ONTARIO, Calif. – Aspiring mixed martial arts promoters from coast to coast have gone to great lengths to draw an audience over the past several years.
From associations with celebrities to rock concerts featuring washed-up heavy metal acts to creating entire leagues with teams of fighters, if there's a promotional gimmick out there, chances are someone has tried it.
But there's still no substitute for the buzz provided by running a quality product. And that's just what upstart Bellator Fighting Championship is building. The promotion culminated a critical and artistic success of a featherweight tournament on Friday night when Joe Soto defeated Yahir Reyes in the finals at Citizens Business Bank Arena to become the company's first 145 lb. champion .
"If you look at what other companies did, if you see how the IFL and Elite XC spent their money, you think 'there's no way they could have made it,' " said Bellator CEO Bjorn Rebney, who cut his teeth as the promoter of the Sugar Ray Leonard boxing series on ESPN2. "I've promoted successfully before, I've made money without overspending, and I've worked with ESPN before and know what they're looking for."
The jury is still out on whether Bellator will make it, but if it doesn't make the grade in the long run, it won't be because of a poor promotional model. The company, which hits the airwaves Saturday nights on ESPN Deportes and emphasizes Latino fighters at lighter weights, isn't flushing millions down the toilet in its attempt to gain a foothold. Instead, they're using ESPN's first-rate production combined with a roster of hungry young fighters.
But all the corporate backing and production values in the world won't mean a thing without action in the cage. And that's what Bellator delivered in its three-round featherweight tourney, which succeeded in turning both Soto and Reyes into name fighters in the MMA world.
The 22-year-old Soto, a native of Porterville, Calif., is just finishing his first full year as a pro. A collegiate wrestler at junior college powerhouse Iowa Central Community College, Soto fought once in 2006 before devoting himself to MMA full-time in the past year, winning each of his first five fights via first-round stoppage.
"Last year I told my parents I was quitting school because I wanted to fight for a living," Soto said. "I didn't know what they'd say, but they told me they supported me in whatever I do and told me to come home and train if that's what I want to do."
Soto first turned heads in the tournament semifinals on May 8 when he upset tourney favorite and former Elite XC bantamweight champion Wilson Reis via unanimous decision.
Soto continued his momentum on Friday with a one-sided display in winning the title. Soto took Reyes down early and turned in as dominant a round as you'll ever see, raining down uncontested punches for the duration as Reyes turtled. Y! Sports scored the first five minutes 10-7 Soto.
Reyes was cognizant and back on his feet to start the second round, but it was more of the same as Soto took Reyes down early and continued to work over his foe. With referee Jason Herzog apparently not going to call off the fight short of Soto ripping Reyes' head off his body, Soto applied a rear naked choke and scored a submission at 4:11 of the second round.
"He was getting hit with some hard shots," said Soto. "I asked [Herzog] to stop the fight. If you cover up like he did you don't want to fight anymore. I'm not in this to seriously hurt anyone. The fight should have been stopped sooner."
Soto got a $100,000 bonus for winning the tournament, and said he was going to pour the money right back into his training. "I'm just really happy and feel blessed," said Soto (7-0), who indicated he would use much of the money to buy new equipment for his gym. "This has really been an amazing year. Having to fight three times in a month has really helped me click and allowed me to hone my skills faster than I ever would have imagined." Despite the loss Friday, the Tijuana-based Reyes (14-6-1) still has his moment in the sun during the tourney. He created his buzz on that same May 8 card with an otherworldly left-handed spinning backfist knockout of Estevan Payan that is the clubhouse leader for KO of the year. That work of art became an instant YouTube sensation, with the clip closing in on the 360,000 views mark as of this writing.
"That's the great thing about mixed martial arts," said Rebney. "You go into this tournament and you figure Wilson Reis is the favorite. But then you get someone young and hungry like Joe Soto who gets hot, and you get someone like Yahir, who you think might be an underdog, and he grabs everyone's attention with that knockout. We gave these guys an opportunity to show what they're made of and they've answered the call."
Rebney doesn't have much time to stop and bask in the featherweight tourney's success, though, as the event marked week 10 in a 12-week sprint of Friday night events that constitute Bellator's first season on ESPN Deportes. Indeed, simply booking four title tournaments in a short time span presented a unique series of logistical challenges.
"We had people tell us this wouldn't work," said Rebney. "They'd point to the early UFC tournaments, or PRIDE tournaments, and talk about how guys would get injured and substitutes would get in at the last second and win. But as long as the fighters don't come down with a legitimate, major injury, they're going to be clear for the next fight."
Rebney and his team saw to that by adding precautions to the early round of the tournament, such as banning elbows on the ground before the finals, to lessen the chance a fighter would be subjected to a laceration that would earn an athletic commission medical suspension. As a result, the tourneys have gone off without a hitch, as all the finalists in the upcoming lightweight, welterweight and middleweight tournaments completed a full slate of fights without the need to use a substitute.
ESPN has been happy enough with the show's ratings, which have averaged a 1.0, to order a second season. And the 2,500 or so fans on hand in Ontario enjoyed an action-packed night, which included one of the best short fights of the year as a bloody Diego Garijo rallied to submit Saad Awad. But will it be enough to make a go of it in the long term?
"We've done everything we can," said Rebney. "The fans will be the ones who ultimately decide."
Nick Moghaddam (4-3) def. Lamar Jiles (2-3), DQ (knee to downed fighter), 4:14 R3.
Jesse Juarez (14-4-1) def. Mikey Gomez, unanimous decision.
Travis Browne (5-0) def. Mychal Clark (6-8), unanimous decision
Israel Giron (10-1) def. Phil Brown, submission (rear naked choke), 2;42 R1.
Diego Garijo (4-1) def. Saad Awad (7-3), submission (rear naked choke), 4:45 R1.
Bryan Baker (10-1) def. Matt Horwich (22-13-1), unanimous decision
Wilson Reis (8-1) def. Roberto Vargas (6-1), split decision.
Bellator featherweight championship: Joe Soto def. Yahir Reyes, submission (rear naked choke), 4:11 R2 (Soto becomes first champion).
- Joe Soto
- Yahir Reyes