Editor’s Note: This story is the second part of a Spring 2013 feature on former Ohio University football player Bjorn Rebney, who is currently the president of Bellator Fighting Championships, a Mixed Martial Arts outfit.
Spike TV is really where most Americans first saw mixed martial arts for the first time. Back in 2005, when Spike held the TV rights to the Ultimate Fighting Championship’s The Ultimate Fighter, Forrest Griffin and Stephan Bonnar threw down in a fight that, to this day, is still one of the most talked about fights in MMA history.
But late in 2011, the UFC left Spike for Fox, and the promotional company’s ability to broadcast MMA to a national audience. That left a huge programming hole on Spike, as for years they had been synonymous with MMA in the United States.
Enter Bellator Fighting Championships, which debuted on Spike in January of this year. Bellator President Bjorn Rebney, who founded the promotion in 2008, sees the move from Spike as what will take his promotion to the next level.
“Just like in anything, you can be the greatest singer in the world, but if no one ever hears you, you are not the greatest singer in the world,” Rebney says. “What Spike means is that Bellator MMA has the finest, largest, most successful, longest running distribution partnership in the history of combat sports.”
Before signing their deal with Spike, Bellator aired on MTV 2 – which has a fraction of the viewership Spike has. With their new TV station, Bellator live events have scored their highest ratings to date – drawing in four times the numbers they did on MTV 2. This move to Spike is not only great for Bellator, but it is also good for its fighters. Jessica ‘Evil’ Eye, a flyweight (125 lb.), is one of those fighters who sees being on Spike as a big moment in her career.
“I’ve met some really awesome people at Spike. and I mean I am excited for it , but I am not nervous for it,” she says. “The employees at Spike are excited to see me, and to see me fight, and I can’t wait for the world to see Jessica Eye.”
Her teammate at Strongstyle MMA, Brian “The Professional Predator,” sees it the same way. And while Eye has had her Spike debut delayed due to a back injury, Rogers has already made his. At Bellator, he lost to UFC veteran Dan Cramer via unanimous decision.
“Sometimes my friends are like ‘aw man you’re famous now, you’re on MTV, you’re on Spike TV, you were at the MTV Music Awards and what not,” says Rogers. “There is a lot of hype, a lot of tension moving to Spike TV, which I think is huge for Bellator as well. I am very happy with my position and with Bellator. I wouldn’t trade it for the world.”
Although there is a lot to like about Bellator, some do believe that there are issues that could affect their future. Veteran MMA journalist Mike Chiappetta, who works for VOX Media’s MMAFighting.com, believes that Bellator’s tournament format is both a gift and a curse. He sees the format of their tournaments as what makes Bellator unique, but wonders if they can give Bellator crossover appeal that will help it continue to grow.
“I think The Ultimate Fighter, which was really the vehicle that the UFC used to gain notoriety and gain attention, was really a tournament format,” he ponders. “Does that tournament format ultimately captivate the sort of mainstream audience that bought into The Ultimate Fighter in the past?”
Chiappetta also wonders whether or not Bellator will be able to prevent stars like lightweight champion Michael Chandler from leaving for the UFC when their contracts expire. In the past year, former middleweight champion Hector Lombard signed with the UFC, while former lightweight champion Eddie Alvarez is currently in a legal battle determining whether or not he will stay in Bellator or move over to the Octagon. Lastly, Chiappetta also thinks it is going to take time for the mainstream audience to buy into Bellator as a viable competitor with the UFC.
“A lot of the problem with Bellator is perception. A lot of people see it as minor league MMA, and they definitely have fighters that would go into the UFC and do well,” he says. “Pat Curran and Michael Chandler are great examples of that. They could move into the UFC tomorrow and be Top-10 fighters and even fight for a title. They certainty have some A-level talent. It’s just going to take some time to convince people. Now that they are on Spike, every week, I think we’ll find out if people are going to really get into this.”
Five Bellator Fighters You Should Know
1. Michael Chandler, lightweight, 11-0 – With his pedigree as an All-American wrester at Missouri, also had a lot of hype surrounding him. But with an 11-0 record and the Bellator belt strapped around his waist at age 26, Bellator’s lightweight champion is already one of the best 155 lbers in the world.
2. Pat Curran, featherweight, 18-4 – The Chicago native originally competed as a lightweight in Bellator and even fought for the title back at 155 in 2011. But since the drop to 145, he was established himself as a true force and the champion of Bellator’s deepest weight class.
3. Ben “Funky” Askren, welterweight, 11-0 – A 2008 Olympian in freestyle wrestling, Askren has been nothing short of dominant since signing with Bellator in 2010. His wrestling-based grinding style hasn’t won him many fans, but it’s effective nonetheless.
4. Muhammad “King Mo” Lawal, light heavyweight, 9-2 – Lawal came to Bellator late last year and the consensus was that he would easily win this tournament and become Bellator’s 205 lb. champion. But thanks to an Emmanuel “Hardcore Kid” Newton spinning back fist, that all changed. Even so, Lawal is still a fighter to watch, as his skill set and charismatic personality make him one of Bellator’s biggest draws.
5. Alexander “Storm” Shlemenko, middleweight, 47-7 – The recently crowned Bellator middleweight champion is arguably Bellator’s most exciting fighter. A native of Russia, Shlemenko prefers to keep the action on the feet and is rarely in a boring fight. Considering that his repertoire includes a vicious spinning back kick, the Bellator middleweight champion is a fighter you have to watch.