Bellator MMA: Good Riddance To Tournaments

By Jeffrey Harris
Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports
Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

This week ushered in a new era for Bellator MMA. The promotion’s co-founder and CEO, Bjorn Rebney, and president, Tim Danaher, were ousted from the company. Former Strikeforce founder and promoter Scott Coker is now the new head and face of the company.

But that was not the only major change. In an  official press release, Spike TV President Kevin Kay announced that Bellator would move away from the company’s tournament-based model upon which it was founded. Instead, the company will focus on “a more traditional model with big fights,” according to Kay.

In light of recent changes since Viacom purchased a majority stake in Bellator, getting rid of the tournaments is one of the best moves they can make right now.

Bellator MMA started as an MMA company built around tournaments. Tournaments were held to win titles. Fighters, even former champions, had to fight in a tournament to earn a title shot. The motto of Bellator was, “Where title shots are earned, not given.”

For a while, it was a nice motto to stand behind. Bellator and Rebney could boast that their fighters did not have to talk their way into a title shot. It was a “pure sports” format. At first, it was fine for Bellator to run its business on the tournament format. The tournaments worked because they were running on marginal channels and barely anyone was watching the events.

The tournaments were successful when Bellator was building its promotion. They were a good way to build up names such as Eddie Alvarez, Pat Curran, Joe Warren, Michael Chandler, Hector Lombard and Patricio Freire. However, things have now changed. The tournaments have become irrelevant since the Spike TV move.

Running weekly MMA tournaments is fine when you are drawing less than 500,000 viewers on FSN or MTV2. However, when they are on a bigger network such as Spike TV, the goal is get as many eyeballs on your product as possible. Casual viewing audiences, the UFC demographic and the main Spike TV demographic do not care about tournaments. Casual fans just want to see big, exciting fights and match-ups. They do not want to see ham-and-eggers and the dregs of the MMA world headlining Bellator’s heavyweight tournaments.

At this point, the tournaments no longer matter in determining title contenders. Prior to Spike TV, Bellator fighters would have to win an eight-man tournament to earn a title shot. Then, the fighter would have to beat the champion to win the belt. After Spike TV, when Bellator MMA wanted to heavily promote Muhammed “King Mo” Lawal as its marquee superstar, the tournament format failed.

Lawal crushed a tomato can in the quarterfinals; but he was knocked out by Emanuel Newton in the semis. Things obviously did not go as planned there for Rebney. As a result, Bellator MMA shortened the tournament format. This time, King Mo won a four-man tournament.

However, Newton was not given the title shot he rightfully earned. Bellator MMA booked a pointless interim title bout between King Mo and Newton, claiming that the reigning champion, Attila Vegh, was injured. Vegh was not actually injured, and he would have been ready to fight in November 2013 when the interim title bout took place.

However, Vegh was a virtual unknown and his fights were unappealing to watch. Bellator’s attempt at a course correction with Mo again ended in failure. Newton beat Mo for a second time at Bellator 106 to win the worthless interim title. Newton would eventually capture the light heavyweight belt from Vegh, but he had to do so by winning five fights.

Another more recent example is Bellator 120. With Eddie Alvarez suffering a concussion a week before the fight, the promotion was out of the marquee title rematch in champion Alvarez vs. former champion Chandler. Instead, Bellator put together another pointless interim title bout between a lightweight tournament winner, Will Brooks, and former champion Chandler.

This would be the best they could do until Alvarez was ready to go. Brooks was a virtual unknown and a huge underdog. In the end, Brooks came out on top and captured the interim title. Despite Brooks being interim champion, Bjorn Rebney still claimed that the promotion had to book a rematch between Alvarez and Chandler because the fight was “written in Alvarez’s contract.”

The fact is that tournaments and their results had become all but irrelevant in Bellator. Now, with Rebney gone, this can finally change.

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