Bellator: Bjorn Rebney's fight club

  @FortuneMagazine November 28, 2012: 6:25 AM ET
bjorn rebney

Bellator's founder Bjorn Rebney


What does sports law have to do with cage fighting? Not a whole lot -- but for Bjorn Rebney, one was his job, the other his passion.

Rebney, 46, went to Ohio University on a football scholarship, then to law school. He spent a few years doing construction-defect litigation but hated it. He soon found a position with sports-law group Steinberg Moorad & Dunn and began arranging deals for athletes like boxer Oscar De La Hoya.

A few years later Sugar Ray Leonard approached SMD looking to recast his public image. In 1998, Rebney left Steinberg to create Sugar Ray Leonard Boxing, a promotion company jointly owned with Leonard. Still, much like his stretch in insurance law, Rebney wasn't in love with his work. "I was never a boxing guy," he says.

Rebney's true passion was MMA (mixed martial arts), an under-the-radar fighting sport. "As soon as that bell rings," he says, "the fighters are shaking hands. They've got black eyes, they're busted up, bruised everywhere, and yet they're laughing together after the fight. I think they're the most heroic athletes on the face of the earth."

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There was one leading MMA promoter, UFC (Ultimate Fighting Championship), but Rebney believed there was a flaw in its matchmaking structure: Fights are arranged behind closed doors, as opposed to winners advancing in a tournament format. So he left Leonard to start something from scratch: a sports entertainment entity that would sign MMA fighters, set up live events, and produce them for television. Taking on UFC was a major risk -- other competitors like Affliction and IFL folded -- but Rebney knew how to make deals, and he knew MMA.

The road to starting Bellator (Latin for "warrior") was arduous. Rebney says he "feverishly searched for capital" and "got on every single cheap Southwest flight I could find" to talk with fighters. He made his pitch 62 times in 14 months. He spent all his savings and put a second, then a third mortgage on his house.

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In 2008, Rebney got lucky: The investor he called at Connecticut hedge fund Plainfield Asset Management was an MMA nut who had been training in the sport since 2004. Thirty minutes into Rebney's pitch, VP Tim Danaher told him to fly right to New York. Plainfield invested in the mid-tens of millions to finance Bellator's first season, in 2009.

Today Bellator is the world's second-largest MMA promoter, though still far behind UFC, which has been valued at nearly $2 billion and is majority-owned by Zuffa, a Las Vegas MMA company. In 2011, Viacom (VIA) purchased a controlling interest in Bellator. In January all of Bellator's programming will move to Viacom's Spike Network, replacing UFC, which moved to Fox. Danaher, who left Plainfield in 2010 to become Bellator's president and COO, says Rebney's "a visionary." A happy one, finally.

Rebney's advice for making the move

Have a thick skin. So many investors told Rebney no. "I have a very thick skin, but time after time I'd make the pitch and could tell that it was going nowhere. I kept at it."

Enlist your partner. Rebney's wife didn't like MMA. Then he took her to a live event. "The excitement, the adrenaline, the crowd -- she took to it," he says. "Now she'll watch, and thank God I have her."

Do what you love. "I'm getting paid to do what I used to pay to do," marvels Rebney. "I still can't believe I even get to walk into the locker room."

This story is from the December 3, 2012 issue of Fortune. To top of page

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