NEW YORK – The fact of the matter is that the best-laid plans do seem to go belly-up a lot in the fight game. Particularly when, like Bellator, you use brackets to get down to essential business.
When the tournament-based company brought in Roger Huerta back in 2010, it felt like a slam-dunk that we’d see Huerta/Eddie Alvarez for the title. Instead, Pat Curran, a go-getting 145er masquerading as a lightweight, obstructed the whole thing by having the gall to beat him en-route. Huerta would still fight Alvarez in a non-title fight a few months later, but only after Curran was hurt…and only because it was a narrow, dissatisfying loss to Curran…and only because expectation had been so thoroughly messed with in the first place.
Same thing going on right now with Quinton Jackson and Muhammed Lawal, the name brands who find themselves on opposite sides of the bracket for Bellator’s upcoming four-man light heavyweight tournament. They both fight on Feb. 28 at the Mohegan Sun in Uncasville, Conn. -- Jackson against former champion Christian M’Pumbu, and Lawal against the sleeper Mikhail Zayats. Should Jackson and Lawal win, they fight one another (very likely as part of a May pay-per-view event). And after all the jawing back and forth they did back when King Mo was in Strikeforce and Jackson was in the UFC, it still feels like a conflict worth gawking at.
That is, if we can get to the point of such gawking.
As you should know by now, Bellator is all about the conditional voyeurism. Zayats could be a passage from the book of [Emanuel] Newton. And anything can happen with Christian M’Pumbu and Jackson in a firestorm of free-flying bungalows. We’ve seen these potential match-ups fail to materialize more than once.
So as Bellator enters its tenth season, why this scenario drama in the form of an obstacle course? Why this continued flirtation with the "thing" rather than just booking the "thing?" Why not, for the sake of cutting to the essence, just sic Jackson on Lawal and be done with it?
Because to Bellator CEO Bjorn Rebney, tournaments -- as damnable as they may appear -- still tell the truth. The model is kept running on a principle, and he can’t help it if the principle is merciless.
"It’s real sports," Rebney, in Manhattan on business, told MMA Fighting. "That’s what I still love about it. We’re not just picking them. I heard a lot of people in the media come out and say, ‘they should have just made Rampage vs. Mo.’ We’re on a quest with Rampage to re-establish him as the real deal, as really, legitimately one of the top 205ers on earth.
"If he’s going to do that, he can’t do it by just picking and choosing who we put him in with, we’ve got to put him in deep water in a tournament and see if he’s going to swim. That’s what the essence of it is about. We’re not just going to hand him the big fight and say here’s your golden ring."
Rebney has been defending the tournament structure against critics for a few years now, and he’s sticking by it as we enter the new Bellator season. Call it crazy or dysfunctional or what you will, but Rebney isn’t caving into the pressure. The reason he cites most often for the tourney format is that the fighters themselves control their own destiny, rather than some guy in a suit. (Of course "destiny" is a word that reaches beyond a simple tournament, as evidenced by Eddie Alvarez, but you get the gist).
Yet in the tempest of a tournament, things are bound to happen. Injuries make for patchwork brackets, and in those cases the tournament loses momentum. And when it comes to the champions, who sit at the end of the rainbow smashing their fists into their palms, Bellator has been forced to give itself some leeway of late. The promotion recently instituted a "championship rematch clause" (precipitated by the Eddie Alvarez/Michael Chandler series), which allows Rebney the chance to "deviate" from the structure when warranted (read: when a rematch feels obvious).
This recently came under fire when Pat Curran was granted an immediate rematch with Daniel Strauss, who somewhat unceremoniously (and surprisingly) took Curran’s featherweight belt on Nov. 2 in Long Beach. Among the most vocal critics was Patricio Freire, who navigated the "toughest tournament in sports" in season nine to get another shot at that gold.
In judgment calls like these, Rebney says he’s feels the heat, too.
"Look, the reason [for Curran instead of Freire] is this -- ‘Pitbull’ fought for us five times last year," Rebney says. "Five times. In one year. Five times on Spike TV. And so I looked at Pitbull and I thought to myself, well, he’s been busier than the UFC’s one, two and five combined.
"So I thought to myself, well, you got a guy who’s insanely busy, and you’ve got two guys in Pat Curran and Daniel Strauss who have each won one fight against one another. I looked at the dynamics of how highly Pat had been ranked in the world -- our highest ranked Bellator fighter for literally a year-and-a-half – and I thought, Pitbull’s fought a lot, and we’re only looking at making him wait an additional three to four months, because the winner of Strauss/Curran will face Pitbull. So I thought, I’ll take heat for it, but I’m going to make that match. We are giving him a title fight, it’s just that a guy who fought five times last year is going to have to wait four more months as opposed to getting it right off the bat."
Even with the ability to undermine the structure in select championship bouts, Rebney says he will only do so if the meritocracy remains intact (i.e. the Freire title shot is postponed in favor of a timely rematch, rather than just off the table.)
"There’s a long term vision for this," he says. "It wasn’t just using the tournament structure as some writers say, ‘to develop talent’ and now that it’s developed divorce yourself from it. The NBA, the NFL, Major League Baseball, the NHL…they all have tournament structure. You win to get to the next level. You don’t just get placed into it.
"Boxing and the UFC are the only two organizations that live by this matchmaking system. Nobody else is sports lives by a matchmaking system. It almost makes me laugh when I see all these articles, when people go, ‘the tournament’s now had its time…it was good when Bellator was developing, but now that they’re a major player and trying to compete with the UFC they should divorce themselves from it.’ Forget that."
This has always been Rebney’s stance. And for as criticized as he’s been, the system does bear fruit -- at least for people who aren’t solely attuned to the better-known stars. Emanuel Newton, who was thought to be the steak being slid under the door for Lawal becomes the example of "why it’s done this way." By beating Lawal not once but twice, he is the prototypical Bellator fighter -- a talent that was unearthed through a Bloodsport-like tournament that doesn’t cater to favorites.
The idea isn’t to glamorized the "known" fighters so much as to celebrate those party-killers who are dredged up in the process. This may feel like buzz kill in the short view. The open-minded way of looking at it is like this: Jackson-Lawal? Maybe. But Zayats-M’Pumbu? Hey, hey!
"It was like when Chandler beat Alvarez the first time," he says. "He’s a Bellator guy. And Emanuel Newton that we pick up out of nowhere knocks out King Mo twice in sequence. That’s your Bellator guy. And I love Mo, but Mo comes to us having fought in Japan, and basically having made his name in Strikeforce. But those are the guys. Pat Curran when he beat Huerta then went toe-to-toe with Eddie Alvarez at 155 [in 2011]? Those are who we developed through this system, who are rock stars for the promotion."
Even still there will be critics. Bellator is the promotion that some love to hate, if for no other reason than it isn’t the UFC. Some think it’s a dead end street for fighters. Some call it a prison, or prison sentence. Some just don’t like the idea of a perpetual March Madness, or the round cage, or multiple ring girls at once, or Rebney himself, who can be methodical and non-forthcoming. And some think that Bellator has endless resources yet no idea what the hell they’re doing.
Dana White, who dispels notions that he’s running a "monopoly" by pointing out that Viacom, the behemoth that owns Bellator, has a "Forty…billion…dollar market cap," is among them.
Rebney says he hears all of that stuff. And to him it’s comical to think that anyone believes there’s $40 billion at his disposal.
"It would be very cool if it was," he says. "Every fighter we have would get a multimillion dollar bonus."
Rebney, who isn’t always so candid, can laugh about it.
"We’re running a business. We’re self-sustaining. We’re making money," he says. "I’m not going to the Bahamas on a private jet. I don’t have a Ferrari parked behind a casino that I forgot about, like other people. We’re smart, we’re doing just fine right now, we’re still building and we’ve got a great partner [in Viacom]. They’re an incredible partner but they’re not funneling that $40 billion in our direction. I can tell you, ‘Here’s the ATM, do what you please’ is not the way it works."
How it does work is through the rungs. The tournament stays, and all of tomorrow’s parties -- even the ones you never thought to ask for -- must be earned. Like it or hate it, that’s the model, and you count Rebney among those not sleeping on Zayats to throw the next monkey wrench into the systemworks. (Because, if you don’t know by now, that’s exactly how the system works).