This week marks a new chapter in the development of Bellator MMA.
Back when Bjorn Rebney was in charge of the promotion, it focused on trying to secure a foothold as more of a "sports" version of mixed martial arts. The only way to earn a title shot was by going through a three-month tournament. Instead of being handed title shots because of their marketability, fighters actually had to earn it by going in the cage and competing.
There was just one problem with Rebney's formula: It didn't work.
What works in other sports doesn't work in MMA, because MMA is not and has never been a true sport. It is a mixture of sports and real-life contests, but it is also entertainment. It has been this way since the beginning, and it will always be this way. It is about making as many dollars as you can by putting the stars that people want to see in positions where they are able to shine or at least make people believe they're going to shine.
Bellator's tournaments had more of a sporting edge than what the UFC offered. But they were confusing. It was hard to keep track of which tournament was which. And Rebney's best-laid plans for giving his stars easy paths to title shots often went up in smoke, when he would have been much better off just giving those stars the big fights they needed in the first place.
And now Rebney is gone, consigned to the mixed martial arts history pile. For the past year, former Strikeforce promoter Scott Coker has wholly changed Bellator, from the very top to the bottom. Coker replaced nearly all of Bellator's old staff with people of his own choosing. He immediately got rid of the tournaments, correctly figuring that it was better to just book fights people wanted to see rather than risk losing fights designed to help them earn the big fights.
The result is a promotion very different than the one we saw a year ago. We've already seen part of Coker's booking philosophy for the new Bellator unveiled when he booked Tito Ortiz vs. Stephan Bonnar and Kimbo Slice vs. Ken Shamrock. The idea is, every few months, to feature big main events for which people will tune in. And when they tune in, maybe they'll see some of Bellator's up-and-coming talent and be interested in watching that talent the next time around.
Coker also gave the larger Bellator shows a major facelift, adding a smaller scale Pride-style entrance ramp complete with themed videos and entrance music.
On Saturday, Coker's next big thing comes to fruition. He's bringing a literal two-ring circus to San Jose, California, in the form of "Dynamite 1," a hybrid show featuring both Bellator fights (in a cage) and Glory kickboxing bouts (in a ring).
It's a bold new venture with a concept stolen directly from Japan, modeled after the K-1 Dynamite shows of old. It is also something completely different than what we're used to seeing in American mixed martial arts.
Every UFC show looks the same, more or less. The promotion has settled into a groove over the years because it knows what works and what does not. It makes the art of television production look easy because it has continually refined its process over the years. Fans know what to expect when they tune in to a UFC broadcast; there are very few surprises.
With Dynamite, Coker is tossing that formula on its head. There's the dual-ring setup, of course, which is unique enough. There will be moments when Bellator fights and Glory fights are happening at the same time, side by side, in the cage and in the ring. They won't happen until after the TV broadcast goes off the air, but you still can't help but wonder if there will be any sort of confusion happening there.
In addition to the dual-ring setup, there will be a four-man light heavyweight tournament to determine the next challenger for the light heavyweight title, which is (not coincidentally) being defended in the main event. It is a one-night tournament that will play out over the course of the broadcast, a throwback to the earliest days of MMA when single-night tournaments were the norm.
And of course, there's the main event, where the veteran Tito Ortiz will inexplicably challenge Liam McGeary for the Bellator Light Heavyweight Championship. It is a fight that hews close to Coker's philosophy of putting recognizable names in his main events, even if they have long been considered past their expiration dates.
Coker is certainly succeeding in his quest to be different than the UFC. The question then becomes: Is this new Bellator product too different? Do we really need one-night tournaments again? Is there too much sideshow and freak show and not enough pure sport in Dynamite? Will people tune into this broadcast and assume that this is what they can expect from mixed martial arts?
The tournament is a cool thing; I'll have an in-depth preview out later in the week. But I'd be lying if I said I wasn't just a little bit hesitant toward the whole thing.
One-night tournaments were phased out of MMA largely because they never went according to plan. It's all fine and good to set up your brackets—and Bellator's tournament bracket with Phil Davis, Mo Lawal, Linton Vassell and Emanuel Newton is quite good on paper—but it's another to actually see it play out the way you'd hope.
The opening-round fights are two rounds, which is a good move for limiting the amount of damage a fighter takes so that he can compete again later in the night. But will anyone be surprised if one (or both) of the winners are unable to continue after the first round? Will you be surprised if the main event ultimately sees one of the first-round losers competing against one of the winners from the alternate bouts?
Don't get me wrong: If you put a one-night tournament featuring four great light heavyweights on free television, there's no way I'm going to miss it. That's appointment television for me. But I'm also going into this thing not expecting to see it play out the way it does on paper, because I am a realist who has seen too many one-night tournaments completely fall apart.
And sure, there is a heavy freak-show aspect to this whole thing. Putting a cage and a ring side by side and having fights take place in both at the same time? That will be weird for anyone who has grown used to watching American mixed martial arts over the past eight years.
But again: It's appointment television. I have to see how it plays out, even as worst-case scenarios dance around in my head.
And I don't think people will come away from Dynamite with any sort of expectations for this becoming a normal thing. Bellator's plan is to run Dynamite yearly, as a special show with special attractions. If it started running events like this every month, it would quickly get old. But the fact that it is being reserved for one time per year makes it more special.
In the end, Coker is doing what he has to do to set his company apart from the UFC, because we already have one UFC and do not need another. Companies that attempt to play on the UFC's field often find themselves quickly lost in the shuffle, because competing against the UFC's strengths almost never works out.
To gain any sort of foothold in mixed martial arts, you have to be different. Coker, a brilliant promoter, understands this better than anyone. He gave big promotion to women's MMA fights long before Ronda Rousey ever dreamed of getting in the Octagon. He did that because nobody else was really doing it, and because he saw a way to attract fans who usually don't watch MMA.
That's the key here, I think. If he's going to be successful, Coker needs eyeballs for his product. And not just any eyeballs, either. He needs to reach far beyond the usual MMA-watching crowd and lure in the casual audience. And in order to obtain those all-important eyeballs, he has to present a product so different from the UFC's product that it might be jarring at first.
If Dynamite is a success—and I have no reason to think it won't be—Coker's philosophy will be validated. It doesn't mean we need something like Dynamite every month, because then MMA becomes all entertainment and zero sport, something more akin to World Wrestling Entertainment than the UFC.
But putting on something like this once per year? I'm fine with that. In fact, I'm driving to San Jose from Las Vegas on my own dime simply because I have to be there. I have to see it all unfold in person. And I suspect many of you will have the same feeling at home, and you'll get some friends together and watch.
Because there's no way you can't watch this, even if it's not the MMA you're used to.
Jeremy Botter covers mixed martial arts for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter.