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Bellator on the Right Track

CHICAGO -- I took in the Bellator Fighting Championships for the first time on Friday night, and I came away from it thinking that it's a small mixed martial arts promotion that has a lot of potential to grow into a big one.

Bellator, which utilizes tournament formats and currently airs only on tape delay on ESPN Deportes, put together an exciting nine-fight card that seemed to please the fans at the Aragon Ballroom on the North Side of Chicago, and in talking to Bellator CEO Bjorn Rebney, I got the sense that this promotion plans to build the right way.

Rebney told me he's very confident that when Bellator starts its second season in the fall, it will be on English language teelevision in tens of millions of homes. Obviously, Bellator's preferred scenario is to be on ESPN or ESPN2, but Rebney said there are other cable channels that Bellator could do a deal with if an agreement can't be reached with the Worldwide Leader.

And Rebney said that even if an English-language TV deal brings in more revenue to Bellator, the promotion won't make the mistake of paying too much money to a few big-name fighters and try to build instant stars. Instead, Rebney said, Bellator is committed to the idea of using its tournaments to let the stars separate themselves from the pack by what they do in the cage.

Bellator will crown champions in its featherweight, lightweight, welterweight and middleweight tournaments in June and then take a few months off before launching a second round of tournaments. Rebney said he doesn't expect the winners of the June finals to fight again until the end of 2009, when they'll fight the winners of the second season tournaments. That means the promotion's biggest stars will be on the sidelines for six months.

But Rebney said he's keeping an eye on other promotions as he hopes to acquire new talent for Bellator's second season, and he specifically mentioned three fighters who currently compete for the Dream organization in Japan -- Shinya Aoki, Kid Yamamoto and Joachim Hansen -- as fighters he'd love to add. Rebney pointed out that because Bellator pays its fighters $25,000 to win a first-round tournament fight, $50,000 to win in the second round and $100,000 to win the whole tournament, a fighter of that caliber could make more money in Bellator than he makes in Dream, as long as he wins the full $175,000 for winning the tournament.

"I know what they've made and we can compete with it," Rebney said.

The best fight at Saturday night's Bellator event was the women's bout between Kerry Vera and Leslie Smith, and Rebney said Bellator is committed to promoting women's MMA. For now the women's fights will be non-tournament bouts, although Rebney is open to the possibility of having a women's tournament, as long as Bellator can find eight good female fighters in the same weight class. He said that could happen as soon as Bellator's third season in the spring of 2010.

As for Friday night's fights, Bellator did a good job of putting exciting fighters in the cage. The welterweight tournament semifinals featured Lyman Good beating Jorge Ortiz and Omar De La Cruz beating Dave Menne, both in exciting fashion, and I'll be looking forward to seeing Good vs. De La Cruz in the tournament final. Not all of these guys are all that good -- this was not a UFC-caliber show -- but none of them are boring.

In fact, the only boredom came from the delays in the action, delays that showed Bellator still needs to figure out how to run a live show more smoothly. The doors opened at 7 PM and the fights were scheduled to start at 8, but the first fight didn't actually get underway until 8:23. And there was a long pause before the final fight of the night, with fans sitting around unsure what they were waiting for. Delays like that can suck the energy out of the crowd.

But the delays at the start and end of the night couldn't detract from what was, overall, a very good MMA show. And I think we're going to see a lot more very good MMA shows from Bellator in the future.