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No rest for Bellator, Spike after debut event delivers

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Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

IRVINE, Calif. -- Bjorn Rebney admits there was a moment where he wondered if Bellator's debut fight card on Spike TV was going to get off to a less-than-stellar start.

Pat Curran's featherweight title fight Thursday night with Patricio "Pitbull" Freire at the Bren Events Center kicked off the live cable television broadcast. The opening five minutes could best be described as a feeling-out process.

"In the first, you're like ‘when's it going to start,'" the Bellator CEO admitted.

But just as Rebney began to wonder whether viewers across the country were going to click off Spike TV and seach for other prime-time fare, the Curran-Freire fight picked up. A five-round war of attrition led to a split decision for defending champion Curran, getting the main card off to a solid start.

"I assumed they'd be feeling each other out and they did," Rebney said. "Rounds two and three brought it up nicely, Four was a bit of a break, then five picked it up. It was a very tough fight. You can see it on Pat's face."

The Curran-‘Pitbull' slugfest set the tone for what, as a live event, lived up to expectations. Curran-Freire was followed by Mikhail Zayat's spinning back fist finish of Renato "Babalu" Sobral, then the show was capped with an impressive performance by unbeaten lightweight champ Michael Chandler in a dominant win over Rick Hawn.

A year's worth of planning went into the company's Spike debut, and a celebratory air permeated the post-fight press conference. Jon Slusser, the vice president of sports for Spike, was one of several network bigwigs on hand for the debut event.

"There was nervous anticipation, going into it tonight," Slusser said. "The buildup was so long. By the time you got here, I was so worked up inside. But it was an incredible night, it was super fun to be here, great fight, great fighters, great crowds."

Rebney, for his part, claims he's not even going to take any time to enjoy Thursday's successful live event, since he has to show up in Bellator's Orange County offices Friday morning and start working all over again.

"There are no deep breaths,' Rebney said. "We've gotten another one coming up this week. We've got [Karl] Amoussou-[Ben] Askren, which is a much different fight going into it than you saw here. It's got a much different feel to it going in .. I'm focused right now literally on next week.

"There's so much that goes into each one of these shows," Rebney continued. "It's not happening literally three or four weeks from now. It's next week. I will be on site in two days. ... I'll review the show tomorrow then it's on to the next show."

Gate and attendance figures weren't immediately available for the event, which was held on the campus of Cal-Irvine in a building set up to hold about 4,000 fans. The building crew was seen removing tarp from seats in the corner of the arena during the show in order to accommodate fans.

As of late Thursday night, at least, Rebney didn't have any hard info to go on other than the fact he had put on a night of solid MMA action in front of a full house. Either way, he doesn't want to set benchmarks for television ratings.

"We just literally, we've been talking about Bellator for almost the last four years," Rebney said. "In a general perspective, this was our first introduction to the general market. This was the first time live in prime time on Spike. So, this is a building process, it's a marathon, we're not running a sprint. We'll do the numbers we do, and hopefully we're looking for people to have tuned in tonight and say "we watched two hours of fights tonight, they were great fights, we're going to tune in again next week and tell our friends" and more people will watch. That's the progression we're looking for. Whatever the number is, we'll look to grow it and make it bigger."

Slusser echoed Rebney's sentiments.

"Bjorn calculated this," Slusser said. "As you know, the thing about this world is you can plan the greatest event, you never know, every promotion, you never know if it would be a great card, that's just what happens. We had great fights tonight, we had the luck of the MMA gods."