Match Game

Nearly every MMA fighter, fan, and pundit has played the role of matchmaker. Before, after, and during every fight, message boards and social media outlets light up with opinions on who should fight who next. While it’s fun to play the role, very few—if any—of these keyboard warriors have an idea of just how difficult and involved the job is.

Match GameFormer Strikeforce matchmaker Rich Chou—now with Pro Elite 2.0—and Bellator CEO Bjorn Rebney have been involved in MMA for years, gaining an intimate knowledge of how large organizations determine their matchups.

While with Strikeforce, Chou set up a four-step matchmaking process that was based on excitement, financial logistics, ratings, and relevancy. First and foremost, Chou wanted two fighters who would put on an exciting fight that fans would look forward to seeing. Next, he wanted to know if those same fans would be willing to buy tickets to the event, and if they weren’t local, would the fight make for good TV, regardless of whether it were pay-per-view or broadcast television. Finally, would the winning fighter move up the ladder toward title contention?

Sometimes, this calculated process came together as planned, while other times, the recipe turned out to be a dud. A fight can excite fans locally, but that doesn’t always resonate on television. The goal for Chou was always the same—to nail all four scenariosand provide compelling, exciting match-ups.

Bellator handles its matchmaking duties differently because of the tournament format it utilizes. Rebney and talent relations director Sam Caplan choose nine fighters (eight main competitors and one alternate) from a pool of 100 to 150 potential participants, per each of seven different weight classes, for various eight-person tourneys. When the organization first started, they were in the position of having to pitch fighters to be involved in their tournaments. Now, with an MTV2 deal and impending
move to Spike TV in 2013, they are inundated with requests from fighters looking for their opportunity.

Match GameCaplan and his talent development team look over hours of fight footage. The team then narrows the field down to approximately 20 fighters. Once they are down to nine, they rank them in order—a process very similar to the most famous tournament in sports.

“You can compare it to how March Madness works for the NCAA basketball tournament,” Rebney says. Since day one, we have tried to be as objective about this as possible. It makes sense to have the number one seed fight number eight, two fights seven, and down the line we go. When you come into the tournament, the best fighter going in has earned the right to not have the most difficult fight coming out of the box. The good thing about the format is, it’s only three fights, and if you’re the best, you are more than likely going to make it to the finals. Sam and I try to stay away from a typical matchmaking standpoint and do not match these guys up because we personally believe it would be a great fight. Those fights will come to fruition at one point or another.”

During his time with Strikeforce, Chou made use of internal and external ranking systems. The internal system was relied upon to monitor fighters who were in contention for a shot at a championship. Title fights weren’t awarded based on popularity—they had to be earned. With external rankings, Chou says that they did look at outside influences, more so to see where certain fighters were ranked compared to their own rankings.

Rebney and his team take advantage of every conceivable piece of objective data they can find, which includes external rankings, along with data that his staff compiles. When viewing outside influences, they generally look at fighters ranked in the top 50. Rebney was eager to stress that there were times when some fighters weren’t ranked as high, but when they took a deeper look at their overall résumé, a determination was made to bring that fighter on board. One example Rebney gave was Brian Rogers, a talented and explosive athlete as a football player in college, who began dabbling in MMA to keep his competitive juices flowing. Rogers was thrown into the fire well before he was ready, but it was apparent that his ability was there.

Another source that Chou and Rebney both utilize is social media. Both men consider YouTube to be one of their best recruiting tools, because they have the ability to view footage of fighters from all over the world, whether it’s in the middle of Brazil or
the deepest regions of Siberia. Twitter and Facebook have allowed fans to send in links and information on fighters they normally would never have access to.

“I can’t stress enough how much influence fans’ opinion and feedback have on any organization,” Chou says. “It’s all about the fans. When we sit down, we are always looking to make the fans happy. The number one goal is to sign fights that will have the fans thinking to themselves, ‘Holy shit, that’s one hell of a fight on one hell of a card.’”

Rebney echoed Chou’s sentiments while discussing Bellator’s fan base, pointing out just how powerful social media is. Fighters and fans have an opportunity to interact, thus giving fans a real opportunity to have their voices heard. As matchmakers, Rebney and Chou are constantly looking at what the fans are saying about the fighters, the in-arena experience, and how the event came off on television. Arguably, fans are engaged in mixed martial arts more so than any other sport.

One problem that Bellator faces, which other organizations don’t have to worry about, is in keeping their champions busy while waiting for the tournament outcome. According to Rebney, it’s the one weak point that they’ve been confronted with. Booking their champions in non-title fights allows those fighters to remain active, but they also run the risk of losing—something that happened in 2011 when Travis Wiuff defeated Bellator Light Heavyweight Champion Christian M’Pumbu. In addition, Rebney has allowed many of his fighters, including Eddie Alvarez and Eduardo Dantas, to take bouts outside of Bellator. It’s a risky venture that can backfire—like in August, when Bellator Bantamweight Champion Dantas got knocked at Shooto Brazil 33 by Tyson Nam. Rebney is confident, though, that as Bellator transitions to Spike, they will hold more tournaments—eliminating the need for non-title affairs and bouts outside of their organization—that will allow their champions to defend their titles a minimum of two times per year.

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