Since its creation, Bellator MMA has been built on the tournament-based structure. The winners of the tournaments would become immediate No. 1 contenders who would challenge for the championship their next time out. Although the system was great—and the tournament structure conjured nostalgia for the early days the modern sport of mixed martial arts—it had its flaws.

Unlike conventional matchmaking, the tournament format leaves the promotion with little control over who becomes a No. 1 contender. Therefore, if there was a fighter that the organization wanted to promote and showcase, that fighter would still have to perform and win multiple fights to even be eligible for a title shot. But, like a lot of things in this world, the tournament system has changed and evolved into what it is today. You could even say it has been manipulated to return a bit of the control back to the promotions.

This past week, Bellator announced another change to its tournament-based format. The change states that any past tournament winner is now eligible to replace a fighter who would be unable to challenge for a title for whatever reason. This isn’t the first change to the promotion’s tournament format, and it is unlikely that it will be the last.

Bellator initially tweaked its tournament-based rules to allow immediate championship rematches if the promotion’s brass felt that a rematch was necessary. This rule was put in place so that a fighter wouldn’t have to start over and win another eight-man tournament if they drop a title fight by a controversial or closely contested decision. If the first fight was an outstanding bout (see: Eddie Alvarez vs. Michael Chandler I), Bellator wanted the ability to capitalize on fan interest in a rematch.

The next change was put into place so that championship title fights could have replacements if the challenger had to withdraw due to an injury. Brett Cooper was the first fighter for the promotion to cash in on this change. He took on Alexander Shlemenko for the middleweight title at Bellator 98 despite not winning a tournament. Bellator developed a point system where tournament-based fighters would receive points based on their tourney fights. The fighter with the highest point title became the alternate for the title shot in the case that the challenger could not fight. Doug Marshall had defeated Cooper for the right to face Shlemenko, but that fight was put on hold when Marshall suffered an injury. To some degree, this point system made sense, because Bellator champions were often inactive for long periods of time when there either wasn’t a challenger or the challenger was injured. The only downfall with this system was that a fighter who did not win a tournament could have become a champion, which would run counter to the promotion’s entire philosophy.

The eight-man tournament was then slimmed down to a four-man tournament on some occasions. Although the promotion never really gave any rhyme or reason as to why this was the case, it appeared as though the intent was to make it easier for certain fighters to win the tournaments and become champions. Muhammed “King Mo” Lawal is the clearest example of this strategy. His first tournament appearance resulted in defeat in the second of three tournament rounds. The next time out, he fought against a weak field to win the four-fighter tournament, only to again lose to Emanuel Newton, the same fighter he lost against in the previous tournament, this time in the title fight. The promotion inserted him into yet another tournament with only four fighters, this time with the hardly disguised purpose of a meeting between Lawal and Quinton “Rampage” Jackson in the tourney finals. Bellator got its wish, and Rampage took a decision from “King Mo.”

The newest change gives the promotion the right to give a previous tournament winner a title shot. This format will replace the point system that Bellator previously utilized, and it will clear any issues with what could have been a non-tournament winner becoming one of the champions. This new format has potential, in the sense that it will keep championship contenders limited to those who have indeed earned the title shot, even if it was in a prior season. However, if the promotion becomes biased toward certain fighters when the opportunity knocks, then it will turn into a glorified matchmaking process, which is what the promotion has tried to avoid since its inception.

Consider the heavyweight division, where there are three active former tourney winners who would be eligible candidates to replace an injured fighter. Two of them—reigning champion Vitaly Minakov and recent tourney winner Alexander Volkov—are scheduled to fight for the title the next time they step into the cage. Therefore, should Volkov be forced to bow out, it would make sense to grant the opportunity to Cheick Kongo, who won the season-nine tournament and stands as the only other eligible fighter within the division under the new guidelines. Not only is he the only available fighter, but he has remained active and recently defeated Eric Smith at Bellator 120.

Then, consider the light heavyweight division. If an opportunity in that weight class is only given to Lawal or Rampage, while overlooking former champions Attila Vegh and Christian M’Pumbu, it will make a mockery of the new system.

What would make it even worse would be if the shot were given to a fighter who has just been sitting on the sidelines waiting for something like this to happen, rather than the guy who is performing and staying active. Bellator may also face a dilemma if a former tournament winner is in the middle of a current tournament when this situation arises.

Provided that those running Bellator don’t make any overly egregious decisions, this structure change will work. However, if it becomes obvious that this is a situation where only certain fighters are getting opportunities to fight for the title in the absence of a No. 1 contender, then it will make the tournament structure useless.

Assuming that Viacom’s decision to oust Bjorn Rebney and insert former Strikeforce head Scott Coker doesn’t also mean a complete abandonment of one of the fundamental principles of Bellator MMA—the fact that title shots are earned, not given—the focus still has to be on the current tournaments and the newly crowned tournament winners. Otherwise, Bellator would be crushing its own backbone by ignoring what brought the promotion this far.

About The Author

Brian McKenna
Staff Writer

Brian McKenna was born and raised in the suburbs of Boston, Massachusetts. A sports nut from as long as he can remember, he came to be a fan of Mixed Martial Arts from a roommate watching The Ultimate Fighter while attending Westfield State College. Brian came to writing by starting his own blog, Four Down Territory, which focuses on Boston based sports, life, and of course MMA.