The sport of Mixed Martial Arts is starting to become more mainstream as the years pass, and the fanbase is growing exponentially. Fans are learning about fighters, and are becoming emotionally attached to them and their actions.
Fans are becoming more knowledgeable about the technicality behind some of the styles, and are starting to build a certain depth of history and tradition. But with this growth has come changes and decisions of direction.
The UFC is the juggernaut pioneering the sport and is the most prominent and dominant among all other promotions that exist or have existed. To the world, the UFC is the biggest stage and hosts some, if not all, of the greatest talent. But the UFC holds a format for their fighters that isn’t shared by others.
In the commonly used format of competition in other sports, most teams/athletes have seasons, leading up to tournament-style playoffs that result in eliminations until one remains. The last one standing is the champion/champions. With MMA, the sport is constant and has no seasons. There are championship titles, but they can all be challenged an unpredictable amount of times in a given year.
The UFC currently has eight different weight classes, meaning eight champions (seven now until a Flyweight champ is crowned later this month) that stand on top of the division to take on challengers. But the UFC has the tendency to issue title shots that leave fans scratching their heads.
Sometimes the challenger racks up enough number of wins to get a shot, but sometimes it is a matter of quality of opponent. Sometimes it seemingly is given to who is actually available/ready to fight for a specific date under certain circumstances.
Some decisions are no-brainers, and some suggest more of an intelligent business move. Also, some are what the fans ask for, which is a sentiment held by the UFC and President Dana White. White and the UFC brass care about what the fans want to see, and take those opinions and responses into account.
But at the end of the day, the consistency of title shots and what it takes to earn them is skewed in the UFC. The criterion is ambiguous, and seems to be sometimes determined based on the smallest amount of justification that can be conceived.
But that is just the UFC’s way of conducting their promotion, and it has built them an empire out of a once-failing brand.
On the other hand, you have arguably the No. 2-ranked promotion in the MMA world, Bellator Fighting Championships.
Bellator takes the approach the UFC used to do back in its infantile stages. The UFC had the tournament style up until about the end of 1998, at UFC Ultimate Brazil, but then switched to making main cards of different matchups.
Bellator, since it’s inauguration event in 2009, has consisted of tournament-based competition. Bellator even dons the slogan, “Where title shots are earned, not given.”
Bellator also conducts these tournaments by “seasons,” which last about three months and consist of eight fighters in each weight class. This setup is vastly different than the UFC, but adds an alternative career path for fighters and a new marketing strategy for fans.
With the tournament setting, fans and fighters of Bellator are given the foundational knowledge that title shots are based solely on the performances of each individual fighter. Only the tournament winner earns the right to challenge the champion.
While some fans enjoy getting to see fights they want, the UFC has left some wanting a little more structure and consistency, which Bellator can offer.
But is one better than the other?
As with ANY debate in MMA among fans, it is subjective and there are always those for, and against. “Better” may or may not be the correct term in the sense of fan opinion, but if one were to take that thought further, is one better for the sport and overall growth of MMA?
Possibly the aggravation of inconsistency of title shots will discredit the UFC and make way for a new direction of MMA. Maybe the tournament style sets itself up for failure if the tournament fighters, tournament winner, or champion gets injured.
Maybe the format of the UFC pushes fighters to tournament-based promotions where they have better chances of becoming a world champion. Maybe Bellator’s downtime between title fights and lack of big events will become too stale or disinteresting.
Bellator is still extremely young in this sport, as is the UFC. Both are taking MMA in a different path, but they both seem to be moving it forward and adding dynamic to it. It is hard to tell if one is better than the other from a growth perspective, but at the end of the day, it comes down to the fans.
As fans and participants of competition, we are fortunate to have choices and alternatives. We all get to have our cake, and eat it too.
What are your thoughts on the different formats?