Bellator returns this weekend after a week off and with a card that highlights the best and worst of its tournament format. We have an exciting middleweight tournament semi final followed by a champion fighting a less than stellar opponent and not for the title. On the one hand, Bellator’s title shots are earned through winning fights, with every tournament entrant having a clear path to title contention. On the other, their top fighters are left either without fights or without relevant fights.
The number two promotion in the US holds eight man tournaments to determine who should get a title shot. To win the tournament, the contenders need to win three fights in a row across a season. For every defense the champion makes, his challenger fights three fights. Bellator has off seasons too which, while giving challengers the chance to rest from a grueling tournament, adds to the gap between title fights. On top of all that, there are inevitable injuries which push title defenses back even further, because a challenger cannot be replaced without another tournament. This leads to some strange runs, like that of recent UFC signing Hector Lombard, who only made one title defense in the two and a half years he held his middleweight title.
To keep their champions busy, non-title “super fights” are set up. However, these fights are anything but super since Bellator cannot really risk having their champions lose fights yet retain their titles. It just would not feel right. It did not feel right when Christian M’Pumbu lost to Travis Wiuff last October, yet retained his title. Many believed Wiuff deserved a shot at M’Pumbu in a title fight but he would need to win a tournament to get it.
In general, Bellator tries to feed their champions fights they should win, to prevent situations like the M’Pumbu loss from happening. And so it is that Micheal Chandler, who just beat one of the world’s top lightweights, faces Japanese veteran Akihiro Gono. Gono has lost five of his last eight bouts and is 37 years old. I am excited to see Chandler back in the cage, but his opponent takes a considerable amount of shine off the occasion. In fact the luster is so lacking that it feels like Chandler’s fight does not deserve its main event status, especially when there is an exciting and relevant Middleweight tournament fight between Ben Saunders and Bryan Baker lower down the card.
That being said, let us remember the alternative. With a tournament deciding every new contender, Bellator’s champions have had to prove themselves by beating at least four good, hungry opponents. Nobody is rushed ahead of the queue because of their popularity with promoters or fans. From Keith Jardine’s recent Strikeforce title shot to Brock Lesnar’s UFC title fight in his fourth MMA bout, other promotions have not always cared about how deserving their contenders are. From a sporting perspective, it is quite reassuring to know that Bellator’s champions have beaten the best that the promotion can offer to earn their place.
Bellator continues to grow. As it does, its roster gets deeper and the seasons run longer, allowing for more tournaments to take place. This in turn will lead to more regular title fights as new contenders are churned out more regularly.
There have been calls for Bellator CEO Bjorn Rebney to be more flexible with these title fights. There was a clamour for Eddie Alvarez to be granted an immediate rematch against Chandler and for Wiuff to fight M’Pumbu in a title fight, but Rebney stuck to his guns. In the end, the tournaments are what make Bellator different from any other organisation and Rebney does not want to compromise on that, even if it means upsetting a few people. That resolve is admirable and I am glad to have something great and novel to watch on a Friday night.