Bellator must take stable to next level

Entering its third year as a promoter of mixed martial arts, time has come for Bellator Fighting Championships to answer questions that were raised upon its arrival in 2009.

As telling as its solid financials and firm footing among promoters outside Zuffa's realm seem to be (Bellator should feel positive about both), an elusive and important piece of its promotional heft is missing: the ability to lift fighters from obscurity to a place where hardcore and casual fans will care.

Zuffa has this down. Suddenly everyone is interested in journeyman Lavar Johnson because he scored a knockout in his UFC debut, right? Other than having a great story in life, Johnson is not a fighter worth dwelling upon. But he steps into the Octagon, knocks out Joey Beltran, and the next thing you know he's fighting on FOX.

Bellator featherweight champion Pat Curran, by contrast, won in violent fashion Friday, just as he did last year with a beautiful knockout of world-ranked Marlon Sandro. Yet Curran cannot have the Lavar Johnson experience fighting for Bellator. (Forget for a moment the difference between fighting at 145 as opposed to heavyweight -- this comparison is about exposure for top-class fighters in Bellator.)

Had Bellator signed Johnson -- had Johnson finished Beltran on MTV2 -- no one would have batted an eye. Had Curran unloaded on Joe Warren in the UFC the way he did Friday night in Hammond, Ind., the 24- year-old featherweight would be regarded as a potential star and, at a minimum, a top contender for Jose Aldo.

For the Chicago-based Bellator to move to the next level in 2012, an attitude shift has to take place. Not inside the company, but among fans and media. The prevailing wisdom regarding Bellator champions cannot stand as does today. An "I can't wait for him to fight in the UFC" attitude makes it OK for people to skip Bellator events in favor of the middle-of-the-road talent via "The Ultimate Fighter" at the same time on FX.

Such is Bellator's reality, that even when it produces high-quality fighters they won't get the same shake as guys in the UFC. That, however, doesn't do anything to change the fact that there are world-class mixed martial artists under contract to Bellator. Not many, but they're there.

Regularly honoring the strength of a champion with a prepared and deserving challenger is difficult to pull off. Inherently vital ventures related to the health of a business often are, which is why Zuffa invested millions of dollars to purchase promoters and bolster its talent roster.

UFC needed fights. They got them.

Bellator needs fights. What will they do?

Bellator CEO Bjorn Rebney and his partners aren't positioned to pillage a rival (not that there's a show to be bought), so Bellator runs the risk of remaining second-tier for the long haul.

Heavyweight is a wasteland.

Rather than making a snide comment about 205 I'll just mention that the current belt holder is Christian M'Pumbu, who lost his last fight in a non-title affair to Travis Wiuff.

The middleweight king, Hector Lombard, lives alone on a challenger-less island and could be on his way to UFC if rumors are true.

Unbeaten Ben Askren is intriguing atop the welterweight division, but not for long unless legitimate opponents materialize. Douglas Lima earned a shot this April by winning last year's 170-pound tournament.

You into that?

Hope may exist at 155 pounds and below, though.

Lightweight Michael Chandler was a revelation last year and has several bouts worth looking forward to in the year ahead. A rematch against Eddie Alvarez (presuming he's still around) has potential to generate significant interest, at least among diehard MMA watchers.

Meanwhile, the unbeaten Chandler's non-title fight scheduled for May 4 against Akihiro Gono does not.

Featherweight offers potentially fertile ground for Bellator. Ranked No. 6 by ESPN.com, Curran (I have him fourth) is the highest-ranked Bellator fighter in our poll. He has a terrific bout lined up against Brazilian Patricio Freire (17-1) later this year. Difficult to sell, perhaps, but it's a fight that could show what Bellator's promotional chops are made of at this stage.

Lastly, underrated and developing bantamweight champion Zach Makovsky faces the toughest fight of his career against the kind of contender Bellator must continue to develop, 23-year-old Brazilian Eduardo Dantas. Good watching on deck in April if people dare.

Bellator executives don't need to resolve these matters by the end of the month. But soon they will.

Josh Gross covers MMA for ESPN.com. Follow him on Twitter at JoshGrossESPN.