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Looking At The Potential of Bellator’s Heavyweight Tournament



This Saturday, arguably the greatest mixed martial arts heavyweight of all time, Fedor Emelianenko will make his return to the cage against former UFC heavyweight champion, Frank Mir in the opening round of a heavyweight tournament. Bellator, the Viacom-owned MMA project, often tries to differentiate itself from the Ultimate Fighting Championship, which is a smart move because it offers something different to the viewing audience. Plus, the UFC is an MMA empire and an attempt to beat them at their own game has a slim chance at success. So, Bellator brings fighters to the ring via elaborate entrances, and presents an occasional wild sideshow fight. This formula yielded mixed results, considering that Dada-5000 should’ve never stepped away from throwing haymakers in front of a 7-Eleven to try to call himself a professional. At the same time, Viacom is worth millions so the Bellator stage provides a stable alternative for athletes to stay relevant if they leave the UFC, or for others to have a place to make a name for themselves. Rory MacDonald is a former UFC fighter that opted to seek a better contract in Bellator, while former WWE star Jack Swagger inked a deal for his start in the sport.


But what will this heavyweight tournament say about the promotion?

One of the main criticisms I’ve often had about the organization is that while they draw numbers on Spike TV, (now the Paramount Network) they always seem to get very close to “jumping the shark,” so to speak. Their attempts to grab viewers can sometimes border on silly with results that might be considered embarrassing. For example, there was no reason to sign Ken Shamrock to fight a few years ago. The previously mentioned Dada-5000 collapsed during a contest with Kimbo Slice and went into cardiac arrest before paramedics revived him.

All things considered, this heavyweight tournament might be more of an attempt to try to draw numbers with the sizzle of recognizable names than the substances of competitive bouts in multiple divisions.

In theory, this elimination format will be used to determine a new heavyweight champion. Vitaly Minakov, the Russian grappler that held the belt previously, was stripped of the title nearly two years ago because he didn’t defend the championship. The last Bellator heavyweight championship fight was in 2014. So, either the HW division isn’t much of a priority to Scott Coker and the rest of management or there isn’t enough depth in the division to justify a championship, which really makes the group look like an incomplete organization.

If I had to guess, I’d say the latter is the reason for a lack of a champion in the division, considering that half of the participants in the tournament haven’t fought primarily in the HW division. Ryan Bader, who is scheduled to fight King Mo in a tournament contest in a few weeks, is also the current Light Heavyweight champion so if Bader wins in the finals, does that mean he will defend both belts? Is it possible he vacates the HW title since he’s a natural LHW, which would make the entire elimination series pointless?

I’m not trying to be too pessimistic here, but it seems like management decided to put as much name value as they could in a tournament without much thought of what the eventual results could be. Doesn’t the fact that the light heavyweight titleholder is in the tournament prove that there isn’t nearly enough depth in the division? Sure, these names will garner viewers now, but how does this build the division in the future? Too often, names are thrown on the card for the short term boost instead of establishing rankings to create the stage to possibly make legitimate stars. Who are the biggest stars currently on the roster? None of them were discovered under the Bellator banner, but rather known from other companies.

Don’t get me wrong, name value is extremely important, but Bellator has produced shows for several years and most of their biggest stars are aging athletes that are mostly past their prime. Mir, who lost six of his last eight fights in the UFC before he was released, was suspended for two years after he tested positive for steroids following a bout against Mark Hunt in 2016. The bottom line is, Frank Mir hasn’t been relevant in at least 6-7 years so is there really a demand to see him compete again? At 38, Mir is at the latter stage of his career so even if he wins the title, it’s not as though Bellator could build a division around him.


On the flip side, Fedor is an absolute legend, and there will always be a place for him to appear at an MMA event. But, it’s risky for him to compete again, mostly because it’s disappointing to see an aging icon defeated or take damage in the cage. His KO loss against Matt Mitrione last June was brutal and difficult to watch. Before that, Fedor won a few fights, but his most recent win against Fabio Maldonado was such a controversial decision victory that the result was later disputed by the World Mixed Martial Arts Association. Taking nothing away from the former Pride Heavyweight champion, but his victories in recent years were against less than stellar competition.


The point being, if Fedor beats Mir, he gets a win over a fighter that hasn’t fought in two years and was on a losing streak before that. Granted, it would be great to see Emelianenko as a champion again because of his humble nature and status in the history of the sport, but the harsh reality is that one of the greatest ever to compete in MMA is not the same fighter that dominated Pride years ago. That’s why if Mir gets the victory, it’s just sad to see such a legend as a shell of himself. Nobody wants to remember Ali-Berbick or Liddell-Shogun. It’s tough to see legends fall in any sport, and this tournament format could set the stage for a sad conclusion to Emelianenko’s career. Maybe this is being too cynical for a discussion about combat sports, but the Russian grappler took a lot of punishment during his heyday in Japan, and I’d rather see him make an appearance to greet the crowd than the potential for another KO defeat.

So, I can’t say that I’m very enthusiastic about the potential of this heavyweight grand prix, especially considering how lackluster the Chael Sonnen victory against Rampage Jackson was a few months ago. More than anything, the entire concept seems to be a main example of the company’s lack of a plan to build each division with competitive bouts. Until proven otherwise, I’d guess that this tournament will bring a lot of sizzle with recognizable names, but will be underwhelming as far as the quality of the competition.

What do you think? Comment below with your thoughts, opinions, feedback and anything else that was raised.

Until next week
-Jim LaMotta

E mail | You can follow me on Twitter @jimlamotta

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