Joey Beltran (Dave Mandel/Sherdog)Bellator’s New Direction: Bellator 124 and Joey Beltran Illustrate the Importance of the Tournament Format The MMA Corner Staff August 5, 2014 Spotlight A 3-7 record with one no-contest over his last 11 fights, spanning nearly four years. To most, that’s the resume of a fighter banished to the regional circuit or, at the very least, relegated to the preliminary card of a major organization’s events. However, in Scott Coker’s Bellator, it’s the mark of a fighter who is challenging for the light heavyweight crown in September. That record, of course, belongs to Joey Beltran, a UFC veteran who made his professional debut in Strikeforce, another Coker-led promotion. The 32-year-old is a scrappy veteran whose overall record stands at 15-10, but he was released from the UFC roster twice, after a 3-4 run the first time and an 0-2 (1 NC) mark the second time. His last winning streak—three fights, including two in the UFC—came in 2010. Beltran is 2-1 overall inside the Bellator cage, but he’s 1-1 in his current stint with the promotion. His loss came to potential legitimate title challenger Quinton “Rampage” Jackson, who is 3-0 in Bellator and holds promotional wins over Muhammed “King Mo” Lawal and former 205-pound Bellator champ Christian M’Pumbu. A single win, over the retiring Vladimir Matyushenko, was enough to earn Beltran a title shot. Is this what we can expect from the Coker era of Bellator? Let’s hope not. Beltran’s placement in this title bout versus reigning champion Emanuel Newton is likely a result of the “Mexicutioner’s” run in the UFC, where he put on more than one memorable performance in losing efforts. He garnered a reputation as a fighter who could not be finished—not by Matt Mitrione, Pat Barry or Stipe Miocic at heavyweight, and not by James Te Huna or Fabio Maldonado at light heavyweight. Barry delivered an unbelievable amount of punishment to Beltran’s legs, and yet the California native wouldn’t give up. Beltran posted “Fight of the Night” performances against Mitrione and Te Huna. Can Beltran entertain? Obviously, the answer is yes. His performances in those fights make him a draw in Coker’s eyes, regardless of Beltran’s repeated failure to find his hand raised after the final bell. Yet, that shouldn’t make Beltran a contender for the gold around Newton’s waist. But here we are. Rampage is more interested in a rematch with King Mo than he is in a title shot against Newton. And who else is there? Tito Ortiz? Well, even Ortiz might make a better option after a win over the promotion’s middleweight kingpin, Alexander Shlemenko, but Bellator is short on options right now. However, there’s a more troubling long-term implication to this pairing that’s made all the more obvious by another fight playing out on the same Bellator 124 card on Sept. 12. It happens to be a remnant of the Bjorn Rebney-era Bellator: a light heavyweight tournament final between Liam McGeary and Kelly Anundson. McGeary has been on a tear since joining Bellator as a 3-0 prospect. He’s mowed down five opponents in his time with the organization. He finished four of those opponents via strikes and one by way of submission. Only three of those fights lasted beyond the one-minute mark and only one exceeded the two-minute mark. The two most recent of those victories paved the 31-year-old’s path to the 2014 Bellator Summer Series light heavyweight tournament final, where he’ll meet Anundson. Anundson isn’t too shabby, either. The 29-year-old wrestler entered Bellator as a 6-2 prospect and quickly landed a spot in the Summer Series tourney, where he topped UFC vet Rodney Wallace on the scorecards and defeated Philipe Lins via TKO in order to advance to the finals. Anundson will likely enter his fight with McGeary as an underdog, but he has the potential to become a worthy title challenger as well. McGeary, though, has the finishing abilities to become a true star for the promotion. Regardless of who wins, that man will be one of the final products of Bellator’s tournament structure under its Rebney-era form. Bellator has shifted its focus away from tournaments. The evidence is all there. Whereas the promotion’s press releases had been filled with the names of up-and-comers from around the globe, they are now filled with names that are eerily familiar to anyone who followed Strikeforce before the UFC bought the promotion. Whereas the emphasis had been on building new stars and allowing fighters to earn title shots, it’s now on bringing back former Pride, Strikeforce and UFC stars. Bellator 124 is a crossroads in a very literal sense. In the tournament final, there are two men who are organically building up their claims to a title shot and, at least in McGeary’s case, marquee-name status. In the championship bout, there’s a titleholder, also built from that tournament format Rebney cherished, against a fighter handpicked to face him—an opponent who has won just three fights out of 11 over four years. It’s the meeting of two different philosophies for how to build a fight promotion. On one hand, there’s the organic approach of building up prospects and creating stars from scratch. On the other, there’s the idea of strengthening the promotion by bringing in names that ring a bell with the casual fan, even if those fighters haven’t had much success lately. McGeary, like Newton before him, started in the tournament as a relative unknown. In Newton’s case, he was a veteran fighter who had bounced around from promotion to promotion without ever firmly branding his name in the minds of fight fans. Bellator’s tournament format changed that. In McGeary’s case, he was an inexperienced upstart who had yet to make an impact on the sport. Bellator’s tournament format changed that, too. The format is not without its own flaws, but nobody can deny that its existence has helped to create more than a few new stars, be it Michael Chandler, the Pitbull brothers, Will Brooks, Zach Makovsky or the aforementioned Newton. Coker led Strikeforce to great heights, and Viacom hopes he can do the same for Bellator. He just might, but this start isn’t too encouraging. Coker is looking for stars from the past. He’s bringing in redemption stories—the Phil Baronis, Rameau Thierry Sokoudjous and James Thompsons of the MMA world—and those are fine, but not as the top-billed names fighting for titles. In the past, Bellator played a balancing act between budding stars of the future and recognizable fighters from the past. Now, the scales have tipped in favor of the latter group. Viacom might be going in a new direction with Coker at the helm of Bellator, but Coker’s own embrace of the past should be a lesson here. Bellator’s past is rooted in the tournament format, and while the current regime may want to “evolve” away from the format, it might be wise to realize that the tournament is an important component not just to the company’s past, but to its future as well.