Plan the work and work the plan. This is what Bellator MMA’s founder and CEO Bjorn Rebney might tell you if you asked him how to achieve success. For Rebney, it’s all about business models and spreadsheets, crunching numbers and plodding a steady course. Yet there’s something about the rise of his promotion that seems a bit more…romantic. Something about his methods that feels more like art than science. And something about his success that’s just plain staggering. After all, how many promotions weathered the storms of 2012 to emerge even stronger?

Eighteen months ago, Bellator was barely a blip on the screen in the world of mixed martial arts. Today, the promotion finds itself gearing up for its first gig on MMA’s most legendary television network. But how did it all come together for Rebney and company? Being MMA’s premiere tournament-based promotion, Bellator didn’t really even have a template to follow. How then did it escape the maze that takes the lives of so many promising promotions? To answer these questions, let’s start at the beginning.

An Idea To the Power of Three

Frankie Edgar once said, “We’re all three fights from being out of it.” Although most fighters don’t speak (or even think) in such stark terms, Edgar’s words generally ring true. If you’re on a two-fight slide in a major promotion, chances are you won’t be looking to eke out a decision in your next fight. Rather you’ll fight with a renewed sense of urgency, knowing that your fate hangs in the balance. It’s a simple fact of life that MMA fighters learn to live with.

Since its inception, Bellator has offered a glass-half-full alternative to this unwritten “law of three.” Within Bellator’s tourney-based system, a fighter may be three fights from being out of it, but at the same time he or she is only three fights from a world title shot.

“Three fights, three months,” goes the mantra of new Bellator signees. Which is just how it happened for Bellator’s most recently crowned champion, Alexander Volkov (who had the added advantage of vying for a vacant title). Without a doubt, it’s this antidote to the harsh reality of MMA that makes Bellator such an attractive option for up-and-coming talent. And it’s perhaps why Bellator signed more quality prospects in 2012 than any other promotion.

Exposure Before Profit

In the early days of any business venture, you have to find ways to get your product in front of those who would have interest—even at a potential loss. To this end, Rebney and company enacted a simple initiative to “provide [fans] free content across every conceivable viral platform.” The promotion has never been stingy with fight footage, but the mission of this directive was more pointed (i.e. to offer potential fans instant access to classic moments as they arise). Moments like Toby Imada’s inverted triangle choke finish of Jorge Masvidal, Yahir Reyes’ spinning backfist knockout of Estevan Payan and Pat Curran’s dazzling head-kick KO of Marlon Sandro.

No doubt the biggest moment for Bellator came on Nov. 19, 2011, when Eddie Alvarez and Michael Chandler fought an 18-minute battle for the ages. Later that night, the Chandler-Alvarez fight could already be found posted on Bellator’s YouTube page. It may seem like a small thing, but this type of exposure strategy gradually pays off. The four classic moments referenced here have garnered over 5.7 million views on YouTube and certainly netted a healthy share of new fans. Of course, Bellator’s reached the point where it no longer needs to engage in viral video campaigns, but the promotion can easily look back and see the impact of this initiative on the trajectory of its success.

Blitzkrieg

The ability to strike forth and break new ground in a time of uncertainty is the mark of a true warrior. In mid-2012, Bellator MMA (then known as Bellator Fighting Championships) relocated its headquarters from Chicago to Newport Beach, Calif. This move helped consolidate Bellator’s operations departments and improved its proximity to sponsors and advertisers. It also opened limitless doors for the burgeoning promotion. But while its base of operations moved west, Bellator’s recruiting epicenter moved decidedly eastward. About 5,000 miles eastward. This scouting migration spawned a veritable “Russian invasion” of the promotion. In fact, Bellator signed so many Russian fighters in 2012 that it set the promotion up to secure a television deal with Russia 2, a sports television network in Russia. Since this invasion, one Russian (Volkov, as mentioned above) has already claimed a title on the Bellator stage and several others are presently eyeing the gold.

Of course, if asked, Rebney would again say that he was just executing the business model and taking the next logical step. However, delving into the Russian market was a move that took this writer and much of the MMA community by complete surprise. Let’s face it, since the fall (or bowing out) of Fedor Emelianenko, Russian MMA hasn’t exactly been in favor. Until last year, there was little or no hype behind what few prospects had made the radar—even those with unblemished double-digit records. Russia may have been part of some natural progression for Rebney, but it was a pretty bold move to the rest of us. And isn’t that what this MMA game is all about, the ability to take risks? So give yourself a little credit, Rebney. Bold, well-timed moves are the stuff champions are made of.

Filling the Void, Finding a Future

In four short years, Bellator has gone from fledgling promotion to No. 1 contender—not too shabby. Whether it was the tournament model, the viral videos or the Russian invasion that pushed the promotion over the hump is anybody’s guess.

Rebney is right though. A solid business model that is strictly adhered to offers the best chance of survival in the dog-eat-dog world of, well, business. And with MMA promotions being especially ephemeral, it takes a dedicated group of individuals with a common vision to stay the course through rough and uncharted waters. Most of all, it takes the ability to make the tough decisions, even those that may occasionally put some fans off. This combination of prudence and gall could well be the ultimate secret of Bellator’s success, the one that lifted Rebney and company off the platform and into almost a hundred million U.S. homes.

To be sure, this deal with Spike TV is a seminal moment for the tournament-based promotion. Spike, a subsidiary of Viacom, has long been recognized as the home of mixed martial arts. One might even go so far as to call it the incubator of the modern MMA product. In a matter of hours, Spike will continue its legacy by waving the Bellator banner across our television screens for the first time.

At that moment, the final stars will align for Bellator Fighting Championships. Rebney will exhale. Hector Lombard will feel a bit of nostalgia for round cages. Spike TV’s Kevin Kay will wonder if MMA promoters are born without hair follicles. Jimmy Smith will dream of getting caught in a sweet submission. And Joe Soto will reminisce about how his trip to the beauty salon made it all possible.

In the words of Rebney himself, “It’s a very, very good day for mixed martial arts.”

Photo: Pat Curran will return to action for the first time since Bellator 60 (Bellator)

About The Author

Robby Collins

Robby Collins considers himself a johnny-come-lately to the sport of MMA. He was introduced to it less than three years ago but has since delved into the sport at all levels. As an aspiring fiction writer, Robby adapted his skills to promote his latest passion and landed with The MMA Corner by way of personal initiative and auspicious timing. Robby has dabbled in karate and wrestling, and is currently learning to kickbox.

  • Hey. I’m a newcomer to the site and to MMA in general. Looking forward to learning more about current promotions from articles like this one.