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Bellator: Things Better Left Unsaid

Posted by Alan Conceicao on December 14th, 2008

Since the announcement of ESPN Desportes upcoming MMA programming and yet another in the endless number of startups in the MMA business, there’s been quite a few articles detailing the experience of the company in other ventures. There’s the article on Five Ounces of Pain/CBS, a four part series over at MMA Junkie, and tons of other opinion pieces. What you often come away with is the feeling that this might actually be a group of people with a real plan rather than just some far fetched idea in the vein of Iron Ring, YAMMA, the IFL, and many others. They do talk a good game. 

What’s oddly notable is that nothing is said about the experience of Bjorn Rebney with Sugar Ray Leonard’s promotional company and how it operated up until its death. Its quite an interesting tale and one that only the most hardcore of boxing fans might have even heard about, much less remember. And what better a topic to see other websites potentially link to than to pull out those old memories?

We here at Total-MMA don’t often repackage news stories other people wrote as news stories of our own, but this one was so good, how on earth could it not be written about? The tale is now approaching 5 years old, ultimately cut short by the entrance of The Contender onto the boxing landscape and a subsequent lawsuit between Rebney and Sugar Ray Leonard. Looking at what was said just a few years ago about the actors and comparing them to their statements now is often stunning and disheartening that it took this long to see it on an MMA site.

The first trip back in time comes thanks to and their article penned all the way back in 2003:

From the beginning, Leonard and Rebney have thought they could play with the big boys. With SRLB, the two declared they would invent a better brand of boxing promotion. They would stage more competitive and entertaining fights (instead of the absurd and dull mismatches often used by promoters to “protect” their fighters’ records). With better fights and a rejuvenated fan base, they would be able to court network television. And through network television, they would create the sort of stars that stirred the public’s imagination in the days of Muhammad Ali, producing pay-per-view windfalls.

Sounds familiar, hmm? Tahl Raz, who wrote the story, wasn’t as nieve or willing to take them at their word then. The benefit to those now is that we get a more unvarnished version of what reality truly was, and what begs a seemingly infinite number of questions about Bellator:

One thing that both Leonard and Rebney don’t necessarily volunteer to potential investors is that this is their second attempt to launch a promotion company. In fact, the reason it took four years to get Sugar Ray Leonard Boxing off the ground is that they first tried something called Sugar Ray Leonard Management.

That effort, begun in late 1996, had Leonard and Rebney teaming up with a former Leonard manager, Seth Ersoff, and a former Leonard agent, Michael Simon. It ended disastrously in litigation, with Ersoff and Simon alleging in a still-pending lawsuit that when they first went into business with Leonard he was not at all a squeaky-clean legend with limitless potential but a washed-up has-been who’d been struggling with marital problems and substance abuse.

Even in its latest incarnation, SRLB has continued to endure more than its share of litigation — often with its own fighters. One, IBF cruiserweight champion Vassiliy Jirov, filed suit in U.S. District Court in Phoenix last summer seeking the removal of SRLB and a co-promoter as his representatives (the matter has since been settled). Still pending is a lawsuit that alleges SRLB took an advance of $75,000 and then failed to deliver a fight for the Myrtle Beach Area Sports Council. One of SRLB’s co-defendants is Bobby Mitchell, who brokered the deal between the sports council and SRLB and who has been indicted on federal charges of fight fixing.

This is just the beginning, and I encourage you to read the entire thing. For those not versed in the history of what ended up happening, many of the items will more than open your eyes. Among them include a completely absurd business plan that pulled in 1/10th the expected revenue, a lawsuit with Joe Mesi, the signing Juan Carlos Gomez (who, as it turned out, was legally signed to Universum and also ended up resulting in a lawsuit), fraudulent weighins, confrontations with sportswriter Tim Graham, and more. You might think this is enough dirt to bury the company among MMA bloggers on its own, but believe it or not, there is actually more.

Charles Jay did a great job some years back writing about the ills in the sport of boxing as part of his Operation Cleanup 1 and 2 stories. And as it turned out, Rebney, Sugar Ray, and ESPN often ended up as targets. Among the stories worth checking out:

-Detail on how SRL Boxing was, essentially from the get-go, in violation of federal law

-The opaque nature of the ESPN/SRL relationship (which later led to an internal investigation and near cancellation of boxing programming on ESPN)

-The working relationship with Bobby Mitchell, later convicted to over 3 years in prison for fight fixing

-The details of Joe Mesi’s departure to Tony Holden Productions, which includes a fantastic story about Rebney booking Mesi at Turning Stone Casino in New York without ever actually contacting Turning Stone Casino

Why stop there? Thomas Hauser, well known to MMA fans for inflammatory writings about that sport, detailed one of the better known suspected dives of the last 10 years and the relationship of ESPN and SRL Boxing to that fight back in 2003.

Now, I know there’s a lot to digest here, but its worth a look for sure, especially after seeing glorified press releases like you might be used to elsewhere. Its tough to see how Bellator truly signifies a shift in the promotion of the sport, or that it even seems possible to survive in the long term after a cursory glance, and we as fans may end up poorer for it.



One Response to “Bellator: Things Better Left Unsaid”

  1. Total MMA » Blog Archive » Bellator: You were warned Says:

    [...] like to play the “I told you so” game, but, well, you know. A few months back, I put this outstanding piece of copypasta up that detailed the outstanding past work done by the minds behind MMA’s newest money [...]

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