The Rise of Bellator

It started out as a small-time promotion on a Spanish-language cable network, but Bellator is quickly becoming a viable player in the MMA world, and all in a year’s time.

 

Sometimes in life, and even in the rough world of MMA, everything hinges on the skillful application of makeup. That, and the ability to bluff your way through a medical exam. If Joe Soto didn’t have people to help him do both, Bellator’s goal of crowning champions via a tournament format would have been shot before it ever got off the ground.

 

The story goes like this: A few days before the final fight to determine the first ever Bellator featherweight champ, Soto was wrestling with a teammate as part of his weight-cutting routine. With a few seconds left on the timer, an accidental elbow caught him flush on the eye and split his eyelid wide open. The pain and the blood were secondary concerns for Soto, who knew right away that the cut might be bad enough to require stitches.

 

With the fight just days away, stitches weren’t an option. Stitches would end his tournament run. Stitches would likely force Bellator to look for a very late replacement. Stitches would be bad news for everybody.

 

So Soto went to a friendly doctor and explained the situation. The doctor agreed to super glue the cut closed. It solved part of the problem. Now, instead of looking like a man with an open cut on his eyelid, Soto looked like a man who’d very recently had an open cut on his eyelid. This wouldn’t fly with the athletic commission’s doctor, and he knew it.

 

“I didn’t know what would happen,” says Soto. “It was a title fight, so I didn’t know if they’d have one of the guys I beat fight for the title or what. I was really nervous about it.”

 

When Soto and his trainers arrived in Ontario, California, for the event, they did what any reasonable men in the fight business would do. They went to a beauty parlor.

 

“They sent me to Macy’s to get makeup that would match my skin tone, and then we came back and they covered it up really well,” Soto says. “The doctor didn’t notice it at all, and I was able to fight. My boxing coach said, ‘If you get sneezed on, that thing is going to open up,’ and of course it did. That’s why I tried to finish really fast. I knew this thing was going to open right away, and I didn’t want it to stop me.”

 

Soto would go on to score a second-round submission victory over Yahir Reyes and was crowned as the first official champion in Bellator’s very short history. A few months earlier he’d been a nobody in the world of MMA. He had a decent 4-0 record, sure, but against a list of opponents that read like names out of the phone book to most fight fans.

 

Three fights and three months later, all that had changed. That’s the kind of thing that other fighters tend to take notice of.

 

An Idea That Sells Its elf

 

Bellator may have started out small-time,broadcasting to a Spanish-language audience with a lack of big-name draws, but what fighters saw in season one convinced many more to make the leap to the tournament-oriented promotion this time around.

 

“I like that you can just get it over with and fight,” says Brett Cooper, a welterweight who notched wins in the IFL and Affliction before signing on to compete in Bellator this year. “With other promotions, you’ve usually got like three or four months between fights. Here, you can just get it done. You enter the tournament and in three months you could be champion. Nothing’s guaranteed, but if you make it the whole tournament and you beat three quality guys, you’re up there. And that’s just in three months.”

 

Cooper is one of many new faces entering Bellator in 2010. With other additions like former UFC fighter Roger Huerta, Sengoku standout Dan Hornbuckle, and two-time Division I champion wrestler Ben Askren, the organization has suddenly become a bit of a hot spot for free agent fighters.

 

Bjorn Rebney, Bellator’s CEO and cofounder, credits the tournament format with doing most of the recruiting work for him.

 

“The cornerstone is the ability to control your own destiny,” Rebney says. “How many people without the necessary expertise in fight promotion or TV production had simply raised some capital and declared themselves MMA promoters. It’s not surprising, Rebney says, that before too long all the things they didn’t know started to catch up with them.

 

“I say this not to be flippant, but when I go to the dentist, what the dentist does looks remarkably simple at times. But I never go home and try to do it myself.”

 

FROM THE COMPUTER SCREEN TO THE TV SCREEN

 

The biggest change for Bellator in season two is undoubtedly in the realm of TV exposure. Though they started out airing to a Spanish-language audience on ESPN Deportes (with a supplemental English broadcast voiced by Jon Anikand Jason Chambers available on the Web), this year they have three separate TV deals. Between their two-hour weekly offering on Fox Sports Net, a late-night recap show on NBC, and broadcasts on Telemundo, Rebney estimates that Bellator will be available in more than 250 million homes this season.

 

That’s a major shift from where they were last year this time, when YouTube was the most effective tool they had to get their product in front of English-speaking MMA fans. Instead of lamenting that fact, the Bellator staff made viral video campaigns a centerpiece of their strategy, traveling with an additional video editor whose sole job was to get fight footage on the Web as soon as possible after events.

 

The strategy paid of when Toby Imada’s inverted triangle choke finish of Jorge Masvidal—named Submission of the Year in 2009 by just about everyone—became a YouTube sensation that has garnered more than 680,000 views to date.

 

“We recognized that the way to reach fans was to provide them free content across every conceivable viral platform,”says Rebney. “Our strategies going into last season were a very intentional attempt to use that. We knew we were going to have one of those moments—and it ended up being Toby Imada’s inverted triangle choke—and we had prepared in advance so that we’d be able to turn right around and allow fans to see it and pass it on for free within hours.”

 

But putting on 12 events in as many weeks has its challenges. For Bellator’s staff, there are no days off. When they’re not setting up for one event, they’re editing footage or planning for the next one.

 

The pace for the fighters is nearly as frantic, though perhaps surprisingly, they aren’t complaining.

 

“That’s the way I like it,” says welterweight Dan Hornbuckle. “I like having a fight every month to keep me in shape and keep that hunger and desire. You can’t always stay at the peak, but you have peaks and valleys. If you have six months between fights, that’s a low valley and it’s going to be a tough climb up.”

 

With a schedule like this, however, Rebney doesn’t kid himself. With a fight every month, it’s only a matter of time before an injury sidelines one or more of the tournament competitors. Rebney doesn’t like to talk about how lucky they were in this regard during the first season. “It’s like waking up on a beautiful morning and planning a game of golf,” he says. “You’re almost guaranteeing that it will rain by the time you hit the first tee.”

 

Still, despite the potential pitfalls and the lack of sleep, Rebney wouldn’t have it any other way. Bellator’s tournament structure isn’t just a gimmick to attract attention. It’s about providing a more democratic way for fighters to make a name for themselves. It’s about fairness. It’s about the purity of the competition. And, in a world where marketing angles too often trump actual talent, it’s about time.

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