The history of mixed martial arts is littered with the ghosts of dead promotions, with the sport equally as unforgiving to the giants as well as the minnows. Many have blamed the growing power of Zuffa which has been responsible for the death of more brands than any other. Enter Bellator.
In little over four years, the promotion, with its unique tournament structure and now a lucrative television deal with Viacom has assuredly positioned itself as the number two fight organisation in the world.
There are questions, however, whether its champions-crowned-via-tournament format will help it grow even bigger or become a hindrance.
The promotion recently kicked-off its sixth season with the Featherweight championship fight between Joe Warren and Pat Curran, followed last week with Lloyd Woodard pulling off the giant upset with his win over Patricky "Pitbull" Freire. However, the story of the season remains the rescheduled finals of the season five Heavyweight competition when Thiago Santos came in 10lbs too heavy forcing his opponent Eric Prindle to be automatically awarded the belt.
The Santos situation reveals a flaw in the system. The Brazilian earned his way into Bellator’s season five tournament final with impressive submission wins over Neil Grove and Josh Burns. He then faced Eric Prindle in the finals only to see the fight end in a no-contest after kicking his opponent in the groin. The controversial ending set up a rematch at Bellator 61, but that fight was delayed when Prindle came down with flu-like symptoms. Instead of scheduling a fourth match, the strict competition rules of Bellator meant the spoils went to Prindle.
The incident has revealed the limitations of the format, but Bellator’s CEO Bjorn Rebny will not hear any talk of changing it.
"It’s real sports competition," Rebney said on Ariel Helwani’s MMA Hour. "It’s football, baseball, basketball, soccer – every sport we’ve watched since we were kids is competition. You start with a group and then at the end there’s one."
Rebney was a boxing promoter before starting Bellator, and he told Helwani that he never liked the way champions are crowned in boxing, with promoters, sanctioning bodies and TV networks having more to do with who gets a title shot than the fighters themselves.
"Being involved in boxing through the years, the matchmaking in boxing seemed so theatrical – you know the outcomes of the fights before they occur," Rebney said. "That’s what I wanted to do away with."
Rebney acknowledges that some Bellator fighters don't like the tournament format, and that it’s been particularly problematic for champions who have had to wait around for a tournament to finish before they could defend their titles.
After capturing his crown in June 2009, middleweight champ Hector Lombard only defended his belt once, but he has fought nine non-title bouts since then. Lombard still rules his weight class.
Ben Askren, the current Bellator Welterweight champion has been in the sport three years but is only defending his title for the second time this coming weekend after winning the title in 2010. A relative newcomer to the sport like that needs to be fighting at least four times a year if he is to continue to improve.
And he’s not alone, bantamweight champ Zack Makovsky is yet to defend his belt and has only fought twice since he collected the title in 2010 and Cole Konrad, Christian M’Pumbu and Zuila Gurgel stepped in the Bellator cage once last year
"Not everybody is going to be in love with the format, nor is everybody going to be in love with the matchmaking format where you have to ask for a world title fight," he said.
But Rebney defended Bellator's seasonal format as like the NFL’s.
"Should the Giants just be bestowed the opportunity to play in the Super Bowl again? Or should they have to go through the season of 16 games?" he said. "My answer is you’ve got to go through it."
Ultimately, Rebney said, the tournament format puts the focus where it should be: On winning fights.
"All that matters is when that cage door shuts, do you win?" Rebney said. "I think that’s the purest form of sports."
The format makes for exciting competition but it becomes difficult to groom fighters and nurture star power. Eddie Alvarez found out about that after he came out on the losing end of one of 2011’s best fights, dropping his belt to current Bellator lightweight champ Michael Chandler via fourth-round submission back in November. The result came as a shock victory and underscores the unpredictability of the tournament format.
"The fans do want to see it but that’s matchmaking and that’s theatrical; that’s a guy in a shiny suit like this sitting behind a desk deciding who fights who for what and when," said Rebney as a guest on Spike TV’s MMA Uncensored Live. "Real sports competition is, you win and you earn it and then you get there. And it doesn’t matter what you look like or if you’re married to a supermodel or if you’ve got good hair or bad hair…it ultimately matters if you win. When that cage door locks, do you come out with a ‘W’ or an ‘L’. And that’s what determines if you get a title-shot. That’s what we’re about."
Even Alvarez agrees with the tournament format, telling an interviewer that it keeps the integrity of the sport.
"It is a sport where a guy who works hard, who is basically an unknown can come out and be a champion," said Alvarez. "I think that a lot of promoters and promotions and even boxing does a good job in disguising that, making the champion look like someone who is immortal, someone who can’t be beaten. Bellator, more than anyone, keeps the integrity of the sport by facing guys who are unknown and could be very dangerous. In normal circumstances, some promotions may keep their champion away from a guy like that. Bellator doesn’t do that. That’s what makes it honest and true and keeps the integrity of MMA."
So far it has been a winning formula. In this lull in UFC action, Rebney has taken the limelight, doing the tours on talk-shows promoting Bellator 62, which has been showing to sell-out crowds. It has also found a home on MTV2 where it drew the attention of Viacom. The media conglomerate now owns the majority share in the company and plans to move the promotion to the UFC’s former home on Spike TV.
Selling to Viacom's entertainment conglomerate guarantees a stable future for Bellator, Rebney said in an interview with USA Today.
"It puts all of those cornerstones of ownership in place for us," he said. "Which is something that’s been so seriously lacking in the MMA space with so many different companies, including Strikeforce and the IFL and Affliction and all the different failures that have occurred… It alleviates those issues."
Viacom’s purchase could well be reward for Rebney’s faith in tournaments. It secures the promotions future which has no desire to be like the UFC.