Throughout its first handful of seasons, the tournament format has been pretty good to Bellator Fighting Championships.
At the outset, Bellator’s tournaments set it apart from the rest of the non-UFC MMA pack, giving fans an easily digestible concept to latch onto while effectively disguising a lack of organizational depth.
All of that was obviously to the company’s benefit, but in light of recent events I can’t help but wonder if Bellator has outgrown its current seasonal format and might be better off moving in a different direction when it takes up with SpikeTV next year.
Never has the need for change been more apparent than Friday, when Thiago Santos failed to make weight for his scheduled heavyweight tournament final against Eric Prindle. Santos’ weigh-in snafu scuttled the already delayed end of Bellator's season five 265-pound draw and awarded victory to Prindle, who will now advance to face champion Cole Konrad at a later date.
For Bellator, it’s about the worst outcome imaginable for a heavyweight tournament it spent the last six months trying to build. For nearly the last four of those months, we’d been waiting for the Santos-Prindle redux, after their original Nov. 26 bout was ruled a no contest when Prindle suffered a low blow that landed him the hospital.
Company brass tried to make it right last week, but were again forced to delay the fight because Prindle was reportedly suffering from the ever-popular “flu-like symptoms.” On Thursday (which amounted to Bellator’s third try with this pairing), Santos badly missed the 60-pound window proscribed to heavyweights -- checking in at a reported 276.8 pounds -- and the matchup was scrapped for good.
Prindle wins. Kind of. Not really.
In any case, the whole thing has been a lot of trouble for a tournament that will now never see it's conclusion.
You certainly have to feel bad for Bellator, an assumedly good-hearted organization made up of assumedly good people who all seem to be trying as hard as they possibly can to grow into a legitimate runner-up to the UFC. Unfortunately, marooned as it is on MTV2 until it can make the transition to Spike, Bellator continues to exist in a kind of strange suspended animation.
In this one instance, maybe that’s a good thing. Had anyone been paying attention, the Santos-Prindle debacle would have been a major embarrassment. Fortunately, that doesn't necessarily seem to be the case. After last week’s Bellator 61 drew a reported audience of just 108,000 -- the company’s second-worst rating ever -- it’s tough to argue that a significant number of people would’ve noticed even if Prindle and Santos had made it to the cage at Bellator 62.
As it stands, maybe all Santos' gaffe did was underline the flaws in Bellator’s current format in a way few people saw, or will remember if the promotion goes on to find success on a channel with a well established track record in MMA.
If Santos had dropped out of a No. 1 contender fight in any other fight company, officials could have just subbed in somebody else, stubbornly insisted that the fight would still determine Konrad’s next opponent and called it good. When you brand something as a “tournament” however, you can’t really do that.
In a tournament, fans naturally expect there to be a beginning, a middle and -- in a perfect world -- an end. In other words, they expect some modicum of consistency. When you’re dealing with MMA and especially with the heavyweight division (a weight class that is constantly pioneering new and interesting ways to screw up) consistency is awfully hard to come by.
Because of that, it might be better for Bellator to drop the tournament format entirely moving forward. Doing so would give it more matchmaking freedom and would never again put it in a position where it has to admit it can't finish what it started.
At the very least, it's clear that Bellator needs to have contingency plans in place for when disaster strikes. Having alternate fighters at the ready at all times might be a good start.
On the bright side, perhaps incidents like this one give Bellator the chance to pinpoint what's wrong and make the appropriate changes before next year, when (hopefully) more of the MMA world will be watching.