Months before their second season debuts, Bellator Fighting Championships is already turning heads. Their fighter signings, which includes Bao Quach, Olympian Ferrid Kheder, GSP protege Mike Ricci and a bevy of tough welterweights, have shown that Bellator is not resting on the laurels of their first season.
Leading the way is Bellator CEO Bjorn Rebney, whose enthusiasm about the new season is palpable.
"Overall, I'm most excited that there will be an awful lot of competitive fights. We're going to have an awful lot of that," Rebney told Cagewriter. "Every guy that we've announced so far are guys that I think, I would actually stay home from dinner out with friends because I wouldn't want to miss the fight. That's what we were shooting for. It wasn't about getting names that people recognized, but bringing world-class fighters into the game that would be magical to watch and would make great fights and would could conceivably become big-time names."
The other big move that Bellator made in their off-season was signing a deal with Fox Sports, NBC and Telemundo, which guarantees that Bellator fights will be available to 12 times the viewers than with their previous deal with ESPN Deportes.
"When we finalized that 12-show run with ESPN, I had to ask, how do we go from being a very cool promotion that reaches a Spanish-language audience only to a promotion that you can see every week on multiple distribution platforms that reach a bigger audience? How could we make it so that I would never go on a blog or message board again and read, 'Bellator's cool but I can't see it.' This will ensure that we'll be around for the long haul and ensure that a lot of people will see us, week in and week out."
The tournament is the difference
Rebney believes that the tournament structure Bellator offers is what will make them different from not only the UFC, WEC and Strikeforce, but the corpses of Elite XC, the International Fight League and Affliction.
"Everything we're doing has a very 'March Madness' type of flavor. Almost every fight you're going to see will all be, 'This guy is fighting this guy, and if he wins, he'll fight this guy and move to the semifinals.' It will all be very tournament-themed because that's what we're all about. The design of what we're doing is designed to get fans to follow fighters, love 'em or hate 'em, from round one through the finals."
The tournament set-up is also appealing to the fighters that Rebney and his team are recruiting. His experience as an agent helped him figure out what fighters want.
"Fighters want to fight, they want to fight regularly, they want to be on national television, they want to be able to control how much money they're going to make, and they're going to want a shot at the title. It's not a hugely complicated philosophical undertaking," Rebney said. He points out that Bellator offers that exact situation to fighters.
"It's a cool dynamic. You control your own destiny. You can dictate how much you make, and you can dictate how much you're on national television. I think that's the primary thing that makes us real different. It's in the fighter's hands. It's not in the matchmaker's hand."
The tournaments that start in April will choose a challenger for the champions established in Bellator's first season. In addition to their new signings, some of the first season's stars will be back.
"At least two of the four finalists will come back to challenge. Toby Imada will be back to challenge again, after that submission that got so much attention and just won the World MMA Award. I'm hoping, from a fan perspective, to put a rematch between him and Jorge Masvidal in the opening round in the lightweights. Masvidal wants the rematch, and Imada is completely willing to give it to him. Jared Hess has been invited back. He came in fresh, and he faced a monster at 185 in Hector Lombard (pictured above). Hess has been working on his standup like crazy."
For right now, Bellator is working on signing fighters and venues for the upcoming season that will start Apr. 8 as well as the third season that will begin in the fall.
"We've got a few more announcements to make, and then slowly but surely, you'll hear 135, light heavy and heavyweight announcements as well. The announcements will just keep coming and coming, all the way until the beginning of the season," Rebney said.
"Right now, we're finalizing agreements for the almost three-quarters of the venues for the entire 24-show run. So, you'll see fighter announcements for the next week and a half, and then you'll start seeing venue announcements after that. We want to be out there three, four months in advance. We're going to some really cool places, too. We'll be in a lot of different locations, too, which is cool because a lot of different people will get a chance to be a part of the Bellator experience."