After Friday night's slate of fights in Chicago, you can see why Bellator is poised to grow. Even if you know nothing about their partnership with ESPN, or how their fighters have become Youtube sensations, the packed Aragon Ballroom, raucous crowd and exciting fights would say enough about the future of the fledgling promotion. The card was complete with knockouts, submissions and a women's bout that was unquestionably the fight of the night. It was the kind of night that would leave fans wanting more.
The growth of Bellator so far has been in large part due to the fact that it has been able to quench the thirst of the fans who want. With events every week on ESPN Deportes, and then each fight quickly showing up on Youtube, Bellator is banking on the fact that fans want MMA all the time. Add into that a deal with ESPN, and some exciting fights, and voila, you have a stable promotion. According to CEO Bjorn Rebney, that was the plan from the start.
"We worked on the partnership with ESPN for three years, and I love it. We had other opportunities presented to us in the interim, and my saying was always, 'He who gets ESPN wins.' Their distribution power, their hit to the demographic, their reach to 18-35 year old males and just the reality of sports programming; if you can form an alliance with them, they reach more people by mistake than everybody else does on purpose. This was our door opening. After three years of conversations, and presentations, they said, 'You can start on Deportes.'"
And as Bellator continues to grow in popularity and viewership, ESPN is likely to give it a chance on a more widely distributed channel.
"Next fall, you will be able to see Bellator Fighting Championships in a much larger universe, which will include English language, " Rebney said. "That was always our plan, to go to English-language, but not to abandon the Hispanic market."
MMA, though largely practiced by Latinos, had not been marketed specifically to Latinos. Bellator was more than happy to fill that void.
"No one in MMA yet has really focused hardcore energy on having Spanish-language ring announcers, Spanish-language commentators, and geared toward and focuses on world-class Spanish language talent. You look at our finalists. Toby Imada, born in Mexico, now living in the United States. Eddie Alvarez, who is of Puerto Rican descent. Yahir Reyes fights out of Tijuana, and Joe Soto, who fights out of northern California, his father is from Mexico. There are some tremendously talented Latino fighters out there, and fortunately, we've got a lot of them. The Latino fanbase, as far as following fighters, is electrifying."
Another coup that has helped Bellator grow was the exciting finishes that Imada and Reyes provided. Imada's inverse triange choke and Reyes' spinning backfist knockout became Youtube sensations instantly, and made Bellator more recognized among MMA fans. So was that Bellator's plan all along?
Fighters are more willing to take chances
"Part of it has been luck. The Toby Imada submission was a freak of nature. I've never seen anything close to that, even an attempt. It was an oddity, but I will say this. Between Yahir Reyes spinning backfist last week and Toby Imada's inverted triangle choke, I think guys are willing to take more risks in a tournament structure. The money is so good, and the motivation is so high, because if you lose, you go home. They are willing to do things they might not otherwise try to do. I'm not saying for a minute that our structure created that. It didn't. But I'd like to believe that because there is so much money on the line, and it's one chance, or you're back going home, I'd like to think that played a role in Toby trying something out of left field, and Yahir looking at the situation and saying, 'I'm losing this fight, I've got to pull something out.' "
Exciting matchups is evidently part of the Bellator strategy. On Friday, Kerry Vera won over Leslie Smith in a decision for the ages. Eddie Sanchez TKOed Jay White in ten seconds. Omar De La Cruz and Lyman Good are set up for a thrilling bout for the welterweight championship after they both won by TKO.
This isn't to say that Bellator is running perfectly. As a new organization, it still has kinks to work out. It didn't start on time, and the timing between fights was odd. It wasn't easy to tell how long there was between each bout, making it hard to judge if you had time to run to the bathroom, or grab a beer. Fighters also weren't made available to the media after their fights, making our jobs a bit harder, and the chance for a connection between fighters and fans a bit smaller.
But those are small problems that can be worked out with time and experience. Aside from those issues, the Bellator Fighting Championships has figured out a growth strategy that is working. Fans of MMA should be happy about the choice.
- Toby Imada