Bjorn Rebney on Bellator tournament format change: 'It's purely a positive'

Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Spor

As Bellator announced Thursday, Bellator MMA is no longer requiring tournament champions to win more tournaments to earn any additional title shots. Yet, the organization has always prided itself on being the place where 'title shots are earned, not given'. Does this new format change still adhere to that principle?

To help answer that question and others, MMA Fighting spoke to Bellator CEO Bjorn Rebney on Thursday. Rebney discusses the mechanics of the new arrangement, why a change was made, what it means for Bellator's fighters and the organization itself.


More Coverage: Bellator makes adjustment for tourney champs


Partial transcript of our conversation is below:

What are the changes you're making to the Bellator tournament format?

What we did is we've basically taken another step in our evolution in an attempt to continue making the best fights between the best fighters, but we've done it while staying true to the real sports format, while staying true to the tournament structure.

What we've got now is - and the adjustment that we've made - is that if you win the tournament, if you win the toughest tournament in sports, you are, no questions asked, still guaranteed a world title fight. Once you've won a tournament, whether it's an eight-man or a four-man, you're then in an elite pool of fighters, an elite group of fighters. That group of fighters, anyone of them, can potentially be awarded a world title fight without going back through a tournament. The only fighters who fall into that category are fighters who've won a tournament.

Basically, if you've won one of our tournaments in this new evolution, you could have one or two or three fights that were non-tournament fights after losing a world title fight and be awarded a world title fight at our discretion. What it does is it allows us the flexibility to make big fights and also to give huge significance to every and any fight that one of our fighters is in be it a tournament fight or once they've won a tournament, be it a non-tournament fight.

It expands the pool, it expands the number of fighters who are eligible to fight for the world title and gives us another degree of flexibility, another degree of evolution in terms of getting guys in big world title fights, putting names in big world title fights, but still requiring that in order to be in that group you have to have won the tournament to get there.

Why make the change?

You make the change because, look, it gives us an opportunity to stay true to who we are, but it also gives us much more flexibility to make compelling world title fights.

For example, a guy like Brennan Ward. Brennan Ward put on a spectacular first round against Alexander Shlemenko. As we've been doing things over the last five or six years, a guy like Ward would have to go back into a tournament, win a tournament, wait for everybody else to progress through the succession of who is going fight for the title at 185 pounds and then wait for his world title fight.

In this situation now, you can look at a guy like Brennan Ward, who is an up and coming potential star for us, he's got a big fight coming up in Sept. 5th at Mohegan Sun Arena in the premier against James Irvin. He wins that fight and then he has another fight. If he's able to win two fights in sequence or three fights in sequence, and ready and looked great performing in those fights, now that he's in this pool, he can be awarded a world title fight.

It gives us a lot more flexibility in terms of timing, who's fighting when/where, etc. But again, you've still got to win the tournament. You've still got to be a tournament winner to be eligible to be in this group. It releases the reins a bit in terms of constraints to make the world title fights that people want to see as quickly as they want to see them.

Let's say a fighter wins a tournament, loses a world title fight, but doesn't want to take his chances in the winner's pool. They prefer to enter the tournament again. Can they do that?

See, that's the cool part about it. That's what gives us the great flexibility. A fighter can go back in the tournament. Now, a fighter's not going to be able to dictate if they're getting another world title fight, but if a fighter comes to us and says, 'Hey, I like the tournament structure. I want to earn a guaranteed shot. I don't just want to take fights', then they can go back in the tournament.

Just because you lost a world title fight doesn't mean you're not eligible to go back into the tournament. Some guys will go back into the tournament. Some guys will be on a different track, maybe get one, two or three fights to get themselves back in play. Tough fights against top competitors to get themselves back in play for potential consideration for a world title fight. It frees things up, but yes, guys can go back into the tournament without question.

The tournament format's been great for us. It's given us rock stars in the [Eduardo] Dantas' of the world and it gave us Joe Warren. It gave us Pat Curran. It gave us [Daniel] Straus. It gave us [Patricio] Pitbull. It's given us all these. It's allowed us to quickly develop all these guys, but to be able to adjust it and tweak it and give ourselves even more flexibility, but still not have a pure theatrical matchmaking formula like the UFC is great for us.

What does this mean for the tournament itself? Are they going to be for the guys who want to establish their name instead of the guys who have already established themselves?

I don't think so. I think it's actually the opposite of that. What this does is it substantially raises the stakes of the tournament.

If you're a fighter, now if you win that tournament, you're just not guaranteed your world title fight, but you're guaranteed to forever be in this pool of fighters who could get the call at any moment to fight in a world title fight.

It elevates the significance of the tournament, but you're just getting yourself a $100,000 check over 90 days plus a world title fight. Now you're in a pool of fighters who can, at any given moment, be called and say, 'Hey, you ready? You've got eight weeks. Go to camp. You've got a world title fight.'

If you look at our tournaments that are coming up for this fall season, they're the most stacked tournaments we've ever had. In terms of depth, if you look at what we're doing this fall, it is as deep as we've ever had, but now the fighters who come out of it - and it's going to apply retroactively as well, so anyone to date who has won a tournament is now in that group - but if you win a tournament this fall, you checked off three boxes. You get the six-figure check, you get the world title fight guaranteed and you're also in this group where any point in the future, as long as you're with Bellator, you can get a world title fight. It makes it bigger, it makes the tournament itself more important because you're getting more benefit out of winning it.

Does this mean you're going to run fewer tournaments?

We ran five last season, we're going to run four coming up in the fall, then we'll see what happens in the winter. The thing that's really cool about this fall season is that we've got, I think, six or seven world title fights coming up. We've got some big fights between guys that are not part of the actual tournament structure, which are great and then it's complimented by some great tournaments.

The bantamweight tournament we're doing this fall is the most stacked bantamweight tournament in the history of mixed martial arts. When you see the names of this bantamweight tournament, it's a murder's row coming in at 135. We haven't done a stacked bantamweight tournament like this in some time.

I think we'll see just as many tournaments. You may see a season with three just because of the depth we've got and the amount of fights we can do that aren't tournament based, but you'll also have a lot of tournaments going on simultaneously each season. I'd say you're looking at a minimum of three and we would typically max out at five.

Are you going to follow where the talent is for tournaments? In other words, if there aren't that many exciting contenders at featherweight, but a lot at bantamweight, that's where you'll decide to hold tournaments?

That's 100 percent. Look at featherweight. Right now, we've got Curran that's going to face Pitbull. Straus is in the wings waiting. If there is a visa god, we can get Frodo [Khasbulaev] back into the country at some point, [Daniel] Weichel's already won, so you've got an over abundance of guys who are waiting and ready at 145. You really don't need to do another tournament, so we won't do a featherweight tournament this fall.

Lightweight, you've got the same kind of situation. You've got the Mike [Chandler]-Eddie [Alvarez]-Will [Brooks] triangle. You've got Dave Jansen waiting in the wings. You've got all these different pieces right now, so we won't do a tournament at 155 either. We'll let that whole situation play itself out. We'll make some great fights, but we won't do a tournament.

There will be situations where the over abundance of top 10-level talent is already there, already in play, already somewhat situated in terms of when they're going to fight for the world title, so we're able to take a step back and say, 'Ok, look. We don't need to do a 145 tournament. We don't need to do 155 tournament. We can hold back.' And it's great because you can really pick and choose your fights now. We can put on big, big fights now that have got monster significance, especially if they're fights involving one of the guys who may have won a tournament and is looking to potentially look like a million bucks so he can be top of the list to get another shot.

Critics will argue this is merely Bellator slowly abandoning it's tournament format. How would respond to that charge?

I would say no chance. The better person to ask questions to like that is to sit down and ask our fighters. Talk to Doug Lima, talk to Will Brooks, talk to the guys who are actually impacted by this and they love it. They love it because now suddenly you've opened up another door for the fighters to have more flexibility to get to the one thing they really want, which is a world title fight. That's the big money, the big opportunity, the big claim.

You've opened up another door for them to get there. They don't have to go back through another tournament in order to get once you've won a tournament.

You look at the list of guys and you can back through it. At featherweight, it's Curran, it's Patricio Pitbull, it's Daniel, it's Shahbulat, it's Frodo, it's Daniel Weichel, it's Joe Warren. You've got a lot of guys who fit into that mix who suddenly have been given another door to get to where they ultimately want to get to, to the big money fights, to the biggest prestige, etc.

It's a positive. It's purely a positive and I think the best people to answer that question are the fighters themselves. Give them an opportunity to get to the promise land more quickly with greater ease without potentially having to go back through the tournament if they've performed at a very high level.

So, I think it's a win-win and it lets us make great fights.

Do you envision future tweaks to the Bellator format? Is this the end of them or as the maturation process changes the organization's realities, you forsee the possibility of more changes?

We'll never be done tweaking the format. Absolutely not. Look, when you look at sports and you look at television, you've got to constantly be evolving. You've gotta be evolving production-wise, you've gotta be evolving format-wise, structurally, etc. It's got to be a constant evolution. Our game is so new, so brand new in the bigger scheme of things as you talk about other large scale sports on television. You've got to constantly be willing to bend and adjust.

We're not moving away from the tournament format because it's what makes us who we are. It isn't going anywhere. It's what we're all about, but if you can make a format change that opens up bigger and better opportunities for fighters and at the same time gives us bigger and better and more entertaining fights for fans, we're going to make that change.

We're going to stay true to the format. It's still going to be there and it's still going to have the tournaments. You're still going to have to win that tournament to get a shot at a world title, so you're never taking away the core element where title shots are earned here, but you are giving yourself some great flexibility.

Look, I've talked to four different fighters about it so far and to a man, they've loved it. They're like, 'That's awesome!' And it just what it does is heighten the level of importance to any fight that's not a tournament fight for any guy who has ever stood atop that ladder in our tournament.

In answer to your question, absolutely, we keep adjusting. You've got to keep adjusting. You're going to see changes in the production format, in the structure. You're going to see changes in fights. You're going to see some great changes as we start to unveil what's going on this next season. It's exciting and a constant evolution.

Two-part questions. Are the tournaments in season 11 four-man or eight-man and when do these changes go into effect and do they apply retroactively at all?

All the tournaments in season 11 are eight-man and they'll be four of them. This new addition to our format starts right now and it starts retroactively. So, everyone who is with us right now who has ever won a tournament at lightweight - Ed, Will, Mike Chandler, Pat Curran, Rick Hawn, Dave Jansen, Dave Rickels - all of those guys are eligible at lightweight.

At featherweight, the list I just went through.

At light heavyweight, Emanuel [Newton], Rampage, King Mo, Christian M'Pumbu, Attila Vegh. All of those guys are eligible and it happens right now. It's retroactive to the very first guy who ever won a tournament who is still with us and starts literally today.

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