There was a quick break in the Bellator schedule last week, the first during their premiere season on Spike. There was no rest for company CEO Bjorn Rebney, who flew to Louisiana to check in on the tapings of the soon-to-be-launched Bellator reality show. In between criss-crossing the country, scouting the world for talent and preparing for the next wave of weekly shows, which begins Thursday with Bellator 93 in Lewiston, Maine, Rebney spoke to MMA Fighting about a whole host of topics, including the move to Spike, King Mo’s loss, pursuing Josh Barnett, Dana White’s trash talk and more.
Chiappetta: The season started off with two exciting title fights and the ratings were strong with an average of 938,000 viewers and a peak of 1.2 million. Would you classify that night as a home run?
Rebney: It’s not really my nature to classify stuff as a home run. I don’t know. I think it was a solid start. I’m hesitant. My goals and what I’m looking for is far off in the distance. I’m always kind of hesitant to say it was a home run. It was a solid event, good fights, sold-out arena, good numbers. But it was just a start on Spike. I thought it was a good start but still an awful lot of work to be done. There were problems with the show, issues with the format, things that I could see that needed improvement.
Chiappetta: I’m sure you’re more critical than most about that. How has the season progressed as you’ve continued the transition to Spike?
Rebney: I think the most important thing is that the fights have been remarkably good. You can create amazing feature pieces and perfect the show from a production standpoint, you can tweak and change things and promote it. But If the fights aren’t spectacular? The fights and fighters are the fuel for the entire machine. If there’s one thing I’m most happy, there’s been amazing fights and performances. The tournament format has rung true, with competition being the driving force of Bellator, not how well you speak and talking your way into the things. It’s all about the competition, and the competition’s been amazing. That’s the driving force of what’s been great. The rest of the elements that flow from that, that’s just a ton of work that we work on week in and week out.
Chiappetta: A couple of weeks ago, you unveiled an app that complements the viewing experience. How has the reception been?
Rebney: Jon Slusser and his team at Spike worked so hard and long to create an app that wasn’t just the best in MMA, but competitive with the best apps in all of sports. They did an amazing job. It was never about being the best in MMA, but competing with the best on the face of the earth in the sports arena. That’s the kind of stuff that working with the team with Viacom and Spike, we’re able to do. I’m very happy with the way it works and functions, and I’m most happy with the way consumers and fans have responded to it. A lot of people are utilizing it to be our fourth judge, to learn about our fighters, to vote, to chime in, and to get much more substantive information about what’s going on in our fights.
Chiappetta: Ultimately, what grade would you give yourself for the first half of the season on Spike?
Rebney: Boy, that’s a tough one. I’m always my harshest critic and our harshest critic. I always temper that with trying to motivate the people who work with me. They work incredibly hard. Our ops team, production, PR. I’m probably the worst guy to give a grade. It would be lower than you probably anticipate based on how driven I am to make it better. I don't know. I’d leave the grading to others. I’d say the fights have been amazing. When a show gets over, I review the DVD minute by minute, second by second. I have 7-8 other senior executives who do the same thing. We exchange notes and have several meetings and review all facets of the event. I think production’s getting tighter. We’ve made intentional changes to get to fights quicker. It seems to have generated positive fan response. We’re evolving and growing. There are still a lot of things that we can still change and make better.
Chiappetta: Is Michael Chandler becoming the face of Bellator?
Rebney: I think what Michael Chandler has accomplished is representative of all that Bellator is. I think that what Pat Curran has accomplished is representative of all that Bellator is, too. I think that unknown fighters that 2-3 years ago, guys with no recognition in the space, if they have the talent and ability to be the very best in the world, can utilize the format and structure and partnership with Spike to become recognized as not only the best in the world, but expand their brand and become well-known faces.
What Michael has done with Bellator and working in partnership with us, going from a guy nobody knew two years ago to a guy widely recognized as one of the greatest lightweights in the world and becoming a crossover personality, I think those are the kind of growth opportunities that exist for for fighters here. We’re built on promoting and marketing fighters not because I’m Mother Teresa, but because if you track the growth of every other sports organizations, they’re built on the backs of huge personalities and big athletes. Guys like Chandler and Curran are able to take opportunities and develop them and become prolific names. I think he’s surely one of them. I’ve said many times, I would take Michael Chandler vs. any lightweight on earth.
Chiappetta: One of your other well-known fighters "King Mo" Lawal won his first-round match but was upset by Emanuel Newton in the 2nd round. What are your plans with him going forward?
Rebney: We rebuild him in a huge way. We put him back in, get him busy as quickly as humanly possible and we rebuild him. The magic of MMA is that anything can happen on any given day. I’m sitting in my hotel room late at night after Mo’s fight and I’m watching SportsCenter, and the No. 6 moment of the day was the highlight of Emanuel Newton, this guy many people had never heard of, executing a spinning backfist that hit Mo right on the button. That moment is what we are all about. We’re not going to take King Mo or Chandler or Curran or anybody else and feed them cans to get them to the promised land. You have to win the toughest tourney in sports to get to earn your shot at a title. If you get through, you’ve absolutely earned it.
The reality is, when this tournament was set up, people were talking about King Mo meeting Babalu in the finals. Those are the moments that speak to how good Bellator is. We’re going to build Mo back. I talk to him constantly. We’re planning the strategy. He’ll have to go through same gauntlet to get there. If he gets through, he’ll earn that shot at the title, but he’s not going to leapfrog over anyone. He’s not going to get in by any way other than earning it, and that’s what makes us different from the competition.
Chiappetta: So will the next light-heavyweight tournament with him be in the Summer Series?
Rebney: We’re working through it as we speak. We may be able to make it happen in the summer, but worst case is the fall.
Chiappetta: Bellator’s reality show, FightMaster MMA is taping. What can you tell us about what you’ve seen so far?
Rebney: It’s a totally different dynamic. The fights have been spectacularly competitive, at a very, very high level and competitive. The storytelling I’ve seen, the in-depth dive into who they are is vintage Bertram Van Munster. One of the reality shows I watch is the Amazing Race because it’s a cool competition and you get invested into the people. That’s what I’m seeing that they captured with our fighters in New Orleans. It’s a
very different type of show than the show I’ve been executive producing for five years. What I’ve seen has the makings of something really special. The personalities are there, the fighters are there, and there’s been some really great fights.
Chiappetta: Is there an air date for the premiere yet?
Rebney: It’s still being decided by Spike. The vision is to do it in summer but the day and date hasn’t been finalized.
Chiappetta: Your No. 1 featherweight contender Daniel Straus has had a rough stretch with an injury that knocked him out of the title fight, and then an arrest on drugs and traffic charges. Have you had a chance to speak with him.
Rebney: I’ve spoken with Daniel twice. I spoke to him the moment he got out and made bail. I know it’s a unique position in this industry to take, but I’ve known Daniel a lot of years. He’s been awesome for the organization. He stepped up and stood up every time we asked. He’s been a total pro and also a very good guy, very responsive and adult. One of the better guys to work with. He worked awfully hard to get the shot at the title. I spoke to him right after he made bail. His words to me were, ‘I was absolutely in the wrong place at the wrong time. I should not have been with the people I was with. I believe very firmly that I’ll be exonerated and be able to move forward with career.’
I’ve got his back. My hope against hope is he does get exonerated and he can resume his career. He was training at American Top Team with some great fighters, broke his hand, and this unfortunate situation came up. I’m sure more of the facts will come clear in next month or so, but I have a lot of belief and trust in Daniel Straus. My hope is it gets cleared up, and he’s able to resume a successful career. If unfortunately he’s not and it doesn't go in that direction, we’ll be there to support him when he gets out.
Chiappetta: Have you had any talks with "Rampage Jackson yet?
Rebney: We bounce. There are always open lines of communication with us and a whole series of fighters. There’s no pending agreement of any kind. There’s no substantive direction. Our circles are too small. The reality is you’re always going to bump into the Rampages and Josh Barnetts. You’re going to bump into a lot of people here in Southern California.
Chiappetta: You didn’t make a run at Jon Fitch, and I know you have already talked about that a bit, but I wanted to ask if his style, which let’s be honest, is not considered fan-friendly, was part of the consideration?
Rebney: We haven't really made substantive moves on guys that have been part of the recent UFC cuts. It’s just not our focus. There’s a lot of guys who have potential to be vintage Bellator guys, follow in the Eduardo Dantas, Pat Curran, type of road. That’s where our focus is. We have a lot of fighters under contract. We don't want to have a situation like UFC, where you have to cut 150 guys or whatever they’re cutting. My focus and the team’s focus is let’s continue to find the guys we can build into stars under this banner. We do a rankings system of 1-10 across the divisions of guys we’re looking at recruiting from across the globe. We’re focused on those guys. It wasn’t so much about not wanting Fitch as it was that there was a series of guys we believe we can build up to be top guys in those weight classes, and that’s where our focus is going to remain.
Chiappetta: So that list is always going to consider or value prospects ahead of veterans?
Rebney: I think there’s always the caveat of there will be some guys where you say, ‘Wow, he may have been cut too early.’ Or guys like Josh Barnett, where you have to respect he’s still a top 10 heavyweight. Other than that, it’s mostly about guys we have found across the globe, whether in the UK or Russia or the Middle East or Brazil, etc. These are guys who can conceptually win a tournament and maybe even challenge for a world title. They’ll be our guys and our stars. They’re not coming off 2-3 losses in another organization. That’s kind of where our focus has always been.
Chiappetta: That’s twice you’ve mentioned Josh Barnett without me mentioning him. We both know heavyweight is the toughest division to fill out. Is he on the wish list?
Rebney: I don't know if I would classify Josh as being on the wish list but he’s sure on the radar. I’ve known him now for years. Like I said, the Southern Cali market is not huge, but it’s a mecca for MMA. He’s a talented fighter. He’s not one of those names that wore out his stay. He’s still got gas in the tank but I have no way of knowing if we can end up putting together a deal or not. I just know that anytime there’s a heavyweight that’s a legit top 10, you take a look.
Chiappetta: You mentioned the UFC cuts. Spike’s Kevin Kay is on record with The New York Times saying "we don’t want to be picking up rejects from the UFC." Is there any wiggle room in looking at those fighters?
Rebney: Oh, sure. You’ve seen it, there’s not a hard and fast rule. We signed Mo out of Strikeforce. We signed Ben Saunders. We’ve signed guys before. Every once in a while you’ll see a guy bounce in. But our format is one to look from within. That’s the mainstay of what we do. But there will be guys who come around. We’ll see a guy who may have lost but has wicked talent. We’ll make a signing like that. It’s not the focus of what we do. There’s other organizations that come and go and their focal point was signing guys that used to be with another organization. That’s a model that has proven itself repeatedly to be very unsuccessful.
Chiappetta: In the New York Times feature that I just mentioned, Dana White was quoted as saying the idea of Bellator competing with the UFC is like saying the local high school football team is going up against the NFL. What’s your reaction to that?
Rebney: "I don't mean to sound Pollyanna about it but I don't pay a lot of attention to the comments. I spend 19 hours a day signing great fighters, putting on better shows, producing a great TV product and creating a great live experience. We’re working on three straight sellouts. We’re putting a lot of butts in seats, a lot of people are coming out to fights. That’s where my focus remains. Comments from anyone are like water off a duck’s back. We’ll keep focusing on putting on a spectacular product and great shows, and let the results speak for themselves.
Chiappetta: UFC content will be moving again, with the formation of the new FOX Sports 1, so their fans are going to be re-routed again. Is your newfound stability an advantage?
Rebney: It’s a tough one to follow. I live in the industry day in and out. I don't clearly understand the difference between FSN and Fox Sports 1 and Fox Sports 2, and what’s happening with Speed and FUEL, and who changes to what. It’s confusing and was hard to figure out when it was just FX, FUEL and FOX. I don’t really understand it. It’s been difficult to track up to this point and I don’t know that it’s going to get any easier. There’s a lot of options for consumers. We’re going to be on one place at the same time on the same channel for more than half the year. We’re going to be on Thursday nights on Spike, the home of MMA.
Chiappetta: What is going on with your women’s division?
Rebney: We have Jessica Aguilar fighting in Florida, then Jessica Eye in Atlantic City. We’ve got fights lined up. We’re keeping our ladies busy, and trying to get our arms wrapped around if and when we can get a tournament together at 125. We don’t have a specific plan just yet.
Chiappetta: Is there any movement on a possible settlement with Eddie Alvarez?
Rebney: Not really. We try to keep the door open to have communication and we have had some talks. My hope remains that we’ll be able to get it settled. We have had talks. It’s tough to tell. I’m hopeful it gets settled but we’re in the process of talking and I just don't know that it will. Our attorneys have been instructed to try to work through it and get a settlement worked out so we can get it behind us.
Chiappetta: Is it your understanding that he is more open to a settlement now?
Rebney: The tone of the talks have been more positive than they were in the past. My hope is that we can keep them going in a positive direction and maybe get this thing worked out. It’s hard to gauge because obviously, we have two different positions. But I think the tone has been positive. We’ll see. My fingers are crossed.
Chiappetta: If it does happen, will he come in and get a rematch with Michael Chandler?
Rebney: That is a very viable and very realistic option. We’d have to see how everything works out in terms of a settlement but that’s obviously a fight we’d love to see. I know it’s a fight that a lot of fans would love to see. It’s surely a very realistic, substantive option.
[Editor’s Note: Parts of this interview have been edited for brevity.]