Question: When are championships meaningless?

Answer: When a promotion goes to great lengths to devalue its own titles.

There’s no better example of this than Bellator Fighting Championships. The promotion has built itself in such a way that its own belts are meaningless.

Now, don’t get me wrong—the promotion puts on plenty of intriguing cards and its tournament format allows for the quick creation of promotional stars. However, that same format and Bellator’s tunnel vision towards it has done nothing to give its championship belts any credence within the MMA world.

Take, for example, Ben Askren, Bellator’s welterweight champion. His ability to dominate opponents throughout the Bellator season-two tourney elevated his name within the consensus welterweight rankings, but since winning the tourney in 2010 and going on to defeat Lyman Good to capture the championship belt, Askren’s next fight was a non-title affair and he didn’t actually defend his belt until a year after winning it. He’s only defended the belt twice—once in 2011 and once in 2012. That’s two title defenses and a non-title affair over the course of the two years since he claimed the gold.

Former Bellator lightweight kingpin Eddie Alvarez had a similar trajectory through his reign. Winning the belt in the season-one tournament finals in June 2009, Alvarez then fought once in Dream before competing in two non-title bouts under the Bellator banner. His first title defense? April 2011, nearly two full years after claiming the belt.

There’s also middleweight Hector Lombard, who claimed the 185-pound crown in June 2009. Lombard, eager to stay active, took three fights outside of Bellator after winning the title, and then returned for two non-title tilts with Bellator. He then defended his title against Alexander Shlemenko before alternating between fights in Australia and two more non-title bouts in Bellator. His contract ended there and he moved on to the UFC, vacating the Bellator crown. A reign lasting more than two years and five fights, yet only one title defense.

But even more ludicrous is what the promotion has done with women’s 115-pound champion Zoila Gurgel. Gurgel, a reigning Bellator champion, will be relegated, for the second time in her stay with the promotion, to the preliminary card of an event when she competes on Oct. 26 against Casey Noland in Dayton, Ohio, not far from where Gurgel trains. Since winning the title in the season-three tournament, Gurgel has fought once in a preliminary card non-title bout before being sidelined for a year with a torn ACL. Now, the champion returns…only to not be featured on television?

It’s become quite obvious by now that Bellator’s tournament model does not support championship belts.

After all, what’s the point in crowning a champion under Bellator’s system? In doing so, Bellator is effectively setting up a scenario where it’s benching its best fighter in the weight class. Even if these guys fight in non-title bouts—as Askren, Alvarez, Lombard and Gurgel all have—any true fan of the promotion looks at those fights as meaningless encounters.

Is there really anything to get excited about when Bellator is attempting to keep someone like Lombard or Alvarez active, but also doesn’t want to risk having the champion lose a fight? The promotion starts walking a line where its best middleweight ends up fighting someone like Herbert Goodman, its best lightweight fights Josh Neer, its best welterweight fights Nick Thompson and its one female champ fights two ladies that are so far down the depth charts that they’ve yet to even appear on an Invicta FC card (and at a time when Bellator should be capitalizing on the rising interest in women’s MMA, nonetheless, though that’s a topic for an entirely different discussion).

Bellator would be better suited in more fully embracing the roots of MMA tournaments. No, I’m not suggesting the one-night affairs and no-holds-barred rule set of the UFC’s earliest days, but Bellator can better utilize its tournament champions if it sticks to crowning them as simply tournament champions.

In other words, do away with the belt that needs to be defended and just hand out a belt or trophy to the tournament winner. The way they would defend their championship is by then participating in the next tournament, just as Royce Gracie did at UFC 2 after winning UFC 1.

Would fans have rather seen Lombard beat Jay Silva and Herbert Goodman in a combined 44 seconds in meaningless non-title fights, or would they have appreciated Lombard showcasing those vicious striking displays in season-two middleweight tournament action where he would really be defending his reign with every step he took through a new bracket?

I know my preference would be the latter. Sure, Lombard’s destruction of Silva and Goodman was entertaining to watch, but did the average Bellator fan really see any meaning in those fights? The consensus opinion was that Lombard would destroy both men, and the only reason to watch was to see if Bellator would face the embarrassment of having a champion suffer a fluke loss in a non-title affair where a win was all but a given. But put Lombard in a tournament, and fans would be intrigued at seeing whether the previous season’s champion could emerge from another gauntlet of hungry, quality opponents.

It’s too late to do that with Lombard or Alvarez, but Bellator has a current crop of champions sitting in wait of challengers who are few and far between. Why not return them to meaningful action?

And in Gurgel’s case, where Bellator is seemingly acknowledging that it is not committed to her as a champion, there’d be a lot less head scratching about her placement on the upcoming Bellator 78 card. It might be a bit odd that a former tournament champion landed on the prelims, but it wouldn’t be as puzzling as a major promotion putting a reigning champion on the unaired portion of an event. Just imagine if the UFC decided that its flyweight kingpin, Demetrious Johnson, was going to fight on the Facebook streamed portion of a pay-per-view. That’s the equivalent of what Bellator has done here.

It would also open the door for the promotion to give Gurgel more meaningful fights. Promote her as the last woman to win a tournament and pit her against a legitimate threat, possibly a rematch with Megumi Fujii. It’s definitely a better use of Gurgel, and provides her with a fight that cannot be denied a spot on the main card, likely with headlining status.

When even the promotion has little interest in its own belts, perhaps it’s time to do away with this concept, which clearly clashes with Bellator’s overall tournament format. And it’s time for Bellator to make the most of its roster, rather than letting its best talents waste away on the bench.

In order to keep its best fighters active and its fans engaged to the utmost degree, it’s time for Bellator to fully embrace the one characteristic that sets it apart from the UFC and Strikeforce.

It’s time to forget about traditional champions and let its best thrive in the tournaments.

Photo: Eddie Alvarez (Dave Mandel/Sherdog)

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