The crowd is turning on Cole Konrad.
It’s a Thursday evening at the Chicago Theatre, and the two-time NCAA Division I heavyweight wrestling champ is lying atop Rogent Lloret, hands clamped around his neck and arm and legs wrapped around his thigh, working the odd desultory punch to the head. He’s been doing it for nearly 15 minutes now.
“You guys wonder why you’re not in the UFC!” hollers a balcony wit. Even people who work for Bellator Fighting Championships, which is promoting the night’s fights, have lost their patience. “Do something!” one of them yells into the cage.
To break this stalemate, Lloret—a Spanish fighter who specializes in submission, or forcing opponents to quit—needs to gain distance between his chest and Konrad’s, so that he can grab a stray limb and torque it. This can’t be done. Konrad is too big (he has an advantage of about 30 pounds), too broad (Lloret has problems just wrapping his arms across his back), and too technically sound. The outcome is foreordained: a three-round unanimous decision. As Konrad is announced the winner, running his career record to 5-0, the crowd actually boos, a throaty jeer that carries through the old hall like waves lapping at a shore.
Bellator, which operates out of offices on Wells Street, is one of the larger mixed-martial-arts promotions in the United States, and could best be described as a minor league. Its top fighters are either learning their trade on their way up to Ultimate Fighting Championship or veterans hoping to return there. The fights are broadcast live on Fox Sports Net, and highlights are shown late at night on NBC and Telemundo. They are often spectacular.
Unlike a minor league in baseball, though, Bellator has the major leagues in its sights, and lately it’s been more notorious for its ambition than its great fights. A suit recently filed against it in Nevada by Zuffa, parent company of UFC, alleges theft of trade secrets. The suit quotes e-mails from Bellator CEO and founder Bjorn Rebney to an agent who has done business with both companies. “You’ve been great about sending us ‘All’ of the seminal docs from the UFC,” one reads in part, “so that we can re-do them and implement them for Bellator.”
Patrick English, an attorney for Bellator, doesn’t dispute the accuracy of the e-mails, but offers a novel defense: “If somebody has a good idea, we don’t consider it a trade secret. If it’s useful to you, use it.”
Bellator is also suing UFC, on grounds English’s UFC counterpart Don Campbell lightly dismisses alleging that UFC hired a fighter under Bellator contract. “The UFC,” Campbell says, “doesn’t need to quote-unquote poach anyone.”
Bellator is geared toward what Rebney, a former agent for Oscar de la Hoya and a partner with Sugar Ray Leonard in Sugar Ray Leonard Boxing, calls “the endemic market”—skinny teenagers in comically oversize sneakers and doofuses in garish Ed Hardy shirts, the kind of fans who consider the import of a Polish heavyweight prospect a big deal because they’ve seen his fights on YouTube. This is no vast audience: The Chicago Theatre is around half full, and most of the crowd seems to have a personal connection to one of the 16 fighters on the card.
The big scheme to broaden the promotion’s appeal involves marketing it as a place where fighters can control their own destinies by winning tournaments, which carry a prize of $100,000 and a title shot. Rebney spends a lot of time railing against the dominant booking model in MMA, in which even title fights can be made merely because they’re marketable. (For example, Konrad’s training partner, UFC heavyweight champion Brock Lesnar, earned his title shot after three professional fights, one of which he lost.)
“I don’t understand the matchmaking formula,” says Rebney. “It’s theater.”
Theater is, though, what even the endemic market wants from its cage fighting, and the lack of it is why even a fighter as immensely likable as Konrad can’t win the crowds. His attempts at the requisite smack talk are endearingly unconvincing. Before the fight, he sounds as if he’s going to giggle as he lays out his game plan over the phone. “I plan,” he proclaims, “to come in here and dominate.”
Tonight’s most popular fighter is Chicago’s own “Mr. International” Shonie Carter, a 38-year-old veteran of 80 bouts who has fought eight times since last September, winning twice. Carter, who has fought six times in UFC, is famous for his collection of zoot suits and comes to the cage for his match with Torrance “The Tyrant” Taylor attended by an entourage of about 20 scantily clad women, many carrying various title belts he’s won during his career. To the dismay of the production crew, who apparently weren’t warned of the stunt, one juggles and then swallows fire.
“He’s gonna get beat up after this, you get your video camera,” says one to another at cageside. “He’s a fucking idiot.”
Carter, to the delight of the crowd, spends most of the bout attempting such improbable moves as the spinning back fist, with which he once knocked out the famed Matt Serra, and a pro-wrestling-style suplex. But he’s got nothing. After the fight he collapses on the mat, and it takes eight men ten minutes with ice and an oxygen mask just to get him to where he can sit on his stool. By now the crowd is gone, and neither Bellator officials nor the press seem especially interested in the scene in the cage.
At the postfight press conference, Konrad grins as two fighters argue over who should have won the decision in their bout. Rebney sits with four fighters on either side of him and praises everyone involved with the event before allowing that he’s not yet pleased. “We have,” he says, “work to do.”