Before the term ‘mixed martial arts’ was even coined this sport was built on tournament fighting, the formative years of the Ultimate Fighting Championship featured no weight-classes or time limits as eight men battled to see who had the most skilled discipline.
As the first quarter of the 19rd year of the sports existence comes to a close things have changed a lot, no longer is it the barbaric blood sport that Senator John McCain once dubbed ‘human cockfighting’ but the flame of tournament fighting is kept alive in North America by Bellator Fighting Championships.
In their first handful of seasons Bellator have come a long way and the tournament format has a lot to do with it, beginning on a tiny Spanish-speaking ESPN affiliate a string of highlight-reel performances coupled with the unique format made them must-see television.
Now as they are owned by North American media conglomerate Viacom and are about to be fast-tracked to the UFC’s former home on Spike TV in 2012 the question remains, have they outgrown their current format?
Bellator CEO Bjorn Rebney is steadfast against removing the tournament aspect of their organization, the Chicago-based promoter cut his teeth in the boxing industry and never liked that promoters, sanctioning bodies and TV networks determine who fights for the organizations top crown.
Having a Bellator combatant have to beat three opponents in a short period of time brings legitimacy to his organization and the challenger on the rise no doubt but has in turn been problematic for the champions.
Ben Askren is arguably the best wrestler that the University of Missouri has ever produced — The US Olympic squad member won the Bellator title in their second season and is only defending it for the second time next weekend.
In his third year as a professional and his natural athletic gifts he needs to be stepping inside a fighting circle at least four times a year before it stunts his development and he falls by the wayside but last year he only fought twice.
And he’s not alone, bantamweight kingpin Zack Makovsky is yet to defend his title and has only fought twice since he collected the title in 2010 and Cole Konrad, Christian M’Pumbu and Zuila Gurgel stepped in the circular cage once last year.
In fact, outside of the newly crowned kings of their respective divisions Hector Lombard has been Bellators only active champion and that’s largely because he has an open contract with the organization that allows him to compete in Australia.
The tournament concept had another hiccup several weeks back when they attempted to conclude their heavyweight final that originally ended in a no contest after Thiago Santos leveled Eric Prindle with a groin shot that hospitalized him and declared their bout a no contest last November.
On their second try Prindle suffered from “flu-like symptoms” according to Bellators figurehead and finally on the third try Santos tipped the scales at 276.8 pounds, eleven pounds over.
Judging from Rebneys hairdo, he’s lost enough hair over the years as a match-maker so instead of trying for a fourth time he packed up shop and awarded the title shot and $100,000 to Prindle who will face the promotions top heavyweight Cole Konrad at Bellator 65 on April 13.
Unquestionably this is one of the biggest disasters we’ve seen in MMA and it’s due to Bellator following the concrete rules of tournaments determining challengers and champions.
Now that the organization aren’t in financial jeopardy surviving on the support of a hedge fund and have the backing of a multi-million dollar platform in Viacom they have the ability to splurge a little, to throw more money on the table and bring some bigger named talent to compete amongst their eight weight-classes.
After his nine month suspension from competition is up, Muhammed Lawal, more prominently known as “King Mo” will be the hottest free agent on the market – The former three-time US senior national wrestling champion was recently let go from his Strikeforce contract after a snafu with the athletic commission.
Realistically, should King Mo, a former Strikeforce light-heavyweight champion have to beat three men in three months to get his hands on Christian M’Pumbu? No disrespect to the champ but he lost his last non-title affair and wouldn’t crack the top-50 at 205-pounds right now.
The fact remains that thousands of new promoters put their foot forward to promote in this sport every year but very few get noticed let alone grow into the number-two ranked organization in North America within a few short years but tournament-based fighting is stunting the growth of Bellator.