Combate Americas on Saturday held its first “Copa Combate” -- a one-night tournament with a unique set of rules in which the promotion’s best bantamweights competed against each other for a $100,000 grand prize. During the broadcast, there was talk that there would be another “Copa Combate” in Spain in 2018. Combate Americas President Campbell McLaren co-founded the Ultimate Fighting Championship 24 years ago, and many fight fans mark UFC 1 as the beginning of the sport we now know as mixed martial arts.
The UFC began with a tournament format that has faded over the years, but when the conditions are right and situations call for them, tournaments are the best way to identify top contenders and fill title vacancies. Before Scott Coker took the reins at Bellator MMA, the promotion utilized a seasonal tournament format; he decided to go in another direction but left the door open for tournaments if circumstances called for them. Just such a time has arrived, as Bellator will decide the fate of its vacant heavyweight championship with an eight-man tournament in 2018. The 2018 Bellator heavyweight grand prix will be contested over a series of events. Fedor Emelianenko, Ryan Bader, Matt Mitrione, Roy Nelson, Chael Sonnen, Quinton Jackson, Muhammed Lawal and Frank Mir will make up the eight-man field.
“Tournaments, traditionally, are kind of the way martial arts contests happen,” Coker said. “Now we get to put eight iconic brand names in our sport together over a year, and then whoever wins will be crowned the heavyweight champion.”
One grand prix has already begun and will carry MMA fans into the New Year. The Rizin Fighting Federation bantamweight grand prix features some notable fighters who have parted ways with the UFC, including Ian McCall and Kyoji Horiguchi. The 2017 Rizin bantamweight grand prix will conclude with two events on Dec. 29 and Dec. 31 at the Saitama Super Arena in Saitama, Japan. Shintaro Ishiwatari seems more focused on a rematch with Horiguchi than winning the tournament, as he lost a decision to the Norifumi Yamamoto protégé in 2013. Ishiwatari in a Rizin press release affirmed that he had his eye on Horiguchi and looked forward to his chance at redemption.
“I’ve been watching his fights after I lost,” Ishiwatari said. “I study off of his fights to make myself a better fighter. Most fighters have a time period where you hit a wall and stop improving, a time where you struggle, but he just continues to evolve like simple math. His fight IQ is high, his overall skill levels are high and there is a lot to learn from him.”
Other competitions -- the million-dollar Professional Fighters League tournaments -- begin in January and should create some interest. Back in November 2015, the World Series of Fighting held an eight-man tournament to find an opponent for lightweight champion Justin Gaethje. It was one of the company’s more memorable events, and it not only cleared up issues with rankings but gave prospective fighters a fair shot at a title. Once the WSOF was rebranded as the Professional Fighters League, it announced plans to hold season-long tournaments in seven weight classes, with $10 million in prize money up for grabs.
“All fighters deserve to control their own destiny, to win or lose on their own merits,” PFL President Ray Sefo said. “There are thousands of professional MMA fighters, and yet in the entire history of the sport, only a handful of these athletes have ever fought for $1 million. We are proud to offer that opportunity to every fighter in the Professional Fighters League.”
“The Ultimate Fighter” is the only tournament going in the UFC, and it will crown an inaugural women’s flyweight champion at the conclusion of its current season. In this day and age where rankings seem to matter less and less in MMA, bringing back the tournament format in 2018 and beyond might be just what the sport needs to keep moving forward.