By Zach Arnold | September 4, 2014
Friday night will mark the second chapter between the UFC and Scott Coker in MMA competition. No one is better equipped to bring a qualified perspective to the table on what’s about to take place than Bellator MMA TV announcer Sean Wheelock, the man who just co-authored with Art Davie the book on how UFC started in the first place called Is This Legal? Art Davie was a man who came from an advertising background and created a concept that has lived on for over a generation.
For those of us who were around since day one, you know how much the UFC has changed over the years. From freak show to corporate spectacle. Davie promoted it like a fight project. Zuffa has promoted UFC like a sport. While there is still some emotional attachment to fighters like Ronda Rousey, most fans are burnt out on the UFC’s current presentation. Brand-first, volume-heavy has destroyed the UFC’s bottom line through over-saturation.
In contrast to UFC’s precipitous and self-inflicted downfall, Bellator finds itself in a very unusual position. Bjorn Rebney, after all the criticism he had received for the way he operated Bellator, got Bellator into a position where the promotion went on PPV (finally) and beat internal expectations. His reward for exceeding PPV expectations? Getting thrown out the door by Spike officials. And entered Scott Coker.
When we interviewed Sean Wheelock this week for Fight Opinion Radio (the show will be made available in the next day or two), we asked Sean about what Bjorn Rebney did wrong and, more intriguingly, what the guy did right.
First, what Bjorn Rebney did wrong and how he set the stage for his dismissal:
“Well, I really liked Bjorn Rebney and there were a lot of people who really disliked him and that’s coming out. I will say that, you know, he was extremely tough on contracts. I know that my agent in doing my deals, this is my fifth year with Bellator, they went around on a few issues with contracts. Ultimately, I can only judge someone on how they treated me and over five years he treated me beautifully. He was always positive, he was alwasy encouraging, he was always my advocate. Never told me what to say on air, which as a commentator really is number one where someone’s not forcing an agenda on you and let me just get on and do what I thought would work.
“Bjorn Rebney, though, was obviously kind of a larger-than-life figure. He was controversial. He upset a lot of people and he certainly he made enemies. I think he leaves the sport with friends and with enemies and ultimately, personalities aside, I think he probably painted himself into a corner with Bellator just being married to a couple of ideas like seasons and the tournaments and that, to me, probably more than anything was the decision to go to Scott Coker. Everyone seems, including myself, just seems thrilled with Scott Coker coming in with some new energy, some fresh ideas, and really trying to get Bellator to the next level.”
And what Bjorn Rebney did right:
“Bjorn Rebney was very, very open-minded in bringing in young fighters and putting them on the fast track. As much as I say the tournaments kind of got us painted in a corner, the tournaments worked at first. If you look at the first full two years of Bellator … Hector Lombard emerged as the Middleweight champion and you see what Hector Lombard has done going down to Welterweight in UFC. Eddie Alvarez emerged as the Lightweight champion. Seasons two and three, Joe Warren comes in, Patricio Pitbull, Pat Curran, Ben Askren. Bjorn Rebney was able to find talent and put them on the fast track and let them succeed. So, I think he did a great job on that.
Secondly, I think he did a great job on going outside of the US and Canada and maybe Brazil in trying to find some other talent. You know, we have a lot of Russian fighters in Bellator. We’re bringing in English fighters now. A lot of Europeans and then also going into Brazil and not just maybe getting the usual suspects from the major gyms. Looking at some luta livre guys as well as Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu guys. Looking outside of says Brazilian Top Team or Chute Boxe. So, I think he had an excellent eye for talent and I think he was able to develop that talent very quickly. Obviously, Ben Askren went to One FC. Hector Lombard went tt the UFC. Eddie Alvarez is now at the UFC. In a short period of time, 2009 to 2010, there were a lot of talented fighters who went to Bellator and immediately made names for themselves and I don’t know if they could have done that in the UFC. Pat Curran, who is fighting for the world title at the show in Mohegan, Pat Curran when we entered Bellator was 3-2 in his last five fights in the Midwest circuit and now he’s legitimately I think oen of the top pound-for-pound fighters in the world, certainly onle of the best 145′ers in the world. That’s someone I just don’t think would have had that opportunity to excel so quickly had he been in the UFC.”
There is no doubt that the current interest in UFC’s product has declined. There is some interest in a non-UFC flavored MMA product. The question is how many fans are there currently and whether or not it’s a finite, defined audience or if Bellator can bring back old fans & create new MMA fans that the UFC has failed to produce.
“I think if the UFC does their best ever number on Fox Sports 1 on Friday night and we do our best ever number on Spike, I think everybody wins. You know, I’m not in the position of where … I hope that we beat the UFC. No, I hope that we get our biggest rating ever on Spike. If that beats the UFC, cool. If it doesn’t, cool because I think it’s about as bringing as many people.
“I think there are so many people out there who just really are not into MMA, who can and should and will be into MMA. And so I hope all MMA promotions do well. I like the competition. I like the opportunity for fighters. I want more fans coming in.
“With that said, what I hear from fans a lot and even people working in the industry is maybe there needs to be a level of fun injected back into MMA. I was the last commentator with PRIDE, which I’m extremely proud of. I was there at the very end. PRIDE developed Wanderlei Silva and Fedor Emelianenko and a young Gegard Mousasi. It was a phenomenal promotion when Mark Coleman went in, Randy Couture, Liddell, Quinton “Rampage” Jackson, you think all these great Brazilians, all the great Japanese, South Koreans. Just an amazing promotion. But they also had fights like Butterbean Busch and Zulu and Giant Silva and they were able to do both things. They had Dos Caras Jr. fighting Mirko Cro Cop wearing a pro-wrestling mask. They had that level of fun and unpredictability. I think maybe with Scott Coker we can inject into that.
“You guys look at our card. We have Bobby Lashley, who’s the reigning TNA champion, facing Josh Burns who’s a very hard hitting heavyweight. That’s a fun fight. Are those the two best heavyweights in the world? Not a chance. Are they the two best heavyweights for Bellator? No, they’re not. But is that a really fun fight? Yeah, potentially that’s a really fun fight. And I think that’s what fans want to see. Cheick Kongo vs. Lavar Johnson. If that doesn’t excite somebody, they probably aren’t a fan of heavyweight fighting in MMA. Whether they’re the two best heavyweights or whether they’re title contenders, that’s almost outside of the scope. So, I think for me it’s having a card like what we have where you have a world title fight with Curran vs. Pitbull II but then you have fun fights.
“Ultimately, as a fan and I think most fans feel this way, yeah, you want to see great fighters, great prospects, but ultimately you want to see great fights and great fights usually come down to matchmaking and if all of us look back at our favorite fights in history, sometimes it’s not the two most talented guys. It’s the way those two talented guys matched up against each other and those sometimes can be the most fun fights. That’s what I feel like Scott Coker is trying to move to: those big events, those big fight feels.
“I think Coker’s going to do that with us at Bellator.”
What’s missing is the “fun” factor. There is great irony in this comment, given that Fox Sports executives marketed their FS1 channel as the place for “fun” and “jockularity.” Instead, the channel has largely bombed with horrific graphics, lousy presentation, zero gravitas in investigative matters, and a myriad of conflict-of-interests that has produced a Best Damn Sports Show Period channel on steroids. Of all the missing ingredients, to be accused to helping market a product that is missing “fun” is the… ultimate… observation to make about what UFC is currently facing right now.
Who knows where Bellator will end up heading under Scott Coker but he can’t be any more formulaic and boring than the current administrative direction of UFC. Running four shows a month is just killing the MMA audience. Boxing fans, hardcore as they may be, don’t suffer from burnout with the cable & subscription shows. It’s different with the MMA audience. I think Sean’s observations are accurate right now.
As for the rest of our interview with Sean, we encourage you to subscribe to our Fight Opinion Radio feed because we had the chance to talk with him about other topics such as:
- What if Bellator had stayed as a Spanish-language proposition? What kind of numbers could such a scenario have drawn in MMA?
- Why was the matchmaking process in the early days of the UFC so unique and what would have happened if the politicians had not gotten involved in trying to stamp out “Ultimate Fighting”? Would SEG still have ran UFC into the ground even without political interference?
- Would there be a Mixed Martial Arts if UFC had failed? When the UFC launched, Pancrase and UWF (shootfighting) PPVs were also airing at the time.