Remember the story of David and Goliath? How well do you think David would have performed against his oversized foe had he gone into the fight with one hand tied behind his back?
This is exactly the handicap Bellator Fighting Championships CEO Bjorn Rebney placed on his company thanks to his doctrinaire insistence that all championship contenders must be determined via the company's trademark tournament. Going up against the juggernaut that is the UFC is a daunting enough task under even the best conditions, but to do so without optimizing your chances for success is nothing short of foolhardy.
Which is why it was encouraging to read Rebney's announcement on Monday that starting with their move to Spike TV early next year Bellator will institute "a championship fight rematch clause" that will enable them to book immediate rematches of title fights. The move puts Bellator in a better position to capitalize on potential money match ups and in the process grow their audience on the high penetration Spike TV.
This is great news because if we've learned one thing over the years it's that MMA promotions who attempt to compete with the UFC have a low rate of long term success. There are manifold reasons for this, but perhaps none as salient as the UFC's position as far and away the worldwide industry leader in the sport. To the general public the UFC is synonymous with the concept of MMA. This puts any promotion attempting to carve out a niche for themselves on national television at a decided disadvantage.
Bellator's tournament format has been something of a double edged sword for the company thus far. On the positive side of the ledger it gives them a unique identity and provides an alternative for fans who are tired of the UFC playing fast and loose with how they award title shots. While the jury may be out as to whether or not Bellator's meritocratic booking strategy and emphasis on competition can catch on with a larger audience, it at least gives the company something to hang their hat on when trying to convince fans to take a chance on a promotion other than the UFC.
However, the tournament format has also proven to be something of an albatross at times. There's perhaps no better example of this than Rebney steadfastly refusing to book Eddie Alvarez in a rematch with Michael Chandler after the latter upset Alvarez and captured the Bellator lightweight championship in one of the best fights of 2011. An immediate rematch between the two was by far the biggest fight Bellator could have made in early 2012, but Rebney's loyalty to the tournament concept prevented the bout from taking place. Instead Alvarez fought Shinya Aoki and Chandler met Akihiro Gono in a non-title fight. According to MMAJunkie.com the Alvarez/Aoki fight did a dismal 109,000 viewers wheras Chandler/Gono pulled in a decidedly average 165,000 viewers. In contrast to these numbers the first Alvarez/Chandler fight did 269,000 viewers. Considering that rematches in this sport have a history of often doing better numbers than the original fight, it's hard to view Rebney's refusal to book Alvarez/Chandler II as anything other than a missed opportunity.
Incidentally, the Bellator lightweight championship hasn't been defended since Chandler captured it from Alvarez in November of 2011. While some may argue it devalues the championship when number one contenders are determined via the arbitrary whims of the company - see the uproar surrounding the Jones/Chael Sonnen fight for an example - there is also an argument to be made that leaving the belt on ice for over a year does even greater damage to its legitimacy. By the time Chandler makes his first title defense early next year the UFC lightweight title will have been up for grabs on three separate occasions. A distant number two promotion struggling to make a name for itself can't afford to have its championship titles look any more second rate than they already invariably will by dint of the widespread perception that the UFC is the major league of MMA.
Of course there will always be online fans who bemoan immediate rematches, but history has proven these types to be a vocal minority on the fringe of the hardcore fanbase. Time and again rematches have done great business in MMA, with Siva/Sonnen II, GSP/Penn II, Lesnar/Mir II, Liddell/Ortiz II, and Ortiz/Shamrock parts II and III being among some of the best numbers the business has ever seen. While there may be occasional exceptions to this rule - like the third installment of Frankie Edgar vs. Gray Maynard which fell flat at the box office despite the two turning in an all time classic in their second bout at UFC 125 - more often than not rematches between the right stars capture fan interest and lead to increased viewership.
Bellator very well might not have the caliber of stars needed to lead to a huge upturn in business, but they'll never know what their ceiling is unless they put their talent in the best possible positions to succeed. The deck may be stacked against Rebney and company due to the UFC's hegemonic control of the industry, but they nevertheless need to make the best of the cards they've been dealt if they want to establish themselves with a wider audience. Monday's announcement of the championship fight rematch clause puts them in position to do just that.
For the health of the MMA industry as a whole, here's hoping they're successful.
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