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Bellator makes fateful leap into PPV game

8/6/2013
Dave Mandel/Sherdog.com

Bjorn Rebney saw an opportunity. Tito Ortiz found an offer he couldn't refuse. And Quinton Jackson had already settled into his resurrection.

Three men with separate yet intertwined aspirations have been tabbed to carry the water for Bellator MMA's first pay-per-view on Nov. 2 in Long Beach, Calif. The trio took questions Monday at Bellator's office in Newport Beach, Calif., shedding light on how it came to be that a pair of the best-known fighters to compete in the UFC, both clear about their distaste for UFC president Dana White and Zuffa, will anchor Rebney's initial attempt to court a paying TV audience.

The promoter conjured the idea on one of his many sleepless nights. Rebney's reputation as a supreme micromanager is well earned. It's no secret that he has driven his staff crazy trying to maneuver a proper direction for the company. Over the past four years, though, even Rebney's most vocal critics would concede he did well by advancing Bellator up the food chain to the point that Viacom, a major media conglomerate, took notice and purchased a controlling stake.

One year after Ortiz's last fight in the Octagon, a decision loss to Forrest Griffin, Rebney called the former UFC champion with an offer.

"I looked at it and said, 'Here's a fight we can make,'" the promoter said. "We can put on a pay-per-view, and if I had nothing to do with it, I'd buy it."

Both sides spoke several times before the veil was lifted last month. The moment Ortiz was free from Zuffa's contractual handcuffs, Rebney showed just how serious he was. Ortiz viewed the lucrative contract offer as solid footing for him and his family. This wasn't something he could simply walk away from, so retirement, as short as it was, came to an abrupt end. Beyond the money, Ortiz expressed a "hunger to be great again," although many people will understandably hear lip service. After all, Ortiz hasn't been near the top of his game for several years, and just 12 weeks ago he underwent an ACL replacement in his right knee.

Some fans will agree with the promoter's assessment, but many more are likely to opt against paying their local cable or satellite distributor $35-45 to witness 38-year-old Ortiz (1-7-1 from the end of 2006 through July 7 of last year) fight 35-year-old Jackson (who lost three straight before exiting the UFC last year).

No MMA promotion except the UFC has marshaled a successful pay-per-view campaign, and history says a weak response for Ortiz and Jackson, despite their strong brands and long-held UFC ties, is the most likely outcome.

Rebney surely will have his promotional chops tested like never before during the run-up to an event situated on one of the busiest, most compelling stretches in UFC history. He claimed to feel "really good" about its potential even though the card is sandwiched between Cain Velasquez's third fight with Junior dos Santos and the 20th anniversary of the UFC headlined by megastar Georges St-Pierre and respected challenger Johny Hendricks.

As opposed to Affliction Entertainment, which hemorrhaged money like a partying rock star while it tried to get established on pay-per-view at the end of last decade, Rebney said Bellator is primed for success any time it chooses to go there, which won't be more than a couple of times a year at the beginning.

"We've got the best distribution platform in the history of combat sports, and that's Spike," he said. "That's the difference. Also, we're not going to do it month in and month out. We're not going to throw up PPV after PPV after PPV and say, 'Here, buy this.' We're not going to throw up PPVs that belong on free TV. If we've got an amazing card, an amazing event, we may do it on PPV. We're not going to do it every three or four weeks."

For all of Rebney's handwringing over the number of events Zuffa promotes that require fans to fork over money to view them, each card through the end of 2013 looks spectacular. Truth is, Bellator can't compete that way with Zuffa right now. But that hasn't deterred Rebney, who said fans should expect five bouts during the Nov. 2 pay-per-view, including an appearance from Bellator lightweight star Michael Chandler.

Rebney was unsure whom Chandler would fight, leaving open the possibility of Eddie Alvarez, the former Bellator champion currently embroiled in litigation with the company. Pay-per-view considerations outlined in the lawsuit with Alvarez carried no weight in the company's decision to step into the pay-per-view game, Rebney said. But as far as the promoter is concerned, "nothing is off the table."

It was just a couple of weeks ago that Rebney touted Chandler's new eight-fight contract as among the richest in MMA's lightweight division. That deal, Jackson's contract and the just-announced relationship with Ortiz are emblematic of a newfound willingness inside Bellator to spend money -- "but only when it makes sense and the company is able to monetize it," Rebney said. "Michael was one of those decisions. Tito was one of those decisions. Rampage was one of those decisions. There are guys that make sense and we think will put us in a better place at the end of the year."