This Day in MMA History: Bellator’s first champion crowned

Take a step back into yesteryear as Bloody Elbow looks back on the first season of Bellator MMA.

By: Dayne Fox | 4 months ago
This Day in MMA History: Bellator’s first champion crowned
IMAGO / Diego Ribas

It has been a while since Bellator operated under their original format. For those of you who may not remember that format – or didn’t take interest in the sport until after the format changed — it started as an MMA organization where the only way to earn a title shot was to win a tournament. That isn’t unlike how the UFC began things, though there is one important difference: the tournament would take place over several months as opposed to one night. Regardless, the format had only so long of a shelf life as champions would infrequently be defending their titles. 

In the beginning, Bellator was committed enough to the format that it required a tournament win to become champion as well. Thus, beginning in the spring of 2009, Bellator ran what was its first season to crown their first four champions. The weight classes were for middleweight, welterweight, lightweight, and featherweight. On June 5, 2009, Bellator crowned their first champion. 

Establishing Bellator’s First Season 

The first season was largely full of unknowns with a few established quantities mixed into each bracket. Well, almost every bracket. Middleweight featured Pride FC veteran Hector Lombard, who was heavily favored to win that tournament after seeming to come into his own on the Australian scene after the dissolution of Pride. Welterweight was anchored by the inaugural UFC middleweight champion Dave Menne, though few would argue his best days were past. Lightweight was expected to culminate in a showdown between two of the top hot risers in the division at the time, Eddie Alvarez and Jorge Masvidal. Featherweight did have a favorite in Wilson Reis, but was considered more open than the other divisions.

For those familiar with the development of the lighter weight classes, it shouldn’t come as a surprise. MMA’s earliest days featured openweight fights, resulting in greater success for larger fighters. It also proved to be a dissuasion for smaller people to enter the sport. When the weight classes started to be developed, the larger classes featured the more established names due to their earlier success. Plus, the smaller weight classes weren’t as appreciated by American audiences. Thus, the most skilled of the smaller classes found themselves collecting larger paychecks in Asia.

It may not come across as a smaller weight class nowadays, but lightweight was certainly thought of in that manner in 2009. After all, it was the smallest weight class in the UFC at the time. Thus, while Alvarez and Masvidal were the favorites, they solidified their reputations as established talents in Japan. The Bellator tournament was an opportunity for them to work in their home country in front of a nationally televised audience. ESPN Deportes may not have been a huge channel, but how many other organizations were nationally televised at the time? 

The Results 

The known quantities produced as expected in the quarterfinals of each division. The action was solid too, more finishes being produced than decisions. The semifinals produced the first real upsets. Menne fell in rapidly violent fashion to Omar de la Cruz. Even more shocking was Masvidal’s loss to Toby Imada. It wasn’t just that Masvidal lost; it was the manner in which he did. Imada was well on his way to losing before managing to secure an inverted triangle choke on Masvidal in the third round. Several notable publications awarded him Submission of the Year. For most, that’s the only thing they remember Imada for. 

The first champion crowned was Joe Soto at Bellator 10, securing the featherweight crown when he submitted Yahir Reyes in the second round. It was a fight lacking drama, Soto grounding and pounding Reyes for the entirety of the contest before finding a RNC. Soto would lose the title to Joe Warren in his first defense, never to fight in Bellator again. He would go on to be one of just 11 people to fight for both a Bellator and UFC title during his UFC run. Reyes would only fight one more time before calling it a career. 

The next champion to be crowned would be Lyman Good a week later at Bellator 11, easily disposing of de la Cruz in less than two minutes of a takedown and GnP. Good would lose his title in his first title defense to Ben Askren. Unlike Soto, he’d make a couple of attempts to regain his gold, coming up short in the season 7 finals before moving onto the UFC. De la Cruz would only fight twice more before calling it good. 

The last champions of the season to be crowed were Hector Lombard and Eddie Alvarez, the first two pillars of the Bellator organization. Lombard would pillory Jared Hess, a former All-American wrestler who many believed would have an extended MMA career. Instead, Lombard brutalized him with elbows, inflicting several cuts before the doctor intervened and called the fight. Lombard would only defend his belt once – like I said, a lack of defenses – but remain undefeated in Bellator with four other non-title wins after claiming the crown before vacating for the UFC. 

The last champion crowned would be Alvarez, finishing Imada in the final. After a first round spent largely in the clinch, a big right hand early in the second round proved to be the beginning of the end for Imada, a RNC following shortly after. Alvarez was already well established within the MMA community before the tournament win, but was still an unknown quantity to mainstream fans. Thus, his moniker of being The Underground King. As most would know, he would go on to be the first to be champion in both Bellator and the UFC, the only other one to accomplish that being Cris Cyborg. That said, Alvarez was the first face of Bellator. 

The Ultimate Outcome 

Given Bellator is not only still around, but arguably the second best MMA organization in the world, it’s fair to say the first season was a success. Kid Nate said so himself at the time. The upsets in the tournament didn’t ultimately produce any stars, which would continue to be the case going forward. Ultimately, the tournament format would prove to be tough for Bellator to recruit bigger names as the organization itself became more established. The big free agent signings didn’t happen until after that format was ditched. 

Nevertheless, the tournaments did add some legitimacy to a fledgling organization that needed legitimacy in the beginning. It isn’t just that no one was simply handed a belt; no one was handed a title shot. Bellator’s mantra of “Where title shots are earned, not given” was a legitimate mantra. Perhaps future upstart organizations can take note. While tournaments have a limited ceiling, they tend to build an excellent foundation. Don’t just look at Bellator; take a look at the UFC.

Other fun Bellator Season 1 notes 

For the first season only, longtime UFC mainstay Jon Anik served as the play-by-play announcer, alongside color commentator Jason Chambers. Chambers largely faded out of the MMA scene, but has developed a successful podcast, which has featured several guests from the MMA world. 

Several other future UFC roster members would participate in the first season tournaments, including Henry Martinez, Wilson Reis, Estevan Payan, and Hector Urbina. 

Several future UFC roster members also partook in non-tournament fights for the first season, including Leslie Smith, Rosie Sexton, Jacob Volkmann, Anthony Lapsley, Daniel Pineda, Dave Herman, Jessica Penne, Joey Beltran, Justin Edwards, Willie Gates, Waylon Lowe, Jonathan Brookins, Daniel Sarafian, Johnny Eduardo, Jimmie Rivera, Chas Skelly, Nick Pace, Vagner Rocha, Jake Ellenberger, David Branch, Uriah Hall, Sergio Moraes, and Travis Browne. In other words, Bellator was proving to be a feeder organization at the time. 

Worth noting Bellator was in the women’s MMA business long before the UFC. Their first women’s fight came almost a good four years before the UFC’s did. 

Share this story

About the author
Dayne Fox
Dayne Fox

Dayne Fox is a contributing writer and analyst for Bloody Elbow. He has been writing about combat sports since 2013 and a member of Bloody Elbow since 2016. Dayne primarily contributes opinion pieces and event coverage. Dayne’s specialties are putting together the preview articles for all the UFC events and post-fight analysis. Outside of writing on combat sports, Dayne works in the purchasing department of a construction company, formerly working as an analyst. He is also a proud husband and father. In what spare time he can find, he enjoys strategy games and is a movie enthusiast. He is based in Utah.

More from the author

Bloody Elbow Podcast
Related Stories