The tournament format employed by the Bellator Fighting Championships isn't for everyone. In other mixed martial arts promotions, matchmakers can control the narrative to an extent, booking fights they feel confident will excite their fans. In Bellator, on the other hand, the fights that generate the most interest when a tournament bracket is unveiled don't always come to fruition. The road to a championship has twists and turns.
And that's precisely what Pat Curran loves about a tournament. "It's a great format," the featherweight champion, who puts his belt on the line against Shahbulat Shamhalaev on Thursday night in Atlantic City (10 p.m. ET, Spike), told SI.com recently. "The fighters determine their own destiny."
That model certainly has worked for the 25-year-old, a two-time winner of Bellator tourneys. Back in 2010, Curran was the last man standing in the promotion's lightweight bracket, beating former (Roger Huerta) and current (Mike Ricci) UFC fighters along the way. That earned him a title bout against Eddie Alvarez, which he lost by unanimous decision.
Curran then turned to the next season's featherweight tournament, which he won in electrifying fashion with a head-kick knockout of Marlon Sandro, a former champion in the Pancrase and Sengoku promotions. He then became Bellator champ by brutalizing Joe Warren via third-round knockout.
It's no wonder Curran likes Bellator tournaments. One of them boosted him to the top of the hill, and then, after he'd been knocked down, another tourney came along and served as his vehicle back up. "I'm a product of that format," he said. "That's where my success has come."
Indeed, Curran's back-to-back KOs of Sandro and Warren certainly enhanced his profile beyond earning him a championship belt. He's the top-ranked non-UFC fighter in the SI.com rankings.
Thursday's fight is the byproduct of a tournament, but not the one expected to provide Curran with a challenger. Daniel Strauss earned the fight by winning the Season 6 featherweight tourney last May. But Strauss was injured in training, so Bellator handed the title shot to Shamhalaev, who won the Season 7 tournament Feb. 21.
That's not a bad Plan B for Bellator, which has been criticized for a lack of depth in some weight classes. Curran has heard that talk, but he believes there are plenty of challenges at featherweight. When asked if he'd consider a move back up to lightweight to challenge champion Michael Chandler or fight a rematch with Alvarez, who handed him his only loss in his last 10 bouts, Curran addressed the hypothetical only as a distant-future possibility. "Down the road, those fights could happen, if Bellator wants them to," he said. "But right now I'm focused on the featherweight division, and it's really stacked."
Spoken like a product of Bellator's tournaments, where the only step that matters is the next one.
On to the rankings ...
Cormier has an opportunity this month to move up and move down, pretty much simultaneously. If he beats Frank Mir in the co-main event of the April 20 UFC on Fox card, he'll solidify his standing in the heavyweight division. Of course, Cormier wouldn't get a bump in these rankings -- Velasquez and Dos Santos are firmly entrenched in our Nos. 1 and 2 spots -- but he'd surely open the eyes of those holdouts who need to see him in with UFC competition before they're ready to jump on the bandwagon. However, if Daniel does show his stuff in his debut with the promotion, it could immediately send him south to the 205-pound division, one not ruled by his friend and teammate, Velasquez. Sometimes opportunity knocks at more than one door.
Is Chael Sonnen a top light heavyweight? Not according to these (and other) rankings, he's not. But he has a chance to be the 205-pound champion if he can derail Jones on April 27. If "Bones" stays on track, though, what would be next? This weekend was to be Gustaffson's big moment to show he belongs in a title fight. But a cut over his eye resulted in him pulling out of Saturday's main event against Gegard Mousasi. That leaves the UFC with Machida as its No. 1 challenger, and it's hard to fathom the fans getting too excited by a Jones-Machida rematch, especially after Lyoto's somnolent decision win over Henderson. A Sonnen upset actually would liven things up in a division that for the last two years has been all Jones, all the time.
Now that the UFC has made it official that Silva's next bout will be a title defense against Weidman, we get to debate whether this fight so many of us have been calling for is really the best fight out there for "The Spider." A superfight against either Jon Jones or Georges St-Pierre would be more of a marquee matchup, but if you're the champion you do have a responsibility to take on whoever climbs to the top of the ladder. Weidman has done that in just nine pro bouts, so some will see his resume as lacking, even as spotless as it is. But an unbeaten No. 1 challenger? That'll be fun to see.
This month's Top 5 is nearly identical to last month's Top 5, despite the fact that four of those athletes fought and two lost. St-Pierre and Hendricks remain at the top after having their hands raised at UFC 158. And Condit stays at No. 3, because how can you downgrade a guy after the fight he put up against Hendricks? The only change is the flip-flopping of MacDonald and Diaz. Nick could very well have stayed where he was, because he might very well be better than everyone outside the Top 3. But he was so thoroughly dominated by GSP that he couldn't hold back MacDonald (who was supposed to fight on the card but was injured). There's a lot of jostling for position, and it'll be interesting to see what matchup the UFC books as a companion fight to St-Pierre vs. Hendricks. A Condit-MacDonald rematch? Maia vs. the rising Ellenberger? What about Diaz?
Finally, we are going to get to see what Melendez has. Gilbert has been a mainstay in many outlets' rankings, including some pound-for-pound Top 10s. I've never bought into that. The guy has won seven straight fights, yes, but that was in Strikeforce and he's not exactly dominated over there. His most recent win, a split-decision victory over Josh Thomson last May, didn't make him look like he belonged with the steel of the UFC 155-pounders. But on April 20, when he takes on Benson Henderson in the main event of a UFC on Fox card, he has an opportunity to show the world that he belongs at the top of the hill.
A lot of moving parts here. The next challenger for Aldo's title is someone who doesn't appear on this list, lightweight Anthony Pettis. If José wins, he's been promised a shot at the 155-pound belt. Edgar is staying put at 145, with a fight scheduled this summer. Curran is over in Bellator. Mendes has a chance to move back up toward the top if he can take care of business April 20 against Darren Elkins.
Don't be surprised if we see a shakeup in this division in the near future. In the aftermath of UFC 158, company president Dana White was asked if he had an update on Cruz, who because of a pair of knee surgeries has not defended his championship since October 2011. Will "The Dominator" be stripped of his belt? Not inconceivable, with Barão preparing for a second defense of the interim strap. It's a marketing decision more than a competitive one, since Cruz and Barão are destined to meet inside the octagon upon the champ's return. Here in SI Land, we'll keep Cruz on top. For now.
How did Benavidez get stuck way down on the preliminary card for the April 20 event? The main card will be seen on Fox, but Joseph's bout with Darren Uyenoyama will be one of the first of the evening on FX. Oh, how the mighty have fallen. We're now seven months removed from Benavidez's loss to Johnson in the first UFC title fight, and it's not too soon to start thinking rematch, especially after Joseph beat McCall in February. First, however, "Mighty Mouse" has to heal from the injury that forced him to pull out of his defense against Moraga, which was supposed to happen this month.
OK, we did it. We've instituted women's rankings, although with one twist: Even though the UFC has just a 135-pound division and other promotions have weight classes at 145, 125 and even lighter, we're going to make this a pound-for-pound list for now. That opens the door for a tussle for the top between Rousey and Santos (who returns from a drug suspension to fight on Friday's Invicta card in Kansas City), and we're giving the nod to the UFC champ. Of course, we're perfectly willing to stand aside and let them settle the matter in the cage.
Pound for pound
Nothing changes here, which surely will irk those who for months have been sending e-mails -- some irrationally irate, others well reasoned -- about the continued presence of Cruz on this list. It's a tough call. How long do you give a guy to return from injury before you render him inactive? And when he does return from a long layoff, is he the fighter he was before the injury? Valid questions. No answers yet.