The motto of Bellator MMA has always been, “Where Title Shots Are Earned, Not Given.” The promotion’s tournament format is intriguing for fans and fighters because it allows everyone to know exactly who is next in line for a title shot.

However, there is an often overlooked downside to the tournament format: wear and tear on the fighters themselves.

For fighters at the highest level of the sport, eight to 12 weeks is standard for a training camp. Even fighters on the regional circuit are typically afforded notice of six weeks or more. Yet, for winning fighters in Bellator tournaments, fights are spaced roughly one month apart.

What’s so bad about fighting once a month?

For starters, fighters do not have time to properly recover and heal between fights. Instead of one bout in an eight or 12-week time frame, fighters may compete up to three times—all the while training in the gym. Add to that multiple weight cuts, and the resolve and health of the combatants are pushed to the limit.

Certainly there are fighters that have thrived under the tournament format, specifically Pat Curran and Alexander Shlemenko, who each own multiple tournament titles. But even Curran remained out of action for an extended period time after suffering a broken orbital during training—which consequently created a logjam in the featherweight division.

Was Curran’s injury a product of overtraining or just bad luck? That’s debatable, but he’s not the first fighter in the promotion to battle significant injury immediately after or during a tournament. Just in the featherweight division, tournament winners Patricio “Pitbull” Freire and Daniel Straus have succumbed to broken hands over the last year. And just this week, season-eight welterweight finalist Douglas Lima suffered the same fate.

And it’s not just the fighters who suffer injury that are hindered by the frequent bouts. Highly touted prospects and veterans alike have suffered noticeable drop-offs in their performances as tournaments have progressed. How about Brian Rogers’ shocking knockout loss to Andre Spang? Or Marlon Sandro’s to the aforementioned Curran?

There’s more to it than just a few surprising upsets. Joe Warren, Muhammed “King Mo” Lawal, Will Brooks, Lyman Good, Chris Lozano, Alexander Sarnavskiy and Lloyd Woodard have all faltered during tournament competition as highly touted prospects or heavily favored veterans. Coincidence? Not likely.

So who’s to blame? Without question, it’s the promotion. It offers large sums of money—$100,000 for a tournament win—as well as title shots to fighters willing to sacrifice their bodies and potentially their fighting longevity to step into the cage.

The worst part is that there are measures in place to prevent the rapid degradation of the fighters health: athletic commissions. But Bellator MMA has found a way to skirt this safety valve by holding many of its events at locations overseen by tribal commissions.

Instead of handing out the typical the seven- to 30-day no-contact suspension that prominent athletic commissions like Nevada, New Jersey and California give to fighters after they compete, the tribal commissions rarely reveal any medical suspensions.

Don’t believe it? Try looking for medical suspensions from the current season eight and you’ll see that just the two events with state athletic commission oversight—Bellator 85 and 88—were disclosed publicly.

To say that this is a questionable practice would be an understatement. Fighters are not commodities, no matter what a promoter would lead you to believe. Once promising careers are being limited and even jeopardized by this format.

Although the blame lies squarely on the shoulder of the promoter, the onus lies on the fighters to stop it. While the money is enticing, signing on the dotted line is still a choice that lies in their hands… and their future may depend on it.

Photo: Pat Curran (Dave Mandel/Sherdog)

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