The Bellator Welterweight Tournament Could Change the Game
As a fight fan, it's hard not to root for Bellator's welterweight grand prix tournament to succeed. And perhaps if we're lucky, it could encourage the UFC to put on tournaments of its own.
Photos by Dave Mandel, Steve Flynn-USA TODAY Sports
Modern mixed martial arts competition is far removed from the days of Vale Tudo and the early UFC pay-per-views. There were a few obvious markers on the road to acceptability, such as the adoption of more sporting rules and a rebranding from "No Holds Barred" to "Mixed Martial Arts" in hopes of cooling John McCain's righteous crusade against the UFC. But one of the most significant differences between the early days of the UFC and its modern incarnation is the disappearance of the tournament system. Early events were built around everyone entering on equal footing and one man proving himself the best in a wild and unpredictable format. The first four UFC tournaments built Royce Gracie into an icon and rapidly created a pay-per-view demand for this previously unknown sport.
UFC 1 contained eight men who thought they could fight under no rules and, as it turned out, two who actually could. The rivalry between Ken Shamrock and Gracie, which began in the semifinal of UFC 1, fueled pay-per-view buys for UFC 3. The poster featured the two men in a staredown and no other fighters pictured or mentioned. Shamrock was dubbed "The Challenger" and Gracie "The Champion."
But the magic of the tournament shuffled up the order. Gracie won his first fight at UFC 3 but was forced to withdraw with an injury. Shamrock won two fights, heard about Royce dropping out, and after injuring his ankle in the course of winning his semifinal, decided to withdraw from the final. So at UFC 5: The Return of the Beast, the UFC opted to take both Gracie and Shamrock out of the tournament and book them in a superfight which would act as the headliner. Over just four events, the UFC had learned the golden rule of tournaments: They create their own narratives but cannot be relied upon to give you the pay-off and closure that you want.
The UFC continued putting on tournaments until UFC 23, but the last UFC tournament on US soil was at UFC 17. Returning to one-night tournaments in the modern age has proven tricky due to some US sanctioning bodies being uncomfortable with the idea of a man fighting multiple bouts in a single night. When Yamma Pit Fighting put on its first (and last) tournament, it had to contend with an athletic commission refusing to allow any man to fight more than 25 minutes in one night (the equivalent of a five-round fight). Pushing ahead anyway, Yamma had the quarterfinal and semifinal bouts of its eight-man tournament fought over one five-minute round. Combining ludicrously short fights with the bizarre Yamma pit—a regular cage with a mat that sloped up toward the fence—the younger wrestlers in the heavyweight tournament quickly got takedowns, held their men on the slope for a couple of minutes, and won their bouts by decision. World Series of Fighting pulled off a one-night lightweight tournament in Arizona in 2015, with some weird tweaks to the rules to try and make it go smoother, but neither WSOF or its successor, PFL, have returned to the idea since.
Perfecting the Tournament
When revisiting the UFC's tournaments today something that jumps out at the viewer is the sheer amount of filler. In any eight-man tournament, three men—at the very most—were considered good fighters in the wider scheme of things. Publications and websites were covering MMA as a sport by the time of the last few UFC tournaments and even beginning to rank fighters. Mark Kerr drew attention in January 1997 for smashing through Brazil's Vale Tudo Championship against Paul Varelans, Mestre Hulk, and Jiu Jitsu legend, Fabio Gurgel. Yet Ranger Stott, a man with no credentials spare a fictitious street fighting record, was matched against Kerr in the UFC 15 tournament in what could easily have turned into a televised murder. Worse still, the UFC 14 and 15 tournaments that Kerr won were only four-man tournaments and still contained men like Stott and Moti Horenstein.
The PRIDE 2000 Open Weight Grand Prix stands out as one of the seminal moments in the sport of mixed martial arts because it was a 16-man, two-night tournament, where a good number of fighters deserved to be there and the level of talent was pretty high across the board. Kazushi Sakuraba came in as the hottest fighter in Japan, fresh off a win over Royler Gracie. Royce Gracie returned to action, undefeated in MMA, to avenge his brother's loss. Igor Vovchanchyn and Mark Kerr stood as the consensus No. 1 and 2 heavyweights in the world. Mark Coleman and Guy Mezger came in as respected dark horses. Gary Goodridge was still considered a dangerous wild man and not an easy knockout. There were filler fighters, too: Osamu Kawahara, Hans Nijman, Alexander Otsuka, and Kazuyuki Fujita, but even one of these—Fujita—surprised and pulled off an upset against Kerr.
From that first grand prix onward, PRIDE had a tradition of putting great fighters into tournaments and letting the chips fall where they may. Sometimes fighters got injured and a tournament alternate would scoop up the gold in the final. Other times the division's champion would lose in the opening round—as when Dan Henderson lost to Kazuo Misaki in the first night of the 2006 Welterweight Grand Prix. Misaki, in fact, lost to Paulo Filho in the next round of the tournament and then won the entire thing when he replaced the injured Filho in the final! Tournaments are wild, but tournaments which call for two or more fights in one night are almost assured chaos. Similarly in the K-1 Grand Prix, a kickboxing tournament that's among the most exciting events in the fighting calendar, Mark Hunt was able to injure Ray Sefo so severely in a loss that he was able to continue to the final and win the tournament anyway.
The Return of the Bellator Tournament
Having touched on the difficulties a promoter will meet when attempting to present a one-night tournament in the United States, it is worth considering the difficulties in a broken up tournament. This is the style that Bellator used through its early "seasons." A multi-night tournament can eat up most of a year and effectively replaces the usual moving and shaking at the upper end of a division. Putting together a tournament like this can be considerably easier than a one-night tournament—especially as it allows the company to spread the fights out however it likes: Bellator is now using its heavyweight tournament fights as headliners to otherwise unremarkable cards. One of the reasons that many fans are keen to see this format of tournament in the UFC is that it wouldn't require much dexterity in matchmaking from the UFC. Announcing a tournament would just provide a formality to the usual proceedings over a half year or year at the top end of a division. This would, of course, remove that uncanny UFC ability to vaguely promise multiple parties title shots and then not deliver on them.
That is why Bellator's recently announced welterweight tournament is so exciting. Where the heavyweight tournament is chewing up money for old rope, full of over-the-hill fighters cashing in on their residual name value, the welterweight tournament might be the most exciting piece of matchmaking to happen in mixed martial arts in the last five years. This writer rates it as the best tournament line up since the DREAM Lightweight Grand Prix a full decade ago. The eight-man field is leaned out to just the talent—there isn't an ounce of fat or filler to be found.
Bellator's welterweight class was always one of its better divisions, but fans started to sit up and pay attention when UFC's Rory MacDonald—a man who thoroughly handled current UFC welterweight champion, Tyron Woodley—jumped ship. Lorenz Larkin followed and a unique situation was presented. Fighters tend to trickle out of the UFC slowly, and more often than not when they are coming off a tough run of losses. For two top-ten ranked welterweights at the top of their games to be allowed to leave the UFC at the same time and serve as a measuring stick for Bellator's own division was remarkable. As it turned out, Rory MacDonald is the best man going in Bellator at the moment, but it was a close cut thing.
Bellator’s Old Guard
Douglas Lima and Andrey Koreshkov make up the Bellator old guard. They were veterans of early Bellator tournaments, with both men losing to Ben Askren before he left for easy fights and stacks of cash in ONE FC. In the void left by Askren, Koreshkov and Lima established themselves as Bellator's best, with the two splitting a pair of bouts and trading the title. Koreshkov won the first by decision, and Lima won the second by knockout. Lima has seemed to age better than Koreshkov and come into his own in recent years, making use of his tight left hook, hard low kicks, and active guard game to best Paul Daley, Koreshkov, and Larkin back-to-back-to-back through 2016 and 2017. Lima was unsuccessful in defending his Bellator welterweight title against Rory MacDonald in January of this year and lost a good, competitive decision, hobbling MacDonald's leg in the process and proving that he belongs in conversation with the world's elite.
If there is a criticism of Lima it is that he can be too conservative: Against Larkin, large portions of the fight consisted of the two men staring at each other, and against MacDonald he threw about half as often as he probably should have.
Koreshkov is in a strange position. He rebounded from losing his belt to Lima by stopping Chidi Njokuani and Vaso Bakocevic in the first round, but he seemed to be twiddling his thumbs while the title picture moved on without him. The depth of Bellator's welterweight division might actually be hurting the former champ as he patiently queues for consideration for another title shot. No one could benefit more from the mix up of a tournament than Koreshkov, who has the skills to become the champ again but might otherwise struggle to be offered another opportunity in the next year or two.
The UFC Stalwarts
Then there are the UFC's old timers: Daley and Jon Fitch. Fitch recently did what he usually does, and laid all over Daley to a unanimous decision victory. This seemed like something of a political move on the part of the company because Daley had been outspoken about his unhappiness there. Daley had fought more of the best welterweights in the Bellator division than anyone—MacDonald, Lima, and most recently knocking out Larkin in his best victory in years—and yet the company chose to throw him in with a tedious, blanketing wrestler which has always been Daley's kryptonite.
Weirder still, the company keeps throwing Daley under the bus as if he has been ducking Michael "Venom" Page in order to fight these far more experienced, respected opponents. All this beef between promotion and fighter amounts to little, though, because Daley has been exiled from the UFC, forbidden to return after sucker-punching Josh Koscheck after the final bell in their bout eight years ago. For the anti-establishment fan, Daley is the man to root for.
Fitch, meanwhile, was sent packing from the UFC because his style is, quite frankly, not fan friendly. To his credit, Fitch doesn't seem to care as in his Bellator debut he simply held Daley down, doing little, while Daley shouted abuse—directed at Bellator's management—into the nearest camera, scarcely worrying about Fitch hitting or attempting to submit him.
Fitch can be relied upon to show up ready to go the distance and to keep up the pace through the rounds. At 40 years old, he is in terrific shape but is haunted by a failed drug test in December 2014. As Bellator has been pretty lax on drug testing and more than willing to overlook the offenses of some of the most notorious drug users in the sport in the past, fans have every right to be skeptical.
Perhaps the most exciting members of the tournament are Bellator's untested prospects. Neiman Gracie has quietly made his way through six opponents in the promotion, none of whom have been remarkable but most of whom he has submitted. That Gracie name (combined with submissions on the record to back it up) will always be worth something. Ed Ruth is poised to become the Daniel Cormier of this tournament, as an undefeated wrestler with incredible potential and seemingly no one talking about him. A three-time Division 1 National Champion, Ruth has only six victories to his name—all of which have come under Bellator, which continues to invest in wrestling talent.
Then there is "Venom" Page. His plunge into the shark tank of this tournament will likely be the most exciting wrinkle for MMA fans. Page's development has been the most frustrating in MMA history: His talent is obvious but has only been exhibited against hand-picked, largely mediocre opposition. Even in his most recent fight—over half a decade into an undefeated MMA career and as a proven attraction—Page was matched against a lightweight, Derek Anderson, and when Anderson dropped out Bellator quickly found him another lightweight in the form of Dave Rickels. No one in the history of elite level MMA has had their record so obviously and continuously padded when they didn't really need it.
And yet in the first round of the tournament, Page meets a real test in Daley and there is every reason to believe he can win it. Hell, you need only recall the time that Kazuo Misaki boxed Daley up with a healthy diet of feints and jabs. Douglas Lima clipped off crisper strikes inside of Daley's haymaker swings as well. But if Page gets through that first round, which is expected to be a stand-and-bang affair, he will find himself face-to-face with either Lima or Koreshkov—both very well rounded fighters who will have no interest in trying to strike with him just to prove they have the guts. Some might point to the fact that all of the grappling talent in the tournament—Gracie, Ruth, MacDonald, and Fitch—is conspicuously in the opposite bracket, but Page will either win and eventually face one of them, or lose and it won't matter. You can forgive this piece of bracket tailoring for Bellator finally making the Daley-Page fight it has teased for over a year.
Odds and Ends
A couple of the weirder aspects of this tournament relate to the two recent UFC stars whom we were using to measure Bellator's division: Rory MacDonald and Lorenz Larkin. MacDonald, despite being the champion, has been placed into the tournament. This is not too odd in itself—PRIDE tournaments were often for a unique Grand Prix prize rather than the world title itself. Many tournaments are fought to sort out a No. 1 contender and then the winner is matched against the champion in the aftermath. What makes it odd is that MacDonald is scheduled to fight middleweight champion Gegard Mousasi on Sept. 29 to hide the crippling lack of talent in that division. The only bout that has been scheduled from the tournament so far is Koreshkov vs. Lima III, which is on the same card that MacDonald is expected to lose to an equally good, bigger fighter. There’s nothing wrong with any of that—in fact, if MacDonald beats Mousasi it gives his immediate future some direction which recent "double champs" have lacked—it just seems a weird way to start out a tournament. And if MacDonald is given any kind of lengthy medical suspension or suffers an injury to a joint or his fragile nose, he might need additional time for an operation.
Doubly peculiar is the idea that MacDonald's title will be defended in each of his tournament bouts. Per MMAFighting:
MacDonald’s title will be on the line in every tournament bout he is involved in and should he lose the belt, it will continue to be defended until the tournament finale with the eventual winner being declared both the undisputed Bellator welterweight champion and Grand Prix champion.
This seems to imply that should Fitch do the unthinkable and beat MacDonald in the quarterfinal, he might drop out and take the belt out of the tournament with him. MacDonald could win every one of his next three fights but still pull out before the final with an injury, and then what happens with the belt? It's a small distinction but effectively stripping MacDonald and making the tournament for the title rather than having the title on the line in the course of the tournament might cut down on some of that more negative chaos the tournament format can cause.
Additionally, Larkin has been relegated to a reserve position, fighting Yaroslav Amosov, a bit of a step down from the prestige he was placed in on leaving the UFC. A final notable absentee is Ben Askren, who won the original Bellator welterweight tournament and who is now retired but still apparently under contract to ONE FC. Despite Rory MacDonald, Ben Askren, ONE FC's front man, and Scott Coker all saying at some point they would love to do a cross-over match, it seems to be nothing more than words, which is a tremendous shame.
But the ghost at the banquet throughout the announcements has been the Strikeforce Heavyweight Grand Prix. This was the last major US tournament in MMA and was overseen by now-Bellator front man, Scott Coker. As a tournament lineup, it was sterling and makes a laughing stock of Bellator's current heavyweight grand prix: Alistair Overeem, Fabricio Werdum, Fedor Emelianenko, Bigfoot Silva, Sergei Kharitonov, Josh Barnett, and Brett Rogers. It was a tournament that took advantage of the UFC's inability to stitch up the heavyweight class following the collapse of PRIDE. Similar to today's Bellator welterweight division, the UFC's puzzling decision to let Fabricio Werdum and Andrei Arlovski walk away while still respected contenders allowed them to add legitimacy to Strikeforce's tournament.
But heavyweights (particularly Emelianenko and Overeem) cost a lot of money and the project might have been too ambitious: After the announcement of the tournament and the setting of the brackets, Strikeforce was promptly sold to the UFC's owners. The tournament went ahead but it was hamstrung by the UFC immediately removing Overeem and bringing him into the main brand after his quarterfinal victory. Tournament reserve Daniel Cormier took Overeem's place, and the Cormier-Barnett final was a great fight, but it was not the conclusion that anyone had imagined or hoped for coming in. Perhaps the most curious fact about the Strikeforce heavyweight grand prix is that it was the last tournament run under Zuffa and it happened fairly recently, a fact that allows fans to hold out hope that the UFC will commit to a tournament at some point.
The Strikeforce heavyweight tournament provided some good fights and some memorable moments but it was supposed to be the beginning of a new chapter for Strikeforce and wound up being the epilogue. Welterweights are generally brought in at a lower price point than heavyweights, and tend not to sell tickets like the heavies. Bellator has been guilty of plenty of nonsense between desperate appeals to nostalgia, Kimbo Slice fights, and raiding the crypt to put on Shamrock vs. Gracie III, but the welterweight tournament is brilliant in its simplicity. Just eight (or ten if you include alternates) very good fighters who provide compelling matchups, whatever combinations they are placed in. Only Koreshkov vs. Lima III has been scheduled at the time of writing—it is on the event headlined by MacDonald-Mousasi—and it is unclear whether Bellator is going to use these tournament matchups as main events or simply as main card features. That is where we will see the drawing power of quality welterweights compared to the nostalgia draw of the current Bellator heavyweight tournament.
As a fight fan, it is hard not to root for the Bellator welterweight tournament to succeed. Combined with the woeful but highly viewed Bellator heavyweight tournament it could provide Bellator with a unique selling point over the UFC. Perhaps if we're very lucky it could even encourage the UFC to put on tournaments of its own. Certainly if Conor McGregor is able to beat Khabib Nurmagomedov and goes into another one of his lengthy hiatuses, the UFC could learn from Bellator's old tournament structure: using a formalized, season-long tournament to select a title challenger and cover for McGregor's inactivity while also making every fight directly linked to his name and future. The days of one-night tournaments in major US promotions seem long gone, but Bellator's recommitment to the long-form tournament format could do MMA a whole world of good.