Trading Shots: Was Bellator's heavyweight grand prix a game-changer, or just a temporary blip?  01/28/2019 00:00:00 

What do we make of Bellator’s heavyweight tournament now that it’s over? Was it a game-changer, or just temporary distraction? Retired UFC and WEC fighter Danny Downes joins MMAjunkie columnist Ben Fowlkes to discuss in this week’s Trading Shots.

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Fowlkes: Well, Danny, they really did it. Scott Coker and his crew pulled off a heavyweight tournament from start to finish, using only the original entrants, and this time they managed not to get sold while in progress.

Now that the Bellator heavyweight grand prix is over, let’s take a step back and look at the big picture. The tournament succeeded in generating some interest. It also succeeded in crowning Ryan Bader as its new heavyweight champion after he stopped aging MMA legend Fedor Emelianenko in the first minute. Now even Bellator has a champ-champ in its ranks.

So what did we learn from this tournament? Do you think Bellator got what it wanted out of it? And maybe most importantly, where do we go from here?

Downes: We’re too caught up in the “Where do we go from here?” question. It’s like when you get married and everyone starts asking, “When are you going to have kids?” Then you have one kid and before the newborn makes it out of the hospital everyone asks, “So when’s baby No. 2?”

There doesn’t always have to be a five-year plan. If I were a betting man, I’d say most promoters (like parents) are making it up as they go along.

Bellator had a short-term problem. It needed to create some buzz around the brand as it moved onto the Paramount network and signed a streaming deal with DAZN. Worrying about the grand prix post-mortem wasn’t exactly a luxury it could afford. In fact, I’ll bet Coker spent more time thinking about contingency plans for when the whole thing collapsed, the way you and I assumed it would.

As for what we learned, I don’t know if there are any big lessons to be learned. Nostalgia sells, but we already knew that. Emelianenko looks like a 42-year-old heavyweight with 44 career fights. He could still go out and have some fun fights on the Vitor Belfort “Legends Tour,” but he can’t compete at the highest level anymore. Last night’s fight with Bader cemented that conclusion, but 90 percent of the MMA community was already there.

As for Bader himself, I think he’s earned some more respect, but if you don’t think fans are already trashing his level of competition, then you don’t know MMA fans.

Perhaps I’m being too short-sighted, but I can’t glean any larger lessons from the last year of the heavyweight grand prix. It was fun, but nothing that changed my whole perspective. It’s like when I watch a Jason Statham movie. It’s a decent way to kill a couple of hours, but it doesn’t exactly stick with me weeks after I see it.

Am I missing something? Did you find the Bellator grand prix “groundbreaking” in some way?

Fowlkes: You know why we’re not sitting here talking about UFC 233 today? Because of the Bellator heavyweight grand prix. OK, it’s not the only reason, but it’s part of it. Faced with the prospect of going up against Bellator’s tournament final with only a mediocre card to sell on pay-per-view, the UFC opted to cancel – sorry, “postpone” – its event in the same region on the same night. So that’s something.

Also, Coker says he’ll give Bader a chance to actually stay a double champ and defend both belts, which is different from how this has been working in the UFC.

Matter of fact, the whole double champ process was different for Bader. He didn’t just jump up in weight and challenge for the belt as a one-off promotional gimmick. He worked his way through an entire tournament. You can criticize the level of competition all you want, but the fact is he fought who there was to fight – and he won.

We said before that tournaments like this were a great opportunity for Bellator to fill niches that the UFC was committed to staying away from. Didn’t that happen here? Isn’t this more or less the best outcome you could hope for if you’re Bellator? The tournament worked. It crowned a champ. We all watched. And the UFC even tucked tail and ran from it. If this isn’t a success, what would a success even look like?

Downes: Someone is using their “Jump to Conclusions” mat this morning. I never said it wasn’t a success. I agree it had the best possible outcome (a more competitive final would have been ideal, but that’s splitting hairs). All I’m saying is that it’s a blip on the radar.

We’ve talked about it before. The heavyweight grand prix has been a refreshing change from the usual UFC programming. At the same time, you’re fooling yourself if you think Bellator can hit repeat at every weight class and capture the same interest.

Remember the original Bellator concept? Bjorn Rebney called it the “toughest tournament in sports.” The whole organization was founded around the tournament format. I don’t recall you covering the Bellator beat too much back then.

The heavyweight grand prix had a mix of legends (Fedor), carnival (Chael Sonnen) and a champ-champ angle. Plus it had the mystique of the heavyweight division. That’s not easy to recreate.

The grand prix was a success, but it will be a short-term success. It does nothing for Bellator’s big picture, especially in its relation to the UFC. Bellator has our interest and some momentum. Now it has to do something with it.

If you’re so sure that last night was a game-changer, let’s see how willing you are to talk about Bellator on Feb. 10 or Feb. 17. Can you name either one of the main events? Yeah, that’s what I thought.

For complete coverage of Bellator 214, check out the MMA Events section of the site.

Ben Fowlkes is MMAjunkie and USA TODAY’s MMA columnist. Danny Downes, a retired UFC and WEC fighter, is an MMAjunkie contributor who has also written for and UFC 360. Follow them on twitter at @benfowlkesMMA and @dannyboydownes.

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