Exclusive | Bjorn Rebney Interview Pt. 2: Bellator CEO Talks Viacom Deal and WCW, Says ‘Lombard Will Win the UFC Middleweight Title’
Bellator CEO Bjorn Rebney is not excited about Viacom’s purchase of a majority stake in Bellator — he’s ecstatic about it. Rebney responded with the zeal of a TV pitchman when I asked him what the future held for Bellator as it began its new relationship with Viacom and Spike. Bellator, it seems, is seeking to achieve the same success the UFC did when the company debuted The Ultimate Fighter on Spike in 2005.
“Viacom is the owner of Spike, who basically wrote the book on mixed martial arts. If it weren’t for Spike network, you and I wouldn’t be on the phone right now. The crossover of MMA into the general market, the fact that mixed martial arts is oftentimes on the cover of the Sports section of USA Today or mentioned on the ticker of ESPN, that’s due to Spike. And that’s due to the fact that Spike took a chance in ’05 with a brand new property and got vested in this sport and developed it.
“So the Viacom family, and Spike in particular, has better knowledge and understanding of the production, the marketing, the promotion, and the advertising of mixed martial arts than anyone in history. And the numbers speak to it, you know. Ratings don’t lie. What they were able to do with The Ultimate Fighter as a program … They knows the stakes, and they know them well. And Spike is the network where MMA fans live.
“You’ve got one of the three largest entertainment companies on the face of the Earth heavily vested in mixed martial arts, owning a substantial stake in the world’s second largest mixed martial arts company, and focusing their efforts, their energy, their creativity on building this organization into a worldwide brand. So it’s hard to even verbalize the impact that a partnership like that will have for a brand like ours.
“[Spike] gave birth to the sport and is responsible for its crossover into the general market. Viacom reaches 600 million consumers around the world. They control, run, orchestrate brands like MTV, MTV2, Spike network, Comedy Central, Nickelodeon, Paramount Pictures … brand after brand after brand that you and I and consumers across the globe are intimately familiar with. The potential is, really, unlimited.”
Being a student of history — or more accurately, a fan of pro wrestling — I was curious whether Rebney ever worried that Viacom’s purchase of a majority stake in Bellator would diminish his own power within the company. More specifically, I asked if AOL/Time Warner’s mishandling of World Championship Wrestling ever crossed his mind.
“No it didn’t. I do a lot of study of history, and history has a remarkable way of repeating itself. So I looked at the history and the track record of Viacom as it related to mixed martial arts.
“Look, if you and I were trying to improve our basketball game, it probably wouldn’t be a bad idea for you and I to go spend four or five months living with Michael Jordan. If we wanted to get really good at hockey, it would probably serve us well to go spend some time with Wayne Gretzky. Lance Armstrong if we wanted to learn how to ride bikes.
“If you want to build a brand into a prolific international powerhouse in the mixed martial arts space, there’s one place you go, and that would be Viacom and Spike. It’s just, their track record was so strong.
“I know the WCW story and I’m kind of a student of it as well in terms of what happened, its growth, the acquisition that Vince [McMahon] made, etc., but I think these are very different situations because of who Viacom and Spike are, what they’ve built, what they’ve done in this space and how vested they are in this company. From an ownership position, they’re not renters — they’re owners. It’s a really positive dynamic.”
With all this talk about Spike and The Ultimate Fighter, I wanted to know more about Bellator’s upcoming, as-of-yet-unnamed reality show. Would it be, for lack of a better word, a TUF knock off? What would differentiate it from TUF?
“It will have a lot of points of difference [compared to The Ultimate Fighter]. Our interest was not in duplicating what has been done previously. That’s why we went out and secured a partnership with Bertram van Munster, who’s done ‘The Amazing Race’ with such a high level of success for so many years. He’s literally the most accomplished producer in the history of reality programming.
“And one of the things that Bertram does very well is that his programs are very character-driven. He’s not one to put a bunch of folks in a house and see what kind of wacky antics ensue. He’s a different breed of producer and he’s had amazing success. At last count, nine Emmy awards for the reality programming that he’s done.
“And I think that we will have a very Bellator-centric spin on what we do from a reality perspective. Our tagline is one that really, legitimately holds water, you know? It is ‘Where title shots are earned, not given.’ And I think you’ll see a lot of that velocity come through in the reality show as well. You know, it’s an exciting time. It’s the next stage, from an evolutionary perspective, in terms of what we do on TV.”
No discussion of Bellator is complete without talking about the company’s tournament format. I asked Rebney what the pros and cons of the format were, and if he ever saw Bellator moving away from it.
“I don’t see us moving away from it. And I think the pros of the tournament format are that it’s real sports competition. It is the way that sports is supposed to work. Sports is about competition. Sports is about everyone having an equal chance to compete. And ultimately the determining factor on who becomes champion is who wins, and all the other factors become superfluous. How you look, how many people might pay $50 to see you, who you’re dating, whether you were on a reality show — all those become irrelevant.
“Inside the Bellator cage, the results are exactly like the results in Major League Baseball, in the National Football League, in soccer’s World Cup, in March Madness. You start out with a given group, and at the end of nothing other than competition, one man or one woman reigns supreme, is crowned tournament champion and earns the right to fight for a world title.
“I’ve always been a fan of real sports competition. I’ve always felt that, ever since I started watching boxing … it never sat right with me, and it always seemed that there was a monster disconnect, that there was a guy in a shiny suit sitting behind a desk deciding who fights who, for what, and when. It always seemed to me that that was disingenuous and theatrical in nature, the fact that somebody gets to make a decision as to who gets to fight for a world title.
“If somebody tried that in the NFL or NBA, they would be laughed out of the corporate offices in shackles. If Roger Goodell stood up and said, ‘You know, from a ratings perspective, Miami’s a big market for us, and New York’s a big market for us. So next year’s Superbowl is the Dolphins versus the Giants, ladies and gentlemen!’ He would be out of a job in the next 25 minutes.
“Yet in the fighting sports arena — in boxing and in the vast majority of MMA, other than Bellator — we as fans accept that. The origin of Bellator was to provide a seamless connection between real sports competition and the sport I love so much and think is the greatest sport in the world, mixed martial arts. And I think that’s what we’ve done.”
One of the drawbacks of the tournament format, in my mind, is that you’re setting up many of your best fighters to lose. Obviously, tournaments have only one winner, and everyone else gets losses on their record, which can set fighters back tremendously in the world of MMA. I asked Rebney what his response was to this consequence of the tournament format.
“So be it. Look at Pat Curran, who won our first lightweight tournament, went in against Eddie Alvarez, stood for five rounds against Eddie Alvarez, got an L, and was able to come off of that L, was able to come off of that loss and literally over a seven month period establish himself as one of the top 145 lbs. fighters on the face of the Earth.
“If you look back over the landscape of mixed martial arts, some of the older, classic names jump out at us, like Randy Couture. If you look at Randy’s record, you look at it and you say to yourself ‘Wow, that record looks like the record of an opponent.’ And yet it’s Randy’s. And the reason that record looks like an opponent’s record is because he fought some of the best in the world.
“If Mike Chandler loses a fight, he’s gonna lose a fight against one of the greatest 155 lbs. fighters on the face of the Earth. If Ben Askren’s undefeated record becomes blemished, it’s gonna be because somebody has finally figured out the amazing riddle that is Ben Askren. And they’re gonna beat him. And there’s no shame in that because it’s not gonna come vis-à-vis a fluke. It’s gonna come because somebody has established themselves as one of the best fighters in the world. If somebody beats Eduardo Dantas inside of our cage, he’s gonna beat one of the greatest 135 lbs. fighters that our sport has.
“So I think there’s a faux realization in fighting sports where you’ve gotta be built up and you’ve got to have this huge undefeated record. You don’t. You just need to — at the highest level of competition — do everything you can to win. So, that whole old school fight promotion mentality, where a guy’s got to be 18-0 to be taken seriously, is in my mind ridiculous. What it means is, in a rare instance it means that he’s amazing. And in most instances it means that he’s been put in against [tomato] cans.”
Fight promotions have tomato cans on one end of the spectrum and elite fighters on the other. I wanted to know who Rebney believed were the greatest fighters competing in Bellator right now.
“We have a lot of tremendous fighters. Some of our champions stick out to me as some of the biggest names in the organization. I think Eduardo Dantas is just an absolute phenom at 135 lbs. I would take him in a bet against any 135 pounder on Earth. I think Pat Curran is just absolutely spectacular, has been highlight knockout after highlight knockout after highlight knockout for us at featherweight. I think, honestly, if every 145 lbs. man on Earth started to fight, I think Jose Aldo and Pat Curran would be the last two guys standing.
“At 155, Mike Chandler; I think he’s just an absolute, unbelievably talented fighter across multiple fronts. I think last year, there’s no question in my mind, after watching everything that is MMA, I think he had the fight of the year with his submission victory to take the title from Eddie Alvarez. I think he’s just an absolute star, a terrific kid who’s doing all the right things in his career, standing up for the right things, saying the right things, representing our sport in a beautiful way.
“Askren, at 170 lbs. for us, is a complete phenom. Say what you will about his style — you can love or dislike his style — but you have to admit that from a grappler’s perspective, in terms of his ground control and his ground game, it’s something that you’re not gonna be able to see many times in the life cycle of a mixed martial artist. He’s just a spectacularly talented fighter on the ground.
“As a fan of MMA, I appreciate his style to no end, because he’s absolutely, completely dominant on the ground. And we rarely see that. We saw it early in the UFC, with Royce [Gracie] and some of the other Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu practitioners before anybody knew what they were doing. But to watch a guy like Askren be that dominant, it’s just shocking to me, when you’re talking about world-class, top-ten-level talent. I just think we’ve got a lot of really talented fighters.
“Obviously the addition of [Muhammed] ‘King Mo’ Lawal has been spectacular for the organization. We’ve got some wickedly talented 185ers. You know, the Maiquel Falcao vs. Alexander Shlemenko fight is a world title fight I cannot wait to see. The Pitbull brothers are just a highlight reel. They’re two brothers, and both of them are complete highlight reels. So I’m happy with a lot of the fighters we’re very fortunate to have under this banner.”
One of the biggest names to come out of Bellator has been Hector Lombard. I asked Rebney for his thoughts on losing Lombard to the UFC.
“One of the reasons that we have been successful where the vast majority of companies in this space, other than the UFC, have failed is because we make business decisions based on real data. We don’t make overtly emotional decisions. We make decisions based on real numbers. And the UFC model is one that’s based on pay-per-view. They have a pay-per-view business model. And Hector Lombard’s signing with the UFC is a signing that they will have to monetize via pay-per-view. Pay-per-view doesn’t play a role with Bellator right now; it may in the future. But we’re a free-to-air model, as we speak right now. And the model of Bellator is to put great fights on Spike network, as we progress to Spike and, for free, give you the best fights out there.
“I am extremely confident that Hector Lombard will win the UFC middleweight title. I am extremely confident that we, as fans, will see that fight on pay-per-view, because I was privy to the numbers and realize that it has to be monetized vis-à-vis pay-per-view. And Hector was great for this organization. I said for many years I thought he was the best middleweight on Earth. I think [UFC Middleweight Champion] Anderson Silva has rightfully had the title of best middleweight on Earth. And I think Hector will be able to prove, in relatively short order, that I was right in my assumption that he was the best middleweight on Earth when he was fighting here. I think he’ll be the best middleweight on Earth fighting there.
“And he was always a complete, stand-up, wonderful dude. I’ve got nothing but good things to say about Hector Lombard. He was the essence of class. He was a pleasure to work with. He’s a personal friend of mine. I hope he does incredibly well and makes a fortune over there, which I can tell you by having reviewed his contract, he will. So he deserves it. He’s a very, very good guy. And in the future, if our model becomes one of pay-per-view, maybe that circumstance would’ve been different. But for the time being, for where we are right now … I wish him nothing but the best.”
With all this talk about Bellator’s best fighters, I wanted to know what Rebney thought was the greatest match in Bellator history.
“There’ve been a lot of them I think. You’d be hard pressed to find one over the past couple of years that was more dramatic, more spectacular than Michael Chandler’s capturing the lightweight world title by submitting Eddie Alvarez in a spectacular back-and-forth battle. If you were scripting that fight, I don’t know that you could’ve scripted it better. I’ve been watching MMA fights for a long, long time, and I don’t know that I’ve ever seen a better back-and-forth battle. I mean, that was one of the better fights I’ve ever seen in the history of watching MMA, back to Japan, watching Rickson Gracie fight in front of 45,000 people in the Tokyo Dome. Very few fights stack up to that one.”
Bellator also features female fighters on its roster. I asked Rebney what advantage this gave Bellator over companies that don’t feature female contests.
“There are some incredibly talented female fighters in the world of mixed martial arts today. And we’re fortunate enough to have a lot of them fighting underneath our banner. You saw a great fight [last month] at 115 lbs. between the world’s #1 and the world’s #2, Megumi Fujii vs. Jessica Aguilar. There are incredibly talented ladies competing in mixed martial arts today, and I think they deserve a forum. I think they put on some great fights. And there sure is a fan base out there of people who are interested in watching those fights. So I just think that it makes sense to continue doing it. And we will continue to do it.”
Another approach Bellator takes is featuring its live events in small- and mid-tier markets, such as Lake Charles, La., and Hollywood, Fla. Living close to Lake Charles myself, I wanted to know what made this an enticing approach for Bellator.
“[We have] absolutely spectacular casino alliances, great alliances with the people at Pinnacle who run the Lake Charles L’Auberge casino, which is gorgeous, and the people at the Hard Rock down in Florida, who run the spectacular facility in Hollywood, and the people at Caesars Entertainment, we do events with them all over the country, and [the people] in Hammond, Indiana, and the like.
“We have casino alliances with people who understand fighting sports, how to promote it, how to market it, how to draw great crowds. [It’s about] just fostering those alliances. The more people you can touch with a live event, the more areas you can go to, the more you’re gonna be able to expand the reach of your brand. That’s something we’ve tried aggressively to do, with 25-30 fights per year. You’ve got an opportunity to touch a lot of people in a lot of different markets, and that’s something we’ve been working on.”
Finally, I wanted to get Rebney’s take on Jonathan Brookins, who fought at Bellator 1 and subsequently won TUF 12. Just what was the status of his contract, which Bellator and the UFC had been embroiled in litigation over?
“It’s an interesting legal question. We had Jonathan signed to an exclusive, long-term, worldwide promotional agreement. And then, to our great shock, he ended up showing up on TUF and ultimately winning the series. So that is a matter that is currently still in litigation, and we will see how it plays itself out. Jonathan had signed a long-term, multi-year promotional agreement with Bellator and then, you know … circumstances as they were, he ended up on The Ultimate Fighter. We’ll see how that all works itself out legally.”
The landscape of the mixed martial arts world, too, is still working itself out. And no matter how things turn out, one thing’s for certain, Bjorn Rebney is up to the challenge.