When the mostly unknown Michael Chandler choked out Bellator's most popular fighter, Eddie Alvarez, in the fourth round of their Nov. 19 bout in Hollywood, Fla., ending the latter's 29-month lightweight title reign, the normal MMA protocol would be to build for a rematch.
Not only is Chandler-Alvarez 2 the fight that would have the most fan interest of any two fighters on the company roster, but it would be a rematch of one of the best fights in company history. The two superbly conditioned fighters went nonstop, up and down, trading hard shots, before Chandler sealed the deal and put an exclamation point on the company's most recent 12-week season.
But because of Bellator's matchmaking structure, where someone only can get a title shot after winning an eight-man, three-month tournament, the rematch won't be made anytime soon, and certainly not in time for the next season in February.
While some might view that as a negative, Bellator CEO Bjorn Rebney sees it as an affirmation about what makes his company unique.
"That's one of the most positive things about Bellator," Rebney said. "If you're a huge Miami Heat fan, the NBA offices don't tell you that we'll just put the Mavs and the Heat in the NBA finals. If the Heat wants to be NBA champions, they have to win enough in the regular season to make the playoffs, go through the playoffs and then win the championship. As much as a fan would love to see the Heat play the Mavs for the championship, it's not going to happen automatically."
"If we're talking tennis, basketball, baseball, we wouldn't even be having this conversation. We'd never say there should be a rematch because the fans want it. Only in fighting sports. Since the day we launched, there has been a very specific format. This is a real sport, nothing theatrical, nothing scripted, and competition dictates who gets a shot at the title and who doesn't."
From day one, Rebney has held fast to his tournament format, and has made it emphatically clear that as long as he's running the company, that formula won't be compromised. When his light heavyweight champion, Christian M'Pumbu, lost a non-title match on Oct. 22 to Travis Wiuff, all that did was guarantee Wiuff a spot in an upcoming tournament, should he choose to take it. Even with a win against the champion, he still needs to win three more fights before getting a title shot.
In the case of Alvarez, he might not even be in the next lightweight tournament, which is scheduled for next spring. If that's the case, he wouldn't get a shot until early 2013, and that only would be if he wins the tournament and Chandler keeps the title.
The company recently signed Shinya Aoki, the Dream lightweight champion, for a champion vs. champion fight with Alvarez during the first quarter of next year. The fight was signed with Alvarez, and Chandler won't be moved into the spot.
A decision will have to be made regarding Alvarez: Will he take the fight with Aoki, and then do join a fall 2012 tournament, or join the company's spring 2012 tourney and postpone the Aoki fight?
"Ed and I have had a relationship for three years," Rebney said. "His reaction was as calm and measured as you'd hope to find from a fighter in this situation. He recognized he made some mistakes. He's watched the fight probably 15 times. He knows his mistakes and he's putting together a plan to change those mistakes. I told him, 'Let's sit down and let's talk. Is the best thing to do Aoki, and then a fall tournament, or is it best to do the next tournament and delay the Aoki fight?' Ed understands.
[Alvarez] has a good enough knowledge of this business, enough that he could work in our office. He understands the pieces, the moving parts, the different roads you can take. Talking to him is like talking to an executive in the office."
Rebney confirmed Tuesday that lightweights, featherweights, welterweights and middleweights will have eight-man tournaments for the company's next season, which likely will begin in February and continue through May. He is in discussion regarding adding a fifth weight class tournament, which could be light heavyweight, to the season.
In addition, the spring season will have a minimum of four and perhaps as many as six championship fights. Locked in are Joe Warren vs. Pat Curran for the featherweight title, which Bellator hopes to do as early as the first week of the season; Zach Makovsky vs. Eduardo Dantas for the bantamweight title, Ben Askren vs. Douglas Lima for the welterweight title and Hector Lombard vs. Alexander Shlemenko for the middleweight crown.
If all goes well, Bellator is hoping for a second featherweight title fight, with Patricio "Pitbull" Freire challenging the Warren vs. Curran winner, for the end of the season depending on how well Freire's broken hand heals.
A heavyweight title fight also was scheduled for the spring season, but the Nov. 26 Eric Prindle vs. Thiago Santos tournament final in Atlantic City, N.J., threw a monkey wrench into the plans.
That fight, matching the massive Prindle and his great knockout power with Santos, also with a powerful punch and good submissions for a near-300 pounder, figured to end quickly. And it did, just not in the expected way. With the 6-4 Prindle, who cuts from 310 pounds, on his back and Santos, probably about 280 after rehydrating from making 265, standing, Santos threw a hard kick between the legs and nailed Prindle in the groin at the 1:21 mark. Prindle was in terrible pain, telling ringside doctors he felt like vomiting. It was clear about a minute or two later that there was no way he could have continued. The fight, the final one of the season, was ruled a no contest, causing for the first time, a tournament to end without a winner.
Prindle went to the hospital in Atlantic City, and suffered significant bruising and a hematoma to the groin, as well as heavy swelling.
Unlike most MMA low blows, which are accidental, as both men are moving and a knee or kick aimed for the inner thigh or lower body accidentally hits the wrong spot, this was a full-on kick right between the legs of an opponent on his back and not moving. Santos had controlled the brief fight, so it wasn't a case of a fighter fouling out of frustration. It might not have been done with malicious intent, but it was either intentional or a mental lapse. There could be an argument for a disqualification because the foul ended the fight, but the referee had issued no previous warnings. The New Jersey commission ruled the foul unintentional.
"It was an odd sequence of events that commissions are not typically faced with," Rebney said. "Fortunately, we were in New Jersey, the most reputable, or if not, certainly one of the top two most reputable commissions. They were completely on top of it. I didn't think it was intentional or done with malice. They felt a no contest was the right call."
As of now, Rebney hopes for a Prindle vs. Santos rematch on next season's first show, and then to have heavyweight champion Cole Konrad defend against that bout's winner toward the end of the season.
Next season's dates and locations are TBD, as Rebney is currently in New York in meetings with Viacom, the promotion's majority owner. He hopes to have spring and even summer dates announced within the next few weeks.
There were some bright spots in the fall, most notably the Alvarez vs. Chandler fight which did 269,000 pay-per-view buys even though the main event went head-to-head with UFC 139 prelims on Spike and the show was moved two hours early to avoid going against the UFC. But overall, ratings for the current season, not including the season finale on Nov. 26, were down 13 percent from the spring, from an average 204,000 viewers to 178,000.
The ratings decline is due, as much as anything, to the plethora of UFC programming on Saturday nights the past three months. Bellator often either ran head-to-head with the UFC or to avoid direct competition moved two hours earlier. But those shows in the new time slot often fared poorly in the ratings.
"Honestly, you can't be moving your time slot and maximize your viewership," Rebney said. "There are too many entertainment options. It's not like growing up when you had only a few TV channels. You have 500 options if you have digital cable or satellite. If you move from one time slot to another, you hurt the consumers' ability to find your programming. When you've got some NFL games, college football games or UFC, that competition will draw viewers away. We all draw from similar demos on a Saturday night."
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