No one ever said the fight-promotion business was easy. Just ask Bellator CEO Bjorn Rebney.
"I don't think the gods of MMA are against us," Rebney said Saturday, after his second pay-per-view main event in as many tries fell apart. "Sometimes these things just happen."
There have been many attempts at unseating the mixed martial arts industry leader, the Ultimate Fighting Championship, in the pay-per-view market. Unlike most upstarts over the years who threw around a lot of money and then promptly went out of business, Rebney's company underwent a smart, disciplined five-year build toward MMA's holy grail.
Things still fell apart.
Last fall, Bellator had planned to match up two fighters with lasting names, former UFC light heavyweight champions Quinton "Rampage" Jackson and Tito Ortiz, as a lure to draw in fans and check out his current crop of fighters on the rest of the card. But Ortiz, as is his wont, pulled out of the bout with an injury.
As a result, the November event was pulled off pay-per-view, shuffled over to Spike TV, and the lightweight title rematch between Michael Chandler and Eddie Alvarez, which had previously been scheduled as the co-feature, was bumped up to the main event.
The silver lining was that Chandler-Alvarez, which had been one of the all-time great fights in 2011, delivered once again in a rematch, with an audience of 1.4 million viewers watching as Alvarez took a split decision and regained the belt Chandler took in the first bout.
All of a sudden, Rebney had his second chance at a PPV main event. A third fight between Chandler and Alvarez – with the credible hook that its solid final fight would give the duo a claim at the greatest trilogy in MMA history – was set for May 17. As a sweetener, the bout was placed in the Memphis area, and Jackson, the veteran on the Bellator roster with the most legs left as a draw, was added to the card in his hometown.
It was too good to be true.
This time, the twist of cruel fate came when Alvarez suffered a concussion in training, causing him to have to pull out of the fight with a week to spare.
And this time, the option wasn't quite as simple as pulling out of a PPV slot. When the UFC had to pull the plug on UFC 151 in 2012, its management already had a decade-long track record of producing money for big cable companies, so they were given a pass. If Bellator canceled, they would go 0-for-2 on delivering a product in the highly lucrative Saturday night prime-time slot. That would make titans such as Comcast and DirecTV hesitant to offer them a third go-round.
Also, there are issues related to fighter contracts. The promise of PPV bonuses was used to retain the services of Alvarez when he was offered a UFC contract. At some point, the company is actually going to have to deliver on that promise.
Thus, Saturday, Rebney found himself on a media teleconference, pushing the idea Chandler – indisputably one of MMA's finest lightweight talents – would meet someone named Will Brooks for an interim belt, with the winner presumably to meet Alvarez somewhere down the line. Rampage's fight with "King Mo" Lawal was bumped up to the main event.
You don't get to be a successful fight promoter without the ability to lay it on thick when needed (how often has the UFC proclaimed you're about to watch the most stacked card of all-time?), and Rebney, who was a successful boxing promoter before diving into MMA, channeled his inner carnival barker to push the merits of his reconstituted fight card.
"There was never a question or hesitation to keep this level of an event on pay-per-view," Rebney said. "We had an utterly spectacular show and now we've got a spectacular show and could not be happier about it. It's staying right where it is."
A bit less practiced in the art of fight hype is Brooks. The 27-year-old Chicagoan is a solid fighter, with a 13-1 record, and working out of an elite camp, South Florida's American Top Team. He's also never been in a spotlight anywhere near this big, and it showed Saturday, when he ripped into reporters and fans for even daring to ask if the bout was PPV-worthy.
"People are asking the question, why is Bellator selling a pay-per-view for $30 here, or whatever and I don't exactly know how the ratings go and how much the price goes," Brooks said. "Really, all people are doing is when they ask this question, all you are making yourself sound like is a cheap ass. You are devaluing the fighters, the event, and the organization. ... If you watch, you watch. If you don't, you're a damn fool."
If that's the case, everyone except Brooks' friends and family must be fools, because those are the only people who have ever paid money to watch Will Brooks fight.
And not just that, but Bellator's fan base – and even for weekly events where their ratings are down, there are still several hundred thousand people tuning in – has grown accustomed to watching even Bellator's best fights on basic cable. The average fan equates Bellator with "free" (even if basic cable isn't actually free) fights.
We're currently in the middle of a glut of MMA product. Between Saturday and Fourth of July weekend, the UFC is putting on 10 cards, including three PPV events; Bellator is running its usual Friday-night Spike slate; and World Series of Fighting has a pair of cable events of their own.
With that as a backdrop, who's the fool? The one who pays money for yet another fight card, or the one who doesn't? Rebney did his best to reel the conversation back in after Brooks' curious remarks.
"Divorce yourself from the math hits," he said. "Divorce yourself from the logos. Look at the fights on the card. Measure it according to the fights on the card and then make your decision."
Follow Dave Doyle on Twitter: @DaveDoylemma
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