CHESTER - World class mixed martial arts makes its way to Mountaineer Racetrack and Casino Friday when Bellator Fighting Championships kicks off its Summer Series with the nationally televised Bellator 71.
"At this point there are two of us with major television deals with the UFC (Ultimate Fighting Championship) on FOX and Bellator with Viacom and the MTV2 network," said Bellator CEO Bjorn Rebney. "What makes us different is everything is tournament based.
"The UFC uses matchmaking where executives decide who fights who. Ours is much more like March Madness. Like when we were kids. You start out at the beginning of the season with a certain amount of athletes.
"If you win you get $100,000 check and a shot at the world title. If you lose you try to get in next season's tournament to get another shot. It's the true spirit of competition."
Rebney states his past experience has much to do with his present desire to put on a fight card at Mountaineer, and especially in West Virginia.
"That comes from a long time ago in my history," Rebney said. "I played football at Ohio University in Athens in the MAC. I played a year as starting fullback and we played at Marshall.
"They were the loudest, most energized fans in a college stadium anywhere in the country.
"I looked at that and the potential for MMA in West Virginia and when approvals came I immediately started talking to Mountaineer.
"They were getting their arms around doing MMA, I kept talking to them, and a couple months ago I got the OK. They have a great history of doing boxing but not of doing world class MMA.
"We are developing a tight partnership with Mountaineer. They have a beautiful facility that will accommodate a great crowd and that put it in play."
The main card of five fights will be televised on MTV2 and features the quarterfinal matchups of the Bellator Light Heavyweight (205 pounds) tournament. The eventual winner of the tournament gets the big payday and a shot at Bellator 205-pound kingpin Christian M'Pumbu.
The tournament matches are Travis "Diesel" Wiuff (66-14 and 1 no contest) taking on Chris "The Professional" Davis (10-3), Zelg "Benkei" Galesic (11-6) facing Attila "Pumukli" Vegh (25-4-2), Richard "Rare Breed" Hale (19-4-1) locking up with Beau Tribolet (7-1), and Roy Boughton (8-2) against Emanuel "The Hardcore Kid" Newton (17-6-1).
Wiuff owns a victory over M'Pumbu in a non-title match back in October while Hale and Davis lost to the champion during the last light heavyweight tournament.
"Travis is a hugely experienced fighter with countless fights all over the world, but this is a tough tourney," said Rebney. "I think he is one of the collection of fighters that could win this tournament.
"Zelg Galesic is a threat to KO anyone. Richard Hale is an unbelievable talent. His last two fights have lasted less than a collective 58 seconds (a 18 second knockout of Carlos Flores and a 38 second technical knockout of Josh Burns). Beau Tribolet has finished his last seven opponents since losing his professional debut.
"I couldn't point to one guy as the favorite. When we put a tournament together we want no one prohibitive favorite. We want it to be a coin toss. That's what we have."
Also featured on the main card is a heavyweight battle between newly signed Brett "The Grim" Rogers (11-4) and his former friend and training partner Kevin "Concrete" Asplund (15-1).
Five preliminary fights will air on Spike.com.
Rebney states he wanted Bellator to use the tournament system due to how he felt during his early days as a fan of both boxing and MMA.
"When I was creating and founding Bellator in 2007-2008 I was a fighting sports fan for 30 years watching boxing and 20 watching MMA in Japan, Brazil, and the United States.
"What always made me sick to my stomach was you'd watch them give everything they had, the ref would call out the decision and raise a hand and then they would look for the promoter and start begging for a title shot. When I was young I'd look and say that doesn't make sense. He just won. He shouldn't have to ask and beg for a title shot.
"If the Pittsburgh Steelers do incredibly well and win in the playoffs they play in the Super Bowl. The league doesn't decide for them to play for the title. That's how the sport is supposed to work.
"I always felt if I could build a organization and partner with companies like Viacom and Spike, this is the way I would want to do it. It's not about being different from the UFC. It's about doing it in a way I thought was right and fair. We're not reinventing the wheel.
"This is the same way the NFL, MLB, and NBA do things. It's inherently fair and works the way sports is supposed to work."
Rebney understands people look at the UFC as the top dog when it comes to MMA talent, but he also hopes fans take notice to his ever-growing stable of top-level fighters.
"I don't fault fans for having an affinity to the UFC, but when you look at our bantamweight (135 pounds), featherweight (145 pounds), lightweight (155 pounds), and welterweight (170 pounds) divisions we stack up man-for-man with the UFC," he said. "Michael Chandler may be the best in the world at 155 pounds. In any unbiased top-10 we have three 145-pounders, two 135-pounders, and two 155-pounders.
"The mistake a lot of MMA orgs have made is they get too far ahead of themselves. It takes time for fans to get comfortable with new brands. We look at it like a marathon, not a sprint.
"In the interim we want to put on great fights and that's what we're trying to do at Mountaineer Friday."