The sport of mixed martial arts has been spearheaded by the UFC, which is far and away the biggest and most prestigious stage for the sport.
Since its inception, Bellator has become as an organization that favors giving tested fighters their due, pitting its fighters in tournament formats that determine rightful champions and budding contenders.
Though they may not garner the same level of attention as there Octagon counterparts, the Bellator elite are exactly the kind of fighters that the MMA community should follow.
Eddie Alvarez/ Scott Peterson for MMAWeekly.com
Former Pancrase and Sengoku featherweight champion Marlon Sandro has made a career of knocking out formidable opposition left and right.
Whilst under the Sengoku banner, Sandro dropped a controversial decision to UFC fighter Michihiro Omigawa, though the Brazilian stormed back with consecutive knockout victories over Yuji Hoshino and Tomonari Kanomata, which catapulted the Nova Uniao fighter into title contention.
In June 2010, Sandro took on champion Masanori Kanehara, who earned the strap with a decision win over the aforementioned Omigawa. Sandro needed just 38 seconds to send Kanehara on a stretcher, courtesy of a head-severing uppercut which yielded the knockout finish, cinching the 145-pound title in the process.
In Bellator, Sandro made his way to the Summer Series featherweight finals, defeating Genair da Silva and Nazareno Malegarie along the way. Though he was inevitably stopped by former two-time tourney winner Pat Curran, Sandro remains one of the most highly touted and dangerous fighters in the division.
Highly underrated but all kinds of talented, Pat Curran went from a relative unknown to among one of the best in the featherweight division.
Season 2 winner of the Bellator lightweight tournament, Curran inevitably challenged then-champion Eddie Alvarez for the 155-pound title, dropping a competitive decision to the heavy-hitting Philly fighter.
Next, Curran took his exploits to the featherweight class, where impressive victories over Luis Palomino and Ronnie Mann threw him into a highly anticipated battle with the aforementioned Sandro.
After a rough first round, Curran came back in the second with a vengeance, knocking out the Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt with a highlight reel headkick, cinching his second tournament under the Bellator banner.
Curran now awaits a battle with current champion Joe Warren for the 145-pound title come March 9.
UFC and Strikeforce veteran Jay Hieron came into the season four welterweight tournament as the consummate favorite, and for good reason.
The former NCAA Division I All-American is regarded as one of the best 170-pound fighters outside of the Zuffa umbrella, with Hieron having cinched impressive victories against the likes of Mark Miller, Jason High, Jesse Taylor, Joe Riggs and Jake Ellenberger—who is currently a top contender in the UFC.
Hieron used victories over Anthony Lapsley and Brent Weedman in order to meet Judoka specialist Rick Hawn in the tourney finals, where the Xtreme Couture product again used his well-rounded assault of takedowns and strikes to cinch the decision win.
With the tourney victory in hand, Hieron challenged champion Ben Askren for his crown last October. Hieron was able to stave off several takedown attempts from the former Olympic hopeful, whilst using his boxing acumen to tag Askren left and right.
In the end, the judges deemed Askren the winner, although Hieron impressed many by his performance, with the consensus feeling that the Las Vegas transplant was robbed of the rightful win.
A product of American Top Team, Ben Saunders first introduced himself to the mixed martial arts world on Season 6 of The Ultimate Fighter, where he was eventually ousted by finalist Tommy Speer in a quarter-final bout.
Saunders was invited back to the UFC after the show's conclusion, besting fellow castmate Dan Barrera by decision.
"Killa B" notched emphatic victories over Ryan Thomas, Brandon Wolff and former top contender Marcus Davis—knocking out the former professional boxer in less than four minutes. Saunders entered Bellator in April of last year, battering veteran Matt Lee with some devastating knees, yielding a third-round total knockout.
That earned him a spot in the Season 5 welterweight tournament.
Emphatic victories against Chris Cisneros and Luis Santos sent Saunders to the finals, where he was stopped by fellow ATT fighter Douglas Lima.
2010 REDLINE middleweight Grand Prix champ and former MFC titleholder Douglas Lima has been one of the most sought-after welterweight fighters in the world.
A submission specialist at heart, Lima has since cultivated striking skills that rival most in his class.
Just before entering the Bellator cage, the Brazilian scored an impressive 74-second total knockout win against UFC veteran Terry Martin, which helped set the tone for his next few endeavors in the cage.
Lima came into the Bellator fold last September as part of the talent-laden Season 4 welterweight tournament. In the opening round, Lima bested Steve Carl by decision before taking on Chris Lozano.
Unfortunately for the New Yorker, Lozano became victim of arguably the most brutal knockout in the organization's history, as Lima blasted the powerhouse with a crushing right hand, sending Lozano face first into the canvas.
The win propelled Lima to the finals, where another knockout win of Ben Saunders ensued, securing Lima the tournament win and his shot at champion Ben Askren, which will come to a head on April 6.
The "Pitbull" brothers Patricky and Patricio Freire have been on a tear since entering the Bellator fold.
Patricio, who competes as a featherweight, made his way through the organization's Season 2 tournament, dropping a decision to Joe Warren in the finals.
In Season 4, Patricio scored impressive knockouts over Georgi Karakhanyan and Wilson Reis before taking touted wrestler Daniel Straus, taking the 27-year-old to a decision, cinching the tournament and a shot at the 145-pound strap in the process.
Patricky, who is one of the top lightweights in Bellator, first made waves in last March when he met former WEC champion Rob McCullough in the opening round of the Season 4 tourney. After two competitive rounds, Patricky closed the show with a right hook, which sent "Razor" crashing to the mat, where ground-and-pound blows sealed the finish.
Next, Patricky took on two-time tourney finalist Toby Imada, knocking out the submission whiz in less than two minutes into the opening round. Patricky met with eventual tournament winner Michael Chandler in the finals, dropping a decision to the Xtreme Couture fighter, although has since bounced back with a 50-second total knockout of former UFC contender Kurt Pellegrino.
One of the true veterans of the sport, Toby Imada has tangled with some of the best fighters in the world in both the lightweight and welterweight class.
Imada was one of the originals of Bellator, having made his debut with the promotion in their inaugural show for the Season 1 lightweight tournament. There he submitted Alonzo Martinez, which moved him into the semifinals against Jorge Masvidal.
After two dominant rounds turned in by Masvidal, Imada went for a "Hail Mary" in the third, cinching up an inverted triangle choke while Imada was hoisted in the air by the ATT fighter. Eventually, Masvidal wilted from the hold, giving Imada the organization's most memorable finishes, which garnered him "Submission of the Year" by multiple media outlets.
In the finals, Imada fell to Eddie Alvarez, although returned in Season 2, making his way to the finals once again with consecutive submission victories over James Krause and Carey Vanier, before dropping a controversial decision to Pat Curran in the finals.
Twice has the tournament title eluded him, although Imada has shown that he is as dangerous and talented as they come.
Russian import Alexander Shlemenko has proven to be one of Bellator's strongest competitors.
Shlemenko first made waves in the Season 2 middleweight tournament. After a decision victory against Matt Majors, he earned total knockout victories against Jared Hess and WEC vet Bryan Baker for the tournament title and heft check.
"The Storm" dropped a competitive decision to champion Hector Lombard. However, he again made his way to the title when he entered the recently concluded Season 5 tourney.
In the opening round, Shlemenko bested Pride veteran Zelg Galesic—a touted striker much like Shlemenko—via guillotine choke in just under two minutes of action.
Next, the 56-fight vet met with Brian Rogers, who staggered Shlemenko early, though the 27-year-old came roaring back in the second round, where a bevy of knees and punches wilted Rogers, earning Shlemenko the total knockout victory.
A decision win against Vitor Vianna in the finals again earned Shlemenko another tournament victory, where he now awaits for his showdown with rival and 185-pound champion Hector Lombard.
Naturally, Hector Lombard is built for the welterweight division, although he's been every bit as indestructible now in the middleweight class, having become Bellator's human highlight reel.
The Cuban remains undefeated in his past 25 fights, which includes eight stints in the Bellator cage.
Lombard first made his way in the organization at Bellator 3 for their first middleweight tourney, scoring a knockout over Virgil Lozano in 70 seconds, which preceded total knockouts victories against both Damien Stelly and Jared Hess, earning him the tournament win and making Lombard their first, and so far only, middleweight champion.
Afterwards, Lombard was featured in two non-title affairs against UFC veteran Jay Silva and former NFL running back Herbert Goodman, knocking both men out in a combined 44 seconds.
A lackluster decision win against the always tough Alexander Shlemenko, Lombard's first and so far only title defense, was avenged with emphatic victories against UFC veterans Falaniko Vitale and Trevor Prangley, finishing both men on strikes before the final bell.
One of the flyweight division's best, Alex Vila entered the Bellator fold in September of last year, this time as a bantamweight.
Though small in stature, Vila showed that the man can pack a punch, when he took on fellow wrestler Joe Warren in the opening round.
Warren, the organization's 145-pound champion, had aspirations of holding gold in the 135-pounds division, although those plans were quickly derailed by the heavy hands of Vila, who finished off Warren in just 64 seconds.
Next, Vila earned a contentious decision win against WEC vet Marcos Galvao, before the Olympic bronze medalist dropped a decision of his own to the young and spirited Eduardo Dantas in the finals, although Vila still figures to be one of the organization's toughest and most talented competitors.
EliteXC veteran Zach Makovsky has gone from relative unknown to one of Bellator's most dominant fighters.
The 135-pound star first made waves in the organization in June of 2010, earning a submission win against Eric Luke, which earned him his spot in the Season 3 tournament.
Decision victories against Brian Goldsby and Nick Mamalis earned Makovsky his place in the finals, where a five-round rout of Ed West earned Makovsky the 135-pound title, making him the organization's first, and so far only, bantamweight champion.
Since then, "Fun Size" has been featured in two non-title special attractions, with a total knockout against Strikeforce vet Chad Robichaux before deftly submitting UFC veteran Ryan Roberts with a north/south choke in the opening round.
For this former NCAA Division I All-American, Michael Chandler that he's every bit as dangerous in the cage as he is fierce and focused.
A product of Xtreme Couture, Chandler made his debut in the 155-pound division with his first bout under the Bellator banner in the Season 4 tournament, taking on the touted Marcin Held in the opening round. After being caught in a tight-kneebar, Chandler was able to stave off the submission and cinch one of his own, putting held to sleep with an arm-triangle choke.
Impressive decision wins against Lloyd Woodard and Patricky Freire followed, earning Chandler the tournament win and his shot at then-champion Eddie Alvarez.
In what became one of 2011's best fights of the year, Chandler rocked and dropped the heavy-hitter early and often, eventually finishing off the world renowned fighter in the fourth round with a rear-naked choke, making him the organization's new lightweight champion.
Shooto veteran Eduardo Dantas, 22, is quickly becoming one of the bantamweight division's most talented and exciting stars.
Making his way to the Bellator cage last September in the Season 5 tournament, Dantas defeated submission whiz Wilson Reis, knocking out his fellow countryman with an incredible flying knee.
Next, the Nova Uniao star took on former finalist Ed West, defeating his formidable opponent by a close and contentious split-decision in a fight that was regarded as one of the best to grace the Bellator cage.
In the finals, Dantas had the task of upsetting Olympian Alexis Vila. With incredible takedown defense, coupled with his range and dangerous striking acumen, Dantas defeated the Cuban and has now punched his ticket to a title shot against champion Zach Makovsky.
There's a reason why Eddie Alvarez was widely regarded as one of the top lightweight fighters in the world for a while.
This bruiser first made waves in the MMA world as a welterweight, although the decision to pare down to the 155-pound class has paid off in spades. First making a name for himself under the Dream banner, Alvarez made his way through the organization's 16-man lightweight tournament.
Victories against Andre Dida and Joachim Hansen eventually earned Alvarez a semifinal bout with Tatsuya Kawajiri, which was regarded as one of the best in the organization's history. Both men played rock 'em sock 'em before Alvarez closed the show with heavy-shots, cinching the first round total knockout win.
Unable to continue in the finals due to a swollen left eye, Alvarez would eventually make his way to the Bellator fold for the organization's inaugural lightweight tourney, submitting Greg Loughran, Eric Reynolds and Toby Imada en route to the 155-pound championship.
Subsequent non-title affairs against UFC veterans Josh Neer and Roger Huerta followed, with neither man making it to the final bell.
Alvarez has since dropped the lightweight crown to the touted Michael Chandler, but still figures to be one of the best fighters that Bellator has to offer.