When it was announced at the beginning of the year that Quinton “Rampage” Jackson and “King” Mo Lawal would enter into an abbreviated, four-man light heavyweight tournament for Bellator’s 10th season, on opposite sides of the bracket, it was clear that there were hopes that the two would end up meeting in the finals. The two men were head-and-shoulders above the rest of the heap as far as star power and accomplishments go, as Jackson is a former UFC champion and Lawal a former Strikeforce champion. The in-cage scuffle at Mohegan Sun and subsequent press conference face-offs only added intrigue to the tournament final once both men dispatched their first round opponents and were set to collide in the finals.
Now, we all know how Bellator, and their tournament format works. You win a fight or two, earn a spot in the tournament, and if you make it through three (in this case two) opponents in quick succession, you earn a shot at the title. Lately however, there have been some inconsistencies when it comes to their tournament model.
Patricky ‘Pitbull’ spoke out against the promotion after he got skipped over after his featherweight tournament win, in favor of a rematch between then-former champion Pat Curran, and the man who beat him in a very close fight, Daniel Strauss. Another tournament winner, Will Brooks, was originally set to face Nate Jolly at Bellator 120, and was only given a title fight, albeit ‘interim’, after Eddie Alvarez was forced out of his championship fight with Michael Chandler a week out from the event.
The latest inconsistency to pop up isn’t being necessitated by the promotion itself, but by its tournament winner, who doesn’t seem interested in fighting for the title. Rampage and current Bellator light heavyweight champion Emanuel Newton share a coach, Antonio McKee. They’ve both worked with McKee and trained together in the past, and this has led Jackson to say that he’d rather not face off against someone with ties to his training partners. Speaking with MMAJunkie Radio this week, Bellator CEO Bjorn Rebney indicated that he will not force Jackson to take the title fight. This is the wrong move to make, for a number of reasons.
This isn’t a situation where someone has come along and strung together enough wins to warrant a title shot, and the idea of facing someone familiar popped up out of the blue. When Rampage and Mo both competed at Bellator 110, the title unification bout between Attilah Vegh and Emanuel Newton had already been booked, and both men knew what they would be lined up for should they win the tournament. The possibility became even more likely going into Bellator 120, after Newton had already become Bellator’s undisputed light heavyweight champion. Bellator has sold their product up until this point on the idea that you get to see fighters progress through the tournament and fight for the championship. The idea that there are other, potentially better options for a tournament winner in Bellator chips away at the credibility of their tournament format, more so even than making lopsided four-man tournaments.
Another reason they need to make the fight is because it is the perfect fight for Emanuel Newton. Rampage struggled with Mo for the entirety of their bout, and most folks thought Mo should have been given the decision. Emanuel Newton beat Lawal twice, the first time by a spinning back-fist knockout, and the second by a dominant decision.
If Bellator really wants its light heavyweight division to have value, especially after paying so much to add Rampage and Tito to the fold, then they need to book the matchups that will allow the truly superior fighter to shine. If Newton were to beat Rampage, then you have a champion who has defeated former UFC and Strikeforce champions. If Jackson wins, then you get your first former UFC champion holding a Bellator title.
By not forcing Rampage to face Newton, Bellator is trying to keep their most well-known and popular fighter content, and that’s not a bad thing. But what they can’t do is make that their sole focus, because those who do not learn from the past are doomed to repeat it. Bellator needs this fight, whether they know it or not, because they have a great mixed martial artist in Emanuel Newton, and a proven star in Rampage Jackson.
The fight game is difficult. That isn’t news to anyone. Sometimes you have to make difficult decisions, which include fighting a teammate or friend, especially after you’ve pretty much already agreed to do so by entering the tournament. What else is out there for Rampage? A fight with Tito Ortiz? It’s an option. But what does that say about your biggest star when they’d rather face off against a fighter who has won two of his last 10 fights than compete for your world title?