Bellator CEO Bjorn Rebney: MMA Trumps Boxing. “There’s Not Much Of A Comparison”

Bjorn RebneyLast year was a good year for promotions making their debut on the national stage. Strikeforce continued its growth from a regional player into a powerhouse, but if you are a hardcore fan of the sport, it was probably the little known Bellator promotion that grabbed your attention. Every show, broadcast first on the Spanish language ESPN Deportes and later shown with English commentary on Bellator’s website, seemed to have a collection of whiz bang, action packed fights.

One fight in particular stood out, a fight with the most amazing submission of the entire year. If you haven’t seen Toby Imada’s inverted triangle choke against Jorge Masvidal go here right now, don’t delay, and watch it. It’s the most amazing thing you’ll ever see, with Imada rising from the dead to lock on the submission. It was an incredible moment, but Bellator CEO Bjorn Rebney says the best is yet to come. He doesn’t expect the same quality show when Bellator returns this spring- he expects “a much better show.”

Rebney is quite confident about Bellator’s chances in an increasingly crowded MMA marketplace. And rightfully so. He’s seen many promotions come and go, citing Elite XC, BoDog, and the IFL as case studies of what not to do. In more than a decade promoting boxing, Rebney has learned the tricks of the trade, some the hard way. His first major foray, the “Sugar Ray Leonard Boxing” promotional company, ended up losing its ESPN2 deal to Top Rank and emersed in continous court battles with it’s top fighters Vassiliy Jirov, “Baby” Joe Mesi, and other promoters accusing them of pilfering talent. But it’s these lessons learned that Rebney says have prepared him to help bring MMA to a national audience.

“I learned a lot working in boxing, learning about the drivers of the business, the necessary aspects of the business. I learned about the synergy necessary to make a promotion profitable, things like guaranteed site fees from casinos and licensing deals with television partners like ESPN2. I was able to recruit sponsorships, which is no easy task for combat sports,” Rebney told in an exclusive interview. “I was able to overcome concerns from VP’s of marketing, alleviate their worries so they would embrace the fight game and become not just sponsors but part of a true brand alliance with us. I learned how to work with commissions and how delicate that can be, how to construct a fighter agreement and what fighters want and don’t want. How to make a deal where the fighter makes a ton of money and we make money as well. If you don’t know how to integrate all these drivers, all the facets of the fight game, you will fail.”

Rebney understands, just as executives at Zuffa (parent company to the UFC and the WEC) do, that the first building block to a successful promotion is the right television deal. It’s securing this deal that has delayed Bellator’s second season. Their last show was in June of 2009, marking an almost year long odyssey towards a battle plan that would work long term to build a viable company. When the dust settled on negotiations that included almost every network on your cable box, the promotion ended up with an amazing collection of network partners that will potentially push Bellator fights into every home in the country. When Season 2 begins on April 8th, twelve consecutive weeks of fighting will be broadcast live in prime time on Thursday nights on FOX Sports Net. The highlights will then air on NBC and in Spanish on Telemundo on Saturday nights.

“My vision for Bellator involved two factors. One, to reach as many people as humanly possible. With our television alliance including NBC, FoxSports Net, and Telemundo, I think we’ve done that,” Rebney said. “The TV deal we needed to to get done to move forward ended up taking more time then we’d anticipated…I knew we needed to have the television alliance first. We needed to be seen in as many homes as possible if we want to be here in two, four, or ten years from now. Two, I wanted the fighters, through our tournaments, to truly and honestly control their own destiny.”

For the second and third seasons, both to air in 2010, Bellator will continue to present fans with a unique product. While other fight shows are concentrating on single matchups, Bellator is taking MMA old school. Like in the early days of MMA, fans are treated to a tournament to crown a champion or a top contender. There is a key distinction-Bellator’s tournaments run over the course of three months instead of all on a single night (if YAMMA proved anything, it’s that one night tournaments are untenable in the modern marketplace). It’s this structure, and the unambiguous nature of how you succeed in the promotion, that Rebney believes allows the company to compete with the UFC and Strikeforce for top talent.

“I think it’s the format, the structure of the organization. We’ve taken the suit, the matchmaker in his shiny suit sitting behind his desk and eliminated him from the equation. In Bellator, you will never see a guy fight his heart out, bloody and covered in sweat, have to drop to his knees and beg me for a title shot,” Rebney said. “In Bellator you win three fights in a tournament and you are either the champion or the number one ranked challenger. And every time you fight you make more money. The top contenders at 45, 55, 70, and 85-each guy will walk away with six figures and a shot at the world title. It boils down to what fighters want. They like to fight, they like to make money, they want to be on TV, and they want a chance at a world title. And they want to be able to control it. Fighters want to control their own destiny.”

Like Gary Shaw and others around the country, Rebney is a boxing guy newly converted to MMA. There is an important distinction. As he name dropped Georges St. Pierre and Shinya Aoki, it was obvious that Rebney is a fan of mixed martial arts, not just a savvy business man looking for the next opportunity. But that doesn’t mean Rebney isn’t looking into his personal crystal ball at the future of both sports. And with MMA, he likes what he sees. Zuffa’s recent sale of ten percent of their company for an estimated $100-150 million is a sign Rebney recognizes as MMA’s ascendancy. “There’s a better chance I could grow a second head than a boxing company could show that kind of growth or have that valuation,” Rebney said. It’s more than the UFC’s rapid rise that Rebney sees as an indicator of MMA’s advantage over boxing. Boxing he says, attracts an older and poorer audience. MMA fans are relatively wealthy and college educated. “It’s a monster demographic. There’s not much of a comparison.”

Boxing fans have also been trained to view their sport differently than MMA fans. In boxing, fighters are expected to rack up tens of wins before they ever face a serious challenge. A boxer that is 20-5 is probably an also-ran. In MMA, a fighter with a similar record is a superstar. MMA fans are more comfortable with loss, allowing Rebney to let his fighters fly free, taking on even serious challengers, in the 10 months between Bellator shows.

“Fighters don’t want to sit on the sideline and collect dust. We were able to keep our fighters active,” Rebney said. “We worked with a promotion in Japan to get Eddie (Alvarez) a fight, a fight that almost gave me a heart attack watching it on HDNet… this promotion is based on our belief that the best should fight the best. There are risks and rewards. Conundrum is the perfect word for it. What if Eddie fights in a super fight and loses? It happens in MMA, that’s one of the magic things about the sport. In boxing there is this false sense that everyone needs to have a record of 22-0. In MMA, guys like Toby Imada have an upside down record but are hugely talented. MMA fans in general are not as concerned about a guy losing a tough fight.”

Going forward, Rebney said, keeping fighters active won’t be nearly as much of a struggle. “With 24 shows in the next ten months, it should be a lot easier for our fighters to stay busy, and stay busy on national television.” The second season will concentrate on crowning top contenders for Bellator’s current crop of champions: Joe Soto (featherweight); Eddie Alvarez (lightweight); Lyman Good (welterweight) and Hector Lombard (middleweight). Season three will crown champions in four new weight classes. All eight tournaments will feature some of the best up and coming fighters in the world.

“There’s an awful lot of good fighters out there. The sport was built up too quickly the last few years with Elite XC, BoDog, Affliction and all the rest. There were a lot of positions on television and a lot of fighters focusing on MMA full time. Those opportunities have been cut down substantially,” Rebney said. “There are plenty of good fighters looking to establish their names. I’m very excited to be sitting cageside to watch them.”