Bellator was absent from the MMA landscape from late November of 2011 until March 3rd of this year. The promotion has, however, more than compensated for their extended hiatus by flooding the market with riveting events every week.
Bellator's return was wisely synchronized with the debut of The Ultimate Fighter on FX and the corresponding six-week lull between major UFC shows. Thus far, in their three offerings of 2012, Bellator has produced two "Knockout of the Year" candidates and one "Fight of the Year" candidate.
It began with a featherweight extravaganza. Bellator 60 on March 9 featured the featherweight tournament quarterfinals and was headlined by immodest featherweight champ Joe Warren defending against surging tactician Pat Curran. The main event delivered all the ingredients to sate the appetite of ravenous fight-fans: two top-shelf mixed martial artists, heavy anticipation stemming from Warren's confident boasting, an absorbing ebb and flow, technical combat and an obscenely violent knockout.
Along with Strikeforce's Gilbert Melendez, Curran is the highest ranked non-UFC fighter and he justified that lofty status with the unruly shellacking of Warren to assume the featherweight mantle. Curran has also become one of my favorite fighters to watch in MMA -- he's an unshakably composed, three-dimensional juggernaut with some of the best technical defense in the business.
Next up was the middleweight quarterfinals at Bellator 61. The show kicked off with last year's finalist and this year's favorite, Vitor Vianna, a Wand Fight Team rep and two-time BJJ world champion, taking on the volatile Brian Rogers. Vianna quickly determined that the striking exchanges were not to his liking and pursued takedowns with the hope of impose his submission grappling advantage, but Rogers, whose stand up was unfailingly crisp, tight and on-balance, negated each attempt easily.
Rogers uncorked a stiff one-two late in the first that wobbled Vianna, then exploded with a picturesque flying knee that landed square on Vianna's chin. Knowing the airborne assault turned Vianna's lights out, Rogers was walking away with his arms raised in celebration before the referee had even waved the fight off.
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Last Friday's Bellator 62 show staged the stacked lightweight tournament, replete with stellar new prospects and two reputable welterweights dropping to lightweight for the first time; one, Rick Hawn, an Olympic caliber Judoka. The event was captained by tournament favorite Patricky Freire colliding with the staunch Lloyd Woodard, both of whom were defeated by Bellator's newly minted lightweight champion Michael Chandler.
World champion kickboxer and #1 Scouting Report entry Thiago Michel cemented his potential by upsetting Rene Nazare in the opening bout, Brent Weedman latched on a Von Flue choke to tap J.J. Ambrose, Hawn notched a rousing, first-round knockout over Ricardo Tirloni and the main event was pure insanity. Freire and Woodard tore into each other from the get-go, swapping serious leather on the feet and engaging in lively transitions on the mat. Freire dazed Woodard with a punch halfway through and stole the round by fishing for a kimura as it ended.
The knockdown, drag-out brawl that started in the first roared back to life in the second. Both fighters hurled ill-intended haymakers and mutually found the mark, then Woodard clipped "Pitbull" with a knee from clinch and pounced with ground-and-pound. Freire repelled him with an armbar attempt, but Woodard countered and hopped into side control to threaten with an armlock of his own, eventually executing a rolling kimura to submit the Team Nogueira black belt. The bout was action-packed and mesmerizing from start to finish.
The three-years-young fight league has concocted a formula that just works. Match-maker Sam Caplan has lured relevant, name-fighters to their roster while simultaneously scouring the globe to attract legitimate prospects. The results-driven tournament format has long been adored by fans since the heyday of Pride Fighting Championships and, barring the recent flyweight tournament, something curiously amiss in the UFC.
The commentary duo of Jimmy Smith and Sean Wheelock is phenomenal. They have a straightforward, no-bullshit style with the right blend of technical observation and astute play-by-play that caters to new fans and hardcores alike. Referee Jason Herzog, who handles a great deal of Bellator's shows, is flat-out one of the best referees in the sport, if not the best.
Bellator CEO Bjorn Rebney has been adamant that fighters must prove themselves as top contenders by rising above in the tournament for a crack at the champ, propagating Bellator's signature catchphrase, "Where title shots are earned, not given." Without the convenience of the UFC's overflowing stable, Rebney's managed to avert the calamity of last-minute requirements by swapping match-ups sensibly (da Silva vs. Reardanz and Bezerra vs. Foster at Bellator 60) or nixing them entirely (Prindle vs. Santos at Bellator 63).
Amidst all of these subtle but critical accomplishments, the thing that stands out the most is that Bellator fighters are just downright hungry. Regardless of experience, popularity or position, the Bellator mixed martial artists all fight like they have something to prove. Which they do -- Bellator and its fighters will always be compared to the UFC, and having the undisputed alpha-promotion as an eternal benchmark can be quite grueling and tedious for an aspiring fight league.
All they can hope to do is put on entertaining fights between exciting and relevant fighters ... and that's exactly what Bellator has done so far.