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Trading Shots: After the latest round of the Bellator heavyweight grand prix, are we having fun yet?

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The latest phase of the Bellator heavyweight grand prix was a lot of fun, and things are still heating up. So what can we learn from the good times provided by a tournament that will likely mean very little to the division as a whole? MMAjunkie columnist Ben Fowlkes and retired UFC and WEC fighter Danny Downes discuss.

Fowlkes: Well here we are, Danny, four months into 2018 and the semifinals of the Bellator heavyweight grand prix are nearly filled out. I don’t know if it’s safe to admit this yet, but honestly? I’m having fun.

Some of that is just me doing the classic MMA fan thing and remembering best what I saw last. With Fedor Emelianenko knocking out Frank Mir in 48 seconds at Bellator 198, that’s some real glory days stuff right there. It was so exciting that it made me completely forget about that admittedly very forgettable fight between Chael Sonnen and Quinton Jackson in January.

But now we have Sonnen vs. Emelianenko in the semis, which feels like something out of an MMA video game. I know that any tournament featuring a bunch of dudes in their late 30s and early 40s could fall apart at any time, but so far the risk seems to be paying off for Bellator.

Why do you think that is, though? Is it that the tournament structure gives the illusion of meaning to what would otherwise be the same old Bellator senior tour stuff? Is it just a clever packaging for MMA nostalgia? Because we agree that the winner of this tournament won’t really be the best heavyweight in the world, right? He won’t even seriously be in the conversation. So why does this still seem like something we’re all actually into?

Downes: For the same reason the Super Nintendo Classic has sold more than 5 million units. Whether it’s “Zelda: A Link to the Past” or PRIDE 21, people look back on those times of their lives fondly. Especially when it comes to present-day MMA, it’s difficult for longtime fans to follow all that’s going on. Who matters? Is there still a UFC women’s flyweight champion?

When fighters like Emelianenko, Mir, Sonnen and “Rampage” walk out, most fans can go, “Oh, I remember that guy.” So what if it’s followed up by, “He’s still fighting?” Name recognition alone goes a long way.

One of the running gags on your podcast is to guess “which one of these fights is actually on the fight card?” The fact that Chad Dundas only gets the answer right about 10 percent of the time says a lot about the current state of fandom.

Not all the interest can be attributed to nostalgia, though. Another major benefit of a tournament structure is that you actually know what the winner will do next.

Take last night, for example. If it were a one-off fight between Mir and Emelianenko, people wouldn’t have been as interested. It would have been like Ken Shamrock vs. Royce Gracie at Bellator 148. We all tuned in to watch it, but then we kind of shrugged when it was all over.

With the tournament, we know Emelianenko will move on to fight Sonnen in the next round. Not only that, but we can fantasy book the rest of the tournament. Roy Nelson and Mirko Cro Cop are the alternate bout. We could see Cro Cop vs. Fedor again!

While all this is entertaining, I do wonder how sustainable it is. There will always be aging MMA fighters looking for paychecks, but legends and big personalities are in short supply. Fast-forward 10 years from now. Who would even qualify for a heavyweight grand prix if Bellator 2028 wanted to run the thing back? Maybe we should appreciate what’s going on all the more because there’s very little chance something like it could ever happen again.

Fowlkes: I might agree if it hadn’t basically happened already back in Strikeforce. This is classic Scott Coker. Only this time there’s less of a chance that the company will get sold out from under him before he can complete the tournament.

But I think you’re right that one thing people like about tournaments is the certainty of the progression. You win this fight, you face this other guy who won his fight. It removes a lot of the matchmaking guesswork, and it makes those wins seem more meaningful.

That’s something we don’t always get elsewhere in this sport. You can win all your fights in the UFC, but it doesn’t guarantee you a title shot. Victory is only the first step. After that comes the public lobbying.

As you may recall, this was the premise Bellator was founded on. It was all tournaments when it started, and that was a clear attempt to differentiate itself from the UFC. Remember that whole “where title shots are earned, not given” tagline that Bellator started with? The unstated addendum to that was “not like those other guys in the UFC.”

In the case of this particular tournament, the structure also gives Bellator just enough cover to get away with some delightfully weird matchmaking. Sonnen vs. Emelianenko? Hey, that’s not just some arbitrary mismatch spanning different weight classes. That’s just how the tournament played out.

Honestly, the only real downside is the long odds of keeping the original plan intact. Especially with an aging crop of fighters who are either heavyweights or close enough, a withdrawal or two seems inevitable. That Strikeforce tourney? It was alternate Daniel Cormier who won the whole thing.

If a reinvigorated Cro Cop (or whoever the alternate for the alternates might be) ends up winning this grand prix, will it harm your enjoyment of it? Or does the fact that this is essentially a tournament just for the hell of it make you feel like there’s nothing to delegitimize, so it’s all good no matter how it shakes out?

Downes: I don’t think it matters who wins the tournament. From Bellator’s point of view, some results might be more preferable than others. But I’m not sure fans would really care.

Like you said, the tournament may decide the heavyweight champion, but the vibe is definitely more of a “just for fun” kind. Any of the remaining fighters give an angle for people to spin it the way they see fit. Some produce more chaos than others, but that’s part of the appeal.

You keep talking about the plan falling apart, but you didn’t think it would make it this far. Even if something does go wrong, what’s the worst that could happen? Things get crazier? Oh boy, that sure would be a shame!

We’ve discussed this before, but a lot of this grand prix enthusiasm has to do with the fact that we use a different metric when we judge Bellator and the UFC. Personally, I don’t have a problem with the double standard, and not only because it allows me to enjoy the inevitable Sonnen “Rocky IV” training montage.

You don’t want everyone to offer the same thing. When Bellator was trying to be UFC Lite, it didn’t work. Now, there might be some long-term repercussions from an over-reliance on aging legends, but it appears to be paying off in the short term. I sure don’t remember people getting excited for Cheick Kongo vs. Vitaly Minakov.

For as much fun as nostalgia provides, it can also be dangerous. First of all, there’s the desire to go to the well too many times. Second, we have to be wary of aggrandizing the past. You may like going through your old PRIDE DVD collection, but it wasn’t all soccer kicks and fun entrances.

Lastly, too much nostalgia can make us unappreciative of the present. We may have our gripes with the current state of MMA, but there’s no doubt that we’re witnessing the highest level of competition we’ve ever seen. A trip down memory lane can be fun, just make sure you don’t stay there too long.

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 UFC.com and UFC 360. Follow them on twitter at @benfowlkesMMA and @dannyboydownes.



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