Bellator is short a middleweight champion after Brandon Halsey was “penalized” for missing weight prior to his first title defense against Kendall Grove. Yes, penalized is in quotes. That’s because it really isn’t a punishment for a man who will most likely get another title shot very soon.
Halsey established himself as undoubtedly the best middleweight on Bellator’s roster after he decimated long-reigning champion Alexander Shlemenko. Shlemenko had been an unbeatable fighter for years following a loss to Hector Lombard at Bellator 34 in 2010, but he fell on hard times when he met Tito Ortiz in 2014 in a fight where Shlemenko was significantly outsized by the longtime UFC veteran. Ortiz went on to dominate Shlemenko, who became the second man to lose to Ortiz in eight years. Just four months later, Shlemenko returned to 185 pounds and suffered an even quicker loss to Halsey.
The story here, however, isn’t about the loss of a dominant champion for Bellator. Instead, it’s about how Bellator should crown a new middleweight king. Bellator head Scott Coker and company probably don’t want to hear it — and they almost definitely won’t do it — but Bellator should take this opportunity to revisit the one thing that helped build the promotion into what it is today. Bellator should resurrect the tournament format.
The tournament was at Bellator’s core up until last year when the promotion ousted former president and tournament proponent Bjorn Rebney and inserted Coker. The company weaned itself off of the tournament format and reverted to the old-fashioned way of declaring a worthy challenger for a title where fighters had to win fights in impressive fashion and build their own starpower in order to capture the attention of fans and matchmakers.
However, let’s say that Bellator heeds this suggestion and capitalizes on a chance to go back to its roots in this special circumstance. What would this hypothetical middleweight tournament look like?
It wouldn’t be an eight-man tournament. Bellator has small divisions and a small amount of big-name fighters on its roster, so an eight-man tournament might as well be a divisional free-for-all for every middleweight on the Bellator roster. It would likely result in a watered-down bracket as well. So, instead, this will be a four-man tournament featuring only those fighters deserving of a shot at Bellator gold.
This — the tournament format — is your bread and butter, Bellator. Why not go for it? Here, we’ll even provide you with the participants and the match-ups:
Of course, the No. 1 seed in this tournament will be none other than Halsey. He is a talented fighter who smothers his opponents and has heavy hands. Halsey decimated Grove in their fight over the course of five rounds. He did seem to fade over time, but he still put up a very dominant performance and put Grove on his back repeatedly. Halsey is a perfect 9-0 and is definitely deserving of the top seed in the tournament.
The second seed would be the aforementioned Shlemenko. He did post two poor performances against Halsey and Ortiz, and he also added a failed drug test following a wild knockout of Melvin Manhoef, but Shlemenko should be the second seed. Bellator is really starved for strong contenders in the middleweight division, and there have not been any other fighters in the promotion’s history to display as much dominance at 185 pounds as Shlemenko. Whether or not that was caused by the usage of performance-enhancing drugs is unknown, and it admittedly makes his seeding — or even his inclusion in the tournament — a controversial move. There’s also the problem of his indefinite suspension for the failed drug test. Yet, Shlemenko is still the No. 2 middleweight on Bellator’s roster and his former champion status gives him a good edge over the final two fighters.
This is where things get interesting. There are three guys who can certainly qualify for the final two spots in a four-man middleweight championship tournament. These men are Ben Reiter, Tamdan McCrory and Brennan Ward.
Reiter would be the frontrunner for the No. 3 seed. He is certainly still a couple of fights away from the title and needs a true test before he’s granted a title shot. What better way to test him but to throw him in a tournament featuring the likes of Halsey and Shlemenko? Reiter is undefeated at 16-0-1 and has won his last two fights, both by unanimous decision, in the Bellator cage. The undefeated mark really pushes him over the edge here when it comes to securing the spot.
It was easy to deny the long dormant Tamdan McCrory much respect and pick against him in his last two fights for Bellator. However, he proved that he could overcome a lengthy hiatus and post head-turning results. First, he beat Ward by knockout in only 21 seconds to solidify a win in his first fight in five years. Then, he took just over a minute to submit Jason Butcher at Bellator 134. McCrory has been a fun fighter to watch in Bellator, and that certainly plays a factor in securing his spot in the bracket.
Ward is the other fighter up for consideration for the fourth slot, and he could slide into the bracket if Shlemenko’s suspension prevents the former champ from competing. Ward has been a great fighter in Bellator. He has only gone to a decision once in his career, and he snapped a two-fight losing streak with a win over Curtis Millender at Bellator 134.
Given the seedings, the tournament semifinals would pit Halsey against McCrory. Halsey has a strong wrestling background, and there aren’t many guys outside of the UFC who could give him a tough time. McCrory would need to land a strong shot or figure out how to submit Halsey, something Grove couldn’t do even with his significant size advantage. Halsey should take this pretty convincingly with takedowns and a grinding pace to win the unanimous decision.
The second semifinal fight would pair Shlemenko and Reiter, and it should be closer. Shlemenko is really a bloated welterweight. Reiter isn’t a small guy and could very easily bully Shlemenko over the course of three rounds on the ground. Shlemenko is going to land some hard shots that Reiter will have to inevitably walk through. The game plan to defeat Shlemenko is an obvious one: you need strong wrestling to bring him to the mat. Once grounded, Shlemenko isn’t dangerous. The Russian isn’t exactly a wizard of guard submissions. That sets up the upset in this fight. Reiter can grind Shlemenko over three rounds using the blueprint set forth by Ortiz and Halsey. Strong wrestling gives Reiter the win over the disgraced champ.
The predicted outcomes of the semifinals provide Bellator with wrestler against wrestler in the finals. Reiter and Halsey, a pair of undefeated fighters, battle for the title. This contest boils down to who can be more effective in landing the takedown and, in the case of a stalemate, who is going to gain the striking edge. It’s an impossible fight to pick, as both guys could equally lay claim to the title.
Reiter has to be able to go into deep waters in a five-round fight. He has never seen more than three rounds in his career, which would be something of note to watch in this hypothetical fight. Reiter keeps a great pace in his fights and has solid striking abilities. However, will it hold up over five rounds? And against Halsey?
Halsey is just as strong as Reiter, if not stronger. He has been to the championship rounds before, too. He has the edge in this hypothetical Bellator middleweight tournament, and he should be able to claim the victory by unanimous decision to reclaim the crown.