "Pitbull" Freire (12-0): The undefeated Team Nogueira prospect was considered a top lightweight prospect, but he's joined Bellator as part of the featherweight tournament. He's an explosive Muay Thai talent who also has a highly effective ground game. He'll easily be one of the huge favorites in this tournament, and he might become a big star for Bellator's featherweight division if he can unload some explosive wins.
Georgi Karakhanyan (12-1): Karakhanyan is a 24-year-old former professional soccer star who turned to mixed martial arts in 2006 after "fooling around" in Brazilian jiu-jitsu with friends. He was turned onto the sport from that point forward, and he's become one of the best unknown prospects in the 145 pound weight class. Mostly known for his strong legs and kicks, he's also shown a good submission base within his skill-set.
William Romero (5-0): Undefeated Canadian prospect William Romero is a former Canadian armed forces paratrooper who was introduced to MMA by current UFC fighter T.J. Grant's brother, Randy Grant. He should be a solid addition to the tournament, but he'll be wading in some stormy waters with guys like Karakhanyan and Freire.
Rumored Participants: Jong Man Kim (21-11-3)
Who we'd like to see: Michihiro Omigawa (9-8-1) would be a huge surprise after falling out with Sengoku over the Yoshida Dojo mishap, but we've seen stranger things happen. John Marriott (17-2), many others could be named here.
Bellator Season Two Middleweight Tournament
Rumored Participants: Dae Won Kim (11-5)
Who we'd like to see: They'll likely have to delve into very green prospects. Julio Paulino (15-2) might consider a run at middleweight, but they should bank on Jared Hess (10-1-1) coming back and maybe gaining a veteran like Jason Day (19-8). Or... BRING IN THE RHINO! Doug Marshall (11-3)
So far, this is looking to be a fantastic offseason for Bellator that should hopefully get better as the season slowly approaches. Time will tell whether the promotion can be as successful as last year, and injuries and medical suspensions will ultimately decide the flow of the events. But you have to admit, looking at the Welterweight tournament roster alone brings an anxiousness to any mixed martial arts fan. Enjoy the season.