Bellator's Tournament Format Continues to Hold the Promotion Back

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Bellator's Tournament Format Continues to Hold the Promotion Back
Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Spor

Bjorn Rebney to Ariel Helwani (h/t MMA Fighting), March 26, 2012:

At the same time, it’s critical to have a system in place that ensures our Champions defend their titles as frequently as possible.  If we just picked who fights who, this would be a simple process.  If a title challenger gets injured we could just give the fight to whoever else we thought would sell Pay-Per-View’s or generate ratings.  But, because we’re a real sports format, we don’t do that.

Patricio "Pitbull" Freire to MMA Junkie, January 14, 2014:

I’m upset at the whole thing not going the way I thought I was going. I’ve got faith to keep training and keep doing what I’m doing, and hopefully everything will work out. But if Bellator doesn’t believe in me – if they don’t want me to be champion and to do things right – I’d like to just ask them to let me out of my contract.

Don't look now, but Bellator has a tournament-sized problem on its hands.

The promotion that bills itself "the toughest tournament in sports" is apparently ready and willing to bypass the whole tournament thing when it suits its needs. And that's fine. Bellator has some excellent fighters on the roster, but the tournament and season formats are holding it back from reaching its true potential.

They're a double-edged sword that will prevent Bellator from ever becoming a credible threat to the UFC's reign as the king of combat sports. 

The latest sign that Bellator recognizes this fact came on Monday afternoon when the promotion announced that a rematch has been signed between new featherweight champion Daniel Straus and Pat Curran. Straus dethroned Curran on November 2.

The fight was forgettable, but there's little doubt that Straus earned the unanimous decision he was awarded that night. He took home scores of 49-45, 48-46 and 48-46.

Of course, Bellator has a built-in policy that allows it to book immediate rematches. Here's what Bjorn Rebney wrote on Bellator.com in late 2012. 

When a fighter’s earned a shot at the world title by winning The Toughest Tournament in Sports and competes in a title fight that knocks fans like us back in our seats (win or lose) delivering an incredible fight, when a rematch is called for, we will deliver it. Championship fights give us some of the greatest moments in MMA. And, rematches of incredible championship fights will give fans like us more of those electrifying moments while staying true to the world’s best fighters having had to earn their way to those title shots.

So, to recap:

1. A rematch is called for when the fight knocks fans back in their seats.
2. We will have electrifying moments while staying true to the idea of fighters earning title shots.

Straus vs. Curran did not knock anyone back in their seats, unless they simply slumped backward after falling asleep. I am ready to concede this is a distinct possibility.

Freire earned his way to a title shot against Straus. He defeated Diego Nunes, Fabricio Guerreiro and Justin Wilcox and won two of those fights by TKO. He won the Season 9 featherweight tournament and should get the championship opportunity that Rebney constantly crows about when he talks about how Bellator is a real sport and the UFC is entertainment. 

But, no. Because Bellator spent a lot of money shooting videos of Curran punching the air with flaming gloves and seemingly likes having him as its champion—and despite Freire deserving the fight he earned in the laughable "toughest tournament in sports"the promotion is affording Curran the opportunity to win back his belt despite absolutely and clearly not meriting it. 

You've already seen Freire's opinion on the subject. He thinks it's a load of crap, and he's right. But he's not the only one unhappy with the decision. 

"My perception is that Bellator wants him as champ so bad not only does he get immediate rematch but gets it in his hometown damn near," Straus wrote on Facebook. "Any thoughts?"

Yeah, I have some thoughts. 

It's time to do away with the tournaments. They're a fun concept, and they worked for a while, but they don't work now. The folks at Spike TV are absolute masters in building stars; this has been proved time and again over the last decade. But they're handcuffed by an antiquated format that will never lend itself to building momentum. 

Either that, or Bellator has to stop pretending it's a pure sports organization. It isn't. It's in the same entertainment business as the UFC, and decisions like bypassing the guy who actually won the "toughest tournament in sports" and giving the title shot to the guy it wants as champion prove it. 

Oh, and letting former welterweight champion Ben Askren walk away because he's boring? Yeah, that totally proves Bellator is all about sports. That doesn't smell like a decision based on entertainment value at all. 

We see what you are, Bellator. You know what you are, so why don't you stop pretending you're something else? Get rid of the tournaments, stop doing "seasons" and just put on the best fights you can. The results will surprise you.

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