Since the very beginning of Bellator Fighting Championships, Philadelphia’s Eddie Alvarez has been “the trust”. He was the poster boy for the organization. He was the centerpiece of their promotional strategy. He was the most well-known and legitimate of Bellator’s roster of champions.
So when Eddie Alvarez lost his lightweight championship in a shocking upset to Michael Chandler last November, the first question out of most fans mouths was “what now?”. Do you put a star with the profile (not to mention paycheque) into the hustle and grind of a tournament, and squander your biggest star by making him “just one of the guys”? Or do you send Alvarez right back into title contention – and break the cardinal rule of Bellator that title shots are “earned, not given”.
This week, we found out what Alvarez’s and Bellator CEO Bjorn Rebney’s gameplan was: none of the above.
Instead, Alvarez will rematch top-ranked Japanese judo and BJJ phenom Shinya Aoki, this time in the Bellator cage. These men last met in DREAM’s New Years Eve “Dynamite!!” event in 2008, with Aoki winning via Heel hook. Since then, Alvarez has gone on a tear, winning 7 straight fights and shooting into the top-10 of the Lightweight division before his recent loss to Chandler.
Aoki, conversely has stumbled somewhat, with crushing losses to Hayato “Mach” Sakurai, Gilbert Melendez, and kick boxer Yuichiro Nagashima wearing the lustre off his former top-5 ranking. Still, “Tobikan Judan” is riding a 7-fight win streak of his own, winning four times in 2011 against pretty good competition. The timing seems to be perfect for this rematch.
The devil, as always, is in the details. This fight is expected to take place in the Bellator cage, which raises some questions about what exactly Aoki’s contract for this fight will look like. Is this a one-off fight, or is Aoki signing to a multi-fight deal with Bellator?
If it’s the former, there’s a headache looming for Mr. Rebney should Aoki defeat Alvarez in their rematch in April. It never looks good to have your former champion and poster boy lose to a guy making his promotional debut – who is then never seen again.
This is the exact reason (or one of them, anyways) why the UFC never signed those co-promotion deals with Fedor back in the day. If you’re going to bring somebody in to face one of your stars, you need to make sure you have him locked down for a few fights should he win, otherwise he takes your promotional efforts and the big win with him back to Japan (or wherever) and you are left with a damaged goods star and little else.
If it’s the latter, and Aoki is coming to Bellator on a more permanent basis, other questions are raised. How many fights is his contract? How does DREAM feel about their golden goose jumping the coop for stateside pastures? Is there a co-promotional deal being worked out like DREAM once had with Strikeforce? Because that deal didn’t really work out too well for the Japanese promotion in the long run, did it?
And if Aoki is coming to Bellator, why not put him in the Lightweight tournament? Now even if he wins, the path to his title shot is murky at best. In fact, that’s another problem with this fight: it doesn’t really set up either guy for a shot at the belt – unless Rebney goes back on his word regarding tournaments being the only way to get a crack at the gold in Bellator. Otherwise, this is just a fun “superfight” that leaves the winner in limbo until the season is over.
This is big news for Bellator, and has the potential to be one of their most anticipated and highest profile fights in some time. But with that reward comes some significant risks, and Bellator management has some tough choices ahead of them.
It will be interesting to see what they chose to do in the coming days…
By Elton Hobson