Kimbo Slice, GLORY kickboxer. That was almost a thing last year.
GLORY CEO Jon Franklin told MMA Fighting this week that he and his staff discussed the possibility of bringing the wildly popular former streetfighter in for a bout. Slice had competed in boxing before and, obviously, had a history in MMA. At the time, Slice was already on the Bellator MMA roster and GLORY and Bellator shared a television network, Spike TV.
Talks ceased pretty quickly, though. Nothing personal against Slice, but GLORY execs didn't want to compromise the promotion's identity as the top kickboxing organization in the world by putting forth a subpar product.
"Ultimately, while we had discussions about doing some big events like that, the decision really was that we want to be a true sporting league," Franklin said. "The best athletes in the world fighting for the top prizes against the best athletes in the world. That's really who we are and what we want to be, a global sporting league."
In a nutshell, that is the main reason why Spike TV parted ways with GLORY last fall. Spike, like all television networks, is in the ratings business. GLORY's unwillingness to do things like bring in the likes of Slice for "fun fights" that would draw numbers meant those two parties were no longer a good fit for each other.
Spike will stay in the kickboxing business with Bellator Kickboxing, led by Bellator MMA and longtime kickboxing promoter Scott Coker. GLORY has moved onto ESPN's family of networks (ESPN 2 and 3, mainly) and UFC Fight Pass. GLORY 28 is set for Saturday with its Superfight Series airing on Fight Pass and its numbered card on ESPN 3.
"They were really pushing us into things that we didn't want to do," Franklin said of Spike TV. "Scott is a great promoter and a wonderful man. He was really working on and trying to help us at the time with matchmaking and things like that. But really, we need to control our own matchmaking. We've got our own talent operations team. We've got the best kickboxers in the world. We need to manage our own destiny. Some of the things that they were doing [at Spike] weren't necessarily the direction that we wanted to go."
Bellator MMA's formula, like it or not, is working. Last month's Bellator 149, headlined by over-the-hill legends Royce Gracie and Ken Shamrock and Slice vs. fellow streetfighter Dada 5000, did massive ratings -- an average of almost 2 million viewers with 2.5 million on average watching Slice vs. Dada. It was the highest rated Bellator event ever. It also landed Dada, whose real name is Dhafir Harris, in the hospital after suffering cardiac arrest.
What Bellator and Spike are doing isn't pure sport. But it's obviously what a large amount of people want to watch. On the other hand, GLORY has the best kickboxing brand in the world, but ratings on Spike were stagnant at best, especially toward the end.
"They're getting great ratings and they're accomplishing a lot," Franklin said. "But is it because people like to watch a train wreck or is it because it's the best fighting in the world? ... Everybody drives by that car accident and slows down. They've gotta see it, even if it's gruesome."
Bellator Kickboxing, which launches in April, will be a direct competitor to GLORY. But it's obvious the two promotions will be trying to do different things.
"We are looking for a certain type of fighter," Coker said last month at the introductory press conference. "We are looking for a certain type of personality in the fighter. That's really what it comes down to. Not every fighter that fights for GLORY or any other kickboxing organization around the world is going to fit here in Bellator Kickboxing. We will be scouting the planet for the fighters that we want and those are the fighters we are going to invest in and build."
However, Bellator Kickboxing has already plucked American star Raymond Daniels from GLORY and two-sport fighter Joe Schilling will soon join him. Schilling competed on the GLORY 27 Superfight Series (on UFC Fight Pass) in February and has one more left fight on his GLORY contract, but he plans on then bolting to Bellator Kickboxing. He was at the introductory press conference in Houston and is also a contracted Bellator MMA fighter.
"It's an exciting sport," Schilling said of kickboxing. "It's just a matter of having the right people to promote it in the right way so that people will tune in and watch it. I think the right person is Scott Coker.
"The sport sells itself. It's the product is there, you've just gotta get people to watch it. I think Bellator and Spike understand that and that was really the basis behind my decision of sticking with them."
Dustin Jacoby, a former Bellator MMA fighter and current GLORY kickboxer, said he has also been contacted about coming over to Bellator Kickboxing. It's something he's considering.
"These days, once there's bigger markets out there picking up other people, that starts throwing the price and value of the fighters up a little bit," Jacoby said. "We'll see how it plays out. I think competition breeds success and I think that's what will happen between GLORY and Bellator."
There's no doubt in Jacoby's mind, however, where the best fighters still are and that's GLORY.
"I love GLORY," Jacoby said. "I think there are some things going on behind the scenes that they have to step it up if they want to compete with these other organizations. They have the top fighters. I know for a fact [about] the guys they have on the roster. I would much rather face these guys that Bellator is gonna start signing, especially at the beginning. Because I know what kind of killers GLORY has."
That's exactly what Franklin wants to hear. GLORY is more concerned with having the best fighters going for the most prestigious titles than drawing the biggest numbers. Being on ESPN, the worldwide leader in sports, was a dream of matchmaker Cor Hemmers, Franklin said.
But without significant ratings, how can GLORY survive? Franklin said most of the company's revenue now comes from international television deals. Ticket sales in Europe and sponsorships with American companies also generate money.
It's not that GLORY doesn't want to draw the eyes of as many people as possible. It's just that Franklin and his staff want to do it with elite-level kickboxers, rather than special attractions like Slice. Some would call those "freak show" fights.
The onus is on GLORY to make incredible talents like welterweight champion Nieky Holzken and heavyweight champ Rico Verhoeven big stars in the United States, which is not easy considering they are both from the Netherlands and kickboxing is even more of a niche than MMA is in the U.S.
"Ultimately, you've gotta bring those guys to the public and the public has to embrace them," Franklin said.
Easier said than done. Bellator Kickboxing will surely have bigger names that fans recognize right off the bat. Franklin is not only OK with that, but he likes the idea of the new promotion's existence. Competition is a good thing, in his mind.
"We have the best kickboxers in the world," Franklin said. "I personally truly believe that the more kickboxing product is out there on television, the better it is for everyone. I love seeing other promoters get into kickboxing. I love seeing other networks get into kickboxing. Because it becomes more of a mainstream sport."
While Bellator Kickboxing will be attempting to draw ratings numbers, GLORY will work to make sure it is still the best in terms of talent and sport. The goals will be different.
"When UFC Fight Pass announced our partnership, they said that GLORY is the No. 1 kickboxing promotion in the world and we have to keep it that way," Franklin said. "We have to make sure our belts are the most important belts for the fighters. We plan on doing that and we plan on continuing to do that."
That means you won't be seeing anyone like Kimbo Slice, Dada 5000 or CM Punk fighting for GLORY any time soon. For better or for worse.
"Ratings aren't everything," Franklin said. "There's more to sports than just the ratings. ... Our style and what we want to be is the top kickboxing league in the world. We feel that we are. We want to have the best athletes fighting the best athletes on the best television networks. And that's our goal. Other promotions can drive ratings however they want. Everybody has their own thing that they're doing."