Tournaments are one of the foundations which helped craft martial arts. From local karate dojos to NCAA wrestling championships, tournaments are an uncomplicated, digestible format for discovering who is the best out of a given competitive field.
Although MMA was built off the tournament format going back to UFC 1 in 1993, it’s largely been done away with in the modern-era. Bellator is bringing the tournament back as a cornerstone of its 2018 calendar, though, and it all begins on Saturday.
Bellator 192, which takes place at The Forum in Inglewood, Calif., and airs on the newly launched Paramount Network (formerly Spike), marks the beginning of the Bellator Heavyweight World Grand Prix. The eight-man, single-elimination tournament will ultimately crown a new owner of the currently vacant Bellator Heavyweight championship.
“This kind of happened in an organic fashion,” Bellator President Scott Coker tells Rolling Stone. “We started signing all these guys, and pretty soon we were like, ‘Oh, we have our lineup here.’ It made a lot of sense. Then fighting for the belt at the end, I think is really going to be a special event for the year. We’re going to have these storylines all year.”
The opening round of the tournament kicks off at Bellator 192 when former UFC Light Heavyweight champion Quinton “Rampage” Jackson meets Chael Sonnen. The remaining matchups are spread out over the coming months, with Matt Mitrione vs. Roy Nelson in February, Fedor Emelianenko vs. Frank Mir in April, and Ryan Bader vs. Muhammed Lawal in May. Semifinals are tentatively planned for the summer, while Bellator hopes the tournament champion will be crowned in December.
Although traditional MMA tournaments have been held in a single night or over the course of a few days, that formula is unrealistic. The healthy and safety of athletes comes first, and holding multiple fights in a night is impractical given the field of contestants, almost all of whom are 35 years of age or older.
Nevertheless, Bellator got a strong collection of names together to keep the tournament interesting. Sonnen, in particular, is one of the more curious participants.
Sonnen is best-known for his loud-mouth antics and famous UFC title fights against the likes of Anderson Silva. He’s taking a big risk by being in the tournament, though, because he is physically outdone by his opening-round opponent, Jackson, as well as everyone else in the field.
Best suited for fighting at Middleweight, Sonnen will jump up two weight classes from his natural weight class to join the Heavyweight World Grand Prix. He could be outsized from anywhere from 10 to 50 pounds given his potential opponents, and “Rampage” is certain to enter the cage at Bellator 192 with a lot of size on his side.
Sonnen comes from the old school, though, and doesn’t put much stock into his disadvantages. He’s nearing the 21-year anniversary of his professional debut, and there hasn’t been much that’s bothered him along the way.
“Who cares about weight?” Sonnen says. “When I started this thing, I can’t remember how many fights I had – it had been at least five or six or seven before I even saw a scale. We never had weigh-ins. It was the bare-knuckle. I had my first fight in 1997. I remember I came home from school and said, ‘I’m going to a fight.'”
For Sonnen, the tournament is all about testing himself and finding out what he can accomplish in a situation where he’s up against the odds.
Jackson, however, has different motivations. He wants the prestige (and financial rewards) which come with winning such a high-profile tournament. Jackson, a former UFC champion, is another fighter who entered the sport in the late 1990s, and even took part in some famous MMA tournaments in Japan in the mid-2000s.
He might be one of the most notable fighters in the history of the sport, but Jackson still has goals remaining. They aren’t all necessarily for himself, but rather to take care of business and support the people around him.
“I do want the belt, because my boxing coach said he’s had a lot of champions, but he’s never had a heavyweight champion,” Jackson says. “I want the heavyweight tournament. I want to win this tournament. But to be honest, I fight because this is my career, and I’ve had too many kids over the years, and they get expensive. You’ve got to put them through college. I’ve got two kids that are going to college for sure.”
Each member of the Bellator Heavyweight World Grand Prix tournament is backed by their own driving force. How the chips fall, however, is something that can only be discovered by tuning in over the course of the year, beginning with Bellator 192.
“I prefer tournaments,” Sonnen says. “The sport is so much politics that it’s hard to get into those spots (to fight for titles. But when you have a bunch of guys who are telling you they are the toughest, and Coker goes, ‘To hell with it, I’ll throw you all in a tournament.’ It’s the only fair way to do things.”