With Strikeforce swallowed by the industry-leading Zuffa and the collapse of Japanese mixed martial arts business, the Bellator Fighting Championships has become the sport's de facto No. 2 organization in MMA.
The tournament-based promotion has no lack of intriguing in-cage storylines, such as the ambitions of featherweight champion Joe Warren, whose lofty goals for the next year include winning the bantamweight tournament and championship and capturing an Olympic wrestling medal in London.
Then there is emergence of an amazing class of wrestlers like Ben Askren and Cole Konrad, the promotion's welterweight and heavyweight champions respectively, and Alexis Vila, a 1996 Olympic wrestling bronze medalist, who has taken on a second career as a knockout artist in MMA.
While this new generation of fighters develops, all eyes are on the company's television future. Bellator currently airs on MTV2 in a Saturday-night time slot and draws roughly 200,000 viewers per week.
If UFC leaves Spike TV when its contract expires at the end of 2011, and if Spike wants to continue broadcasting MMA, Bellator would be the leading candidate to land the slot. Such a move would likely triple its viewership immediately and open up growth in almost every area of business for both the promotion and its fighters.
While Bellator CEO Bjorn Rebney is an interested observer, at this point he's going with the idea of a long-term future on MTV2.
"We have a multi-year deal with MTV2, so that's where we're going to be," said Rebney. "We're preparing for a season in the fall and a season in the first quarter of 2012. We have three full days of shooting with a 70-man crew and a whole team from the MTV networks at Hofstra University. Everything is geared around MTV2. What happens with the UFC is anybody's guess. Whether they wind up with Comcast, FOX, Spike, I have no more knowledge than anyone else. I'm trying to elevate us on MTV2."
While there is a contract in place, MTV2 and Spike are both Viacom properties. Spike officials attended some Bellator events during the spring, and Bellator has a working agreement with Spike's pro-wrestling property, Impact Wrestling, plugging its television show once per broadcast. Spike TV ads for "The Ultimate Fighter" ran frequently on Bellator shows over the spring season.
Currently, the company broadcasts monthly shows until the fall, when it returns to its weekly format. The summer season is built around a featherweight tournament, the semifinals of which run Saturday night from Rama, Ontario, with Nazareno Malegarie (20-1) facing tournament favorite Marlon Sandro (18-2) and Ronnie Mann (20-3-1) facing former Bellator lightweight tourney winner Pat Curran (14-4).
Bellator returns for a full season on Sept. 10 with a series of three month-long tournaments, most notable being a bantamweight tourney that will start on the Sept. 24 show at a location yet to be determined. It is, at least on paper, the strongest tournament in company history.
The first round will include, from a credentials standpoint, one of the best match-ups of Greco-Roman wrestlers in MMA history. Warren, the 2006 Greco-Roman world champion and current featherweight champion, drops to 135 to face Vila, who won world titles at 105 pounds in 1993 and 1994 prior to his Olympic bronze. Fourty-year-old Vila, a Cuban native who now lives in Miami, turned to MMA four years ago and has a 9-0 record with six knockouts and two submissions, but this will be his debut on the national stage.
The other first-round matches have Joe Soto (9-1), a former featherweight champion whose only career loss is to Warren, facing Eduardo Dantes (10-2) of Brazil; Luiz Nogueira (11-1) of Brazil against Ed West (16-5), who made the finals of Bellator's featherweight title tournament last year; and Chase Beebe (19-7), a former WEC featherweight champion, against Marcos Galvao (9-4-1), who lost a decision to Warren on April 16 in one of the most controversial decisions of the year.
Also of note is that the first five weeks of the season will run opposite major events, either televised or on pay-per-view, from Zuffa. Unlike last season, when Bellator would switch its 9 p.m. ET start time to 7 p.m. to avoid competing shows only to wind up with lower ratings, this year, with the exception of Sept. 17 when UFC goes live on Spike at 9 p.m., a concession to not competing with a sister station, they will go head-to-head.
The season debut runs up against the Strikeforce Grand Prix tournament. The bantamweight tournament's first round goes against a UFC pay-per-view show featuring Jon Jones vs. Quinton Jackson for the light heavyweight title. That also means on Oct. 29, Bellator will compete with the biggest MMA fight left in 2011 with Georges St. Pierre vs. Nick Diaz.
"Look, these are spectacular shows with spectacularly talented fighters," said Rebney. "A lot of people throw around the term 'world-class competitors.' We have world class competitors. We're live. We're free. No cost to the viewers. We're going at the same time, but they are going to be spectacular events. Four fights for sure, hopefully five, maybe even six, spectacular MMA events."
Warren, either the most ambitious or craziest athlete in the sport, was originally scheduled to headline on Saturday in a featherweight title defense against Patricio "Pitbull" Freire, who Warren beat via close decision last year. But Freire fractured his hand, and with Warren entering the bantamweight tournament, the title scrap is on hold.
"Warren and [middleweight champion] Hector Lombard are two guys who text me daily, or at least two or three times a week, who always want to fight," said Rebney. "Warren wants to stay incredibly busy. He'll fight Vila on the Sept. 24 show. If he wins, which is not a foregone conclusion, and wins the tournament, he earns the right to fight Zach Machovsky for the bantamweight title. The last fight in the bantamweight tournament is Nov. 26, and you'd need at least a couple of months to relax and gain back the weight. So if he goes to the finals of the tournament, it would probably be late January or early February for his title defense against Patricio. It'll happen earlier if he's eliminated earlier."
Rebney is insistent on holding to his unique promotional model: eight-man tournaments with the winner getting a title shot. Recently, when UFC fired Nate Marquardt, both middleweight champion Lombard and welterweight champion Askren issued challenges to the better-known UFC fighter. But Rebney was insistent in negotiations they would be non-title fights unless Marquardt agreed to go through the tournament first. Negotiations fell through.
"We talked, and it's not often that a top-10 ranked fighter in any weight division becomes available coming off a win, but he did," said Rebney. "We talked. He's a very cool guy, great to meet with. We talked to his management, but it wasn't the right fit or us or the right fit for Nate. We have a very specific format, tournament-based. You earn your shot. You earn your title fight. It's a very organization-specific way of laying it out. Each season, [a fighter must compete in] a certain number of events to earn your way to a title shot. It's not for everybody. We weren't able to work out the right situation for Nate and for Bellator. He's a wickedly talented fighter, and he'll find his way somewhere.
"Unless they drag me out and replace me with someone else is the only way I can see the format changing," Rebney said. "It's fair. It's how sports are supposed to work. I used to watch soccer and baseball and basketball and tennis and hockey, every sport you've ever seen is exactly the same. For some reason in the combat sports, the powers that be decided to have some suit deciding who fights who and when. When I was a kid watching boxing, it was such a disconnect for me. I remember watching with my dad, and a fighter would win and then beg a promoter for a title shot. I would ask, 'Why doesn't he just automatically get it?' and was told, 'It doesn't work that way in combat sports.' That's the dumbest thing I'd ever heard."
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