Many mixed martial arts organizations that have tried to compete with UFC have come and gone. But Bellator remains one of the few that has stayed afloat and been able to tap into their own fan base. Bellator founder, Bjorn Rebney, has found a way to circumvent the fate of many MMA organizations before him by creating a tournament that is truly like none other. Similar to that of the NCAA Tournament, Rebney's plan was to give every fighter a chance to shock the world and become a legend. And who doesn't love a good underdog story? Since 2008, Bellator has given MMA fans an alternative to the matchmaking format and now stands as the second-largest mixed martial arts promotion in the United States.
We talked to the CEO of Bellator to discuss everything from how his organization has stayed afloat while others have crumbled under the weight of the UFC to the tournament format to his father, the viral video sensation.
Interview by Jose Martinez (@ZayMarty)
What’s the difference between Bellator and the UFC?
There’s a completely different format. We are a real sport tournament-based mixed martial arts organization. With every fight we do, the winner moves on and the loser goes home. It’s just like football, basketball, baseball, or soccer. The actual performance inside the cage will determine if you get one step closer to the world title. And it’s not about matchmaking or choosing who’s going to fight who and when. That’s what makes us very different. It doesn’t mean that they’re right and we’re wrong or vice versa. I wanted to create a mixed martial arts promotion where competition inside the cage determined who was going to be the champion. Ultimately, where fighters completely control their own destiny and title shots are earned, not given by someone.
It sounds similar to what Strikeforce did at one time with their heavyweight tournament. Would that be a fair comparison?
Not really. We started doing this in 2009. We were the first mixed martial arts organization to do it on a regular basis. Strikeforce tried to do it a about a year ago and it still hasn’t come to a conclusion. Typically, we get five tournaments done in a 90-day period. It’s a very, very different dynamic and structure.
How has the tournament format of Bellator been more effective than what Strikeforce tried to do?
It’s the planning, structure and organization of the business plan. It’s what makes us different from the UFC. As for Strikeforce, it’s hard for a sprinter to decide to run the mile. It’s different to jump into something that you’re not familiar with. Fortunately, our organization has been very successful.
Recently, it was announced that Bellator has partnered with Spike TV. Can you tell us more about that?
It will be awesome. Spike TV wrote the book on mixed martial arts television. They’re the whole reason you and I are talking. They’re responsible for the general market crossover of this sport. And to be able to join them as our broadcasting partners starting in eight months is as good as it gets. They’re the best there has ever been, they’re the best there is. So, joining them for the next decade plus is just a tremendous advantage for the brand.
When it was announced that Bellator would air their program on Friday nights, which happens to be the same time as UFC’s Ultimate Fighter, people started comparing the two organizations. Do you ever get tired of the comparisons?
You know, it’s the nature of TV. Television is a very competitive business. The UFC has a terrific deal with FOX and we have a spectacular alliance with Spike and Viacom. There’s always going to be a competitive nature between two organizations in the same space, but as I said, ours is a much, much different format. People have a choice. They can choose to watch one or the other.
As we have seen before, many mixed martial arts organizations have eventually merged with the UFC. Besides the tournament factor, what makes you think that the same wouldn’t happen to Bellator?
A majority stake of our company is owned by Viacom, which is one of the largest and most powerful entertainment organizations in the world. We’ve got tremendous financial backing. We’ve got 170 world-class fighters under contract. I think that we have no interest in selling or being acquired by anyone. We’re going to keep doing what we do and I’m sure that the UFC will keep doing what they do. Unlike many organizations that were losing money and desperately needed help, we’re in a strong position.
Going back a bit, what spawned the idea of coming out with a mixed martial arts tournament format?
Just the essence of true sports competition. I’ve never been a fan of matchmaking. I thought matchmaking was theatrical. Where a guy in a shiny suit sits behind a desk and decides who fights who, for what and when. If it happened in soccer or football, fans would be in an uproar. There would be riots in the streets. In fighting sports, we just accept it. From my own personal opinion, I thought it was something that didn’t make sense. Like, you should just leave that to professional wrestling. That’s why I wanted to create the organization.
Based on the success of March Madness, did you feel that the NCAA Tournament was a benchmark for where you wanted to take Bellator?
Yeah, absolutely. You look at March Madness and the Butlers of the world, everybody loves the fact that each and every team or fighter is given a chance. All that matters is when that cage door shuts behind you, how well do you fight, how good are you. That’s the great equalizer.
What would you say is the best story of the underdog rising to the occasion?
Pat Curran, our featherweight world champion. Perfect example. A kid that was never given a shot, who had an incredible camp behind him, amazing world-class ability and a dedication and focus the likes of which I have never seen before. As a No. 8 seed, he rose above and showed that he could be the best and beat the best. All because he was just given an opportunity.
You’ve mentioned that you are not a fan of matchmaking. Does it bother you to look at what the UFC does and feel that fighters are getting cheated out of title opportunities?
I have a huge amount of respect for what the UFC has accomplished and if it wasn’t for them, we probably wouldn’t be here talking. I’m always hesitant to degrade what they’ve done or what they do. They do it their way. I strongly believe in our way as being a real sports fan. I watch their fights and events, but I don’t think less of their fighters. I just like the way we structure things.
On a completely different note, is your father infamously known for something?
My father is the “Winnebago Man.” He’s as crazy as they come, absolutely out of his mind, I love him but he’s nuts. Yeah, the “Winnebago Man,” that’s my old man.
How does it feel to be associated with such a viral video sensation?
I knew my dad was completely crazy way before anyone else did. I’ve been with him for 46 years. The world ended up learning what I knew long, long ago. He’s a good dude and I talk to him everyday. He’s still alive, kicking and screaming and still using a lot of profanity.
Tonight, Bellator 65 will be taking in Atlantic City. What would you say to someone who's contemplating whether or not they should check this event out?
I would say, come and watch two of the greatest bantamweights in mixed martial arts fight for our world title. Zach Makovsky is our world champion. He's one of the greatest 135-pound fighters on Earth and Eduardo Dantas, who is challenging and won what I believe is one of the most vast bantamweight tournaments in MMA. They're both incredibly talented and explosive fighters. It's rare in life to see two guys in their absolute prime fighting at their very best to compete for a major world title live right in front of you. I could not be more excited.