CEO of Bellator Fighting Championships Bjorn Rebney is a guy that in my time with him seems to personify passion.
Say what you will about his company's no-frills, bottom-up approach, or his roots in boxing, because he's the guy in the back of the room who knows what he's doing in a sea of guys who think they do.
From Kurt Otto and Gareb Shamus' run with the IFL, to David Marshall, Douglas DeLuca, and Gary Shaw's run with EliteXC, people have been telling you they know what they're talking about for a number of years now, and those men all met equal levels of disaster.
However, to compare Bjorn, and Bellator Fighting Championships, to any of those men would be foolish, and if I've done my job, then when you finish the last word of this piece, that should go without saying.
I'll warn you in advance this is an incredibly long interview, as I found myself enthralled, and quickly lost track of time.
To his credit, he seemed to be in no rush to be rid of me, and what I had intended as a simple 30-minute-interview quickly grew to something closer to 90 minutes. To quote myself “Sometimes you've just got to write War and Peace.”
What you see below is a “small” portion of that conversation. I sincerely hope you enjoy it, because I did.
KF: Thanks for sitting down and doing this interview for us. Tell the people why you think your promotion will succeed in the long term, when so many in recent memory have failed?
BR: Sure, well look at the mistakes. You can learn an awful lot through success, you can learn an awful lot through failure.
Let's start with the IFL, the single most counterintuitive aspect of the marketing platform of the IFL was to take a concept in fighting sports, which is reliant on one-vs.-one and try and turn it into a team concept.
That was an amazing misnomer, now to say nothing of the myriad of mistakes and missteps that were taken, that was a very significant mistake.
In the time the IFL entered the space, it was a very exciting time for the sport. The UFC had just exploded into the eyes of the general market. There was an opportunity for someone to plant the flag.
The IFL failed because of the mistakes they made, not because the demand was lacking for a second mover in the space.
Then EliteXC moved into the space, and mistakes that EliteXC made were many.
The essence of fight promotion on it's most successful level is a combination of fighters who are at the very highest level coupled with compelling back stories that tell their true-life stories.
As Roone Arledge said “Say who they are, where they're from, and why they compete.” Look at the greatest fighters in the UFC: GSP, Anderson Silva, Randy in his prime, Chuck in his prime, etc.
They are world class, and to a man they could beat anyone at any given moment in the world, and they have a back story behind them.
So that, other than their exciting skill in the cage there's a reason to care. In our organization, Eddie Alvarez is a perfect example of that. Hector Lombard is also a good example of that for very different reasons, but they possess those qualities.
EliteXC followed a model that was reliant on generating television ratings, and trying to generate those ratings through someone who could never [be successful over the long term.] I have great respect for anyone who has the courage to step into that cage, but whether you like or don't like Kimbo Slice, there was no real argument [other than] he was not, and probably never will be amongst the top Heavyweights in the world...
KF: Don't tell that to Dana.
BR: (chuckles) Well, he is surely an attraction that will generate some numbers, but when over 80% of your revenues dependent just on PPV, you're in a no-win situation, and you can never bring everything full circle from an economic modeling, and business development perspective.
A similar thing, and I have great respect for Gina Carano as a fighter, but a similar aspect accrued in the Gina process, and that is that EliteXC placed their bread and butter on the plate of gaining television ratings, but who, when placed against the best fighters in the world, or in Kimbo's case, very mid-level talent [can't compete.]
Gina's case was very different. Gina's a pound-for-pound a much more talented fighter in MMA then I believe Kimbo is, nonetheless that is the marketing model that was bound to fail.
They were also models you could track because they were public entities. When you look at their sheets, you look at their 10-Ks, when you look at their Tear Sheets, you were able to see the over expenditure that accrued in those organizations in areas that weren't seminal to the development of the brand, and were extreme.
The reality is when your trying to develop a brand you should be flying coach, taking cabs not limos, paying less than $10,000 dollars a month for your office space not more than a 100[thousand], and you should be putting every conceivable dollar you have into the qualitative level of your fighters, the fights, and the production, because if the fights are great, and production is spectacular, and you can get viewers in the seats at your events, and viewers who are sitting at home on the couch an incredible experience, you can make the rest of it work.
If you start spending 100-plus thousand on rent, and you start trying to set up a social networking site vis-a-vis the Internet before you've developed a true fight promotion there's a disconnect there.
When I go to the dentist, everything he does when I'm in the chair looks remarkably simple, I never go home and try and do it myself...
So I believe there are missteps have been taken. Now look at a different model, look at Strikeforce.
Scott Coker has long history of putting on events in his market that make money, the shows are produced well; his signings have been quite smart.
That's a different model that comes from someone with a long history in the space, who transitioned into true MMA as it first started to become approved by commissions around the country.
If I'm not mistaken, Scott was the first promoter in California to actually promote a mixed-martial-arts event under the unified rules. That's a very different model. If your going to succeed in the space, you need to know it.
This is not a simple business, this is not a business because you're a movie producer, or a comic book salesman, or successful as a TV producer, that you're going to come into and make work.
KF: Speaking of Strikeforce, when you look at the way Showtime, CBS, Spike TV, Versus, etc. have influenced the qualitative aspects of other promotions to various degrees, do you feel that you'd fundamentally alter your concept if one of your broadcast partners asked moving forward.
BR: Not unless they drag me out of this office with a rope around my neck, kicking and screaming. The magic is I'm the CEO of the company, and I believe in this incredibly strongly.
I used to sit, and years ago with my dad (who was a fierce, fierce fight fan) and we used to sit years ago and watch boxing as a kid and we used to watch Ray “Boom Boom” Mancini and Tommy “The Hitman” Hearns.
And I used to watch guys fight, and I can remember as a kid watching guys fight, they'd fight and they'd get busted up and be bleeding, but before they thanked God or trainers, or his sponsors, or his training partners, they would always search out the promoter in the front row with a shiny suit and funny hair, and they'd beg for a title shot.
As a kid I remember asking my dad...why is he asking? Why does he have to ask? The Lakers don't have to ask, the Bulls didn't have to ask, the Dodgers and the Yankees don't have to ask.
Why does he have to ask for a shot at the title? Why isn't that something he can earn substantively and objectively. Why can't he just beat the rest of the fighters and get that shot?
I believe that to be a cornerstone of how all sports should work, and that's the way I believe the greatest sport in the world should work. I think that's the way it should be done.
So If I'm hit by a bus, or someone removes me from ownership, and control of my company, so it may change, but I believe in this as sure as I'm sitting here today.
The reason I was able to be the first promoter in the history of mixed-martial-arts to secure an exclusive alliance with any member of the ESPN family of networks, and go from the ESPN alliance to a distribution platform that includes a deal with Fox Sports Network for 24 shows, NBC, and Telemundo which collectively reach over 252 million homes per week.
It was because of this structure, because we did great numbers and people responded to it and it worked well from a television perspective, and it worked better from a true sport perspective in terms of objectivity, and the March Madness concept brought to MMA.
So sitting in front of you right now, I can't imagine defaulting to an old-school matchmaking approach.
Now we'll make super fights, but they won't be title defenses. Eddie Alvarez will fight against a terrific competitor. Because that fight wouldn't have earned the right to face Eddie Alvarez by competing through our tournament.
KF: Isn't that matchmaking though? I mean your going to match Eddie with a top fighter in a non-title situation. Correct?
BR: No, your absolutely right, the magic of MMA is so exciting is because it doesn't have that false wacko ceiling that boxing does. As a fan you don't look at a guy and say oh, look at that guy he's not 24-0 so I don't want to watch.
That's ridiculous, look and Hendo, look and Randy? If you looked at their records and they were Boxers, the way boxing has distorted records and allow guys to falsely construct a position in the space by, beating “opponents” and I stress the word opponents because it stays that way for 20-30 fights. If you look at Randy's record you'd say, Oh, I don't want to watch that.
And yet at the end of the day Hendo, surely is amongst the top 2-3 MWs in the world. And Randy, for being as old as I am, up until a couple of years ago was competing at the very highest levels of the game.
But they've faced the best. So sometimes you're going to lose, sometimes you're going to win, but MMA fans have a much more realistic sense of winning and losing.
When you face the best, you're going to win, sometimes you're going to lose. Just because you lose doesn't mean you're not a magnificent fighter.
So yeah, we'll do super fights, but if some of our guys lose in super fights, and they will, it doesn't mean they sacrifice their title.
They'll come back and defend their title. And maybe the next season they'll get an opportunity to fight in the challengers tournament to fight for the title again and earn that right, and a lot of money while doing it.
KF: At a recent Sengoku event, Jorge Santiago was defeated by a relatively unknown fighter named Mamed Khalidov. That was a non-title bout.
Now they're scheduled to fight for the title, in an extremely messy situation. Do you worry that the public outcry of a similar result would undermine your ability sell a title fight?
BR: You know what? I don't. When you look at Santiago and Khalidov, your looking at two world-class fighters. If I had a situation like that, I'd look forward to Khalidov going through the tournament to earn the right to get that rematch, and you'd know full well your champion would be chomping at the bit to get at that rematch.
This is a business where you've got to make, we as fans don't want to watch lopsided fights. We don't want to watch roll-over fights. We want to watch hyper-competitive match ups.
The matchmaking concept at its core, when it's the centerpiece of your business does not provide you a way to create compelling matchups at every turn, because you've got to build guys up until you get to a point where after a series of spectacular wins they have enough of a fan following to warrant a PPV buy.
In our scenario, our guys earn that right by beating the best of the best. It's a much different philosophy, and I'm not trying to be rosy-cheeked about it, but I choose to look at the glass half-full, as opposed to half empty in that scenario.
Those losses are going to accrue, nobody last year begrudged Eddie Alvarez his loss to Aoki, coming in. If Hector Lombard was to lose his Super-fight against a very talented fighter, I don't know if that does anything to remove Hector from being a top middleweight in the world.
It's not an issue that concerns me. I wear half the hat as a CEO, and half the hat as a fan. The fan hat typically wins.
KF: Not to beat this into the ground, but you compare the matchmaking model to boxing, however that style of negotiation is typically that of two different management teams coming together to negotiate with past prejudice and backroom politics getting in the way of big fights, Pacquiao-Mayweather as a perfect example.
However, isn't there something a lot different about a semi-independent person with few stakes in either fighter's career making those decisions from a simple talent evaluation prospective?
BR: Ken, I see it differently only because I sat behind that desk, for many, many years, in my professional career. It's not an objective party, it's an employee of the company making a unilateral decision to what benefits the promotion, based on exactly the most butts in seats and eyeballs on the tube.
It has nothing to do with wanting to book the best fights. It's about how to most effectively impact to the bottom line of the organization.
KF: But isn't 9-times-out-of-10 that the exact same thing?
BR: I really don't think it is. As sports fans, we need, in order to have confidence in the organization we're watching that the fighters we're seeing fighting for the world title have earned the right to get there.
I think the example that I use, that if the commissioner of the National Football League steps up after Super Bowl Sunday and says “You know this was great but the Giants are from New York, they have made a bunch of acquisitions this year. Miami seems to be on the cusp with there wildcat offense so lets have Miami vs. New York for next year's Super Bowl.”
A lot of people could argue, well maybe, but they didn't earn it! It's just counterintuitive, everything from World Cup Soccer to Baseball, works the exact same way. The reason they work that way is because as fans, and as players that's the way we know it should work.
That's the way sports should function, and I believe that as sure as I'm sitting here right now, the matchmaking concept is a misnomer in sports.
I think that it's theatrical, I think that sometimes it can be a great deal of fun. But I don't think it's true sports.
KF: Since your inception you've talked about the ESPN platform, and your “same time, same place, same network” formula. Now your moving to FSN, and your going to have to deal with regional affiliation and the possibility of being bumped for regional content.
Does this concern you, considering the fact it was such a core piece of your season 1 mission statement.
BR: That's a great question. We've been working really diligently with all 28 of the affiliates that make up the FSN family of networks, we've been working with them nationally. We have two people full time on the road right now working through it.
There is no doubt though Ken, that at some instance a Baltimore Orioles game is going to come on and we're going to get bumped back two hours. There's no question that the Lakers or the Kings are going to play on FSN West, and we're going to get bumped back a couple of hours.
It will happen, the counter-side to that is that with FSN National and all the different affiliates ensure that happens as seldom as possible, the half full is that we get to come in after these are hugely important local market sports team, fans are watching so if the Lakers are on and our show gets bumped back an hour and a half, we're coming off the tail end of the Lakers.
The bumps are going to happen for the programming that are going to do huge numbers for the network, and their going to feed like crazy, and promo like crazy, and tell you to stay tuned like crazy. To keep those fans tuned in for what's to come. So it will happen, I think it'll work out fine. I'm very excited to see our overnights from 2-3 shows in.
I'm also excited to see if we can continue to lead the time slot with our late-night show on NBC. Strikeforce had great luck with it in late night. Probably because a lot of guys are coming home from bars, and turning it on to watch a great highlight show.
We're excited about what our Telemundo spot is going to do as well, we have good traction with the Spanish speaking audience.
So we'll continue to try and minimize the down, and maximize the up.
KF: Fighter pay disclosure is a hot button topic in the world of MMA. Athletic commission's report incomplete fighter pay currently, confusing a lot of fans as to what these fighters really make and deserve. Do you feel that fighter pay should be disclosed?
BR: Yeah, absolutely. I think it's a very nice, competitive advantage that we have. I've been very comfortable with fighter pay being disclosed. I've been very open about what fighters make, the 145, 155, 170, 185 the winners will walk away with $100,000 for three months work.
So at Bellator, we front end load our agreements, so when he or she is in the tournament they have the opportunity to make a great deal of money, very quickly.
While the typical model which is 3 and 3, or 6 and 6, or 8 and 8, you slowly but surely work your way up, and if you lose you get potentially cut.
Ours is different, it's an upside down model which means fighters can make a lot of money very quickly with us. It's very attractive, we've been able to get a lot of great fighters on board based on their belief in themselves to compete, and earn that money.
So I'm very comfortable with it. I'm very comfortable with looking at what Joe Soto made last year in our tournament, comparing it to the top 145-pound fighters across the world. I'm very comfortable comparing and contrasting what Eddie Alvarez made, or what Hector Lombard made.
In another organization if you lose, you can get cut, or get another shot against a tough opponent. In our organization it's not a different scenario, but it is a scenario where you can make a great deal of money, very quickly.
If I bought a ticket at 7-11 tomorrow, and I won the lottery, if I were given the option to take slightly less money now or more in installments over 25 years, I'd take it now, thank you.
KF: Recently, there was an editorial blog done by the New York Times entitled “The Disturbing Rise of Ultimate Fighting." In it all promoters are likened to criminals, and all of the money earned is christened “blood money.”
It quotes a number of incomplete or downright misinformed entities, but the last line is particularly scathing “If there is a “wardrobe malfunction,” and a usually covered body part is briefly shown, the government reacts swiftly and punitively. If a young man bashes another young man’s face into a bloody pulp, well, that’s entertainment. “
My question is Bjorn, is the sport ever going to lose the terms “Human Cockfighting” and “Ultimate Fighting?” Can the sport ever be treated as such or will we always fit into a well defined niche of the truly vile and wicked?
BR: I'm a different sort of cat on this one. I honestly believe this is the greatest sport in the world. I think the maturation of the sport, I mean the growth curve has been so astronomically high over the last four years since the UFC launched on Spike in April of 05, the level of competition has been so spectacular.
The maturation of what it truly means to be a mixed-martial-artist is so dramatic. In this game the level of respect that exists between fighters, and amongst fighters is so dramatic compared to almost every other sport out there.
I just think that the people taking shots at this game, at this level right now are coming from a position of fear...you listen to people like Bob Arum...sometimes you can smell fear, sometimes you can see fear, and other times you can hear it.
When you listen to those statements, you can hear the fear in the statements. The fear steams from the fact this is the greatest sport in the world.
It is the fastest growing sport in the country. It does dwarf boxing in terms of overall PPV rates. It crushes boxing in cable ratings. It puts more butts in seats on a weekly basis then any of the other fighting sports.
When you talk to the people who are apart of the game, when you talk to the fighters, or the management teams who are promoting the sport, or the sponsorship teams who are driving them to reach what are considered to be the super fans, super-consumers the 18-40 year old males socioeconomically impressed, high-income consumers of the product. Everyone around it is very comfortable with it.
Then when you go one step deeper, beyond the stupidly of statements like that. You look at the actual substantive safety reports, the actual reports as to which sports are same, and which sports are dangerous, and what constitutes danger, and what constitutes safety.
You find that MMA is dramatically safer than boxing. You find that according to many studies it's safer than College Baseball.
KF: It's safer than most non-contact sports.
BR: Yeah. Exactly. These statements come from a place of ignorance, you're not talking about statements that come from a place of objectivity. They're not coming for a place of empirical knowledge, your talking about statements that come from a position that come from a position of fear of ignorance.
Those are statements I don't take particularly seriously. If someone comes to me and wants to argue the pros and cons of GSP vs. [Anderson] Silva, I'll argue those all day long. And there's a lot of pros and a lot of cons, and a lot of point/counterpoint you can make.
When someone starts making comments from a public perspective about this sport, and all of the negative perceptions they have about it, to a man, and to a statement their typically based on ignorance/lack of knowledge, and fear.
So I don't spend time getting involved with them, because they're not substantive.
KF: Do you fear that by not spending time with them that we're hemming ourselves in, thus stopping MMA's forward momentum?
Do you liken MMA's growth curve more towards the current baseball model as an isolated demographic heavy sport, or is this the 50s and 60s era of football?
BR: I think the positive thing I can look at from a positive growth perspective in our game right now, is that my nephews, who range from 12-18 years old, are huge fans of this sport, and none of them fight.
My step-son, who's 14-years-old, buys the Affliction t-shirts, knows exactly what GSP is doing, and where he's going next.
Is a huge fan of Eddie Alvarez and has all of his shirts, thinks Hector Lombard can beat Hendo, knows the players goes to the fights, got videos on his phone. Would know Fedor if he were walking down the street, etc. etc.
That's a young demographic who isn't yet making their own substantive decisions in terms of buying power, so if you've got them captured, with his friends...who don't fight, don't train, don't roll, don't box.
[If they know] who the players are, that speaks volumes to where this sport is going to go, because those are the people you have to capture the hearts and minds of if your going to have a future, and your going to continue to develop great ratings, and PPV buy rates, put butts in seats, and sell merch.
So if they only people who were paying attention were guys like you and me I'd be concerned. But when my kid comes back from school and says this show was excellent and all of the kids at school were giving me crap about it for reasons X,Y, and Z.
That tells me we're saturating that demographic, that we A) need right now for sales. But B) that we have what we need for a consumer base to continue to grow this sport, to the next level.
I don't have any concerns right now and I think it's on a great trajectory.
KF: How high do you think MMA can make it, in the ladder of American Sports content?
I've been around top athletic leagues, and top combat leagues, and organizations for many, many, many years. And I think MMA has a very legitimate chance to take over a No. 4 slot, potentially being competitive in a No. 3 slot in the country, in terms of major, major sports.
I think you're going to see a proliferation of Mixed-Martial-Arts on network television. I think you'll see a continuation of the ability to pack houses all over the world. I think barriers are going to fall in New York state. I think the growth curve is tremendous.
I said this a week and a half ago to some people. When you look at what MMA is going to mature into over the next 5-10 years your going to be closely analogous to the way black-and-white film watching Jerry West compared to watching Kobe today.
I think the sport as a whole is going to continue to expand at a rate that's going to be really shocking to people. The crossover has already accrued but the crossover to determine your success hasn't happened yet.
When I talk to people you have to boil it down to its most simplistic elements, here you have a sport that is wildly exciting, tremendously visceral in nature, HUGELY competitive, very easy to watch, and if you've never watched it you can be excited by it and track it.
If you've watched it a thousand times by seeing something you didn't expect, watching a move executed in a way that is so masterful, and at the very top of the game.
So it has of these factors, I sit down with my wife and try to watch Football, no matter how many times I try and explain, American Football, to my wife, she still doesn't get get it, “Why are they doing that, why is this guy moving, what is that penalty, why do they go backwards.” There's a thousand questions, it's like me watching Cricket.
In MMA, she sits down and watches an event that doesn't require her knowing an omaplata from a baked good. It's something that is visceral and easy to watch for me who's been watching it for years, I see moves coming and it's still wildly exciting for me to watch it, 9-out-of-10 weather it's a dark show or televised show, it's hugely exciting, and it's fun to watch.
How often do 9-out-of-10 Boxing matches equal up to that? Your lucky if 1 out-of-10 does. That's what makes MMA different, that's what makes MMA fun to watch, and it's the essence of what will carry this sport into the next decade.
KF: Ok Bjorn, thanks for sitting down with us today. I look forward to talking to you again in the future.
BR: Awesome Ken, I appreciate it.
I recommend that you check out Bellator Season 2, which airs on Fox Sports Net starting on April 8 running thru June. Consult local listings for exact times, and channels. Highlight packages will be condensed for NBC graveyard viewing, and similar action-packed shows will be shown on Telemundo, for the bi-lingual readers.