TORONTO - As popular as mixed martial arts is these days, casual fans can be fickle and seem to have little interest in anything outside the UFC.
Over the last few years, many organizations that have attempted to compete directly with the world’s largest MMA promotion have either been bought out by the UFC’s parent company, Zuffa LLC, or simply run themselves into the ground with idiotic spending and flimsy business models.
Most recently, Zuffa scooped up Strikeforce, the second largest company in North America. Though the acquisition left a gap in terms of competition for the UFC, it also bumped a relatively new brand, Bellator Fighting Championships, into the No. 2 spot by default.
In an interview with QMI Agency, Bellator CEO Bjorn Rebney admitted that while this is a great opportunity, it could prove to be detrimental for growing the sport of MMA.
“Look, if you’re trying to develop great hockey players and you’ve got less hockey rinks, you’re going to develop less great hockey players,” Rebney said, adopting a rather Canadian analogy. “We’ve become the de facto second player in the space because Zuffa now has enveloped the WEC. PRIDE was gone many years ago based on the same acquisition plan of action and now Strikeforce is falling under the Zuffa banner.
“I don’t think anyone is confused by the fact that Strikeforce’s time is very limited. From a competition perspective, I looked at it as a positive because what it does is open a door for us to be able to sign more talent and there are two large-scale, nationally-televised events now in the United States. It gives us that competitive edge.”
Though Bellator has only been putting on fight cards for a little over two years, it continues to grow at a steady pace. The organization has a TV deal in the U.S. with MTV2 and airs regularly on The Score in Canada.
Rebney said defunct organizations like EliteXC, Affliction, Bodog and the IFL have offered him a substantial list of errors to avoid while building Bellator.
“I’ve been around this for a long time and I have watched with great interest failure after failure,” Rebney said. “You can learn through success, but, boy, you can learn an enormous amount by doing huge due-diligence on the failures of others.
“So when we made these decisions, they were strategic. They were well thought out. They were based on economics, fan reaction and ratings. They weren’t based on the principle other organizations have followed, which is throw the mud at the wall, see what sticks and then just kind of run after it.”
The organization takes another big step forward on July 23, when it makes its Canadian debut at Casino Rama in Rama, Ont. for Bellator 47. Rebney knows his first trip north of the border needs to be a blockbuster or he’s wasted a golden opportunity.
“My dad’s saying — and it’s one a lot of people use — is you never get a second chance to make a first impression,” Rebney said. “It’s one thing to have shows televised in Canada, which we’ve had for a long time, but it’s a whole other thing to bring up a live event.
“My job was to put together a show for this first event that could really light the world on fire and that’s what we’ve done.”
Bellator 47 will be headlined by one of the biggest championship fights in company history, as Joe Warren defends his featherweight strap against Patricio (Pitbull) Freire.
At Bellator 23 one year ago, Warren earned a controversial split decision over Freire to win the season’s featherweight tournament. He went on to claim the championship by stopping then-undefeated Joe Soto with strikes three months later.
However, many felt Freire beat Warren the first time around.
The first round was all Freire, who brutalized Warren before slipping in a rear-naked choke just as time expired. By all rights, the opening frame should have been scored 10-8 for damage and domination, but the judges only awarded it to Freire 10-9.
The second round was closer and hotly debated by fight fans at the time. Freire started out strong, but soon ran out of gas and found himself on his back with Warren working in some elbows.
The third round was Warren’s, who pretty much picked up where he left off towards the end of the second. If Freire didn’t win, it should have at least been a draw.
Rebney admitted he felt Warren won, but was quick to hype up Freire’s drive to fix the sole blemish on his record.
“If it’s not the best fight or the most anticipated fight we’ve ever put on, it’s surely close to the top of the list,” Rebney said excitedly.
“He’s been singularly focused since that loss — getting back into the tournament, winning the tournament, taking home that $100,000 and tournament championship, and earning that right to face Warren again. He refers to (Warren’s title) consistently as ‘my championship belt.’ So I think it’s been the driving force in everything he’s done and, man, has he looked good.”