Maybe the "face" was really just a faceplate?
It's with surprisingly mixed feelings that I reflect on the Bjorn Rebney era at Bellator. Given that things have gotten to the point where the parent company, Viacom, has decided to can its CEO and founder, one can't but stop and wonder what else has been happening behind the scenes that has led up to this point.
Bellator started out as a nice little small-time promotion that landed themselves a pretty good TV spot entirely from the get-go. With Strikeforce blowing up and signing every big-name heavyweight free agent in the world, Bellator was chugging along nicely in the smaller and middle divisions and making a name for its emulation of the PRIDE-era tournaments that captured many fans' imagination years ago.
Things were fairly smooth-sailing for quite some time. Bellator experienced the standard ups and downs of mixed martial arts (MMA) that plague everyone: bad decisions like Friere/Warren happened, but hey, those kind of things happen to every promotion, ain't that the truth, Mr. Pearson?
A couple champions like Cole Konrad weren't happy with the inactivity they'd suffered being champions-on-the-shelf as they waited for tournament winners to eventually get healthy and ready to go. In fact, Cole up and retired four months after his lone title defense against Eric Prindle because since winning the tournament, he couldn't support his family fighting once a year for $30,000.
Surprisingly, the limitations of the tournament format were a portend of problems to come, but I'll hit on that later.
It wasn't until Viacom ended up buying Bellator that things started getting squirrelly for the upstart promotion that made it big. Sit back and reflect for a minute. When did we, the viewing public, really start taking umbrage with the things that Bellator was doing? Pretty much all of them occurred Post Viacom (PV).
Eddie Alvarez's contract shenanigans? PV.
Tyson Nam's contract shenanigans? PV.
Ben Askren getting lowballed and dumped? PV.
People like Cosmo Alexandre, Zack Makovsky, Tony Johnson, and Roger Hollett getting jerked around? All PV.
Bellator's tournament format was the worst of all tournament formats. What PRIDE got right was that its Grand Prix (GP) basically took precedence over the title holding in that company. Winning the GP was the big thing -- being the champion of the weight class wasn't stressed as much. For example, Fedor Emelianenko beat Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira on March 25, 2003 for the heavyweight belt. Fedor then fought four more times that year, and none of them were title defenses. In fact, Fedor then was a participant in the next GP, beating Mark Coleman, Kevin Randelman and Naoya Ogawa before even facing Nogueira again in the finale of the tournament!
Wanderlei Silva is another prime example of this phenomenon. Despite having defended his middleweight belt a couple of times, Wandy entered the 2003 GP, winning it and famously defeating Quinton Jackson in the finale. In none of those bouts was his belt on the line. He went six fights before he defended that belt a third time -- again, against "Rampage." In fact, Ricardo Arona defeated "The Axe Murderer" in the next GP, but never got the belt. He would face Wandy again in Silva's next match for the belt, but would lose the title bout. He beat the champion, but was never the champ! Bizarre, but PRIDE never really focused on the belts too much.
Bellator's hang up of "the only way to get a title shot was to win a tournament" ended up biting them in the butt a few times. Hector Lombard is a fairly good example of that. He won the very first middleweight tournament back at Bellator 12, five years ago to this very month (June 19). He had 10 fights after that win (only half with that promotion) before signing with the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC). One of those was a title defense (Alex Shlemenko), and none of them were in another tournament. They managed to lose a huge chunk of their best 185-pounder to mostly nonsensical bouts with the likes of Jay Silva (loser of two straight in the UFC before getting cut going into that fight), and professional journeymen Herbert Goodman and Falaniko Vitale.
It's apparent that Viacom wants to get away from that self-enforced hamstringing and Rebney did not, which was one of the reasons this split happened, but as far as building a promotion goes, that's probably a good thing. There's no point in building your guy up through a tournament and then having him twiddle his thumbs and facing weird superfights while he waits for the next tournament winner to work his way up.
That's one thing PRIDE got right. You are the tournament winner! Congratulations! Now get back into the next tournament so you can stay active and in the public eye under this banner, rather than risking yourself against people no one has ever heard of in organizations that might not last the year.
It seems that the majority of hardball, hardline tactics that Bellator has employed have only come after Viacom bought the majority stake from Rebney in October of 2011, which makes me wonder.
What if all of that was on Viacom's end? Is it possible that Rebney was actually the mouthpiece for the corporation, while fighting the good fight behind the scenes? The sappy, less cynical side of me almost hopes that Bjorn spent the past three years, working tirelessly behind the scenes, talking to cold-hearted Viacom executive after executive about how forcing Alvarez into court with this matching nonsense was just the wrong thing to do.
Wouldn't it be the great underdog, fighting-for-the-little-guy story that is fodder for so many mediocre movies if Rebney would be in a board meeting, seething over the fact that Viacom changed the fight contracts to the "worst fucking contracts" in the industry? You know, the ones that add fight after fight to the deal to keep their winning fighters bound in perpetuity?
I mean, I'm generally a pessimist and kind of cynical, so I myself would have a hard time believing it.
But the manner and timing in which Rebney and ex-president Tim Danaher were ousted is enough to make me wonder -- just a little bit -- if there wasn't more going on behind the scenes than we've ever imagined.