Ben Askren may be Bellator's best fighter. He may, in fact, be the best welterweight in the entire world. An Olympic-class wrestler with a dazzling ground game, he's steamrolled every fighter the promotion has put in front of him.
In a landscape increasingly dominated by the UFC, the sport's leading promotion that almost never lets a top fighter go in his prime, Askren is a rare commodity. He is one of just four Bellator fighters ranked by Sherdog.com as among the 10 best in their weight class. Fighters like Ben Askren don't just grow on trees. For him to have matriculated with Bellator was a minor miracle.
And, despite all that, Bellator President Bjorn Rebney recently told ESPN's Josh Gross that he's willing to let his champion walk to the UFC. He all but encouraged it:
I don't think we're going to make an offer at this point so I don't see any reason to make anybody sit out, Bjorn Rebney, Bellator MMA Chairman and CEO, told ESPN.com. If Ben's going to go to the UFC, we should speed up that process so he can go fight. I'd love to see Ben versus GSP.
You could read that as a magnanimous gesture on Rebney's part, a willingness to set Askren free to thrive in the wider world. But Eddie Alvarez can tell you all about magnanimity and Bellator's brutal enforcement of its contract rights.
No, if the promotion wanted Askren, it would fight tooth and nail for him. It doesn't. Because its entire existence is built on a lie—the idea that it wants to put sport first and let the athletic contests speak for themselves.
That's been Bellator's mantra from the very beginning. Its tournament format, it was said, took the subjective out of fight promotion. The best fighters would emerge. Not necessarily the most dynamic or charismatic. The best.
"It's the cornerstone of what makes us different," Rebney told Bleacher Report earlier this year. "We follow a real sport format like what we're watching right now in the NFL playoffs. You've got to earn it. You have to go through the toughest tournament in sports and if you can win three fights in sequence, you can earn your shot at the world title. It's about real sports sequencing. It's about tournament brackets. It's about going from the quarterfinals to the semifinals to the finals.
"There's never been a disconnect in my mind than when watching combat sports and seeing guys able to talk themselves into title fights. Or putting a guy in a world title fight because you think you have a greater ability to sell him to consumers. I've always felt the best fighter should earn his way to a title shot. It should be about winning, not how good your hair looks or how well you talk. It should be about the competition. And at the core that's who we are."
It's a facade that has slowly been slipping. Big-name signees like Quinton "Rampage" Jackson and Tito Ortiz don't intend to fight in a grueling tournament. They will be the face of the promotion anyway. Likewise, high-profile free agent Alvarez will challenge for the lightweight title without going through the tournament process.
The facade is slipping. Sports-based MMA promotion has failed at the marketplace. If it hadn't, Rebney would be doing everything he could to sign his best fighter. Instead, because Askren's style isn't always fan friendly, he's letting the wrestler walk.
"We're all very aware of how he fights and what he does," Rebney told ESPN. "It's not for everyone."
That's not "real sports." But, in many ways, it was inevitable.
Perhaps fans would support the tournament format if it were crowning a legitimate champion. But when the tournament crowns the 27th-best fighter in a weight class, with the top 26 all competing for the promotion's rival, it suddenly becomes much less compelling.
Bellator, it seems, is moving to a UFC model. But it's one that is inherently second rate. Rampage and Tito aren't building blocks for any sane promotion. They've already crumbled in the face of UFC competition. It's a model bound to fail.
In the MMA world, it is becoming increasingly clear that there can be only one major national promotion. The UFC has cornered the market. For Bellator and Viacom, it's only a matter of time and money wasted before they pull the plug.