It’s fair to say that the promotional model employed by the Ultimate Fighting Championship is the predominant one in the sport today. From the UFC itself down to the humblest of regional organizations putting on events in gyms and bars, most promotions offer some variation on the same basic model. It’s built around a few bedrock principles: former matchmaker Joe Silva’s mantra that winners fight winners, a high value placed on championship belts, a distaste for formal bracket-based tournaments and, until recently, a reluctance to have fighters change divisions or fight outside their usual weight class.
In theory, it makes the UFC a constant, ongoing tournament, with the goal of figuring out who are the best fighters in each division and having them challenge for the belt. When it works -- when the UFC isn’t undermining its own competitive process with cash-grab matchmaking -- it works well. It makes for a system that gives fans time to get to know fighters and can often respond well to the unexpected. If a title challenger is suddenly injured, for example, it’s helpful if the rest of the Top 10 is full of credible contenders who have been working their way up and at least half of them are coming off of wins in their last fight.
However, that is not to say that the UFC’s way is the only way. There have always been organizations offering alternative models for competition. Some of them are patently gimmicky and have gone the way of the dinosaur for good reason. While one-night tournaments were not uncommon in 1990s no-holds-barred fighting, they grew rare as the sport became more regulated and more star-oriented; no promotion wanted to see its best fighter lose to a lesser one only because he had already fought twice that night and was bruised and exhausted. Nonetheless, as recently as 2014, BattleGrounds MMA managed to get together 16 welterweights, half of whom were UFC veterans, for a one-night affair. Of course, it ended up being the promotion’s final event.
The International Fight League’s two-year run was littered with moments both hilarious and awesome, but its team format simply never worked. The reasons why it didn’t work would make for a fascinating feature-length article all its own, but you can start with “take a bunch of guys from different gyms and tell them Igor Zinoviev or Renzo Gracie is now their head coach.” Unsurprisingly, once the failing organization abandoned the team gimmick in desperation, it put on four or five legitimately great events in a row, every bit as good as what the UFC or the recently defunct Pride Fighting Championships had been offering. It was too little, too late for the IFL, however.
It isn’t unusual that these two promotions went defunct -- sooner or later, every competitor to the UFC seems to -- but it’s worth noting that in one case the gimmick proved to be the organization’s swan song while in the other, the gimmick died too late to save the organization from sharing its fate. In spite of this gradual ascendancy of the UFC model, though, two major promotions are at this very moment availing themselves of decidedly un-UFC-like matchmaking angles, and I for one am enjoying it very much.
If you’re paying attention at all, you’re likely aware that Professional Fighters League, the successor organization to World Series of Fighting, is most of the way through its inaugural season. You probably know that the PFL is employing a format in which a regular season is followed by a tournament -- “playoffs,” in PFL-speak -- with a $1 million prize for the winner in each division. While this sounds like a pure gimmick, and one bound for IFL-style disaster at that, it’s hard to argue with the results. The events have been a blast, with savage finishes, huge upsets and some storylines too strange to be made-up: Ray Cooper III knocks out Jake Shields, a man who went 1-1 against Cooper’s father over a decade ago, completing MMA’s first-ever father-son rubber match?
The straw that has stirred PFL’s drink so far is not the seasonal format itself but one of the details associated with it: the weighted points system. In the PFL’s divisional standings, fighters receive three points for a decision win, four for a third-round stoppage, five for a second-round stoppage and six for a first-round stoppage. That simple wrinkle has energized the events, leading not only to the high number of submissions and KOs but also to some of the upsets; the aforementioned Shields made no excuses for his loss to Cooper but admitted he had been looking for an early finish and may have been less cautious than he should have been.
While some of the PFL’s divisions boast more star power than others, they’ve all delivered intrigue and violence. That they’re on network TV at a decent hour on Thursdays and thus able to grab the undivided attention of fans, at least fans hardcore enough to watch fights on Thursday nights, is even better. If you aren’t watching, you should be.
Bellator MMA is trafficking heavily in another promotional angle eschewed by the UFC: Bellator’s heavyweight grand prix is in full swing, while its welterweight tournament is set to start next month. This isn’t anything weird or revolutionary like the PFL’s experiment; Bellator President Scott Coker has been a fan of tournaments since his days running Strikeforce. However, I find them a welcome change of pace, a way of making average fights seem important and important fights seem crucial.
In my opinion, the less said about the heavyweight grand prix the better. It manages to embody most of my least favorite aspects of Bellator and of heavyweight MMA. Six of the eight participants are UFC veterans. At least five will be over the age of 40 by the time the tournament is finished. Most damningly, none of them are Top-10 heavyweights, and my pick to win the whole thing is light heavyweight champion Ryan Bader.
The 170-pound tournament? Now that’s a whole different story. Not only does it include two definite Top-10 welterweights in Rory MacDonald and Douglas Lima, but it features dangerous specialists such as Paul Daley and alternate-bout participant Lorenz Larkin. Most impressively, this welterweight tournament shows Bellator being completely unafraid to risk some of its assets in going for greatness. By including Ed Ruth, Neiman Gracie and Michael Page, Bellator is staking the perfect records of some of its most intriguing undefeated prospects from each of MMA’s core disciplines. By inviting “MVP” in particular, the promotion is putting a definitive end to the popular narrative that it has been protecting the dazzling kickboxer from tough opposition.
I might love the bracket even more than the roster. The welterweight grand prix has current contenders, aging-but-still-dangerous veterans and relatively untested prospects, and Bellator seems to have thrown them into a hat and drawn pairings at random. I’ve seen some criticisms of it, and I understand them, but I enjoy the unpredictability. I’m far more interested to see Lima and Andrey Koreshkov rematch and either Ruth or Gracie pick up his first “L” than I would be by “sensible” first-round matchups where Lima kicked Ruth’s legs off and Koreshkov knocked Gracie silly. It’s a grand prix, not March Madness. I want to figure out who’s the best fighter and have fun along the way, and there’s not much in this sport more fun than matchups of good and great fighters where there’s more at stake than just the money and you aren’t sure how it’s going to turn out. I know I’ll be tuning in.