Occupy The Throne – Edition #3

The latest Occupy The Throne with Samer Kadi takes a look at the past, present, and future of Bellator.

JL: This past Friday night Bellator kicked off their sixth season of action on MTV2. It’s been a wild ride for Bellator, starting on ESPN Deportes, moving to FoxSports, settling in on MTV2, and now moving to SpikeTV in 2013. While the station you can find them on may constantly change, one thing that has remained a constant in Bellator has been their tournaments to crown champions and #1 contenders.

Before we get into Bellator’s future, I’m going to start by asking Samer about Bellator’s past and how they’ve grown as a company.

SK: Historically, tournaments have managed to hold a special place in longtime MMA fans’ hearts. From the brutality of the early UFC’s to the glory of the PRIDE Grand Prix’s, tournaments have written some of the most iconic pages of MMA’s history book. Nevertheless, they can be quite a gamble. In spite of their theoretical appeal, tournaments are tricky to put together and execute, and at times have a tendency to go horribly wrong – Exhibit A: The Strikeforce Heavyweight Grand Prix.

To Bellator’s huge credit, they have managed to make the most out of their tournaments. Despite some costly flaws which will be touched on shortly, Bellator is a company with a clear sense of direction. Unlike Strikeforce, who lost the plot in their attempt to compete with the UFC, Bellator have put together and maintained a winning approach. They have done admirably well to use the tournament format to build their fighters up and give the eventual winner – as well as their titles – some much needed legitimacy. Of course, being a Bellator champion is hardly a historic feat, but the fact that Mike Chandler earned his title shot by toppling three men in the lightweight tournament made his subsequent memorable win over Eddie Alvarez all the more sensational.

For a company like the UFC, tournaments are hardly essential. In fact, they could be quite detrimental to business, as they take away some the match-making freedom that they so deeply enjoy. For Bellator on the other hand, tournaments take the “randomness” away from their fights. The major difference between the two being that in the case of the UFC, fans are familiar with its fighters, and thus don’t really need to see them cement themselves in a tournament before buying into them, as they have likely watched them in action before. A smaller promotion like Bellator however, can’t simply put together fights and expect people to invest in them. A tournament at least sets a clear path and a goal for all the competitors involved, which in turn provides the audience with a reason to care. This offers a refreshing alternative to the seemingly arbitrary match-making that we see in Strikeforce for example, where Keith Jardine could suddenly reappear from out of nowhere and earn a title shot in a division he’s never competed in before.

JL: I don’t know if the readers have picked up on this in our three columns, but Samer and I really don’t care for Keith Jardine and think he’s the reason for every problem in the history of MMA.

As for Bellator, I love the tournament format for the reasons Samer mentioned. They can take a relatively unknown fighter and turn him into a star in the span of three months. Take Pat Curran for example. His first fight in Bellator was in April 2010. Less than two years later he’s widely considered one of that top featherweights in the world thanks to two tournament runs and his recent victory over Joe Warren. Things like that just don’t happen in the UFC because they’re more likely to build guys up slowly before giving them a title shot. Look at Jon Jones. His rise from unknown to the top of the MMA world took longer time than Curran’s, even though Jones is a once in a lifetime talent.

Bellator doesn’t have the luxury of slow booking their fighters because they need as much star power as they can get in as short of a time they can get it, otherwise they’d have even less people tuning into their events.

While the tournaments are great and beneficial, what they do after the tournament is where they start to run into problems. Unless the champion is defending against a tournament winner, he’s left in limbo or fighting lesser competition in a non-title fight, which are the dumbest thing possible.

I have a huge problem with Mike Chandler, Bellator’s lightweight champion, fighting Akihiro Gono (loser of 2 straight fights) in a non-title fight while Eddie Alvarez, the guy who Chandler beat, fights Shinya Aoki (widely considered a top 5 lightweight). If your going to do non-title fights, your champion should be fighting the best competition available, and in this situation, it’s clear that Bellator isn’t doing right by their champ.

SK: To Jeremy’s earlier point, it is worth noting that the kind of star Jon Jones went on to become is galaxies away compared to Pat Curran (he is a little too liberal with his usage of the word “star,” as evidenced by his continuous visions of stardom in Pat Barry’s future). Nevertheless, his point is salient; a tournament winner is likely to get faster recognition – provided said tournament doesn’t take over a year to complete – than your average non-UFC fighter, simply due to the sense of accomplishment that comes with the win.

Furthermore, Bellator have generally done well to promote their brand. Even seemingly little touches such as youtube highlight videos go a long way in helping the company build some momentum. After all, it was Toby Imada’s outrageous inverted triangle submission in season one that really brought the promotion to everyone’s attention. To that end, Bellator were very fortunate with the way the first season unfolded. It was a season where everything clicked – from great fights to dazzling finishes – and they were smart enough to capitalize. More often than not, their lighter weight divisions have brought the goods and they have done well to put the spotlight on them.

However, as my esteemed colleague mentioned, Bellator have been guilty of their fair share of faux pas. Match-making wise, their handling of their champions has been iffy at best. Non-title “super-fights” (which really stretches the definition of the term) are almost always ill-advised, as they risk having their champion beaten by a fighter most of their fan base is unfamiliar with. Christian M’Pumbu’s loss to Travis Wiuff in October is a prime example. And while Bellator can afford to have their least marketable champion lose a non-title fight, the consequences would have been far worse had Eddie Alvarez suffered the same fate when he was the champion.

In fact, Alvarez is arguably the company’s biggest star and someone they deeply prize. However, the kind of money they’re willing to shed out on him makes him a tad overvalued. That, plus the dollars they spent on Roger Huerta are the kind of mistakes Bellator needs to avoid. Hanging on to their fighters is essential, but Bellator is all about the tournaments, the great action, and building new stars, as opposed to recognizable names who will draw an audience (an ability that Alvarez only partially possesses).

JL: Listen Samer, I know the word “star” gets thrown around a lot in MMA, but if there’s one word to describe Keith Jardine, it’s star.

I always thought the signing of Huerta was one of the dumbest moves Bellator made. They spent way too much money on a guy who lost his passion for fighting after losing to Kenny Florian in hopes of building to a showdown with Alvarez. They eventually got that showdown, although it came after he tasted defeat to Curran, which took a lot of luster off the fight. Now Huerta is getting finished by War Machine on iPPV.

Samer mentioned Bellator shelling out a lot of money to Eddie Alvarez, thus overvaluing him, well now they’re in an interesting position with Hector Lombard, who Bjorn Rebney considers the best middleweight in the world. Even though that’s an incorrect statement on Rebney’s part, when you say something like that, you have to back it up with money. If you think the guy is the best 185 lb fighter in the world, he probably feels like he should be paid like the best 185 lber in the world.

If Bellator is smart though, they let Lombard walk and use that money to sign a slew of younger and less known fighters to build up through the tournament. Hell, go after some of those kids on MTV Caged. With Bellator running on MTV2, they’d help bring in the MTV audience and not just the MMA audience.

Another problem I see with Bellator is their constant switching of nights. They ran every Thursday on FSN, every Saturday last season, and now they’re on every Friday. When you’re a relatively new company trying to build your brand, consistency is important, and Bellator hasn’t had much of that in terms of broadcasting, whether it be the network or the day. When they move to SpikeTV in 2013, it’s very likely that they’ll once again change nights, possibly moving to Wednesday’s in order to avoid the death sentence that in Friday night television and The Ultimate Fighter.

SK: Instability is something most MMA promotions are going to endure in their beginnings, and Bellator is no different. Their constant seesawing from one television station to another has undoubtedly hurt the company, but initially, it was case of them having to work with whatever they can get. The move to MTV2 however, was a definite howler on Bellator’s behalf. Despite CEO Bjorn Rebney describing it as “magic” (which holds as much weight as Joe Rogan’s usage of the term “world class,” or Jeremy’s employment of the word “star”), the deal was anything but.

The Saturday night timeslot meant that some Bellator shows were going to be at a conflict with Strikeforce and UFC events. And while they did start sooner in weeks that coincided with UFC PPV’s, the casual fan does not want to sit through an MMA marathon on a Saturday evening. It is one thing to watch a UFC PPV, which has become part of the culture and feels much more like an “event,” but stopping their lives on a Saturday night and becoming slaves to their hobbies (in this case MMA) is not a sacrifice everyone is willing to make. Moreover, MTV2 is not exactly associated with the type of audience that is sure to tune in on a weekly basis to watch two men compete in a mixed martial arts contest. Not to mention the fact that for many, the lack of HD takes away much of their viewing enjoyment.

The move to Spike TV in 2013 however, could be a significant turning point for Bellator. Spike has been the home of the UFC for much of its existence in the Zuffa era, and many immediately link “cage fighting” to Spike TV. For the duration of 2012, Spike will continue to show reruns of old UFC fights, and thus keep mixed martial arts fresh in your average fan’s mind. Once Bellator makes its debut on Spike, many will find sense an air of familiarity in what they’re watching, despite the absence of those magic “U-F-C” letters. And while that hardly guarantees that Bellator will become a powerhouse in the MMA world, it does provide them with some much needed stability, which will in turn allow the company to grow further.

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