Mike Chiappetta, MMA Fighting
Bellator CEO Bjorn Rebney gave MMA Fighting exclusive access to follow him on fight day at the recent Bellator 63 event.
Four hours of sleep is enough. Even if it's not, it will have to do. That's all he can spare now with another long day ahead, which will stretch to almost 18 hours by the time it’s done. That's all he needs. Anyway, sleep isn't necessary when you run on coffee and adrenaline.
It's 7 a.m. in Uncasville, Conn., and Bjorn Rebney is ready to start his day, just four hours after the last one ended. So if you want to be technical about it, he truly started his day in a town car, on a long ride which started in Manhattan's urban sprawl and ended up in… Where exactly is this, anyway? If you were simply looking at a map, it seems an unlikely place for a sporting event. As one of Rebney's crew members will later point out, they're 40 miles from anywhere.
As you near Mohegan Sun, the destination rises up to meet you. The three-winged main structure is 34 stories high and from a distance, looks as though it was carved out of quartz crystal. It is the second largest casino in the world, just behind its Foxwoods neighbor, 10 miles east. The state of Connecticut doesn't regulate mixed martial arts or allow gambling, but on sovereign Native American land within a tiny village in this tiny state, both are thriving.
The simple rural setting is deceptive. It fits as a perfect metaphor for the promotion, which like the tucked-away casino, is bigger than almost anyone realizes. Bellator recently sold a majority stake to media giant Viacom, but for now, it remains hidden away on MTV2 before its move to Spike in 2013. That's a game-changer that will provide the promotion its densest exposure. But that's all in the future.
Rebney has never been afraid of a little competition, a little contact. He was a good enough football player in his youth to attend Ohio University on an athletic scholarship. There, he won two varsity letters while playing fullback. In a team that was heavy on I-formation offense, that meant Rebney -- who is 6-foot-3 and then weighed 240 pounds -- spent a lot of time smashing into other people.
"I liked the fact that I was right in the middle of all of the impact of the game," he said. "It was fun."
Aside from the sport he's involved with, it's not much different today. Nearly every decision to do with television or arena production runs through him. From the time he walks into the Mohegan Sun Arena at 11 a.m. until the time he leaves the front door almost 14 hours later, that's a handful.
By 1 p.m., he's moving through various seating sections, listening to the sound on the fighter promos as though he was a paying fan. Is the music drowning out the voices? Is Karl Amoussou understandable through his French accent? Suddenly, something catches his eye.
"Why does Zoila have a line across her face?" he suddenly asks, confounding the audio engineer standing in front of him.
Everyone glances up to where Rebney's looking. Every Bellator champion is represented with a banner hanging from a truss, and sure enough, there is a crease crossing the banner of women's champion Zoila Gurgel, moving diagonally across her face. It's something you would probably look right at without seeing, but to Rebney, it's plain as day.
One of his crew members volunteers to address it, saying that he eventually needs to buy a steam iron to tote from town to town.
By now, the arena crew has been hard at work for hours, since just before Rebney was waking up. The cage is set, the lighting is being tested, and a DJ is setting up equipment. Bellator's grinding weekly schedule has made it all fairly routine.
For Rebney, event week starts on Monday, when he flies out from Chicago. Unlike UFC boss Dana White, Rebney flies commercial, making his schedule susceptible to the same random delays faced by any traveler. Each week during the season, he spends roughly 48-hour stretches at home before taking off for Bellator's next destination. Back Saturday afternoon, gone on Monday, like clockwork.
That means a lot of time away from his wife, Huma Gruaz, a high-powered executive in the marketing and public relations world, as well as their two children Jonathan, 17, and Celine, 15. Some weekends when his wife is traveling, they won't see each other at all. If they're both in town, Saturday night is date night, with the two sparring over genre. While Huma prefers art house fare, Bjorn likes comedies and action-thrillers. On a good night, their interests intersect, like the time they both laughed all night watching "Superbad."
On fight day, Rebney wears a path between the arena's floor and its bowels. Housed are a series of semi-trucks, five of which are decorated with Bellator imagery. Part of the traveling road show of 65-70 production and operations employees along with the many other local workers enlisted as support staff are milling around or inside the trucks in a kind of organized chaos that ensues before every event.
[Bjorn Rebney makes one of his frequent visits to the production truck. Photo by Mike Chiappetta, MMA Fighting]
This is all a recent upgrade for Bellator, which three years ago, basically just carted around its cage and one production truck, or as Rebney refers to it, "Silly Putty, paper-mache, and some balsa wood."
The improvements are part of the Viacom deal, a move that vindicated Rebney's long-held vision for Bellator. He had in the past worked in the boxing industry and had watched the first stages of the UFC's growth with interest. Pouring most of his own money into the start-up and going in without a safety net, Rebney moved forward with creating a business plan.
By then, organizations like the IFL and EliteXC had already sprung up, and because they were public companies, Rebney was able to look over their numbers and see the mistakes they had made. That was good and bad. On one hand, he could learn from their errors; on the other, their failures were spectacular enough to make investors gun-shy.
Over a 16-month span, Rebney flew all over the U.S., pitching 61 investment groups in an effort to raise capital. It was no small commitment, as he was looking for an eight-figure number. Time after time, the answer he heard was not the one he was looking for. The 62nd try came in a phone meeting. The firm, Plainfield Asset Management, had previously been approached by both the IFL and EliteXC to save their sinking ships, and partly because of their familiarity with MMA, they connected with Rebney's plan. He was cut off midway through his pitch and asked how quickly he could get to New York. He was on a red-eye that night, and a deal soon followed.
"One of the coolest things about my job now is I would say something like 15 percent of those people who rejected my pitch have gotten back in touch with me and said, 'I blew it,'" he said.
Just after 3 p.m., announcers Jimmy Smith and Sean Wheelock rehearse the show's opening while Rebney watches from the production truck. After so many shows, you might guess everything would flow perfectly, but Smith begins breaking down the wrong fighter, thrown off by the placement on a graphic.
"We always highlight the guy on the left first," he says. Then, when he's told it will be fixed, he pretends he's a diva, adding, "I'll be in the trailer with my bowl of green M&M's."
The line draws a laugh from the crew. Generally, the mood is energetic, like they realize they are still building towards something bigger. It's not exactly a dress rehearsal for the move to Spike, but it's something like it. Neither is there any real rivalry with the UFC, but you can't deny a bit of tension boiling under the surface, like when Spike executive producer Scott Fishman reminds a graphics designer that "MMA Uncensored Live" co-host Nate Quarry, who will help with color commentary during the broadcast, should be referred to as "former MMA fighter," not "former UFC fighter."
By the time 4:30 rolls around, rehearsal has been completed, the arena audio sound has been approved, and Zoila Frausto's banner has been lowered, ironed and re-lifted to hang over the cage alongside her male counterparts. For the next hour, Rebney takes his only break before showtime to take care of other matters. He returns to his hotel room to call his wife and say hello, he makes a few business calls, and he changes into his trademark black suit and black dress shirt, a look he says that is borne out of simplifying the packing process.
"I go on the road for six days, I got six black suits, six black shirts. It's so simple." Then, as if he just thought of it, he mentions that "there's some blood in our game, so light colors don't work so well."
Rebney watches the first two undercard fights cageside, then goes to the production truck, electing to keep an eye on the time. The next undercard bout get finished in a blink, as top welterweight prospect Andrey Koreshkov needs just 86 seconds to KO Tiawan Howard. That ensures another swing bout will air before the main card begins, much to the delight of those in the truck worried about the show’s timing.
"It’s not good for the guy fighting Koreshkov, but it’s good for us," Rebney says.
Later, the unbeaten 21-year-old Russian visits the production truck to take a photo with Rebney, looking awed by the expensive equipment. Rebney explains that he is from a small, poor city. Someone else suggests he was suffering a case of nerves prior to the fight. He shows Koreshkov and his interpreter some of the setup, but five minutes later, he's on the move again, back at cageside. But that only lasts for minutes. He wants to watch the TV opening, so two minutes before Bellator 63 goes on the MTV2 airwaves, he's back in the truck, wishing his crew a good show.
This time, the photo on the graphic is correct, Smith nails the opening, and a satisfied Rebney returns to his seat in front of the cage to watch the main card opener with Ben Saunders against Raul Amaya. Saunders is a huge favorite, but try as he might, he can't put Amaya away. By the time it's over, Amaya's left eye is almost completely swollen shut, and he's escaped from countless submissions. Despite losing, the effort is courageous.
In the next fight, David Rickels returned to the Bellator cage with a 22-second knockout of Jordan Smith. Afterward, Rebney is told that Koreshkov's taped fight will air, so he takes advantage of a nine-minute break to visit Amaya. He wants to pat him on the back and commend him on the gutsy performance, but when he enters the locker room, Amaya's corner tells Rebney he's in the shower. Rebney shrugs. Instead, he finds Rickels, who happens to be sharing the same locker room with Amaya. Rebney congratulates him and shakes his hand.
"Do more of that," he says. Rickels smiles and nods, as if 22-second knockouts are just that simple.
Rebney will have the exact opposite reaction at the next match between Bryan Baker and Carlos Alexandre Pereira, which is marked by periods of inactivity and smatters of boos from the 4,000 in attendance. Between the second and third rounds, Rebney, sitting next to Bellator president Tim Danaher at cageside, shakes his head.
"Somebody needs to do something," he says to no one in particular. But the third begins the same way as the previous two, and with less than two minutes left, Rebney gets up from his seat to attend to other business.
Rebney wants a big finish from the main event, and he gets it. Amoussou, who has recently given up his full-time police work to concentrate on fighting, slices Chris Lozano open with a head kick and then submits him with a rear-naked choke in just 2:05. Still noticing the small details, Rebney sees Amoussou limping on his way out of the cage.
On a yellow legal pad, he writes in the welterweight semifinal matchups: "Amoussou-Rickels, Saunders-Baker." Then he gets up to head to the back, where Amoussou is getting a quick look-over from a commission physician.
"I feel great," Amoussou says to both the doctor and Rebney, before anyone can even ask.
"Thank you for closing out the show," Rebney says back. He asks about the limp, and Amoussou laughs it off, saying he twisted his leg celebrating, but is fine.
Standing nearby, matchmaker Sam Caplan breathes a sigh of relief. On the way out of the locker room, Caplan and Rebney shake their heads at Amoussou's domination.
"That's what he did to me in sparring, but I didn't think he'd do it to another pro fighter," Caplan says.
Bellator produces two more matches after the televised main event, but at this point, the real pressure is off. At 10:27 p.m., Rebney yawns for the first time all day. The press conference is still to come, and a series of one-on-one interviews are to follow. By the time he leaves the arena, it's 12:45 a.m.
Just a few steps out the door, he runs into color commentator Smith and undercard fighter Dan Cramer, who is still hanging around despite fighting and winning five hours ago. They briefly chat before parting ways. Before he heads back to his hotel room, he'll meet up with his TV partners to talk about the night. Then, he'll go to his room, put on CNN and see what the rest of the world has been doing for the last 17 hours.
"You do get closed in," he says. "I can tell you anything you want to know about arena lighting and fighters and licensing music, but I don't know what's going on in Syria."
Fight day is over, and he'll be home soon enough. If he's lucky, he'll see his wife, spend some time with his kids, and begin the cycle all over again. If it's a kind of Groundhog Day, it's the best kind.
"I'm living the dream," he says. "To live in this world that once only existed as a concept in your head… How many people get to do that?"
Everyone else around the casino is thinking about winning big, but the man in black doesn't gamble. He doesn't need to. Instead, he walks off, swallowed up by the lights and noise and dreamers. The adrenaline may have worn off, but sleep isn't yet in his near future. Who needs sleep anyway? Not him. Not with so much to do. Not with so much ahead. Forty miles from anywhere, Bjorn Rebney has Bellator right where it's supposed to be.
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