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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.


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