Bellator 78, which takes place tonight at the Nutter Center in Dayton, Ohio, marks the return of Bellator’s strawweight champion, Zoila Gurgel.

Gurgel, set to return from an ACL injury after a year-long hiatus, last fought over a year and a half ago at Bellator 35, in which she beat Karina Hallinan by unanimous decision.  In her previous fight at Bellator 34, she beat Megumi Fujii by a controversial split decision to earn her title.

Although one of the best female fighters in the world with an 11-1 record, Gurgel’s appearance has not been needed since October 2010, because Bellator has failed to put on a women’s tournament since she won the belt.  Now, this could have been due to Gurgel’s absence, but the promotion has only included nine women’s fights in the 42 events that have taken place since her last bout.

So, what does Gurgel’s return mean for Bellator?

In 2011, Spike TV’s parent company, Viacom, purchased majority ownership in Bellator Fighting Championship.  Having a tremendous record in MMA through their previous deal with Zuffa, LLC—parent company of the UFC—Spike TV is in a great position to become the home of Bellator events.  However, due to contractual obligations with Zuffa, Spike has continued to air UFC content through 2012.

In 2013, Spike TV will finally be able to air Bellator events, and that includes women’s MMA (WMMA) fights put on in Bellator.

Currently, the two biggest promotions for WMMA are Strikeforce and Invicta FC.  Strikeforce, owned by Zuffa, currently has an arrangement with Showtime, so all of the events are going to be aired there through 2012.  However, two things could happen with Strikeforce.

The first option would be for Zuffa to keep Strikeforce alive and eventually air events through pay-per-view or possibly Fox Networks.  The second option would be to dissolve Strikeforce and merge divisions with the UFC.  If that happens, some people anticipate that the UFC could add the two WMMA divisions, featherweight and bantamweight.

It is no secret that female fighters are just as highly trained as the men and can bring the heat.  It is also no secret that UFC President Dana White has an affinity toward Strikeforce’s women’s bantamweight champ Ronda Rousey, whose fame grows on a daily basis.

With the growing buzz of WMMA and the depth of competition, Zuffa and Fox could hit a home run and also bolster some of its thin cards by adding these new divisions.

Invicta FC, the young but huge outlet for WMMA and the largest women-only MMA promotion, currently isn’t aired on television and is only streamed live and free on the internet.  This puts Viacom, through Spike and Bellator, in a unique position to fill a void in a much-needed market niche with its WMMA tournament bracket in 2013.  This brings the conversation back to Zoila Gurgel.

Although two of her wins in the last Bellator WMMA tournament were highly controversial split decisions, Gurgel, wife of famed 3rd degree BJJ black belt Jorge Gurgel, is widely considered one of the best female fighters in the world.  This puts a little more WMMA star power into Bellator’s lineup.

Gurgel’s fight tonight is against little-known Casey Noland, who is 4-2 and trains out of John Hackleman’s The Pit in California.  While not exactly a tune-up fight, it is a non-title fight against an opponent with lesser experience against lesser competition than Gurgel has seen.

Bellator will be entering 2013 while airing on Spike TV with one of the world’s best WMMA fighters as its champion.   This is the perfect setup for the return of the women’s tournament bracket. While nothing has been officially announced, fans can almost be guaranteed to see a WMMA tournament in 2013, and Bellator would be wise to make sure this is the case.

With Zuffa set to get WMMA into UFC, or at least aired through Strikeforce, and Invicta creating a growing buzz surrounding WMMA, Bellator is set to go big on a WMMA tournament in 2013.

Zoila Gurgel will be the dominant face of WMMA for Bellator going into 2013, and the promotion will almost certainly cash in on this commodity.

Photo: Zoila Gurgel (Jeff Sherwood/Sherdog)