Winning a Bellator tournament is not only a career-defining moment for its winner, it's usually a financial milestone as well. In the sport of mixed martial arts, there isn't a single promotion that gives prospects the opportunity to earn $100,000 bucks in the span of a few months. The only thing close is the possibility of a lowly newcomer earning a submission, knockout, or fight of the night bonus in the UFC. That normally never happens because more popular and prominent fighters are given those checks over buried undercard performances.
The allure of cash has been the cornerstone of Bellator's recruiting process. Sign with our promotion, fight often, bank a boatload of money, increase your star power, and become a world champion. Sounds great, right? Unfortunately, life as a Bellator champion isn't all it's cracked up to be.
MMAFighting.com's Ariel Helwani sat down with the Bellator bantamweight champion to talk about his upcoming non-title bout with Midwest journeyman Ryan Roberts at Bellator 54 this coming weekend. During the interview, Makovsky alluded to one of the major problems with Bellator's tournament model from the perspective of a champion:
ZACH MAKOVSKY: ... there is obviously a downside as far as once I've won the tournament, I've had a lot of downtime between fights. I've fought six times in 2010, only gonna fight twice in 2011, no title fights. If they didn't have the non-title fights, I wouldn't have fought at all this year. There's ups and downs.
ARIEL HELWANI: It seems like winning the tournament is a blessing and a curse because if you get the title, you don't get to fight as much.
ZACH MAKOVSKY: It probably would have been better financially to...
ARIEL HELWANI: To lose!
ZACH MAKOVSKY: To make it to the finals, then get back into the tournament again. And try it again, but... I don't know.
You're right, Zach. It would have been better for you to take a dive in the finals, then get a spot back in the tournament to win another $100,000 bucks. The fact that this scenario is even possible is not only a major concern, but it's an indication that it doesn't pay to be a Bellator champion.
The issue's source stems from Bellator's tournament format. Two seasons per year without a guarantee that both seasons will feature the same weight classes tends to hurt Bellator's champions. Makovsky might fight a season winner by mid-year, or perhaps last fall's season winner in the spring, but he's then sidelined for the rest of the year awaiting the outcome of the next tournament. In the meantime, Bellator brings in a relatively unknown veteran like Ryan Roberts to keep their champion active while eliminating any risk he'll lose his title. Fans don't care about the fight because a guy like Ryan Roberts isn't drawing in anyone.
The fact that there is next to no talent outside of the promotion to bring in to challenge their champions is a broader issue that affects what the promotion can do to remedy the problem. It's a secondary factor, piled on top of the restrictiveness of their contracts and the notion that they may only fight twice in one year if they achieve the ultimate goal of becoming a champion. Once that initial lump sum is made, there isn't a whole lot of incentive to remain the champion.
Those factors may lead to trouble in terms of talent acquisition. While Bellator has been successful in signing talent under the watchful eye of Sam Caplan, these increasingly problematic issues are already steering away talent. I've spoken with a few managers in the last six months who have expressed the concern they have about being stuck in that type of contract for a lengthy period of time. Younger fighters are more willing, but it seems illogical for a guy like Alexis Vila to take this chance.
There are very few solutions to these problems however. The tournament format is what makes Bellator unique, so I don't think it's a matter of moving away from Bellator's identity. I think non-title fights should go away. Perhaps if a champion is upset by an outsider, enter him into next season's tournament as a challenger and allow that outsider to defend the belt.
What about allowing the champion to fight in every single tournament? If he gets beat, then he's out of the bracket, but he must still defend his title against the eventual winner. If you want to make it even more intriguing and crazy, replace the champion mid-tournament if a challenger beats him. Eliminate that side of the bracket, then the winner of the other side of the bracket faces the new champion. Bellator could then set up a title fight between the former champion and new champion during the summer series or over the winter break.
Keep these guys fighting consistently, and keep money in their pockets. It might not seem like a major problem right now because you've got these guys locked down into contracts, but prospects and their managers are watching. All of the great talent acquisition that Bellator has done over the years could begin to slow down considerably if champions are outspoken about their lengthy downtime and financial problems.