With Bellator’s switch to Spike TV approaching, a paradigm shift in the MMA landscape looms. Will the change in network from MTV2 to the channel that birthed The Ultimate Fighter elevate the sport’s number two promotion as the UFC lags on FOX’s multiple platforms? Will the Bellator reality TV show reportedly in the works simply be a rehash of TUF? Will Bjorn Rebney shave his head and start asking aspiring mixed martial artists if they “want to be a f*cking fighter?” Fighters.com caught up with the Bellator frontman the day before Thanksgiving, and got his perspective on things.
The upcoming season for Bellator is the first that you’ll be on Spike TV. Talk about the synergy that exists between you two and the degree to which you guys are decision-making partners.
Rebney: The synergy is at a very, very high level. I’m very fortunate in that I have an opportunity to take some wisdom that my mom gave to me years ago about business, and put it into play every day. The wisdom that she gave to me was, and it sounds kind of counterintuitive when you say it, but it was, “Strive to not be the smartest guy in the room.” And the idea behind it is, really, to put your energy into trying to surround yourself with some really incredibly smart people who can elevate your game. To really be effective at business, you’ve got to surround yourself with incredibly smart people with great track records and great accomplishments. I’ve done that.
I have the privilege to, on a day in and day out basis, work with Kevin Kay, who heads the Spike network and who is the most innovative and creative mind that makes things happen in the MMA space that television has really ever seen. I get to work with a large group of people at that network who are just super-smart and educated in terms of this game. The synergy has been terrific. We work on everything together, from key fighter signings to the enhancement of our production to musical scores for our shows to new opens and teases to feature pieces development, to stories behind our athletes to production enhancements that will give fans a better view of Bellator. As well as on strategic initiatives for the business itself – marketing and promotional initiatives, partnerships and alliances that we’re going to form with partners, expanding our reach and our footprint internationally. The synergies that exist in that relationship are tremendous.
I’ve been working in sports television and in the production and promotion of events now for over twenty years. I’ve been very, very fortunate to work with some giants. I’ve worked with ESPN for many years, I got the chance to work with FOX for many years, I’ve worked with some great, great players. But I’ve never worked with a team that has a better understanding of the space and is more dedicated and focused to this than the team at Spike network. They’re the best.
Is the product that we’re going to see, the Bellator TV show – the weekly show, the fight show – is that going to be much different than what we know of it right now?
Rebney: When we launch in January, I think you see some very noticeable improvements and changes to what you’ve seen over the last year and a half to two years. We’ve been working simultaneously, literally over the last seven months, preparing for the launch on Spike while also continuing to put out a high-level show on MTV2. So there will be some noticeable changes and improvements and enhancements to the show that we’ve been working on with our partners at Spike, and I think you’ll literally be able to turn on the show and say, “Whoa, I can completely see that.” It won’t be the kind of minor, week-by-week changes and enhancements and adjustments that we’ve been making over the last year and a half. And there have been a lot of them and we’ve been doing a good job doing them. But I think you’ll see a series of new elements to the show and new elements that directly relate to what fans get to see on the TV show that have been well-thought out. We’ve had some great people working on them with us, and I think they’ll be very noticeable when you turn on the TV in January on Spike.
You’ve been pretty mum about details when it comes to the reality show, but can you tell us if it’s going to be similar to The Ultimate Fighter? Will the fighters be cooped up in the house?
Rebney: Well, I think it’s safe to say it’s going to be different from The Ultimate Fighter. One of the things that we’ve got going for us, which I think is really positive for what we’re doing on this front, is that the gentleman that we’ve aligned with to produce the show – Bertram van Munster – is that he’s the brain surgeon behind The Amazing Race. And if you’ve ever watched the Amazing Race, one of the things that’s really good about it from a TV perspective, that really draws so many people to it week in and week out, is it does not feel like your typical reality show. It doesn’t have that, you know, that typical kind of cookie-cutter format that we see across so many shows today. It almost feels like a competitive documentary, where you’re getting to know the people and you get invested in them, but they’re not the “[Real] Housewives of New York” who are screaming for the sake of screaming. They’re real people, enduring real hardship, really competing.
And it’s entertaining, but it doesn’t have that typical reality show feel to it. That’s aligned with what we’re about as a company. And I think, when you ultimately get a chance to see the show, it will ring true to a lot of the things that make Bellator Bellator – the competition, the win and move on/lose and go home, the lack of some of the cliché-esqe type of reality things that we see where someone gets voted back on an island. It will be very true to who we are as a company, but it will have some really unique twists and some really interesting storyline developments. Things that I think are going to make for a good show. I’m happy with what we’ve been developing with our partners at Spike and our partners at Profile, and I think we’ve the chance to do something that’s very cool. It will be entertaining for MMA fans and non-MMA fans alike.
How much of a presence are you going to have on the show? Are you going to line up all the contestants and ask them if they “want to be a f*cking fighter”?
Rebney: *laughs* I may have some presence on the show. It won’t be a pronounced presence. My focus is very, very hardcore on what we do from a live event perspective. Those twenty-five live events that we’re going to do on Spike in 2013, that’s where the vast majority of my focus goes. That is the show I’m the executive producer of, that is the show that I run soup to nuts and look at every single element – every single piece of music, every tease, every bump, every intro, every in, every out – that is where my very, very detailed involvement lies. But I may have a presence in some areas of the reality show that you’ll see, but it’s not going to be a big, pronounced over-the-top presence. I can tell you that.
You’ve asked fans to decide who gets matched up between Ben Saunders, Doug Lima, War Machine and Paul Daley. Can you tell us what match-up permutation is in the lead?
Rebney: Spike wants the series, and I think the team over there, from a Spike creative perspective, did a great job on the series. When they first sent me the link on the series, the first thing I emailed back to my friends Neil and Dave was, “This belongs on TV.” I mean, no disrespect to the digital platform, but this is like “24/7”-esque. They did an amazing job. The first story they really featured on has been Jon’s [Koppenhaver, a.k.a. “War Machine”] story in terms of his transition out of prison and back into training. So Jon’s gotten a lot of hits, and a lot of focus and attention has been on Jon. Ben “Killa B” Saunders has gotten a lot of focus as well. I don’t know that there’s a true frontrunner as we speak right now.
Daley is always interesting to people. As I’ve always said about Paul Daley, he’s one of those guys, as a fight fan I used to stay home to watch. When Daley was fighting, I used to intentionally stay home and irritate my wife by just staying home to watch him. It was always going to be that kind of “live by the sword, die by the sword” explosive-type of outing. Unless of course he got held down by somebody for the entirety of the fight.
But I don’t know if it’s to the point where there’s actually a frontrunner because we’ve got some time for the fans to decide, but Jon’s gotten a lot of attention just because of the first couple of features out of the box that Spike’s produced on him.
Is there a particular match-up between those four welterweights that you’d like to see?
Rebney: Of the four, less people in the general market are familiar with Doug Lima – which I think is obviously something we will remedy as we move to Spike. But it’s unfortunate because Lima is a monster. You didn’t get to see it in the Ben Askren fight, but Askren’s made it a practice now of winning twenty-four and a half minutes of a 25-minute fight. But if you look at Lima’s performance before the Askren fight, he was decimating people. His one-punch, short right-hand knockout of Saunders was tremendous, and Saunders has got a wickedly-good chin. His knockout of Chris Lozano was one the most violent knockouts I’ve ever seen in MMA. There’s not a bad fight in the group, but I sure wouldn’t mind seeing Saunders rematch with Lima, because I thought that was going to be awesome. I thought what we were going to get would be two and a half or three rounds before somebody went to sleep. Lima ended it early. They were both looking to exchange, they both threw right hands at the same time, it’s just that Lima’s got there first. I wouldn’t mind seeing that fight, but how could you go wrong with Daley/War Machine or Daley/Saunders? Daley/Saunders would be epic.
My question about Jon is if he’s going to be able to get back to a significant enough level in a two-and-a-half-month period after having been living in a box for a year to get to that level. I don’t know. He’s incredibly focused and dedicated to doing it, I just don’t know if he’s going to be able to do it. There are a lot of unknowns, but it makes for an interesting story.
Your thoughts on Rich Clementi retiring?
Rebney: I’ve been a fan of his for many, many years. I’m an equal fan of him as a person as I am a fighter. He’s just a good guy. He’s got a great wife, a great kid. He’s good for MMA. He’s hugely focused and gives his time to people and to causes, a lot of his time to military causes and going out and working with military personnel. He’s a good person. When we did our last event in New Orleans we went with Rich – it was almost like having another arm to the promotion, just having Rich and his family and his gym on board. He’s real good people, and I completely respect his decision to retire at this point. He’s been banging his body around in this game for a lot of years. Now he’s got a foot issue, he’s got a knee issue that he discovered and needs to be fixed. He’s got a very successful gym. Rich is going to be successful at whatever he does, and I respect the heck out of him. If this is a decision that he’s comfortable with, I’m completely supportive of it. And there’s little doubt in my mind that we’ll have interaction and be doing stuff in the future, because he’s just good people and he’s super-smart and he knows the game and across the board everybody just likes him.
If MMA gets sanctioned in New York in early 2013, how soon can we expect Bellator to be there?
Rebney: I think that we’d be there very quickly. If MMA does get sanctioned, and obviously it still remains a big “if”, but if it did happen, we would get there pretty quick. Like the UFC, we’ve been eyeing the market for some time. Obviously, our partners – our legitimate partners in our enterprise, Viacom – are based in New York, in a huge building, the biggest building in the middle of Times Square. We’ve got a lot of connectivity there with our sponsors and with our advertisers and with our TV partners and with our partnership with Viacom. So we would be there very quickly. The bigger question becomes “when” and “if”.
Any particular venue you’d want to have the show in?
Rebney: A lot of different First Nation Indian casinos have reached out to us in and around the New York area. Not necessarily downtown Manhattan, of course, but in and throughout New York. Many of those are being respectful of the state’s overall position on MMA right now. So even though they’re on Sovereign Land, they haven’t been willing to go against what the state as a whole is doing and the position it currently has. Which obviously I disagree with, but that’s the current position that they have on MMA. But when [sanctioning] happens, I think we’ll have a collection of alternatives in the state to work with, and we’ll just have to see which one is the best fit for what we’re doing.
What’s Thanksgiving like in the Rebney household?
Rebney: Today is a long day of work getting a lot of things done. Tomorrow will be just family and friends coming over to the house with my wife and kids and dog and cat and parents and sisters and stuff like that, and friends of the wife. Friday, I’m going to be back in the office, working – not because there’s a lot of calls or meetings, but just because it’s a kind of great opportunity where the lights are down and the phones aren’t ringing off the hook, to get out from underneath a lot of stuff that builds up during the week. And then, you know, just get ready to start focusing on next week. We’ve got a great show coming up, the Andrey Koreshkov fight with Lyman Good should be spectacular. We’ve got to get ready and get focused on that, I’ve got to start editing pieces. But Thursday will be a down day for me.
PHOTO CREDIT – BELLATOR