Mixed martial arts fans don’t like Bjorn Rebney. Let’s not finesse the issue. Of all the follicly challenged MMA promoters out there, the Bellator CEO is unarguably the least popular.
It wasn’t always that way, of course. When the California-based promotion first gained our attention back in 2009, fans were quick to throw their support behind the fledgling organization.
Rather than snatching up overpriced free agents and immediately trying to compete with the UFC, Rebney instead chose to invest in fighter potential and a novel tournament format.
Title shots were to be earned, not given, we were told. Regardless of whether one made Jon Fitch look like Diego Sanchez, the relatively simple act of winning ensured that one’s career would remain on an upward trajectory. Lateral moves had been banished by design.
Certainly, the tournament model had its limitations, but there was no reason why Bellator’s strict meritocratic philosophy couldn't evolve as time passed and circumstances changed.
As was the case with Strikeforce, fans were, for the most part, willing to come along for the ride and offer their support.
After all, the existence of strong alternatives to the UFC is good for the sport. It not only provides consumers with more options, but more importantly, it offers leverage and more employment opportunities for our fighters.
What changed, then? Perception has shifted so dramatically over the past two years that it would be tough to identify a solitary issue that turned the tide of public opinion.
A confluence of factors has led to Bellator’s current PR issues within the MMA community, arguably starting with Viacom’s purchase of a majority stake in the promotion in late 2011.
No longer perceived as “the little promotion that could,” the fans’ tolerance for any moral missteps appeared to dissipate rapidly. And rightly or wrongly, Bellator’s transgressions are considered Rebney’s transgressions, with the two now widely viewed as being almost interchangeable.
How much control the former litigator actually has over the promotion’s direction is unclear, but his passionate defense of its every action has led to the perception that the buck stops with him.
When Bellator appeared to be sabotaging the careers of Tyson Nam and Eddie Alvarez, it was Rebney who absorbed the full force of the MMA community’s backlash.
Whether he is solely responsible for these and other unpopular promotional tactics, the zeal with which he publicly assumes responsibility means that the criticism is justified. Rebney is telling us ad nauseam that he is in charge, so who are we to say otherwise?
Even in light of the PR disaster that was the Alvarez contract dispute, there was no real barrier to rehabilitating Bellator’s image, particularly when the former lightweight champion relented and re-signed with the promotion.
Unfortunately, Rebney continued to draw the ire of the fans with many of his decisions.
Despite being a wholly transparent attempt to sidestep the tournament format, the introduction of a championship rematch clause was, as a business decision, a sound idea. In order to grow, Bellator had to evolve.
However, Rebney’s anti-UFC rhetoric had largely focused on the arbitrariness of its matchmaking and the virtues of Bellator’s tournament format. Rather than concede that a certain amount of decisional whimsy is a good thing, he instead attempted to represent the decision to introduce the clause as being philosophically consistent.
Few things rile people more than hypocrisy. Not practicing what one dogmatically preaches is a fantastic way to hemorrhage even your most sympathetic supporters.
Then again, the championship rematch clause afforded us the opportunity to see the long-awaited rematch between Michael Chandler and Eddie Alvarez, so the pitchforks remained in storage temporarily.
Even when Muhammed “King Mo” Lawal was crowbarred into an interim light heavyweight title fight, despite the division’s champion, Attila Vegh, claiming to be healthy enough to compete, we gave Rebney the benefit of the doubt.
But the last straw was the decision to hand Pat Curran a thoroughly undeserved rematch with his recent conqueror Daniel Straus, despite the pair’s recent bout being as lopsided as any title fight in recent memory.
As a result, the season nine featherweight tournament champion, Patricio “Pitbull” Freire, is forced to wait for the shot that he, by the organization’s own matchmaking philosophy, had earned.
Even the most Bellator-friendly journalist would be pained to defend the persistent hypocrisy.
One wonders whether the promotion would be better off without Rebney at this point. He has so thoroughly discredited himself in the eyes of the fans that it would be inaccurate to describe him as merely polarizing.
On the other hand, the memory of the average sports fan tends to make goldfish look like they have photographic recall. The prevailing attitude of “what have you done for me lately?” means that fans are only too willing to forgive and forget so long as you give them a reason to.
Whether Rebney’s personality allows him to earn absolution in the future remains to be seen. Given our fickle nature, I’m not inclined to bet against him.