The king is dead. Long live the king.

We’ve heard the phrase a few times in MMA in 2014. From Keith Kizer’s abdication of his executive director role at the Nevada State Athletic Commission, to T.J. Dillashaw’s systematic displacement of Renan Barão from the throne at 135 pounds.

Now, another head loses its crown. Bjorn Rebney, the founder, chairman and chief executive officer of Bellator MMA, has parted ways with the organization. In his place, Strikeforce originator and pioneer of California’s MMA scene Scott Coker assumes control of the Bellator kingdom with promises of great change throughout the land.

Rebney’s exit at the hands of Viacom senior officials represents a lack of faith in the promotion’s creative direction. In their eyes, Rebney’s vision, synonymous with Bellator’s tournament format, failed to translate to adequate market growth for the world’s fourth largest media conglomerate, which had invested significant capital and a television slot on Spike TV into the product since becoming a majority stakeholder in October 2011.

Now, the man credited with matchmaking classic bouts, including Fedor Emelianenko vs. Dan Henderson, Nick Diaz vs. Paul Daley and Gina Carano vs. Cristiane “Cyborg” Justino (then known as Santos)—fights that raised Strikeforce’s profile through both intense action and successful marketing—will step up to the task of boosting Bellator’s market share as the face and brains of “Bellator 2.0.”

In Coker, Bellator’s parent company has acquired a professional with rich industry experience who has worked with a similar obligation to a cable and satellite network in Showtime. Part of Coker’s strategy to “put the best fights on Spike TV and move the needle” entails phasing out Bellator’s tournament format, a model that did Coker no favors in Strikeforce’s final days, when a Strikeforce Heavyweight Grand Prix designed to establish the promotion’s big guys and add clarity to the division left the division more precarious than before.

Although the tournament model offers a unique selling point against the industry’s dominant entity, the UFC, it comes with several limitations that outweigh its benefits in a fiercely competitive and often spontaneous industry.

Limiting interaction with a vocal fan base

Relative to other national and international sports, professional MMA encourages direct fan interaction on a regular basis. Marketing strategies including expos, podcasts and fan-question interviews create a greater personal affiliation with the sport’s characters, while the MMA media plays a key role in humanizing these athletes through detailed interviews and editorials.

As a direct consequence of this interaction, there have been several cases in MMA’s short history where a fighter’s popularity among the fans, or their desire to see a match-up, has prevailed against the basic principles of regular matchmaking. Nick Diaz’s name springs to mind. His fights with Frank Shamrock and Georges St-Pierre in Strikeforce and the UFC, respectively, have defied the typical winner vs. winner/loser vs loser model of booking.

A predetermined tournament format, however, limits a company’s ability to capitalize on a particular fight climate when two competitors are in high demand to face each other. This restriction against MMA’s highly competitive free market has ultimately affected Bellator’s ability to satisfy viewer interest. The exceptional booking of Michael Chandler vs. Eddie Alvarez, as one of the first deviations from the long-professed tournament format, attests to these limitations.

Continuing its migration away from regular tournaments under Coker, Bellator is better placed to return some power to the fans.

Impeding matchmaking capabilities

The art of matchmaking is a subtle one that, when performed correctly, gives shape, clarity and meaning to a weight class. In instances where a pool of fighters occupy a similar standing in a division’s rankings, several attractive options are presented.

This intrigue is limited by a regular tournament format, which establishes one outstanding contender to a championship at a time and consigns other challengers to a loss. Combined with the seasonal broadcasts Bellator had used in the past, these models effectively reset a fighter’s campaign for a title shot, forcing him to start from scratch.

One outstanding example of matchmaking effectiveness in recent memory is the UFC’s booking of its welterweight division. Two weeks ago, Robbie Lawler, Matt Brown, Tyron Woodley, Rory MacDonald and Hector Lombard all had solid claims to a title shot against Johny Hendricks.

The liberty to match up these talents in different combinations allowed UFC matchmaker Joe Silva to use his skill set of technical insight and an understanding of the MMA market to schedule the most intriguing bouts possible. In doing so, Silva paired Brown and Lawler together in a fight all but guaranteed to see some serious boxing, kickboxing and Muay Thai striking. We also got to see a fascinating stylistic contest between MacDonald and Woodley that pitted the British Columbian’s technical striking, stellar jab and methodical footwork against the wrestling credentials, power and explosiveness of “The Chosen One.”

The tournament format removes this influence from a matchmaker under the guise of maintaining the sport’s integrity and pure competitiveness values. The model, however, also limits Bellator’s freedom to pair any two individuals in the same weight class, which can compromise the caliber of in-cage competition if two styles negate each other. The liberty to book specific fights offers more advantages in capturing a wider audience than preserving the pure essence of competition, which does not always translate to an entertaining product.

Encourages conservative fighting

I am one of the first fans to appreciate what MMA fighters do in the cage and the risks they take once the door closes. Regardless of the style he or she competes with, I consider one professional athlete’s ability to control another in the same weight class as very impressive. This is especially true in an international MMA organization like Bellator that attracts quality talent from all corners of the world.

It is widely known, however, that an aggressive fighting style and actively looking to finish the fight is viewed more favorably across a wider audience than a cautious approach. When the majority of a roster participates in a tournament format like Bellator’s, which enforces a four-week turnaround between fights, it is not unreasonable to imagine a proportion of those fighters will enter the cage wary of their next fight.

Shorter recovery times affect a competitor’s willingness to absorb superficial damage in close-quarters combat. The prize at the end of the tournament weighs on a game plan with the need to reach the final in the lowest-risk way possible without sustaining risky injuries like cuts that might end a campaign prematurely.

As a caveat, this is no sweeping assumption of all fighters, nor is it a slight against Bellator’s roster. It is an observation of human consciousness and our species’ emphasis on self-preservation.

For the same reason that fighters outside the tournament format look to end a fight convincingly as the path of least resistance to a world title, it can be argued that several brackets over a shortened period of time logically encourages a safer approach that translates to less entertaining fights for a mass or casual audience, Bellator’s season-four welterweight tournament, which featured six decisions out of seven fights, is one such example.

While “safe” or “boring” fights are by no means a formality, the occasions when they do happen are a detriment to a growing MMA promotion like Bellator that is backed by successful and expectant forces like Viacom. Forcing fighters to compete within a matter weeks does little to discourage cautious fighting.

Impedes the creation of rivalries

One of the sport’s greatest mass-marketing strategies, a heated rivalry can grip a wider casual audience beyond regular MMA viewers. Shows that earned the largest domestic pay-per-view buy numbers were all headlined by fighters who openly expressed personal animosity towards one another or indulged in trash-talking—Brock Lesnar vs. Frank Mir (UFC 100), St-Pierre vs. Diaz (UFC 158) and Chuck Liddell vs. Tito Ortiz II (UFC 66), to name a few. Borrowing a phrase from Spike TV personality Eric Bischoff, it is evident that controversy creates cash, allowing MMA promotions to capture new fans outside of its regular viewer circle.

The need for rivalries as an extra element to the sport is more apparent with the influx of advanced mobile technology and online streaming platforms creating more media space. MMA organizations need to capitalize on the demand for their product using more than just fights, which risks oversaturation. Interviews, documentaries and debates offer dynamic and exciting options that complement competitive rivalries, which history has proven to be integral to the sport’s growth.

The tournament format restricts these opportunities, creating a competitive landscape where fighters are randomly assigned to face one another. In this climate, where partial focus always lies on the next fight ahead, fighters are less encouraged to realize their marketing potential as dynamic personalities in a confrontational sport, knowing that their efforts will likely go unrewarded, as some of the power to shape their fight path is taken out of their hands.

As ambassadors of the Bellator organization, fighters should also be given the maximum opportunity to develop brand awareness by promoting feuds in the public sphere. Capitalizing on their role as promotional assets, their trash-talking creates hype and the impression that Bellator is a must-see show.

Greater risk against lower reward

Although a tournament format provides the purest form of competition for a talented fighter to formally establish themselves as the best in their weight class, Bellator’s commitment to a two-month long process is a risky venture that can be completely undone with a single injury.

In the tragic event that a finalist withdraws from a card due to injury, a replacement takes credibility from a tournament the company has shaped its entire operations around. The other alternative—postponing the tournament finale to secure its long-term interest—comes with the short-term downside of taking momentum from a scheduled event.

Scrapping any bout is a blow to a MMA organization. The sport’s physicality unfortunately dictates this can be a common occurrence, as Joe Ellenberger will attest after having had to prepare for a fourth different opponent—James Moontasri—at UFC Fight Night 44.

Outside of the tournament format, the negative impact of changing or removing a singular fight is greatly reduced, compared to jeopardizing the climax of a seven-bout tournament.

Consolidating talent into a collective format like a tournament might offer a different approach to MMA practice that piques some interest among viewers. Inevitably, though, the same model inflates risk in an already precarious industry.

The reward of a successful tournament is also affected by its repetitive use. Enforcing tournaments on a regular basis oversaturates its effectiveness as a prestigious competition. With time, viewers emotionally invest themselves less and less as the exceptional becomes the standard template for hosting fights.

The Ultimate Fighter reality series is an apt example where, entering its 26th season overall with The Ultimate Fighter: Team Pettis vs Team Melendez, viewing figures have dropped significantly compared to the show’s first seasons. As comparison, the third episode of Ronda Rousey and Miesha Tate’s season in 2013 attracted 639,000 viewers, compared to the 6.8 million viewers who watched Kimbo Slice vs. Roy Nelson in 2009. This trend developed even as the UFC refreshed its show using new angles, including a comeback series, introducing women and using the wildcard.

Compared to The Ultimate Fighter’s efforts to galvanize its format, Bellator’s tournament model remains largely rigid and unchanged in the six years since its introduction.

In a new era symbolized by the exit of Rebney and arrival of Coker, encouraging Bellator to continue its transition away from the tournament format and its various limitations will lower operational risk and increases product flexibility, allowing Bellator MMA to produce exciting fights that will help “reboot” the organization.

About The Author

Aidan O'Connor
Staff Writer

A native of Maidstone, England, Aidan has been covering MMA in a news or feature capacity since 2010. In addition to writing for The MMA Corner, Aidan also runs the MMAmusing Twitter account and enjoys the sport as an avid enthusiast. A graduate in English and American Studies, he currently works in marketing and public relations.