It was 17 years ago when mixed martial arts first found its footing on the slippery slope that would become the struggle to gain mainstream acceptance. With many well-placed steps and more than one backward slide, MMA has finally approached the pinnacle of that journey.
Today, on any given day, a fight fan would be hard-pressed to not find something MMA related on the tube or the Internet.
Along the way, MMA has adopted many new schools of thought, and trimmed away some of the fat to produce a more lean and healthy product. During that grooming process, MMA has lost a few things that many a fight fan would love to see brought back.
One of the most beloved and dearly missed aspects of the early days of MMA is the tournament bracket. In the early days of the UFC, the tournament was the event.
Don Frye or Royce Gracie would walk through the doors, spend all night embarrassing opponents, and after a night of hard fought battles they would find their hand raised as the victor over any foe under any circumstances.
They did this under an open weight format.
This very struggle is what forged their legacies as two of the greatest historical fighters this sport has even known. They did this in a time when MMA had not been dissected and analyzed to the science that it has become.
In the days of Pride the tournaments were also heavily utilized to refine the stable of competitors and allow the cream to rise to the top. Tournaments provided an element of variable that can not be prepared for as fighters knew only that they must fight, they didn't necessarily know who they would fight.
The super fights of those days were evolved through competition, not match-making.
Fast forward to current times and MMA has evolved to a much more predictable, and regimented, approach for both the fighter and the organization. In a time where event viewers are the most important aspect to any card, with a priority on high gates not far behind, MMA has evolved to cater to the star power of the fighter.
A guy like Georges St-Pierre or Fedor Emelianenko can carry an entire fight card on their back. While the art of match-making is a science, it is a job that is driven by more than purity within the fight or competition. Many times it is a sales oriented position more so than allowing for competition to dictate the pace.
An example would be a fighter like Brock Lesnar stepping straight to the front of the line and competing for a title in less than five fights total while a guy like John Jones must prove himself before he is considered worthy of the same opportunity.
Those decisions are based on marketing, not the fighter's place in the sport or their careers.
This is a necessary evil of match-making under the current format for building fight cards at the highest levels of MMA.
With a tournament-style event, the need for match-making is less of a necessity save for the opening rounds of any given tournament. What happens during that first round is akin to the butterfly effect. The initial movements of every fighter in the first round of a tournament will be felt as a ripple effect throughout the entire event.
There are always favorites to win any competition but the variables of a tournament opens the door for odds to be distorted by the unknown path that a fighter may follow throughout the competition. This is where the excitement and allure of the competition thrives.
When Anderson Silva enters a single match, the odds are he will win it. Put that same man at the bottom of an eight-man bracket and now he has to win three fights, two of which are against unknown opponents at the onset of the competition.
This very aspect of the tournament style of approach for a mixed martial arts organization is very much what sets Bellator Fighting Championships apart from its competition in the industry of MMA. They are bringing back a style that forged many a world class athlete, as well as many legends that the sport will never forget.
A fighter can win one fight every six months and create a legacy with the recent approach that MMA has adopted. Silva, for example, has become thought of as unstoppable with an average of little more than two fights a year since joining the UFC. But again, his fights are somewhat catered.
For the young lions competing for Bellator, there is no match made for them by name, there is no build-up for months leading up to their matches. These guys enter the competition, accept their initial opponent, and from there on out it is a crap shoot. But they still compete at a high level and adapt on the fly just as the first warriors that represented this sport did.
As a long-term MMA fan, or even a newcomer to the sport, this is a very attractive and exciting aspect to what Bellator brings to the table. Fans are watching as fighters compete to make their way to the top of a pyramid that is littered with other elite talent.
Styles clash, rivalries are born, and the hype is kept to a minimum.
The best fighters advance and the competition is dictated by the fight itself—nothing more. No bells and whistles, no reputations, no previous outcomes, just the best man on any given night steps forward.
Star power can't help a fighter, ticket sales can't either, they must perform or try again at the next tournament.
The fight is what sells it, the journey to the top of a visible ladder that calls the fighter to not only perform now, but focus forward to the future as well.
The level of excitement and accomplishment that a fighter feels once they have made the third round was obviously apparent when Dan Hornbuckle won his semifinal match at Bellator 19.
When his "good luck charm," his wife, entered the cage after his victory over Steve Carl, Hornbuckle swept her off her feet and screamed, "We made it to the finals!" He looked like a kid who just got a brand new bike. The long road that lay behind him, all the hours of training, competition, and performance pushed him to become a finalist in the Bellator 170-pound tournament.
He didn't win just one fight, he won as many as he needed to until he found himself at the top of the mountain. Now he must win one more against the very scrappy Ben Askren.
Just one more step on his way to the shot at a title he worked so hard to earn. Whether he makes it there or not is up to him and the ripples that were set in motion in Round One of this ongoing event.
I don't know about you, fight fan, but that journey is every bit as entertaining, and alluring to me as any two fights Silva can muster in any given 365-day period. I find myself an advocate for all things MMA, and enjoy every aspect of the sport.
Bellator is onto something here.
They have been doing it for awhile, they are not new or late-comers to MMA. But their throwback style of dropping eight names in a hat and watching it unfold from there is very reminiscent of an asset that has been lost on MMA since its early days as a sport.
The tournament is a welcome and enjoyable rebirth under their banner. As a fight fan, all I can say is, "Thank you." The efforts of Bjorn Rebney, his staff, and his fighters are much appreciated by those of us who truly miss some of the finer points lost from this sport.
Bottom line: Bellator tournaments equal pure mixed martial arts competition.
This article originally published at hurtsbad.com .