Thursday in Hollywood, Fla., Bellator Fighting Championships kicks off its second season with an event at the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino. Bolstered by a television deal for 2010 that includes 24 live prime time Thursday night broadcasts on Fox Sports Net, the upstart promotion, which also secured weekly highlight shows on NBC and Telemundo, is pushing its single-elimination-tournament format as a major selling point to fight fans.
Forget the politics of the fight game, says Bellator CEO and founder Bjorn Rebney. Fighters won't have to beg promoters for attention. All they'll need are victories. In 2009, that emphasis spurned on several viral-video-inducing moments, including SI.com's submission of the year. Whether that trend continues, Bellator's success as a promotion will be determined by its ability to take advantage of newfound visibility in well over 100 million homes in the U.S.
With high-profile, big-money signings like Roger Huerta, who was groomed and promoted by the UFC from 2006 through 2009, Bellator has put itself out there as a brand of fighting that is worth your attention. Huerta debuts Thursday as part of the lightweight tournament quarterfinals against Chad Hinton. They will be joined by fellow 155-pounders Janne Tulirinta and Carey Vanier, as well as featherweights Joe Warren, Eric Marriott, Georgi Karakhanyan and Bao Quach.
Competing across four weight divisions -- middleweight, welterweight, lightweight and featherweight -- fighters must win three times in 12 weeks to take the $100,000 prize, after which they'll earn title shots against the champions established in 2009.
Hector Lombard rolled through the field to capture Bellator's title last year. The powerful Cuban, a member of the island nation's 2000 Olympic squad in judo, owns a stellar 25-2-1 record. He needs a solid victory or two to enter the top 10 at 185 pounds, though based on the list of potential contenders in the 2010 tournament, the 32-year-old may not get that chance. Lombard's next bout is expected to be a non-title affair against Paulo Filho in May.
• Jared Hess -- Lombard's opponent in last year's finals returns to Bellator hoping that he's improved enough to take the next step. The 26-year-old wrestler, whose record stands at 10-1-1, will rely on his experience in the tournament format.
• Ryan McGivern -- After keeping an active pace from 2006-08, McGivern, a member of Pat Miletich's team in the International Fight League, returns to MMA with a 13-6 record. The wrestler is known as a tireless worker in the gym and, at age 30, has one last shot to establish himself in the sport. His inability to prevent submissions has hurt him.
• Bryan Baker -- The 6-foot-3 Baker (11-1) appears to be the man to beat in a field that, to this point, is short one fighter. Of the seven men listed at 185 pounds, Baker, 24, appears to have the most talent. He defeated fellow tourney participant Eric Schambari, and his lone defeat came against current No. 3-ranked middleweight Chael Sonnen.
• Shane Loeffler -- Happy to brawl, Loeffler, 27, is a 10-year veteran of MMA. His 18-4 record, boosted by six wins in a row, reveals a gritty fighter who has struggled against better opposition.
• Eric Schambari -- Illness kept him out of action for 14 months, but he has since returned to fighting and was 4-0 in 2009. The powerful 31-year-old wrestler, a veteran of the WEC, is 11-1 as a pro. He has the tools and ability to win the tournament.
• Matt Major -- He received some notoriety when he was featured on the Tapout reality show in 2007. The 26-year-old American Kickboxing Academy-trained fighter is unorthodox, yet his style has worked against veteran foes such as Shonie Carter and Jaime Fletcher.
• Luke Zachrich -- Another reality show convert, Zachrich appeared on Season 7 of Spike TV's The Ultimate Fighter. He was ousted by Dan Cramer. The 28-year-old fighter out of Cincinnati owns a 9-1 record against mostly weak opposition.
Favorite: Bryan Baker
Long shot: Ryan McGivern
Dark horse: Eric Schambari
Winner: Bryan Baker
Champion Lyman Good asserted himself in the 2009 bracket with a physical brand of fighting that helped push his record to a perfect 10-0. At age 24, Good, raised in Spanish Harlem, should face a serious challenge from of a deep and competitive field of contenders.
• Steve Carl -- He probably shouldn't be in this position after a car accident shattered his right leg. Doctors said he'd never walk again, but the 25-year-old Iraq war veteran returned to fighting and now owns a 9-1 record. He prefers submission and ground-and-pound.
• Brett Cooper -- The Southern Californian, 22, is known for exciting fights, yet isn't near the top of the list of fighters expected to make it out of the welterweight tournament. Cooper (11-5) is a finisher on feet.
• Ben Askren -- One of the highest-profile signings by Bellator, the two-time NCAA champion for the University of Missouri and Dan Hodge Trophy-winner, is the most decorated wrestler in the entire promotion. The 25-year-old veteran of the Beijing Olympics is 3-0 in MMA competition, and has thus far relied heavily on his grappling.
• Ryan Thomas -- A fighter with UFC experience, Thomas, 25, is 10-3 overall after being stopped in the Octagon by Ben Saunders and Matt Brown. The "Tank Engine" fights out of Danville, Ill.
• Dan Hornbuckle -- He has momentum with a 19-2 record. The 29-year-old Native American parlayed a stunning high-kick KO win in Japan vs. Akihiro Gono to earn mention at or near the top 10 at 170 pounds. Most observers have pegged him as the man to beat in the welterweight class.
• Tyler Stinson -- Replacing injured Canadian Sean Pierson, Stinson faces a tough opening-round draw against Dan Hornbuckle, April 22 at the Mohegan Sun in Uncasville, Conn. The 24-year-old Stinson (16-5) earned the fight after outlasting almost 100 pro fighters to win Bellator's open tryouts last month in Kansas City.
• Jacob McClintock -- If a kid emerges at 170 pounds, it could very well be "Tick-Tock" McClintock. The 22-year-old from Arizona is 6-0 and sports a varied game, including solid grappling credentials. He's yet to go the distance.
• Jim Wallhead -- A familiar name among fight fans in the U.K., Wallhead, 18-5, trains alongside Dan Hardy and Paul Daley at Team Roughhouse. He earned his way into the tournament with a decision win against Che Mills last November. "Judo" Jim, 26, is considered one of Europe's top welterweight prospects.
Favorite: Dan Hornbuckle
Long shot: Sean Pierson
Dark horse: Jacob McClintock
Winner: Dan Hornbuckle
Led by champion Eddie Alvarez, 19-2, the division could have the biggest payoff for the promotion at the close of Season 2. That's presuming Alvarez, 26, meets Huerta, the best-known fighter in each of the four tournaments.
• Roger Huerta -- A big-money free agent signing from UFC, the 26-year-old Huerta, 20-3, provides name recognition and an established baseline from which to determine the level of competition among Season 2's crop of 155-pound fighters. He enters Bellator after decision losses in the UFC to Kenny Florian and Gray Maynard.
• Chad Hinton -- A two-year veteran of MMA, Hinton, 38, brings power into a fight. With a 6-0 mark, he'll be tested immediately in an April 8 bout against Huerta.
• Farrid Kheder -- The 35-year-old Frenchman with Spanish and Arabic roots scored seventh place in judo for France at the 2000 Olympics. He entered MMA six years later and has compiled a 16-5 record (winning 11 of 12). Kheder is solid defensively, but perhaps not the best finisher in the field.
• Toby Imada -- The lone returning lightweight, Imada, 31, was recognized in 2009 for his inverted triangle submission against Jorge Masvidal, which became a viral video hit on YouTube. Imada (23-13 and 9-1 in his last 10) resides in Los Angeles. He was stopped by Alvarez in last year's lightweight tournament finale.
• Mike Ricci -- He trains under Firas Zahabi at the TriStar gym in Montreal and is a training partner of UFC welterweight champion Georges St. Pierre. The 6-foot-tall Ricci is 5-0 as a pro.
• Pat Curran -- Another young fighter, he's a cousin of veteran Jeff Curran, who oversees Pat's training just outside Chicago. The 22-year-old fighter (9-3) is capable of making a run against bigger-name opponents.
• Joe Duarte -- Replacing Janne Tulirinta after the Finnish fighter withdrew because of visa issues, Duarte (5-1) is a former U.S. Army Ranger and Purple Heart recipient who was wounded by roadside bomb shrapnel in Iraq. He's best known for losing to Phillipe Nover on the eighth season of The Ultimate Fighter. A great story, but he seems unlikely to advance into the later rounds.
• Carey Vanier -- A wrester with a 7-2 MMA record, the 28-year-old Vanier trains as part of Greg Jackson's network of gyms. His is the kind of story that Bellator tries to highlight: an All-American whose life got in the way of his athletics. He would be one of the more unlikely fighters to get the chance to fight Alvarez.
Favorite: Roger Huerta
Long shot: Joe Duarte
Dark horse: Mike Ricci
Winner: Roger Huerta
Joe Soto (8-0) showed in Season One that new talent can emerge out of the tournament format. The largely unknown, Northern California-based grappler shook up his division with a decision over favorite Wilson Reis in the semifinals, before pounding Yahir Reyes in the championship bout.
• Wilson Reis -- One of the few fighters who returns for a second crack at a Bellator title, the powerful and compact 25-year-old Brazilian trains in San Diego at The Alliance with the likes of current WEC bantamweight champion Dominick Cruz. Reis, 9-1, is known for his jiu-jitsu, a strong single-leg takedown, and unorthodox striking.
• Shad Lierley -- The former fighter in the now-defunct International Fight League wrestled at New York University and has transitioned to the 145-pound division, where he remains unbeaten. With a 5-2 overall record, the 29-year-old is at his best when he pushes the pace against opponents.
• Boa Quach -- An established veteran, Quach has bounced around weight divisions before settling in recent years at 145 pounds. The 30-year-old fighter is 17-9-1 (he's won 10 of 11 fights) and trains under Colin Oyama in Irvine, CA.
• Georgi Karakhanyan -- A former professional indoor soccer player, Karkhanyan, 24, was regarded as one of the top unsigned prospects at 145 pounds before Bellator scooped him up for the Season Two tourney. His 12-1-1 record features eight wins by submission. Karkhanyan is just the kind of fighter who could make a name for himself in this format.
• Joe Warren -- Though he has had just three fights (2-1), the 33-year-old is as decorated an athlete as there is in MMA. In 2006, Warren won the Greco-Roman world championship, and would have been the favorite for gold at the 2008 Olympic games in Beijing, but was suspended from competition for two years after testing positive for marijuana. He debuted in MMA in 2009, upsetting Chase Beebe and Norifumi Yamamoto before succumbing to Bibiano Fernandes in the Dream Featherweight Grand Prix.
• Eric Marriott -- Possessing one of the best records in the field, the 24-year-old has won his last nine bouts, and is 17-3 overall. There are questions about the level of his opposition, but they should be answered early in the tournament when he has a chance to make a splash against Warren.
• Patricio Freire -- "Pitbull" makes his American debut with a 12-0 record, all fights in his native Brazil. The 22-year-old, who trains with Brazilian Top Team, is known for his knockout power.
• William Romero -- A Muay Thai fighter first, the 5-0 Romero hails from just outside Toronto. A former member of the Canadian Armed Forces, he appears to be the least likely entry in the field to earn the shot against Soto.
Favorite: Joe Warren
Long shot: William Romero
Dark horse: Patricio Freire
Winner: Joe Warren