As far as tournaments are concerned in the world of sports, March reigns supreme.  Both the men’s and women’s collegiate basketball and hockey championship tournaments are featured throughout the month, and the format brings out some of the most exciting moments in sports each and every year.

Tournaments have long been a format of mixed martial arts as well.  The first Ultimate Fighting Championship events featured tournaments.  Pride Fighting Championships held an annual Grand Prix tournament in various weight classes.  Strikeforce is close to wrapping up their Heavyweight Grand Prix tournament, and there is currently a flyweight tournament going on in the UFC to determine their inaugural 125-pound champion.

While tournaments always have been and forever will continue to be a part of mixed martial arts, Bellator Fighting Championships has prided themselves on the tournament format.  The promotions claim to fame is that Bellator is “where title shots are earned, not given.”

The tournament format has been both a positive and a negative for the promotion.  The format takes away all of the politics and semantics of fighters earning a title shot with their words rather than their record and recent victories.  It also prevents outside fighters being brought in and being given an immediate title shot.

A clear example of this is when UFC veteran Roger Huerta was brought in to participate in the promotion’s season-two lightweight tournament.  Many expected “El Matador” to roll through the competition; however, in the second round of the bracket, he lost a decision to a relatively unknown fighter, Pat Curran.  It is easy for promotions to bring in big names and give them an immediate crack at their gold, but not Bellator, they have stayed true to this format.

Another great thing that comes from this is that the promotion finds a way to breed their own superstars.  Curran was anything but a household name when he joined Bellator. He has now won lightweight and featherweight tournaments and currently holds the promotion’s featherweight title.

Even though current lightweight champion Michael Chandler won two fights with Strikeforce before his time in the circular cage, he was still a relative unknown before heading into the season-four lightweight tournament.  He won his three tournament fights and then went on to take the title from Eddie Alvarez in what was one of the best fights in 2011.

But there are flaws to depending on tournaments to drive your fights.  First, it takes about three to four months to effectively host a tournament. That, combined with the season based format that Bellator holds, and the superstars that they went through the trouble to create sit on the shelf.  The way that they counter this is by holding “super fights,” where they have their champion fight in a three-round, non-title fight.

These “super fights” are a double edged sword, however.  It is great to have your champions fight because of the big names on the card, but it opens up a huge can of worms if the champion loses.  During the fifth season, UFC and Pride veteran Travis Wiuff squared off in one of these “super fights” against light heavyweight champion Christian M’Pumbu, claiming the fight by unanimous decision.  Even though M’Pumbu currently holds the title, a lot of people do not consider him the champion.

Another issue with the tournament format is that fans are left wondering how exactly the fighters are seeded.  Most tournaments clearly show the seeds and lay out who will play against one another in every round; the Bellator tournaments appear to be up in the air.

Take, for example, the current season-six lightweight tournament. Based on the recently-announced semifinal pairings, favorites Rick Hawn and Patricky “Pitbull” Freire were originally paired on the same side of the bracket.  Had “Pitbull” not been submitted by Lloyd Woodard, he would be facing Hawn next, which is a real head scratcher.  Sure, hindsight is always twenty-twenty, but it’s hard not to question matchmaking like this.

It is difficult to survive in the world of mixed martial arts with a promotion like the UFC breathing down your neck, but Bellator has managed to do it. If they continue to stick to their tournaments and find another way to get their champions to fight more without risking what happened to M’Pumbu, they’ll continue to survive and grow.

Photo: Travis Wiuff (top) batters Christian M’Pumbu (Sherdog)

About The Author

Brian McKenna
Staff Writer

Brian McKenna was born and raised in the suburbs of Boston, Massachusetts. A sports nut from as long as he can remember, he came to be a fan of Mixed Martial Arts from a roommate watching The Ultimate Fighter while attending Westfield State College. Brian came to writing by starting his own blog, Four Down Territory, which focuses on Boston based sports, life, and of course MMA.