By Kalle Oakes
Sun Journal, Lewiston, Maine
Sixty-one used to be a hallowed number in major league baseball, representing Roger Maris’ record-shattering home run total in a single season.
More than a half-century later, those digits became a significant milestone in the caged and oft-misunderstood world of mixed martial arts.
They documented the number of times Bjorn Rebney struck out. Sixty-one meetings. Sixty-one sales pitches. Sixty-one no-thank-yous.
Sports law and boxing promotion had furnished Rebney a comfortable lifestyle, but MMA was his passion. So he set out far and wide in search of a soulmate with deep pockets; an investor willing to share his dream of an entertainment company that could challenge the stranglehold Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) maintained over the sport.
After more than a year of swings, misses and closed doors, Rebney found his financial backing through Connecticut's Plainfield Asset Management, and Bellator MMA was born. The organization will celebrate its fourth birthday in April entrenched as the No. 2 cagefighting promotion in the world, having established its brand name in an industry where UFC had constructed a virtual monopoly.
"It continues to build up. We're in a great position," Rebney said. "I've read stories that refer to our growth as 'exponential,' and I think that's a good way to put it. The future of Bellator is realy unlimited. We just have to keep putting on amazing shows and drawing people to the TV."
And filling seats in arenas throughout the country. Androscoggin Bank Colisee, for instance.
Famed for its service as an emergency replacement site for a Muhammad Ali-Sonny Liston world heavyweight boxing championship fight in 1965, the venerable hockey arena opens its doors to Bellator for the first time Thursday night.
The opening bell tolls at 8 p.m., with the final segment broadcast live on Spike TV from 10 p.m. to midnight. It is the first time Lewiston has hosted a nationally televised combat sports event since Ali's appearance at ringside overshadowed an ESPN Top Rank Boxing card in September 1995.
Why Maine? Why Lewiston?
The city has emerged as a hotbed in the rapidly growing sport, with the regional New England Fights promotion attracting a total of more than 15,000 spectators to five "Fight Night" cards in its first 12 months.
"We were getting a lot of overtures through social media saying, 'Look, you should do a show up in Maine and put Marcus Davis on the card.' Also one of our major partners, the National Guard, had a list of places it wanted to go and Maine was one of them," Rebney said. "All the stars aligned perfectly, and it's paying off. You look at the early ticket sales and that's a huge indicator. The ticket sales for this event have gone spectacularly well. "
Davis, a Houlton native and UFC veteran, is scheduled to make his Bellator debut against Waachiim Spiritwolf in one of the four televised bouts.
The main event matches Oregon's Dave Jansen (18-2) with Marcin Held of Poland (15-2) in Bellator's 155-pound tournament.
Rebney believes that bracket format is a primary selling point to Bellator fans. While UFC mirrors boxing, with name recognition and other political factors often leading to title fights, Bellator (from the Latin word for "warrior") touts itself as a place where those opportunities are earned, not given.
"It's a major and distinct difference from all other combat sports," Rebney said. "The fans have really attached themselves to it. You see it in other sports such as college basketball with March Madness."
The chairman and CEO connected to the sport as a spectator early in its development.
Rebney attended Ohio University on a football scholarship before advancing to law school. He followed that path into boxing, working in contract law before joining a promotional firm co-owned by Sugar Ray Leonard.
Dreams and visions were leading him elsewhere. Bellator's first bell sounded in April 2009. Viacom, Spike's parent company, purchased a majority stake in 2011.
Broadcasts are seen in 115 nations.
"I don't know of a country in the world where we don't have a fighter," Rebney said.
Tournaments are the nucleus of Bellator's business model.
The season is divided into spring and fall segments of 11 consecutive Thursday nights. There is a three-week summer season for a total of 25 annual shows.
MMA leans heavily on the 18-to-34 male demographic, and Bellator is no exception. Most of its television viewers fall into that category.
Thirty-five percent of the faces on camera at those events, however, are women. Rebney believes presentation is part of the allure.
"When you come to a Bellator show, there are big lights, big sound, a giant video screen, lots of interaction," he said. "It has become an entertainment experience, and a lot of men can justify it to their wives as a night out together."
While other adrenaline sports may have peaked or even seen a dip in attendance due to a struggling economy or a maxed-out audience -- NASCAR comes to mind -- Rebney doesn't detect any stunted growth for MMA.
He sees loyalty to the sport and its practitioners, UFC and Bellator alike, ingrained even among the youngest fans.
"One of the very cool things about our sport is that 5 to 10 years ago, if you looked at the kids, a lot of the T-shirts they wore represented super heroes or athletes from other sports," Rebney said. "Now you see kids that age wearing T-shirts that feature their favorite MMA stars on them."
Central Maine's fascination with the cage appears undiminished.
Every phone conversation between Bellator's digs in Newport Beach, Calif., and the Colisee box office has left Rebney wearing a broad smile.
He isn't ready to lapse into his home run trot yet, but the crack of the bat has a nice ring to it.
"Two of the past three shows have sold out, and this one looks like it's going to be huge," Rebney said. "It's really going great. Hopefully this is only the beginning and Lewiston, Maine, becomes a regular stop for us."
Coming Tuesday: Houlton native Marcus Davis discusses his life in the fight game and his new three-fight deal with Bellator.
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