Bellator's growing pains have become obvious over the last year. The move to Spike TV has generally been a success, bringing increased viewership and stability to a promotion that had flown from station to station since its inception. Viacom has also provided the commitment to the product of glossy documentary features and the attempt to push a show to pay-per-view by overpaying for their own attempt at Age In The Cage between Tito Ortiz and Rampage Jackson.
But, with the responsibilities of actual expectations, Bellator has also been making major changes to their long time mission statement of "sport first."
With the attempt to get the pay-per-view off the ground Bellator had maneuvered to make high profile rematches that seemed to skip over tournament winners or current champions. Most notably when light heavyweight champion Attila Vegh stated on camera that he was healthy and able to fight on the card but the promotion passed him over to make the rematch between Mohammad Lawal and Emanuel Newton for an interim title. Bellator played the "out of context" and "mistranslated" game despite it being on camera and the context being clear. They also provided a medical report that didn't line up with any timeline they were speaking about and then refused to answer questions about it.
Even if their explanation of needing to move forward and not being able to wait on Vegh was legitimate, the promotion also announced a championship replacement clause a day before announcing that they were putting together the long awaited rematch between Michael Chandler and Eddie Alvarez for the same planned pay-per-view card last November. The replacement clause was applied as tournament champion Dave Jansen was sidelined with an injury.
Bellator is now planning a rubber match between Alvarez and Chandler, employing their rematch clause to make their best possible fight. That's all well and good, but Jansen will have to sit on the sidelines.
If Alvarez/Chandler makes sense under the existing rematch clause, the decision to make a rubber match between champ Daniel Straus and challenger Pat Curran does not. Bjorn Rebney talked about the rematch clause being for fights that demanded a rematch, somewhat suggesting that they were close, controversial or memorable. Straus dominated Curran, leaving no doubt in any way over who the better man was that night. Unless the "demand" for a rematch is that Curran beat Straus five years ago at XFO 29, it would seem that this is the most blatant break from the Bellator "sport first" concept.
"That whole ‘where the title shots are earned, not given’ is pure bulls--t now. That doesn’t exist anymore," Freire told MMAFighting.com. "Bellator is eating its own words. They didn’t respect my wins in the tournament."
"I had a close fight against Curran last January. His win wasn’t clear, it was a close split decision, and I didn’t have another shot at the title," he said. "They made me go back to the tournament, and I would only fight for the title again if I won the tournament.
"I went back to the tournament and beat up everybody. I respect everybody, but I beat them all convincingly. But when I earned my shot at the title, they give Curran another one. They must be kidding me."
Hilariously, Bellator rival promotion World Series of Fighting's executive VP and matchmaker sent out this tweet:
Even Straus has a problem with the way the rematch is being handled, taking to Facebook to post:
My perception is that Bellator wants him as champ so bad not only does he get immediate rematch but gets it in his hometown damn near. Any thoughts?
It's worth remembering that Curran was one of the key guys for Bellator -- along with Chandler -- in the "our guys could beat the UFC champions" campaign. So it's not surprising to see these fighters upset by what appears to be clear preferential treatment for Curran that flies directly into the face of what Bellator has long claimed to be about.
The promotion has to make a decision now. Is it going to stick to the tournament first, earn title shots above all else plan? Or is this the new age where they're simply going to make the fights they want to make?
Either way, the mixed messages have to stop.