Few things are more exciting than watching a virtually unknown fighter battle through three rounds of beatings before landing one perfectly placed hook on his opponent's jaw -- a punch that catapults the underdog into the winner's circle. The Cinderella fighter may have captured your heart with his enthralling win, but his shot at the title is slim, at best.
Such has been the story in numerous mixed martial arts promotions, where title matchups are at the discretion of organization executives and not necessarily the result of fighters' previous performances.
Enter Bellator Fighting Championships, a new MMA promotion with a unique format and philosophy: The athletes -- not the corporate promoters -- decide who gets a shot at the title. Bellator is set to kick off a 12-week, single-elimination tournament in which eight professional fighters in four weight classes will battle their way to the top.
The weekly events will be aired on tape delay in two-hour segments on the Spanish language ESPN Deportes every Saturday night in prime time. Bellator's first show will be held Friday at the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel in Hollywood, Fla., with subsequent events scheduled for Uncasville, Conn., and Norman, Okla. In every city, Bellator founder and CEO Bjorn Rebney hopes to prove why his tournament format is a must-have in MMA.
"If you look at any sport, the best play the best, the best of the best qualify for the playoffs and then go to the championship," Rebney said. "If you win in the championship, you get the trophy. It's all objective. But the fighting sports -- be it MMA or boxing -- at the elite, world-class level follow this concept called matchmaking, and it is an absolute counterintuitive, subjective decision on who fights whom and who gets a shot at the title."
An attorney and the founder of Sugar Ray Leonard Boxing, Rebney believes there has always been a flaw in combat sports' matchmaking system -- one few fight fans ever recognize simply because they're used to it. More often than not, title bouts pit two big names, not necessarily because they deserve a shot at the crown, but because they draw the crowds. But, as Rebney sees it, marketability doesn't always translate into the best fights.
It's in this element of competition that Rebney and co-founder Brad Epstein set the foundation for Bellator several years ago when, as childhood friends, the two longtime fans watched MMA "almost like we were committing a crime with buddies.
"We watched the old UFC events, and Brad and I would kind of look at each other and even then we'd say, 'This is the coolest thing ever,' " Rebney said. "If we ever had the chance to create our dream organization, we would bring objectivity to the fighting sports and ultimately allow the fighters to control their own destiny."
With the folding of promotions like BodogFIGHT, EliteXC and the International Fight League, Bellator has seemingly had a lion's share of fighters to choose from. Among the most well-known are Eddie Alvarez (currently ranked No. 6 among lightweights by SI.com), Jorge Masvidal and former Olympic Judoka Hector Lombard.
They'll be put to the test by undefeated up-and-comers, such as Lyman Good and Wilson Reis, 35-year-old veteran and the first UFC middleweight champion history, Dave Menne, and a slew of other top-notch competitors -- all of whom will be battling for the tournament's other incentive: money. For each win, the fighter's purse increases dramatically: A first round knockout carries a $25,000 check, a second-round knockout $50,000 and the championship $100,000 plus the tournament cup.
For the lesser-known fighters, the tournament provides a chance to make more money in a three-month span than they probably would have earned in three or four years in the sport. And the mainstream exposure? Well, for a sport still itching for overall acceptance, many fighters would consider that worth more than the purse.
Considering the tournament's elimination structure and monetary benefits, the door at Bellator is wide open for a potential underdog to steal the spotlight and the crown. And it's exactly what Rebney and Epstein will be prepping audiences for on Saturday when the first battle airs at 9 p.m. ET on ESPN Deportes. While promotions, such as the UFC, tend to push their fights onto unsuspecting audiences with an accompaniment of bells and whistles, Bellator's mission is to stress the purity of the sport and the reality of its athletes without reverting to a reality television-style program. There's a reason Epstein has spent the past several months traveling the country filming the fighters in their own element.
"It's incredible," Epstein said. "You go to places like Tijuana, where these guys are just training on wooden floors with splinters, and then you go down to American Top Team in Miami, where it's a fine-tuned machine. Or you go to [Greg] Jackson's Gym in Albuquerque and it's kind of like a fraternity house -- they have famous fighters living there while they train.
"Some of these guys have day jobs and families where they start at like 4 or 5 in the morning, take their lunch break to train, head home to play with their kids and head back to the gym just to make sure they get their five hours of training in. There's one guy out of Juarez, Mexico. ... He's a lawyer there, and every day he takes two hours to come over the border to train in El Paso. It's incredible the sacrifices these guys and their families have made."
As the first partnership between an MMA promotion and an ESPN network, the Bellator-Deportes alliance is a potentially huge step on the road to bringing MMA into a prominent position in mainstream sports. With a growing interest in combat sports among Hispanics, Bellator is positioned to provide the vehicle through which Hispanic sports fans can seamlessly cross over into being MMA fans.
"It has great trackability and traction from show to show," Rebney said. "We're not just saying, 'Hey, here's a new fighter, let us tell you all about him.' We're saying, 'This is the underdog from so-and-so state who you've never heard of, but he beat this guy. Now you can track him and see where he goes.' If you give sports fans that opportunity to follow their favorite fighter, even if he loses, they have someone to root against. It's like what we're seeing right now with March Madness."