Wednesday, November 28, 2012
More rematches make for more excitement
By Josh Gross
Ben Askren, one of the best welterweights in MMA, doesn't know where his future is.
If you're put on hold after dialing Bellator Fighting Championships' office in Newport Beach, Calif., it only takes a second to recognize the supercharged commentary of Sean Wheelock and Jimmy Smith.
Waiting to speak with Bjorn Rebney -- the promotion's promoter -- Wheelock and Smith happened to be screaming over Michael Chandler's epic finish last year of Eddie Alvarez, which was perfect, considering what I was calling about Tuesday morning.
Rebney published an open letter on Bellator.com on Monday stating the company's revised position on championship rematches. Essentially: Under the right circumstances, they would promote them.
The obvious place to begin would have been a second tilt between Chandler and Alvarez. Rebney said it's the fight he gets asked about most in airports and arenas during weekly jaunts from show to show.
There’s very little doubt in Rebney’s mind that “had Chandler-Alvarez happened today, regardless of Ed’s situation, I would be on the phone probably four minutes after the fight with Kevin Kay at Spike network saying ‘When are we going to do this again?’ Because it would have had such a dramatic impact on viewership and fan response.”
In reality, he’s talking up the rematch that got away. Alvarez is a free agent currently negotiating with the UFC and Rebney sounds accepting of the former champion’s likely departure. Still, the outcry to see Alvarez get a chance at avenging his title loss to Chandler, said Rebney, "got the wheels in motion" for change.
"I'm never going to be one that completely plants the flag in the ground and say there's no room for growth, there's no room for deviation," he said. "There's always room to make things better.
"There's always room to make the product better for fans, better for fighters. I think we did that."
Rebney is now promising that if fans call for a rematch, and if there's consensus from Bellator president Tim Danaher and matchmakers Sam Caplan and Zach Light, and if Kevin Kay at Spike is interested, then so it shall be. There’s also a move down the road to pay-per-view to consider.
“Those are going to be driving concerns,” he said.
Less worrying, Rebney noted, was the idea that Alvarez (or any fighter in the same position) could fight for a belt while not being locked up to a deal. If it’s worth promoting, he said, they’ll do it. And Bellator contracts, considered among MMA’s most rigid, would not have to be revised in any way.
"There's just a lot of fights coming up where you just want the option to be able to say, 'That was awesome, you're the champ and you earned your spot. Here, let's do it again,'" Rebney said.
This would appear to be a departure from the concept Rebney put forth in 2009, in which Bellator title shots are earned when a fighter advances through an eight-man qualifying tournament. Rebney said he'd considered the issue for a while and is "at peace with it" because the "decision stays true to who we are and what we're about" and the show maintains a substantial point of difference from other organizations in the sport.
“I think what you’re looking at right now is the industry kind of fitting into where the industry will fit for the next five years,” Rebney said. “And I think we’re heading in a good direction. Any time you’ve got a huge, powerful, innovative company like Viacom, not just distributing content, but vested, owning a huge piece of the company, and tremendously devoted to its success and brand development, and you’ve got another major giant out there [Fox] who has made a very large financial commitment to the UFC, who obviously has a vested interest in trying to see that that content does well, I think it’s a positive."
During a teleconference Tuesday for UFC’s return to Fox on Dec. 8 in Seattle, Eric Shanks, president of Fox Sports Media Group, came off as bullish over the network’s partnership with Zuffa heading into 2013.
By no means was this Rebney’s most difficult call, but it does indicate that a month before Bellator begins its partnership with Spike that clearing the deck for fan- and television-friendly fights is a big part of the thinking these days.
"No one is talking their way into a world title fight [in Bellator]. Nobody is being groomed a la a boxing format where you get 24 wins against nobodies and get there,” he said. “You've got to beat three spectacularly world-class fighters and once you've done it, if you give fans an unbelievable showing, if it's an epic fight, if it's an Alvarez-Chandler type of fight, then it just made sense to me, and I believe we're staying true to who we are. We're not by any stretch of the imagination eliminating the objectivity. We're not eliminating the tournament structure. We're not eliminating the need to earn your shot. But I think it betters who we are."
In the parlance of Bjorn Rebney, "spectacularly world-class fighters" Lyman Good and Andrey Koreshkov will fight for the welterweight tournament crown Friday at the Soaring Eagle Casino & Resort in Mount Pleasant, Mich. Bellator has roughly 170 fighters under contract as it enters the next phase of its existence, in which Viacom’s financial backing and Spike’s television platform portend a boost for the promotion.
Good or Koreshkov would fight either titleholder Ben Askren or Frenchman Karl Amoussou, whomever wins their meeting sometime in January. No date has been announced, though Rebney expects this and other news to be made over the next few weeks.
Rebney said he hopes for three title fights per year at each weight.
"God willing there will be a lot of rematches, because if we're doing a lot of rematches it means we've had a series of epic world title fights,” he said. “That's awesome. That's what you want. You want the biggest fights to be the best fights."