With the purchase of Strikeforce last year by Zuffa, Bellator Fighting Championship became the de facto number two mixed martial arts (MMA) organization in the world.
While we don't expect Bellator to instantly be challenging the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) in bidding wars for fighters or going head-to-head in big ratings battles, the promotion has been doing many very smart things like signing several top prospects still in the development stage who are turning into stars before our eyes.
The shining example is Michael Chandler, a young man who had just three career fights when Bellator signed him in late 2010 and then went on to win the season four lightweight tournament and then submit champion Eddie Alvarez in the greatest fight in Bellator history last November.
Now, Chandler is widely regarded as a top 10 lightweight in the world.
The sixth season of the Bellator tournaments begins this Friday night (March 9, 2012) with Bellator 60 in Hammond, Ind., which features the featherweight tournament quarterfinals, as well as a Bellator featherweight championship fight between titleholder Joe Warren and another of Bellator's success stories, Pat Curran.
In advance of the sixth season, Bellator CEO and founder Bjorn Rebney spoke with MMAmania.com about everything from the new night and start time, an upcoming TV deal in Brazil and an update on the status of the recently stabbed heavyweight Blagoi Ivanov in part one of this two-part interview.
Check it out:
Brian Hemminger (MMAmania.com): First thing's first, I'd like to ask about the change in start time, the move to Fridays at 8 p.m. Is that going to be consistent? Last season you had to move around a bit depending on what else was going on.
Bjorn Rebney: Yeah, that was part of the reason for the move. TV lives and thrives on the concept of same time, same place, same channel. There's too many options out there for us as viewers. What we did last year on Saturday nights was we had to bump around a lot to get out of the way of major college football, get out of the way of major boxing pay-per-views, UFC shows. It was all kind of movement and we wanted to move to a night where we could get great consistency and always be in the same place at the same time and really kind of own the night from a live mixed martial arts world class MMA perspective, so what was the whole concept. We will be same time, same place, same channel for the next 25 events which will bring us right into our launch on Spike.
Brian Hemminger (MMAmania.com): Speaking of that, what are some things, you guys are scheduled to launch on Spike in 2013, what are some goals that you want to hit in 2012 to spread the word on Bellator and grow as a promotion?
Bjorn Rebney: Yeah, that's really it, just to keep growing. We want to keep putting on great event after great event, keep building stars, keep with the Mike Chandlers, the Doug Limas, the Patricio Pitbulls and continue to develop the next guys who will really be the cornerstone of this organization as we move into the new Bellator 2.0, the Spike years. As crazy as it sounds, we talk about 2013 but that's less than 10 months away now. It's shocking how quick this stuff happens but less than 10 months from now, we'll be full bore, pedal to the metal on Spike and we're really, really excited about it.
This year we're going to be doing a bunch of great events and building out all the champions and challengers. We're gonna have a ton of world title fights as part of the free TV package this year and it's gonna be a lot of refining, a lot of building to create great content now and get ready for that launch 10 months from now.
Brian Hemminger (MMAmania.com): About this upcoming show on March 9th, your debut of season six, you've got four tournament fights and a title fight. Are all of those fights going to be televised or is one going to be pushed to the Spike prelims?
Bjorn Rebney: Well it all depends on timing. The way we're gonna do it and that's a great question, a two hour show, you can't fit five fights onto a two hour show if the fights go the distance. If we get early stoppages, with the likes of Ronnie Mann, the likes of Marlon Sandro, Daniel Straus, the way Pat Curran's been finishing, you've got a lot of guys who can end fights quick so what we're gonna end up doing is, one of the four 145 pound tournament fights will be on the Spike.com show before we go to air. It will be world-wide free on Spike.com and then if there are any early stoppages, that will be the fight that fills. So for those fans watching on Spike.com, they'll see one of the four tournament fights on Spike.com and as you tune in on MTV2, if there's an early stoppage, you'll see that same tournament fight replayed on MTV2.
Brian Hemminger (MMAmania.com): Your featherweight champion Joe Warren, he had a tough first round, getting knocked out in the quarterfinals of the bantamweight tournament last year. Do you think because of that, a lot of people are really underestimating him heading into this title defense against Pat Curran on Friday night?
Bjorn Rebney: I'm sure there are some people underestimating Joe, but man, if there's one guy I would not bet against, it's Joe Warren. He has an unbelievable heart and he's furiously relentless. I think Pat's got his hands full. Anybody who faces Joe Warren, whether it be 145 or 135, they've got a night full of pain and discomfort that they should be looking forward to. He's got gas to spare, he's a two-time world champion wrestler and he's absolutely relentless. He will throw everything and anything at you. He's a tough fight. Warren is tough as nails.
He's the champion of our organization for a reason. He beat Patricio Pitbull who's on many people's list as a top three in the world at 145, he beat Kid Yamamoto when Kid was still on the top of the world, the number one guy on Earth at the time. He beat Joe Soto when Soto was ranked number six in the world at 145. Joe Warren's the real deal. He may not be the flashiest striker that you've ever seen but he's a relentless monster.
I said it when Chandler fought Alvarez, to anybody that would listen, do not count Mike Chandler out of this fight. If you do, you are making an enormous mistake, he is a monster, and nobody would listen. They were all like, "Oh, it's Eddie Alvarez, he's one of the top two lightweights in the world. It's gonna be a walk in the park, when are you gonna give him some competition?" I just kept saying, "Michael Chandler is a beast, do not count him out," and it was a fight of the year and Mike is now our world champion.
I've got to be honest, I think the same thing for Joe Warren. Do not count this guy out. He is a monster. This should be a war. Nobody is more cognizant of what's on the line than Joe Warren. He knows what this fight means. He knows what he's coming back from, that vicious knockout at the hands of Alexis Vila. He gets it. He's an old warrior. He understands that these chances are not gonna come around that often. It's not like Joe Warren has got 10 years to build and maneuver and manipulate a career so be careful when you force a pitbull's back against a wall in a small room.
Brian Hemminger (MMAmania.com): About the tournament, Wagnney Fabiano was one of the guys that you were really pushing as one of the big signings and he got injured, so I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about Mike Corey, who stepped up from the undercard to take on Ronnie Mann?
Bjorn Rebney: The funny thing about Mike is, he was our number nine in this tournament. He was our first alternate. Every time we do a tournament, there's a bout scheduled that includes the alternate so at any given moment, that alternate can step in from that number nine spot to the number eight spot if somebody bounces out. I was disappointed when Wagnney bounced out but I'll tell ya, Mike, you've go to know Mike's background and what he's been through.
Mike was the guy who was supposed to be in the lightweight tournament that Pat Curran ended up getting the last spot for. Mike was supposed to be in that lightweight tournament a year and a half ago when Pat Curran knocked Mike Ricci with that crazy right hand, then eeked out that victory by the smallest of margins against Roger Huerta than Toby Imada and then he stood toe-to-toe with Ed Alvarez and now look at him. At 145, most people have got him ranked number six in the world.
That was supposed to be Mike's spot and who knows, history's a wacky thing to try to gauge but had Mike followed the path that Pat Curran did. Mike's got wicked talent, he just hasn't been given the shot on the big stage and this is his shot. He was training like a crazed dog for the alternate spot in the hope that if he looked good as the alternate, he would get a shot in the upcoming fall tournament but now his shot is here and he's in against Ronnie Mann who's tough as nails and has looked really good inside our cage of late.
This is a guy who watched someone else take his spot in a tournament a year and a half ago and now Pat Curran's made well over a quarter million dollars with us. This will be his second world title Pat's fighting for. He's been on national television seven times in a 15 month period and I'm sure Mike looks at that every single day and says to himself, "Man, that should have been my ride," so I think you're going to see a very aggressive, very angry Mike Corey when he gets into that cage.
Brian Hemminger (MMAmania.com): That's a great story. Something that I see you get asked about a lot lately is Brazil. Bellator features a ton of great Brazilian talent. I think you've got several tournaments that are almost 50 percent Brazilian fighters coming up and you've got a whole bunch of Brazilian title challengers. You've mentioned how close you are to a TV deal, how important is it for you guys to break into Brazil?
Bjorn Rebney: Oh it's huge, it's absolutely huge. The proliferation of Brazilian talent underneath the Bellator banner speaks directly to who we are as an organization. Our reality is, it doesn't matter where you're from, it doesn't matter what language you speak, all that matters is how well you fight when that cage door locks behind you. You hit it right on the head. Whether you're talking about the Pitbull brothers or Doug Lima or Eduardo Dantas, the list just goes on and on of the wickedly deep talent pool that we've been able to cultivate in and through Brazil so the TV deal is major for us.
I anticipate the announcement, obviously I'm pretty close to it, I anticipate the announcement is literally gonna be in position to happen in the next, probably 10-12 days. It's something that we've been working on with a huge diligence and focus with our partners and we're super close. It's incredibly important to this organization. That is a wildly explosive mixed martial arts market and it creates, per capita, many of the greatest fighters in the world so it's a seminal, seminal territory for us to get in and keep a presence in developing talent out of.
Brian Hemminger (MMAmania.com): One of the things people were getting on me about asking you was the women's 125 pound division and how close that is to potentially getting a tournament. That just seemed like the number one thing that people were reaching out about so can I get an update about that?
Bjorn Rebney: Sure, it remains something that is top of mind for me as we move into the next incarnation of Bellator's development. We're going to be doing more tournaments per season and of course when we get to Spike, we're gonna be doing six tournaments per season every single season. I believe very strongly, and am focused with Sam Caplan and our creative development team on really developing some very talent ladies at 125 that we can funnel into that tournament. When exactly that can happen, I don't know. I hope that we can get it done in the next 12 month period and I believe we probably can.
We've got Jessica Eye, who's looked great inside of our cage, will be fighting for us on the Aoki vs. Alvarez card in her hometown of Cleveland, Ohio and what I think, a lot people are talking about what's going on this past weekend but the number one and number two in the world are going to face each other May 18th inside the Bellator cage in Lake Charles, Louisiana on MTV2 when Megumi Fujii fights Jessica Aguilar. That's the two best women on Earth today facing each other inside the cage on free TV so there's a lot of stuff in the works right now. It's really a matter of getting not just eight but 12-14 really talented women at 125 together, paring that list down to eight and giving it another roll and that's what I'd really like to get going. We're staying focused on it and we had that piece on it for MMA Uncensored Live on Spike which they talked to me about at great length.
I believe in it and I think that women today in mixed martial arts have got an amazing amount to offer. We've been blessed with some of the fights that have been in our cage. The Lisa Ellis fight versus Jessica Aguilar in Florida was awesome and unfortunately for Jessica, it got overshadowed by the fight of the year, Alvarez vs. Chandler, but if Alvarez-Chandler hadn't been the unbelievable Rocky-esque type of fight it was, people would have been talking about Lisa versus Jessica which was an amazing fight but they got dwarfed by this epic performance by those two guys.
We're focused on it, we're dedicated to it. Zoila Frausto-Gurgel is coming back and she's had about as bad a run with injuries as any human being in any sport I've ever seen but god-willing, hopefully she'll be able to heal and start hitting people in the face again which she does extremely well in short order. We're still on it and I hope we can get one done like I said within the next 12 months.
Brian Hemminger (MMAmania.com): I know some unfortunate news came out about one of your heavyweights Blagoi Ivanov getting critically injured with a knife wound. I heard you'd been in constant talks with his management team and was wondering if you had any updates on his status?
Bjorn Rebney: I'm glad you asked because a lot of people haven't asked about that. It's something we've been tracking twice a day, every single day getting reports from the hospital. The status now is he has been upgraded, which is awesome, from critical to stable. He is still to this day, being kept in a medically induced coma in order to try to do everything humanly possible from a medical perspective to enhance the chances of his whole recovery but there was an upgrade in his status. It happened Thursday in Bulgaria time.
We were extremely pleased to hear about the upgrade. He's still in a very guarded situation, still very dangerous, but nonetheless, there's an upgrade and any time you hear that, you've got to give thanks and hope that continues. He's strong as an ox, he's a young guy, an athlete and he's got the heart of a lion. We're just hoping against hope that he can continue to get out of the woods.
And that's not all. Make sure to tune in tomorrow where the real hard-hitting questions come out for part two of our interview with the Bellator CEO where we talk about UFC interference, the drama with Eddie Alvarez and Hector Lombard, Spike counterprogramming and much, much more.