Gilbert Melendez (Dave Mandel/Sherdog)Bellator’s Lightweight Division: Does Gilbert Melendez Do More Harm Than Good? Justin Fuller February 21, 2014 Spotlight News surfaced last week about a deal being negotiated between the No. 2 lightweight in the UFC, Gilbert Melendez, and the No. 2 MMA promotion in the United States, the Viacom Inc.-owned Bellator MMA. Although the information was provided courtesy of Bellator CEO Bjorn Rebney in the form of a press release, the multi-fight deal with “El Niño” has simply been agreed to in principle and the UFC is still within its window to match the offer. After such a drawn-out legal battle to retain current Bellator lightweight champion Eddie Alvarez, it is surprising that Bellator was willing to risk the same challenge by going after a top-ranked UFC free agent. But regardless of the reasoning behind entering complicated contract negotiations opposite the equally litigious Zuffa, is Melendez, or any other high-profile lightweight for that matter, really the best target for Bellator? Bellator has spent years trying to build its brand around the concept that title shots are earned, not given, utilizing the tournament format. But recent acquisitions and upcoming rematches have brought into question the integrity of not only the tournaments, but the title shots Bellator provides. This has put the promotion between a rock and a hard place, because it has gone from the previous criticism of not having its champions defend their belts often enough to dealing with criticism in regards to favoring certain fighters over others and passing over deserving contenders in favor of a more attractive match-up. One needs to look no further than the lightweight division for evidence. After a rematch that was two years overdue and would have been immediate under Bellator’s current policy, Alvarez was able to recapture the lightweight strap he lost to Michael Chandler in 2011. In the time it took for the two to meet again, Chandler fought three times, defending the belt twice against tournament winners, and Alvarez fought twice in non-tournament matches in 2012 and went over a year without fighting due to complications with his contract negotiations. Because of the outcome of their bout, both fighters are contractually obligated to fight in a rubber match at a yet-to-be-named event sometime in the future. Of course, while Bellator is busy planning one of the biggest fights in the promotion’s history, other fighters have been wondering when they will get their promised chance at glory. By the time Chandler-Alvarez II took place, Dave Jansen had already won the season-seven lightweight tournament and was supposed to be next in line before Alvarez was brought back into the fold. Three weeks later, at Bellator 109, Will Brooks won the season-nine lightweight tournament, officially creating two No. 1 contenders. But since he knew, even with a win that night, he was going to be third in line for the title, it’s likely the victory tasted bittersweet. Let’s also not forget that the promotion will be launching a season-10 lightweight tournament as well, which will feature season-eight winner David Rickels and season-four finalist Patricky Freire. That will add a fourth name to the list of “No. 1 contenders.” So, with such a deep, talent-rich division comprised almost entirely of organically developed fighters, Bellator does the only sensible thing by trying to sign a guy who will likely get either a free pass or the express four-man tournament road to the title. Needless to say, if Bellator is truly the place where fighters are respected and appreciated in comparison to their rivals, then one would think the promotion should not forget about those who’ve already paid their dues and help build Bellator MMA into what it is today. The lightweight division has been one of the most successful enterprises in the entire promotion. Although one could argue that Bellator is merely trying to ensure it stays that way in the long term, the promotion should not do so at the expense of those fighters already in the queue. Fighters who don’t get paid unless they fight. Fighters who don’t make Eddie Alvarez money, or Gilbert Melendez money. Fighters who may find themselves in a situation where they have to choose between begging for a fight to pay the bills or waiting it out for the title shot that may never come. Without a doubt there are some overall benefits for any organization which can claim Melendez. Aside from the addition of a widely recognized, top-ranked fighter and former world champion, Bellator gets the chance to promote its best fighters against one of the best in the world, and it doesn’t matter who wins because they’ll still be fighting for Bellator when the dust settles. Bellator also gets to use his name draw and star power to bring attention to those other high-caliber fighters who are still trying to break out as stars in their own right. If you’re Bellator, there’s plenty to be gained from the situation. But if you’re a contender in waiting, there’s just as much to be worried about. It’s uncertain how Melendez will be initially matched in Bellator, be it an immediate title shot, a single high-profile fight or a four-man tournament. In fact, it’s still uncertain if Melendez will even fight for Bellator due to the matching clause in his UFC contract. One thing is certain, though: on March 21, the season-10 lightweight tournament kicks off and yet another “No. 1 contender” will emerge to join the ranks of Brooks and Jansen, who have both been patiently sitting and waiting while Alvarez-Chandler III has yet to even receive a fight date yet. And that’s the bottom line.