With the rise in popularity of mixed martial arts, several upstart organizations have set up shop over the past few years in the hopes of putting on exciting fi ghts and raking in piles of dollar bills. Instead, most of those promotions closed because their directors didn’t have adequate knowledge about the sport or the business savvy to secure corporate sponsorships and network deals (or a combination of both).
Though Bellator Fighting Championships is the latest project to enter the fi ght world, it has all the tools destined for success and, of particular interest, a television deal with ESPN Deportes.
“We recognized how we want to structure our company and where we felt the strongest potential television alliance existed, and watched with a microscope what was going on with the other leagues that were launching so quickly, many of whom didn’t really have the executives in place with the experience or expertise necessary to give this place an opportunity to succeed,” explains Bjorn Rebney, CEO of Bellator Fighting Championships. “We really paid attention to what people were doing on the best side of the equation, which is evidenced by the UFC, and the not so best side of the equation, which are the leagues that have come and gone.”
This isn’t Rebney’s fi rst venture into the fi ght world. A former sports agent, Rebney represented Oscar De La Hoya from 1993 to 1997. In 2001, he became the CEO and president of Sugar Ray Leonard Boxing and produced Sugar Ray Leonard Presents Friday Night Fights on ESPN 2 until 2004.
In 2005, Rebney, a longtime MMA fan, began crafting the concept for Bellator Fighting Championships. He brought in his future partner, Brad Epstein, who produced movies such as Dan in Real Life and About a Boy, and the two collaborated on the idea.
“We’re focusing real diligently on providing a product to fans and viewers, both hardcore viewers and viewers who are still on the fence about MMA. That is very exciting and very real,” he states. “It revolves around a tournament structure that leads to the Super Bowl. It revolves around the BCS and the college rankings system in [college] football, which puts great team and great team against each other until we have two left to do battle to determine who’s going to be crowned the best college football team in this country. So what we have done is we’ve taken that philosophy that works so well in every sport you think of. We’ve applied that easy-to-understand philosophy to fi ghting sports, and [that’s] what we’re doing with our shows.”
Four single-elimination tournaments will be contested at Featherweight, Lightweight, Welterweight, and Middleweight, primarily because there is more depth to those weight classes as opposed to say Light-heavyweight and Heavyweight (which, really, the UFC and Affl iction have an iron grip on). The winners of the fi rst round will receive $25,000, the semifi – nal winners will bag an extra $50,000, and the tournament champion will receive an additional check for $100,000 as well as the championship belt.
But that doesn’t mean there won’t be any Light-heavyweight or plus-size fi ghters on the program. Bellator (Latin for “warrior”) plans on showcasing feature bouts with young talents of all weight classes aside from just tournament bouts.
The fi ghts will be shot on Friday nights and broadcasted on ESPN Deportes approximately 18 hours later. Most venues haven’t been named yet, but Bellator plans to hold shows throughout the United States and holds the possibility of expanding into Europe and Mexico. Also, since the show will span over a 3-month period, it gives fi ghters the opportunity to heal up some nagging injuries.
“It provides us an opportunity to keep the fi ghts exciting and to do everything possible to minimize the number of guys who aren’t able to continue. Say, for example, a top guy wins his fi rst fi ght but gets cut. The local commission gives him a 6-week suspension. We needed and wanted the fl exibility to be able not to lose him to the tournament,” Rebney says. ”We didn’t want the second fi ght to be locked in 30 days later. We wanted to give them an opportunity to heal so he can come back and continue to fi ght at the next level at the next round of the tournament.”
With the program launching this April, Rebney needed some help putting things together. That’s where Matt Stansell, the company’s matchmaker, comes in.
Stansell is a former fi ghter with his last contest occurring in March 2006, when he came out of retirement to defeat Thomas Denny for the King of the Cage Welterweight title. Since then, he went back into retirement and, along with Jeff Clark, has been running NCFC Fight Management.
After Rebney spoke with several people within the industry about needing a bit of assistance, he was directed to Clark and Stansell. “He told us his plans and told us he was on an extremely tight schedule to get certain things accomplished, and we are fanatics about the industry. Jeff and I are workaholics when it comes to that because we love doing what we do. On a very tight schedule, we accomplished certain milestones he needed to accomplish within about 30 to 40 days,” Stansell explains. “He saw the effi ciency in which we worked, and he saw our experience of having a bird’s eye view of the industry. That’s they way we work, and that’s how our relationships came to be.”
While several of the management duo’s fi ghters signed to Bellator Fighting Championships, they haven’t been made public as of press time. Other fi ghters known to be tied to the organization include Diego Garijo, Lyman Good, Hector Lombard, Jorge Masvidal, Eddie Alvarez, and Wilson Reis.
Although several organizations, like Elite XC, Bodog, the International Fight League, and the World Fighting Alliance, tried to make a run to the top, all of them have been put to rest in the MMA Graveyard within 3 years. Bellator Fighting Championships is learning from its mistakes and taking a lead from The Ultimate Fighter.
“One of the huge disconnects that the leagues have had is they don’t have that continuity of programming,” Rebney says. “They don’t have that consistency of programming that draws people in and gives people the opportunity to watch each week as storylines develop and great fi ghts get made, and great fi ghts occur, and that is something we’re doing throughout our programming.”
If all goes well, a second season of Bellator Fighting Championships will ensue and feature new tournaments with the winner getting a title shot in said weight class.
Bellator isn’t necessarily trying to compete with the UFC, but rather is creating a successful organization that revolves around a tournament structure. That’s something Stansell can vibe to. “I have a huge passion for the sport and for all of those who have been involved in this sport from every level. We would like to see more opportunities for the fi ghters,” he says. “The UFC has done an awesome job of providing work for the fi ghters and the ability for fi ghters to make a living, and if there can be another UFCtype organization out there that can provide the fi ghters work, then that’s even better.”