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· On The Spot ~ Bjorn Rebney

· Article author: .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Posted on 10/20 at 10:17 PM

This Thursday, October 21, Bellator Fighting Championships offers the penultimate event of its third season, live from the Liacouras Center in Philadelphia, Pa. The event is sure to produce some fireworks as Bellator Lightweight Champion Eddie Alvarez will face UFC-veteran Roger Huerta in a lightweight super fight. Co-headlining will be the Bellator welterweight championship bout between current champion, Lyman Good, and season three tournament winner Ben Askren.

MMA Spot’s Jesse Denis recently caught up with the man that has become the face of the promotion, Bellator CEO Bjorn Rebney. Denis spoke to Rebney about the promotion, got his opinion on the controversy concerning Bellator’s Fox Sports Net television deal, Eddie Alvarez versus Gilbert Melendez, and much more.


Jesse Denis: After season one, Bellator took some time off due to some contract issues with your TV provider. Did that help or hinder the company in putting together future seasons?
Bjorn Rebney: We took some time off to try and put together our new TV alliance. It took some time to get it settled, but we finally did, and kicked off season two. Yeah, I was really happy with season two. Our matchmaker, Sam Caplan, did a great job taking control of our talent signings during that time. He spent a lot of time getting everything together, signing the Joe Warren’s, Dan Hornbuckle’s, and Ben Askren’s of the world, along with many others.

Denis: Conversely, seasons two and three were basically run back-to-back. Which was better for Bellator, having time off between seasons or running them so close to one another?
Rebney: I think it was good. I think it kept the attraction going. Our partners at Fox and NBC wanted to move quickly to keep developing the brand and build ratings and audience share. That was really the thinking behind the quick transition between our second to third seasons.

Denis: You previously mentioned the signings of Joe Warren, Dan Hornbuckle, and Ben Askren. Bellator is specifically known for signing prospects and up-and-coming fighters, effectively setting yourselves apart from most organizations. While most promotions jump at the “UFC-veteran” tag, Bellator looks for new talent. Can you talk about this mindset a bit?
Rebney: Absolutely, that is something I hope sets us apart for years to come. We’ve been very aggressive in going out and finding guys like Mike Campbell, Ben Askren, Joe Warren, Dan Hornbuckle, Eddie Alvarez, Hector Lombard, Joe Soto, and a lot of different fighters who are world class guys. They deserve to be in the top 10, but are brand new in the U.S. market. Although they don’t have that history behind them, with UFC and Strikeforce, they’ve done spectacularly well.

Denis: Are there any unsigned prospects out there that you have your eyes on right now?
Rebney: Well, that’s a tough question to answer, you know? When you have signed someone and it’s finished, you can speak directly to it. You can talk about it, and take the Eric Larkens and the Chandlers of the world and promote the heck out of them—and talk about how happy you are to have signed them. But, when you’re in the midst of a negotiation, you don’t want to talk about it too much. It can hinder the negotiations. We are talking to a lot of guys right now, a lot of different fighters from around the world. It’s not appropriate for us (or for them) to talk about it, but we’re very fortunate. Guys like Larken, Chandler, and some of the other guys we’ve been signing during season three, for the upcoming seasons, are great, hugely talented guys. We anticipate that they’ll have the same kind of success as guys like Askren, Soto, Alvarez, and Lombard have had with this organization.

Denis: Speaking of fighters from around the world, I have to ask about bringing Megumi Fujii stateside. Do you feel that it is a major accomplishment, bringing arguably the greatest female mixed martial artist in history to the States for the first sustained period in her illustrious career?
Rebney: The only thing I would argue about in what you said is the “arguably” point. I think she is the greatest pound-for-pound fighter in female MMA. She’s awesome, absolutely spectacular. The fact that she was fighting in Japan, and the largest MMA market in the world, here in the US, didn’t get to see her, I thought, was a great disservice to MMA fans. I’m amazed by her. I’m amazed by her ability. I’m amazed by her personality. I’m amazed by her unbelievably soft-spoken demeanor, and the ferociousness that comes out inside the cage. She’s such a tactician, incredibly proficient. There’s no part of this game that she doesn’t understand beautifully. I’m thrilled that she’s here fighting for Bellator. She’s not only the best pound-for-pound woman in the sport, but the best in its history. I’m just thrilled to have her with us.

Denis: Let’s talk about the Alvarez-Melendez situation. Both men have gone on record saying that they want to fight one another. Scott Coker recently said the two of you have spoken about it, and had nothing but positive things to say. He did, however, say that an injury to Melendez’s hand is keeping the fight from happening. Is this fight possible, or is it another MMA pipe dream?
Rebney: It’s completely and utterly possible. It’s one of those things I’ve said many times. I like Scott, he’s a heck of a good promoter. He puts on great shows, puts a lot of butts in seats. But promoters are unfortunately guilty, on a regular basis, of talking sideways about issues. You always hear statements to the effects of, “there’s complications, issues that need to be resolved.” I’ve said many times, there are no issues with this fight. Eddie wants it. Gilbert wants it. I would make the fight. It can take place on any network Scott would want it to take place on, and any venue he would like it to happen in. If he wants to do it on Showtime, and wants it to happen in the HP Pavilion, those are both fine with me. I’m more than comfortable going on the record saying they’re fine with me.

Eddie has got a very tough fight on his hands coming up in the next few days against Roger Huerta, who is virtually fighting for his MMA life. Once that fight is over, if Eddie is victorious, I’m more than open to doing that fight. Anytime. Anywhere. The only thing holding that fight up is Scott’s willingness to make it.

I had heard from Scott, that Gilbert has a hand problem and was getting married. Hopefully his hand is healing. I’m a big Gilbert Melendez fan. A) I hope his hand healed because he’s a good guy, I love watching him fight. B) If that’s the only thing holding it up on Scott’s part, I would love to make the fight.

I would love to get in contact with Scott again. Hopefully if Eddie is victorious we can make that happen.

Denis: Aside from Alvarez-Melendez, are there any other fights you’d be interested in co-promoting with Strikeforce or anyone else?
Rebney: In a heartbeat! I’d love to see the winner of our welterweight tournament fight their welterweight champion (Nick Diaz). I’d love to see Hector Lombard fight their middleweight champion (Ronaldo “Jacare” Souza). I feel that our champions stack up extremely well against anybody in the world. As a fan of the sport, I have absolutely no problem putting our guys in against anybody out there.

Denis: You mentioned Hector Lombard just now. With his recent run of dominance, you have said you’re having issues finding opponents for him. I believe you said something like 15 fighters turned down a match with Hector. Can you expand on that a bit?
Rebney: Yes, we had tried very diligently to get Paulo Filho here to fight Hector. In typical fashion, Paulo wasn’t able to make it to the fight. We tried very diligently to find someone who would fight him. Even for his second fight this season, Filho was once again not able to make it. We had to try diligently again. There are no free agents in the world of MMA anxiously waiting to fight Hector. It’s been the most difficult spot for Sam Caplan to fill in our organization. Hector is such a dominant striker. He’s also a world class judo player, he competed in the Olympics.

Look, a couple of weeks ago I was talking to Ryan Thomas before he fought Jim Wallhead. He trains at American Top Team with Hector, and he says almost nobody wants to even spar with the guy, even some heavyweights. He’s such a monster that it doesn’t make the job of finding fights for him very simple. Alexander Shlemenko is a very tough guy with great striking and tremendous counter-punching. Hopefully that will be a great fight, but Hector Lombard is a force to be reckoned with at 185 pounds.

Denis: Bellator is holding a bantamweight tournament in its fourth season. Talk about that a bit. Being the only major stateside promotion to utilize all the weight classes from heavyweight down to bantamweight, do you feel it sets your product aside?
Rebney: Well, I’m kind of a purist when it comes to fight promotion. I’ve been around it for many years. When I look at it, I think to myself that if you’re going to be in the fight promotion business, it’s odd that you choose what divisions you want to promote.

Our bantamweight tournament, has the likes of Zack Makovsky who recently won a world title. Ed West is competing, and some of these other guys that are hugely talented fighters. The speed and athleticism, particularly on the ground, of some of these bantamweights is simply awe inspiring.

I don’t think you can represent the entirety of the sport without going from 135 pounds all the way up to heavyweight, and of course women’s MMA as well. We’ve filled in every gap. The only weight division we’re somewhat lacking is light heavyweight. At this point it’s just a matter of executing a few more signings to add depth, that way we can have a hugely compelling group of guys to compete in our tournament. You have to fill in every gap. It seems like a disconnect to me when I see organizations promoting only from lightweight up to heavyweight, or not featuring women. There are too many world class fighters out there not to promote all of them. We do so many shows that we have the wherewithal to keep all the different divisions deep.

Denis: Of all the divisions you have, do you have a personal favorite?
Rebney: In terms of a favorite division, I don’t know. Each class brings it’s own mystique and power. Hector Lombard is, I think, the greatest knockout artist in MMA today. At 155, Eddie Alvarez is, in my opinion, the best lightweight in the world today. I say that with all due respect to Kenny Florian, B.J. Penn, Shinya Aoki, Gilbert Melendez, and all the other top guys fighting at lightweight. I just think Eddie is the best in the world at that weight.

At welterweight we have two amazingly talented undefeated guys in Lyman Good and Ben Askren. Askren dominated Dan Hornbuckle when he was fighting at a top ten level. That was shocking to me, in that Ben didn’t lose even a single 10-second stretch of that fight. Featherweight was packed to the gills last season in terms of talent. Joe Warren’s comeback victory over Joe Soto was one of the most shocking five-minute clips I’ve seen in MMA. Honestly, I don’t know. Thankfully we’ve been put in the position where there is a lot of meat on the bone.

Denis: Well, one division where you certainly have a lot of meat on the bone is at welterweight. You have signed nearly every viable prospect at 170 pounds. Breakdown the division a bit, who do you see that fans should keep an eye on? What made this the division that you went after with such ferocity?
Rebney: Great question. We aggressively pursed them. We knew Lyman Good was a force to be reckoned with. While his ground game has yet to really be tested, it will be on Thursday night, and his stand-up is just unbelievable. Ben Askren has surpassed our wildest expectations. His stand-up hasn’t really been tested because he takes guys down with ease. He pursues the dominant wrestler role in MMA. He dominates on the ground, and his grappling is simply world class. His jiu-jitsu is growing in exponential leaps and bounds.

You’ve got guys like Chris Lozano, a power puncher. His dominance over Yoshiyuki Yoshida was surprising to me, given the level of competition the two had faced. He really has unlimited potential. The list goes on-and-on. We’ve been extremely lucky with some of the guys we’ve signed. I mean, Look at Hornbuckle. He was dominated by Askren, but he came back and he’s still fighting at a really high level. He’s a huge talent. Jim Wallhead, who just beat Ryan Thomas, looked great. His striking was so crisp, yet you’re talking about a guy who is predominantly known for his world class judo. We’re stacked at 170 pounds. There is not one easy fight in that entire division.

Denis: On the topic of signing prospects, we had mentioned that Bellator doesn’t actively pursue the “UFC/Strikeforce-veteran” tag. You have, however, signed a few of them. Are we to expect to see more of this? Or did you just feel guys like Roger Huerta and Ryan Thomas, that you have signed, fit the mold of what Bellator is trying to do?
Rebney: There’s no real strategy to it. As you mentioned, we go out of our way to sign tremendous world class athletes. We have not gone out of our way to try and sign superstars from other organizations. If there is a great fighter who just came to the end of his agreement with the UFC or Strikeforce, like Roger, we’ll sign him. I felt Ryan Thomas was cut too soon from the UFC. He’s a tremendously talented kid, a true consummate professional, great to work with. I thought to myself, “wow, there’s a guy with a lot of upside, who I don’t know that I would have released.”

Like I said, no real strategy. We’re just looking for the best that we can possibly sign.

Denis: Let’s talk about the Fox Sports Net (FSN) deal for a bit. There have been a lot of problems and complaints from the viewership side. Of course, I’m speaking to Bellator being run on tape delay, sometimes not even run at all, in favor of football, baseball, or other sports. Can you clear up the contract a bit for us? Will this be resolved, or is it even looked at as a problem?
Rebney: It is absolutely an issue. Definitely a problem and issue that myself, the president of my company (Tim Danaher), and the people who worked out our TV deal have been working diligently to resolve. We do recognize it to be a problem. We’re working very, very long hours to address it and fix it. We hope that when we’re in position to make announcements for seasons four, five, and beyond, people will see that we have addressed that issue.

Denis: On the topic of viewership, another aspect of Bellator that set it apart form the other major organizations was that the company chose to really embrace YouTube. Highlights from every event are uploaded to YouTube for people to see for free. It was a bold move, and it is what really made your first season get out there. Talk about what made you choose that route. It was the road less traveled, but it obviously paid dividends.
Rebney: Yes, our marketing department is headed by a woman named Huma Gruaz. She came to us with a very straightforward and well thought out strategy and said:
“You’re a new brand. You have a limited distribution deal in terms of your deal with ESPN Deportes. If you want the brand to get out there, do exactly what UFC and Strikeforce don’t do. Take the greatest moments you have on tape and feed it to consumers for free.

When an incredible moment like Toby Imada’s inverted triangle submission of Jorge Masvidal, or Yahir Reyes’ spinning backfist, occurs you can be in position immediately to get it out there so that everybody can see it. Even if they don’t have ESPN Deportes, they can see it and get a feel how big, how good, and how exciting the events at Bellator really are.”

It was a magical, powerful, and successful bit of advice. A lot of people were saying, “hold that content and sell it to people for 99 cents a view.” She fought for it and said, “You’re a brand new brand. You want people to embrace it. The best way is to give it to them for a free and let them see how good it is.” She was 100 percent right. That is why we embraced that philosophy and have stuck with it.

Denis: In the past, here have been some problems as far as fighter contracts have gone. Filho’s comments after seeing your contract comes to mind, Jorge Masvidal’s situation, and most recently Dave Herman. Can you expand on this a bit, or this just another case of “you can’t make everybody happy?”
Rebney: I think you have to look at the reality of that situation. When you’re dealing with hundreds upon hundreds of fighters, not everyone is going to be happy. Think about it this way, when you try to get 12 of your friends together for dinner, not everyone is going to be satisfied, no matter how good the place you go to is. It’s just the nature of the beast.

I think it’s a testament to what we’ve done, our philosophy, and our format that in over thirty-three live, nationally televised events in two years of business, we only have three fighters who may not have been completely happy with their relationship. Thankfully we were able to settle the situation with Dave Herman. He went on his way and I wish him the best. We released Masvidal, he’s still trying to get on track, in terms of getting some wins under his belt. Paulo Filho was never with the company, and never made it to the states for a series of fights that we have put on for him.

I think in the big scheme of things, in terms of issues with fighters, we are on the low end compared to most promotions.

Denis: Do you have any predictions for this week’s event?
Rebney: Oh boy, I think Eddie Alvarez is fighting as the best lightweight in the world. Roger has a very tough fight ahead of him. The best Roger Huerta vs. the best Eddie Alvarez makes for an amazingly entertaining fight. I’ve said many times, and I’m not one to hide my feelings, I think Eddie is the best lightweight in the sport. If I were betting on any lightweight on Earth, I would bet on Eddie Alvarez.

From a welterweight perspective, I have no idea. That is an incredibly difficult fight to pick. Lyman Good’s stand-up is at the elite level in terms of welterweights around the world. Ben Askren’s probably better on the ground than anyone we have in our welterweight division, and conceivably better on the ground than any welterweight in any division in any organization. It depends on where the fight goes. I would not want to bet the house on that one. It is a very tough fight to call.

Denis: Finally, who in the organization deserves a good word for all the work they’ve done to help move Bellator forward, besides yourself?
Rebney: There’s a whole bunch of people. Sam Caplan has done an amazing job at heading up our talent procurement, going out and finding amazing athletes, and working together with me and the company’s president to put together the best tournaments. Tim Danaher, the president of the company, has done an amazing job behind the scenes. A lot of people haven’t heard of him, but he’s a major positive force in this organization. Our production team does an incredible job, from the features they produce to the live event production, to the bumps, really every aspect of our programming. Our marketing department headed by Huma Gruaz have done a spectacular job. Our PR team does great work. There is an awful lot of people who do really good things for this company.

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