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By: Rich Hansen, MMATorch Columnist, and Jamie Penick, MMATorch Editor-in-Chief
MMATorch Columnist Rich Hansen spoke with Bellator founder and CEO Bjorn Rebney last week for 40 minutes about a wide variety of subjects. Part of the transcript was featured earlier this week (CLICK HERE FOR PART ONE), and today we present the rest of the interview. In this part, Rebney discusses his relationship with Eddie Alvarez, Bellator's tournament structure, the strength of other divisions, and Bellator's new relationship with Viacom.
Rich Hansen: Each of your five seasons over three years has featured at least one outstanding fight; but in season five Eddie Alvarez and Michael Chandler had a fight that wound up on everybody's short list of "Fight of the Year" candidates, and a lot of people - including a lot people I respect - had it number one on their list. How proud are you of the fact that a Bellator fight is finally getting enough attention to wind up on most people's "Fight of the Year" lists?
Bjorn Rebney: I respectfully agree with them. I'd hazard a guess that I've been live to and seen more mixed martial arts fights than about 99.9% of the human beings on earth, going back to the days when I used to watch the UFC years and years ago before Spike network, and then watching everything that Spike did, along with a lot of events and a lot of different leagues around the world.
In my mind - and I've now seen the fight probably 25 times - It's the best fight I've ever seen. Just in terms of the quality. I've seen a lot of different fights, and I used to think the [Joachim Hansen]-Alvarez fight was one of the best fights I'd ever seen before that, but that was just a great fight. I'm more proud of Ed, and of Mike, than I am of the fact that it happened underneath our banner.
I'm incredibly fortunate, I was sitting literally six inches from the cage, I've got a headset on, I can hear what the announcers are saying, I've got a monitor in front of me, I never had a bad line of sight. The heart, and the focus, and the dedication, and the skill that you saw in that fight was just incredible. If you and I had sat down and tried to script that out for a movie about MMA, you really couldn't have scripted it better than it occurred, in terms of how it unfolded.
I count myself as lucky that I was sitting there, I love the fact that it was underneath our banner, and I expect that we'll see more fights like that out of Ed, we'll see more fights like that out of Mike. It was just an awesome, awesome night. What an electrifying fight.
RH: That fight was so well received that literally everybody who saw the fight, and even a lot of people who didn't see the fight, want to see a rematch, and they want to see it sooner rather than later. How do you justify not immediately giving the public, who pays everybody's salary, the fight that they want to see, especially considering that Bellator does still have a small percentage of the MMA market right now.
BR: What it really boils down to is what our format is, and it boils down to what makes us different from the UFC. Everything we do is objective, it's tournament based. If a fighter wants a shot at the world title, regardless if he's Ed Alvarez - who I've got great love for and who I think is just an awesome fighter and a magical human being - or whether he's Norman Paraisy, who very few people know of and who is going to fight Maiquel Falcao in the first round, it doesn't matter. You've got to win those fights in the tournament you've got to earn your shot at the title.
RH: But doesn't owning the title for three years qualify as earning a shot at it?
BR: Theoretically it would, but based on what we're all about - a place where title shots are earned, not given - it really can't make any difference or matter how much you've accomplished in the past. Where you come from, what accolades you've achieved, you've still got to win those three fights, you've still got to get it.
In other words, I was taken by the amazing climb out of what seemed like virtual obscurity that the Giants made, to on the last game of the season against the Cowboys squeak into the playoffs. Then ultimately win, and ultimately win a Super Bowl against a team that probably should have beaten them. That's an amazing feat, and they've been on an incredible run, but it doesn't mean that they get to go back to the Super Bowl next year, no matter how unbelievable it was. So it's a true sport format.
Look, I loved that fight, both of the guys I'm crazy about, it was an unbelievable fight. As a fan, you get excited and say to yourself 'I would love to see that rematch,' but as a CEO of a company built on a concept that's real sports with no guy in a shiny suit sitting behind a desk deciding who fights whom for what and when, based on ratings or what I think I can achieve from a pay-per-view perspective, it's just counter-intuitive to what we're about as a company. You've got to earn it. It doesn't matter what you come with.
RH: With full respect, Bjorn, this is where you lose me. Going back to your Giants-Patriots metaphor. After the Giants won the Super Bowl, the 2012 football season is going to happen. All of the teams, including the Giants, are going to play in the next season, as opposed to 31 of the teams playing in the next season for the right to play against the Giants for the next Super Bowl Champion. Would you consider changing the format slightly and killing two birds with one stone where you put even the tournament champions back into the next tournament? Because it would solve both what to do with the champions, and make tournaments that much more compelling.
BR: I think there's an amazingly compelling nature about the potential of the tournaments themselves. I hear exactly what you're saying... look, the reality of what you're saying is that there's merit to a lot of different ideas regarding the format. And boy, when I was creating it in southern California many, many years ago, sitting in my living room, I went through 1,001 different machinations, I talked to every one of my buddies, friends, business associates; I went through so many different conceptual structures in my head in terms of what I thought really would work. Not just short term to generate excitement, but long term as well.
This was really what it boiled down to in terms of the establishment of the champions, the road that I wanted to really create for people to have to get back to that title, the quickness of the turnaround so that you could give fighters an opportunity to earn something and become something in a very short, almost soundbyte kind of time period.
The idea that you're talking about, they're not wrong, and they're interesting takes on the model, but it's just that when we went through everything in terms of the creative behind it and how I thought it would best work for television, programming, for international, for development, for branding, for everything that we were trying to create, this was just what was purest, this is what put is in line with something that was as close as I thought we could get to real sports competition.
There was a road to get there for these Champions, and once they achieved it they did take a step up on the ladder; they did position themselves to where others could then compete to earn the right to face them. And it does have a different skin on that front than the NFL does, because everybody goes back in. It's just two different takes.
RH: Considering that less than one year ago, Loretta Hunt reported on SI.com that Eddie Alvarez had preliminary discussions with you about the possibility of buying stake in Bellator, and then in the last month rumors - for lack of a better word - have come out that Eddie is thinking about leaving after his contract expires in eight months or two fights - is that a possible downside to adhering so rigidly to this tournament structure that you believe in so much?
BR: I don't think so. I mean, look, Ed's been with us now almost four years. People forget because the notoriety, the crossover and the Q score of Bellator has only become prolific over the last year and a half or so. I mean, we've been talking about it for awhile and people have been writing about it for a while, and we're fairly hardcore from that perspective and we're aware of it. Ed's been with us a long, long time. Whether Ed was with us, or whether Ed was with the UFC, the terms of those contracts come to an end.
The CEO in me says 'I would love to retain Ed and I would love to keep Ed.' The guy who really likes Ed Alvarez, and is crazy about his wife Jamie and wants their kids to have everything they can have, wants Ed to have an opportunity to go into an open market and see what type of an evaluation he and his management team can achieve for him. Look, if I had my druthers I would pay Ed a million dollars a fight because I'm crazy about the guy.
RH: You and Tom Atencio would have the same pay structure then.
BR: (Laughs) Yeah. You are 100% right. Myself, my accountant, and a lot of other people would be getting around to drink together. Given the fact that we've got this magical partnership with Viacom, and they are a majority owner of the company, and we have this incredible relationship with Freemantle and we're moving to Spike, I have a duty to be as fiscally responsible as I can be while also producing an amazing product and great fights. Sometimes you get torn.
The reality is I talk to Ed regularly. I was just texting him today back and forth about the Aoki fight. He's just a really good dude, and a great human being, and I'd love him to make a ton of money. If Ed can do that with us, that would be great, because he's been an absolute seminal part of this organization's growth. But if Ed needs to go do that at the UFC, that's fine too.
Honestly I'm able to separate myself and say, it's like any team owner, it's like anyone who's heading up an organization. You look at it, there's a cost/benefit analysis of any relationship, to any player, and any athlete, and you have to do that analysis as the guy running the company.
I think the good news is Ed's going to have a tremendously large fight with us with Aoki. If he can win it, he repositions himself in very dramatic fashion for a big payday, and a big contract, whether that be with Bellator or with the UFC.
RH: Did Alvarez decline to be placed in the season six lightweight tournament for the Aoki fight? Or was he not offered a tournament slot?
BR: No, he was offered an opportunity in the tournament, and Ed, literally in talking to me as Ed's been doing for the last couple of years, just felt it wasn't the right opportunity for him right now. Ed realized it plainer than anybody. Nobody was talking about how difficult of a test Mike Chandler was going to be for Ed Alvarez; I knew it, Ed knew it, the people around both camps knew it.
Ed said to me, 'Win or lose, I still want the Aoki fight. I think I win the fight, I've been asking you for it for three and a half years, you've finally got it right on the cusp of getting done for me, I still want the fight.' So I said 'Dude, win or lose you've got the fight. It's an expensive fight, it's a big fight, but I will do it because you asked me for it three and a half years ago and you deserve it. I don't care if you take it as our Champion or as a guy who used to be our Champion. But I promised you I'd get it for you and I'm going to do everything I can to do it.'
That's the fight he wanted, and I totally get it. It's a cleaner and easier road. The fight might not be easier, but it's a much cleaner one-stop shop for Ed Alvarez to reestablish himself in a big way on the world stage. So god bless him, I hope he does really well in that fight.
RH: Is Aoki under a one-fight deal with you, or is this a multi-fight contract with Bellator?
BR: It's multi from a domestic perspective, but he can still fight overseas. His primary relationship is with DREAM in Japan and they do a great job with him and keep him very busy, so that's his primary focus. But from a U.S. perspective, win or lose here we've got more options to work with him in the domestic U.S.
RH: You have Bantamweight Champion Zach Makovsky, Featherweight Champion Joe Warren, Lightweight Champion Michael Chandler, Welterweight Champion Ben Askren, who are all top 10 talents who lead divisions that are extremely deep in talent, even if they're lacking a little name recognition. But you have one more top ten talent in Middleweight Champion Hector Lombard, and very close to top ten talent in Heavyweight Champion Cole Konrad, who are leading divisions that are thinner on talent right now when compared to those other divisions. What do you and [matchmaker] Sam Caplan have to do differently in order to find more competitive fights for Lombard and for Konrad?
BR: Well, I think Sam's done it for 185 lbs., and I think you'll see it coming up literally starting in week two. The difference in qualitative level in what we've got going on at 185 lbs. this season dwarfs what we've done in the past. The kind of dramatic change of qualitative level that you saw at 135 lbs. with us. 135 lbs. was fine but not particularly competitive, but then the last 135 lb. tournament you could have made a good faith argument that three or four guys deserved to be in the top ten... It's always great to see a guy like Dantas at 135 lbs. or Lima at 170 lbs., have them widely regarded as a top prospect at a given weight, then have them prove that they're not a prospect, everybody was right and they really are bad dudes. Sam's done that at 185 lbs. and I applaud him for it, because 185 is going to be crazy this season.
I don't think there's any question we have work to do at 205 lbs. and heavyweight. They are not our strongest divisions; we are putting a lot of effort into them. I think that heavyweight - but for a groin shot in the Santos-Prindle fight - was a wickedly entertaining tournament last time we did it. It was fun to watch, it was crazy fights, but it sure didn't compare from a qualitative perspective in terms of what we've got [in the other divisions]. The reality is we're still literally only three years old in terms of putting on events and doing it; it seems bigger, which is great, but there's still road to be covered, and we've got to cover it at 205 and 265.
RH: Konrad didn't fight once in 2011, after an active 2010. After he fights either Eric Prindle or Thiago Santos, presumably this summer, if there are no super fights he's going to have to wait for another tournament winner. And there isn't a heavyweight tournament for season six, which means he's going to have to wait until after season seven. What plans do you have just to give him enough fights to keep him active while he's in the prime of his career?
BR: That's a great question. Thankfully, what has happened is we've gotten the greenlight from our partners at MTV network to move up to five tournaments this season, then five or six tournaments in season seven, then six for sure when we premiere on Spike. So that will allow us to fuel that machine. And obviously as we just discussed, with heavyweight not being the strongest division to date, and there being slimmer pickings - you see it when you look at the UFC, really the only other organization that has a heavyweight division right now - there aren't as many great heavyweights as there are in other places.
So it's really incumbent upon me and the team to really get going and do superfights. As unattractive as that kind of is for me. I would prefer that every time a champion steps into the cage, to have that belt on the line. That's what we as fight fans are accustomed to seeing. In an optimal case, which we're going to be in very shortly, every time they step into the cage they will be defending the title.
RH: Was Christian M'Pumbu's super fight loss the nail in the coffin, in your eyes, of supporting super fights?
BR: It sure wasn't a positive. There's a magnitude and significance to a world title fight that dwarfs any other competition. There's an anomaly, and that's Ed Alvarez vs. Shinya Aoki is going to be a terrific, true to form, deserving of the title "Super Fight."
RH: And kudos to you for putting that together. On a personal standpoint, I love it.
BR: I appreciate it, thank you. Ed was initially asking for it, and looking at it as a fan, you go 'yeah, that'd be pretty cool.' But that [M'Pumbu fight] was a moment where we looked back and I said to myself, 'man, we've got to put a dynamic in place where, if Christian M'Pumbu's stepping into the cage, if Zach's stepping into the cage, make sure they're bringing their belt with them.'
Look, like I said when we first started talking, it's a marathon, not a sprint. We're not going to eliminate the need to keep guys busy vis-a-vis a fight like that right away, but I can promise you that by the time we get to ten months from now and we're at Spike, the need for those fights will be all but eliminated. There may be two or three of them more before we get to that point, and that's just the old agent in me, having represented athletes, going 'you can't sit a guy on the bench that long, you can't have a guy out of action; you've got to keep them busy one way or another, it's what they do for a living.'
There's been some fighters who have fought with us who have been incredibly busy, and then there have been the anomalies and a few fighters who haven't been as busy. That's my and Sam's job to make sure we're able to keep them as busy as possible. You look at Champions and you wan't to get them in the cage - you look at the UFC - Champions typically defend two to three times a year. Rarely if ever do you see a Champion defend four times, but it's typically two and/or three times. That's where we've got to get to, and we've got to get there in short order.
RH: Last couple of things and I'll let you go, you've been very generous with your time - you always have been, and we appreciate that - getting off the business part of it a little and personally: you sold the company you founded to Viacom. Even though it was clearly in the best interest of your company, how difficult was it personally for you to sell to Viacom?
BR: It was - and I don't mean to be flippant - it was one of the easiest decisions I've ever made. It's because, I look at Viacom and MTV networks and Spike like this: if you look at what Spike was able to create in terms of the general market crossover and the development of the UFC, as a renter, with no equity interest in that company at all, imagine what they will be able to do as an owner.
The key to success in this business is, what is your distribution platform? How do you reach people? How do you touch people with your content? How do you give people an opportunity to see your fighters? How do you create that connectivity to the super consumers that are MMA fans throughout the United States? That is incredibly important to the growth of an organization like this. It's an absolutely irreplaceable part of the business model that has an enormous amount of significance.
So, the most successful group in the history of mixed martial arts, ever, is Spike network. When I looked at what they were able to do just licensing content from the UFC, and understood the vision of where they intended to take this, where they wanted to bring this organization, how they wanted to do it, the cross pollination that was available for this organization across a huge platform that is the Viacom family, the alliances that they could help us put in play with the five year relationship with Freemantle to handle all of our international distribution, and the list goes on and on for the people they've helped create alliances with for Bellator that we've announced and will be announcing going into next year, it just doesn't get any better than that.
My mom, who's a very bright woman, used to say to me pretty often as I got older - most parents give advice and say 'always strive to be the best, always strive to be the smartest guy in the room' - my mom has always said to me, 'in business, strive to not be the smartest guy in the room. Strive to surround yourself with people who are incredibly talented in what they do, so that you can focus on what you do, and they can elevate the entirety of the game.'
What I've done, which is incredibly fortunate for Bellator and this company, is I've been able to put this alliance together with Viacom. Because they are, in their industry, the smartest guy in the room. It's where my focus was from the very first meeting I ever had with them. 'How do I get them invested, how do I get them aligned and partnered with the Bellator brand?' And I was able to do it, so it was a win, win, win.
RH: Final question, also a personal business question. What's the proudest moment so far of your Bellator career?
BR: My initial reaction is kind of a political answer, because I don't think we've had it yet. I feel like there's an awful lot of hard work that's gone into this. And an awful lot of focus and dedication. Some things have worked out quite well. I would never go so far as to say we were lucky because I don't think we were lucky.
I just think that we had the right structure in place with the right business model. Fortunately, I'm surrounded by a lot of people that understood a lot of pieces about this business and how it could and should work. I don't know that the proudest moment has really occurred yet. Obviously the alignment with Viacom and the consummation of that business partnership was a huge, huge moment in the history of Bellator. The announcement of the move to Spike. Those of us that are MMA fans perceive Spike as the home of televised MMA, so the announcement on the front page of USAToday's sports section saying "Bellator is moving to Spike in January 2013", that was a great, great moment that gave me a lot of pleasure. I think there's a lot of really good stuff to come, I don't think we're anywhere close to the plateau yet.
Rich caught up with Rebney again on Wednesday afternoon at the open workouts for Friday's Bellator season six debut in Hammond, Ind., and got a few added tidbits.
RH: Michael Chandler vs. Akihiro Gono on May 4. Talk about that fight. How did that come together?
BR: You know, looking for somebody who had a resume, somebody who had a name, somebody who also was willing to step in and fight Mike, you know. And Gono was available. We talked to the guys at DREAM about potentially using him in some different fights and it never came together. And this opportunity came up. We went to Mike and said, 'What do you think about Gono?' Mike was like, 'I'll fight Lombard for God's sake.' You know, he doesn't... it's that kind of thought process that goes through his head. So, we just worked on it and got together and finally got it signed and got everybody on board.
RH: Can Gono be competitive? He hasn't won a fight in two years to the day (March 7, 2012).
BR: Right. You know, it's a good question. You know, you give a guy like that with that kind of background with a Mousasi win and a Lombard win earlier in his career, and you say this is a big, big opportunity. If you can win this fight you re-establish yourself. Sometimes you see it with older fighters, guys who have been around the block, achieved greatness, gone back down. Sometimes it takes a huge test to get back into that area. He's not that old. I mean, he's not what you would consider to be kind of an MMA old-timer. He could re-establish himself.
This is a big fight for him. I don't know. I mean, to be honest with you, and I don't mean to be kind of full of hyperbole, I don't think there's a lot of guys at 155 in the world who could compete with Mike Chandler. We haven't seen him in a wickedly compromising position, other than the Marcin Held fight, in terms of being on the ground with a great, great jiu-jitsu player. But, I mean, he stood toe-to-toe with what I believe to be the best puncher in the world at 155 (Eddie Alvarez), and knocked him down four times and then submitted him. So there's no question about his striking. There's no question about his chin. Obviously no question about his wrestling.
RH: For Gono, are you going to make sure you have a long entrance ramp?
BR:(laughter) Huge long.
RH: What's Hector Lombard’s contract status?
BR: We're in active negotiation right now. We're negotiating to try and see if we can bring him back and if we can't come up with a deal before he has the right to go out into the marketplace, and we'll either choose to match or we won't.
RH: When is that?
RH: If he doesn't return, then would it be Shlemenko vs. the winner of this season's tournament to crown a new champion?
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