Tournaments for tournaments' sake: Bellator and a new way forward

Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Spor

Bellator MMA espouses the argument their tournament model of matchmaking isn't merely a system sports fans prefer and are accustomed to, but rights the wrongs of combat sports promoters. When there is only structure and no matchmaker whim, the right fighter gets the right fight at the right moment. There's a measure of truth to the claim, but if that's correct or what they believe, why are they now actively working against or circumventing the tournament to procure the services of an established talent in a rubber match few fans asked to see? Worse, why are they doing it when a third fighter adhered to the tournament system and is being penalized in the process?

The answer, of course, is they had little choice. None were clamoring for a third fight between Daniel Straus and Pat Curran after Bellator 106, but Bellator needs all of the notable names it has or can acquire. Curran, who is just such a figure, reportedly didn't want to go through another tournament (he'd already competed in and won two of them). To keep him in the stable, Bellator waived the traditional tournament requirement on the condition he re-up with the organization.

This bending of the rules would be fine except there's no such a thing as a free lunch. To give Curran what he needed, Patricio Freire's accomplishments in the tourney system were simply ignored. This is the same Freire who just won another featherweight tournament because he lost to then-champion Curran in a close split decision loss (a fight he also earned from a tournament win).

For an organization that exalts the virtues and benefits of the tournament system and only the tournament system, they're growing increasingly accustomed to using the very 'matchmaker whim' model they derided as unfair as their ace in the hole when it becomes convenient.

First, some context would be helpful. To understand how we arrived at this position, let's travel back in time to November 2012.

Bellator CEO Bjorn Rebney, preparing for the organization's eventual debut on Spike TV, penned a letter to fans on Nov. 26th of that year announcing a new rematch clause for Bellator championship fights. Rebney couched the change as one driven by fan input and necessary to honor the sanctity of title fights:

"I am proud to announce that driven by your input; we will implement a championship fight rematch clause as we move into 2013 and our launch on Spike in January. When a fighter's earned a shot at the world title by winning The Toughest Tournament in Sports and competes in a title fight that knocks fans like us back in our seats (win or lose) delivering an incredible fight, when a rematch is called for, we will deliver it. Championship fights give us some of the greatest moments in MMA. And, re-matches of incredible championship fights will give fans like us more of those electrifying moments, while staying true to the world's best fighters having had to earn their way to those title shots."

At the time, the announcement was largely heralded as a positive development. After all, there were some rematches fans wanted to see that a strict adherence to tournaments would've forbidden. Just a year prior, Eddie Alvarez and Michael Chandler had gone to war in one of the best fights of 2011. There was no need for Alvarez to go through another gauntlet of fighters we know he could beat and delay what should be immediate.

This brings us to today as this very same clause was invoked so Curran could have a third fight against Straus and avoid entering a third tournament. The problems with this decision are quite obvious, however. The invocation of the clause has nothing to do with its original purpose, namely, answering fan demand. Worse, it was invoked because a notable name on the roster had little desire to compete in the system Bellator promotes as the fairest, best system. And perhaps most egregious of all, it took place while another fighter did precisely as told, won another tournament and did so after not being granted a rematch in a close, exciting title fight, something the rematch clause would be far more suitable.

In other words, Bellator uses tournaments and it's own rematch clauses except when it doesn't because it isn't convenient. Bellator is right that relying on matchmaker whim has it's share of problems, but as its own actions evidence, it's also essentially a requirement to give any promotion the flexibility it needs to make the fights they have to or need.

The most important takeaway from Bellator's own abdication of it's tournament or bust approach isn't the obstacles it creates, but how the entire system is embraced. Whereas the UFC isn't wholly defined by the matchmaker model, Bellator has openly staked it's identity as the tournament structure.

This is the Toughest Tournament In Sports. This is Where Title Shots Are Earned, Not Given. This is Bellator.

Yet, a tournament central to and inalienable from an organization's identity should effortlessly work for the organization's interests. Instead, we have the tournament now working against them. If Bellator's interests and needs aren't in alignment with their strict tournament adherence, what purpose is it really serving?

The question is what to do going forward. It's simply unrealistic for Bellator to abandon tournaments altogether. To their credit, they were onto something when they adopted them as part of their product differentiation. Sports and tournaments are a natural pairing. When they work, they're fun. They're also mostly fair as a method of sorting talent and determining a rightful winner. They work across most sports, including combat sports, if done correctly.

But they were also onto something when they found a way to relax the structure. The escape valve that is the rematch clause introduced in November 2012 was improperly used against Freire, but homes in on the fact that use of the tournament and nothing but the tournament runs over Bellator's ability to make the fights fans will pay money to see. The path forward is one that makes use of the tournament, but offers Bellator enough matchmaking leeway to not have to fight itself or identity to get the job done.

Tournaments - at least the ones we care about and remember - are nouns, not pronouns. We adore March Madness, ADCC or the World Cup. These are communal events. They exist in the their own time and space each year or scheduled interval. We know when they're coming, what they look like and what they mean. We know why they are special.

Bellator's use of tournaments works, but it doesn't work by itself. The number of them are too many to follow. They become ordinary or forgettable in large amount. Their value add isn't always apparent. Neither is their visibility. Moreover, the clauses introduced so far to relax some of the pressures of the format aren't robust enough to really address the issue. They also can cause problems of their own.

Whatever Bellator decides to do - rest assured, there are a number of solutions available - it should not be continued fealty to a system whose efficacy is in question and premise rooted in a talking point. We have real world demonstration tournaments and only tournaments do not work, at least not in the way Bellator has used them. Adjustments and updates are required. There are bugs in the system. That doesn't mean the baby should be thrown out with the bathwater, but it does demand Bellator should have a keener eye toward innovation and fan demand. What's the point in trying to prove something we already know to be false?

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