When the Bellator caravan rolls into Grand Canyon University in Phoenix on Friday night, it will reach a milestone that only one other nationally televised MMA promotion has ever hit.
Technically, it's the 99th arena show, but the 100th television show. In 2009, there was a marathon seven-and-a-half hour arena show that comprised two weeks worth of show tapings. But even so, for founder and CEO Bjorn Rebney, Friday night is just another show, and 100 is little more than a number. He has no time to celebrate right now, since Bellator MMA is in the middle of the most ambitious period in company history.
"People talk about birthdays or dates having great significance to them," he said. "Independently, it doesn't have that great a significance. I just want another great show. It doesn't have that much significance as a stand alone. I see us still in a growth period, and probably will feel that way until they put me six feet in the ground."
Besides running events on Spike TV every Friday, Bellator is working on overloaded these days.
They are producing a number of television specials for Spike that will run throughout October. The shows will build to the company's biggest event ever, its first pay-per-view, on Nov. 2 at the Long Beach Arena. The show is about both the old and the new, with former UFC stars and longtime training partners Tito Ortiz and Quinton 'Rampage' Jackson as the big names headlining in a three-round fight.
Plus they have three five-round title fights as support, with Michael Chandler vs. Eddie Alvarez for the lightweight title, Pat Curran vs. Daniel Straus for the featherweight title, and 'King' Mo Lawal vs. Emanuel Newton for the interim light heavyweight title.
There is still one more pay-per-view fight to be announced, and prelims for the show will air live on Spike TV, similar to a big UFC event.
Among the television shows being filmed are "Michael Chandler Unrivaled," a Chandler vs. Alvarez special that would not only replay what is generally considered the greatest fight in Bellator history, but updated with comments from both fighters, a three-part Jackson reality show, and an Ortiz special.
"It's all airing in October," said Rebney. "We've been filming and we've been producing stuff every single day."
The shows will air on different nights, at different times, with multiple replays. It's easily the biggest television promotional effort to build a non-UFC pay-per-view event in history, and rivaling the television promotion of the UFC's biggest events.
"Rampage (the reality show) is just great TV," said Rebney. "It's literally Rampage for real, his life, what drives him. It's not pulling any punches. It's not acting. It's a great look inside this guy. If you're a fan of Rampage, you're going to love this.
"The feeder to Chandler vs. Alvarez, that's going to be an amazing piece of content. It's got both of their takes on the fight, the first fight, and what this fight means."
The promotion started on Spike on Thursday nights, in January, following pro wrestling. They averaged 808,000 viewers live for the spring season. A summer move to Wednesday did 480,000 (against a strong NHL playoff game) and 676,000 viewers respectively. A Saturday night prime time show on Sept. 7 only did 437,000 viewers, but a replay of that show five nights later, after wrestling, did 556,000 viewers in a Thursday at 11 p.m. slot.
The return to Friday night this past week, the night they ran in 2012 on MTV 2, featuring Patricio "Pitbull" Freire vs. former UFC fighter Diego Nunes in the main event, drew 660,000 viewers live, peaking at more than 800,000. Probably more impressive, the replay from 11:13 p.m. to 1:25 a.m. on Friday did 435,000 viewers.
As for Fight Master, the company's reality show, it showed ratings potential early during the episodes when the fighters got to pick who would coach them. It was a new dimension in MMA reality television, with some interesting gamesmanship on the coaching side from Frank Shamrock and Greg Jackson in particular. But once the teams were set and the show consisted of fights in the house, interest faded and ratings dropped badly. The show was moved out of prime time to a Thursday night at 11 p.m. slot after wrestling for its final few episodes. Its future isn't clear.
"That hasn't been determined," Rebney said. "We don't know if there will be a second season or not. The show received some very strong critical acclaim. I thought it was a well produced show. I loved the coaches. I thought the coaching dynamic was spectacular. I thought Joe Warren was a breakout star. Greg, Frank and Randy (Couture) were terrific. I don't think they were taken out of context. What you saw was what they really were."
While nothing is in stone, there are talks of doing future pay-per-views. The decision was made for this show long before Ortiz came aboard. Rebney did confirm that the much-rumored idea of Jackson vs. Roy Jones Jr. as a pay-per-view main event was very much in play before Ortiz signed. And he said it still may happen.
"We had a two-and-a-half hour meeting with Rampage, Roy, and (Spike TV president) Kevin Kay on what we could and what we couldn't do. We listened to Roy and Rampage. We had a series of other meetings with options (other fights) that may become a reality in the future. Rampage and Roy Jones Jr. may become a reality in the future." Besides that, he sees international expansion in the works for next year, in particular the Brazilian and Russian markets.
"Nothing is on the books yet, but my assumption is in 2014, we'll see events outside of the North American marketplace."
Another change to look out for is more four-man tournaments. This current season, which started two weeks ago with a show that drew more than 5,000 fans at the Mohegan Sun Casino in Uncasville, Conn., has eight-man tournaments at featherweight, lightweight, welterweight and middleweight. There will also be four-man tournaments at bantamweight and heavyweight'
"You'll be seeing more four-man tournaments," he said about next year. "The four-man tournament gives me the opportunity to give champions a chance to have more title fights. The four-man tournaments are here to stay."
Rebney started Bellator as a company in 2008, after getting funded, running weekly live televised events, only in Spanish, on ESPN Deportes. In 2010, they moved to Thursday night weekly shows on Fox Sports Net, which had the problem of frequent preemptions for local sports, and fans having to search the grid and set their DVR's for late night replays.
Its big break came in 2011. They moved to MTV 2, which gave them a set time on Friday nights where they were available in 75 million homes live, without preemption.
But more importantly, that was when UFC's relationship with Spike TV was falling apart. When it became clear UFC was going elsewhere, Spike wanted to keep MMA. With UFC having already purchased Strikeforce, Bellator was the last man standing and it made for natural bedfellows.
Spike and Viacom not only agreed to move the promotion to Spike in 2013, when its one-year non-compete with UFC ended, but Spike purchased a major stake in the company, giving it financial breathing room to where its future survival wasn't in jeopardy.
"I think one of the high points (in Bellator history) was premiering on Spike and transitioning all the content to Spike," he said. "That's MMA's home."
It appears from the outside that its current position was the result of luck, of being the only viable entity when UFC left Spike, with Spike wanting to keep MMA on its station. But Rebney said he doesn't believe that's the case.
"I'm not much of a believer in luck," he said. "You make your opportunities. They don't fall out of the sky. I could see the writing on the wall with UFC and Spike. I recognized Spike was the most successful, most accomplished, most viewer distribution connection platform for MMA content. Having been around the business for a long time, there was a high likelihood of a disconnect from Spike and UFC from both sides of the union. Immediately, I took the opportunity to go in and start conversations of forming an alliance and partnership.
"The reality is none of this was lucky. It was strategic and thought out. It took a lot of meetings, a lot of face-to-faces, a lot of planning, drafting of business plans, discussing numbers. It's a great fit. They have the right demo, the right channel and the right people on board who know how to build it and promote it and we had a product poised to take off."
As far as the high point inside the cage, as expected, that's the first Chandler vs. Alvarez fight on Nov. 19, 2011, in Hollywood, Fla., easily the most famous and talked about fight in company history. Chandler submitted Alvarez in the fourth round, to become Bellator's lightweight champion. Since the win, Chandler has emerged as the promotion's best fighter. The settling of a contract dispute with Alvarez, who was looking to go to UFC, and changing of the previous rules where a challenger would first have to win a tournament to get a title shot, led to the rematch.
"I've seen more live MMA than almost anyone on Earth, and that's the best fight I've ever seen. The desire to do Chandler vs. Alvarez II was substantial," Rebney said.
Rebney loves to promote his top stars. Part of his regular rap is saying that Chandler is the best lightweight in the world. And while many will balk at that proclamation given Chandler not being tested against UFC competition, he followed the Alvarez title win with three matches, two of which were first-round knockouts in less than a minute. The other was a second-round finish over Rick Hawn, where he was totally dominant.
Rebney also pushes his featherweight champion, Pat Curran, as No. 2 in the world, conceding the top spot to Jose Aldo. He considers Patricio Pitbull Freire as the No. 3 featherweight. Freire's stock went way up this past week with his first-round knockout of Nunes, a former WEC and UFC contender who had previously never been finished.
Rebney, a former college football player who got a law degree after college, had a background that included working for the San Francisco 49ers, then as a sports agent, and wound up in the boxing business.
"Boxing was a means to an end, a way to put money on the table," he said. "But my true love was watching MMA. That's what I'd do with my friends."
He said he studied from the business failures of the IFL and Elite XC, as well as from other companies. He also studied what he could from the success of the UFC.
He spent 16 months being shot down, before a successful meeting with Plainfield Asset Management helped get the company off the ground.
"I understood what the business drivers of combat sports are," he said. "I knew where the money would come from, and how to have a positive cash flow in the combat sports industry. I looked at all the same players, all of the different failures, Elite XC, the IFL, Strikeforce, Bodog, Affliction, the list goes on-and-on. Some were destined for failure, like the IFL, Elite XC and Bodog models. It didn't take a lot of expertise to see that would never work. It was easy to study the IFL and Elite XC because they were publicly traded companies. There was a tremendous disconnect between the expenses and revenues. I spent a lot of time looking at the UFC and what they did right.
"It didn't make sense to be a duplicate of something that was already there, so the key was coming up with something substantive that was very different from what the UFC was doing," he said. "That's where the tournament format came from. I spent a lot of time writing business plans and coming up with business projections. A lot of people starting would talk about going to pay-per-view in nine months. I was about being realistic. You've got to be realistic when you're working with viable large scale investment groups."
Bellator 100 features former UFC fighter Ben Saunders (16-5-2) against Douglas Lima (24-5) in the finals of the tournament that was held in the spring. It's a repeat of the fifth season tournament final, in the fall and winter of 2011, where Lima knocked out Saunders in the second round. The winner is guaranteed the next welterweight title shot.
The show also features the opening round of the welterweight tournament, with War Machine, the former Jon Koppenhaver (13-4) facing Vaughn Anderson (16-1-1), Rick Hawn (15-2) vs. Herman Terrado (11-2), Brent Weedman (21-8-1) vs. Justin Baesman (14-3) and Ron Keslar (9-3) vs. Sergio Junior (29-11).
Depending on what happens with contract negotiations with current welterweight champion Ben Askren, whose contract expired with his last title defense against Andrey Koreshkov, will determine what happens next for the tournament winner.
"A lot of it is contingent on what happens with Ben (Askren)," he said. "Ben and I worked it out so he could forgo the exclusive negotiations period. He hasn't yet come to us with an offer from the UFC. We weren't making any offer up front. We're waiting for the UFC offer.
"Ben's an anomaly. He's a throwback in many ways to the early days of MMA. He's a one-dimensional fighter (one of the best U.S. wrestlers of the last 25 year). But in that one dimension, he's so far above everyone in MMA today, that he's not only able to survive by executing it, but dominate and establish himself as one of the top ten welterweights in the world. I know a lot of people don't like watching him fight and speak ill of him. But he's amazingly dominant. If you don't like someone's style, it's incumbent on you to stop it as his opponent. And nobody has been able to stop it. I'm a fan of fighting dominance and Ben Askren is the epitome of dominance.
"I can't predict what will happen," Rebney says of Askren's future. "A lot depends on the offer UFC will make. If that happens and Ben leaves Bellator, we've got an exciting tournament that will probably play a significant role in the next championships match. If Ben does come back, we have two different tournament champions lined up to face him, so we'll see."
The eliminating of the exclusive period works for both Bellator and Askren, in the sense he was unlikely to sign until he got a UFC offer. The waiting out of that exclusive negotiating period would delay Bellator's next welterweight title fight. As was the case with Alvarez, Bellator has the contractual right to match any UFC offer and be able to keep him, even if Askren would want to leave.
As for Friday, Keslar replaces Matt Riddle in the welterweight tournament. Riddle suffered a rib injury, and then lashed out at Bellator, saying he was retiring because they couldn't get him a fight before the end of the year, and he needed to get a job to feed his family.
"We actually hadn't said we wouldn't give him a fight until next year," Rebney said. "I get it. Fighters that fight, this is the means of providing for their family. Matt had been preparing for three months, then broke his ribs. We're not in a position to be able to offer him another fight before we have any kind of clearance from a doctor. We told him, `We'd love to get you a fight, but before we can tell you, you have to tell us you can train, and then we can search for an opening'. It's a stressful situation for him."
Rebney does predict Riddle will be back and fighting with his company.
"I don't really think so," when asked if he believes Riddle is really retiring. "You never know. It's a personal issue with Matt. If you and I were going to bet with the winner picking up a dinner check, I'll bet he'll be back. He's had a lot of setbacks on a lot of issues. My guess would be it's not the end and I hope it's not. He's got a lot more to offer. But first and foremost, before we can have any business discussions, he has to get the green light. I would be more surprised if he didn't fight again than if he did."