Q&A: Matchmaker Sam Caplan Recalls Bellator Tenure, Relationship with Bjorn Rebney

By Tristen Critchfield Sep 10, 2014

When Scott Coker took the reins at Bellator MMA, it was no secret that changes were on the horizon. The promotional renovations would, of course, include the fighters, but the overhaul also affected people on the other side of the organization.

In August, longtime Bellator matchmaker Sam Caplan announced that his contract would not be renewed. Like most matchmakers, Caplan remained largely underground during his Bellator tenure. Now, with new opportunities looming, he is free to speak his mind. Speaking with Sherdog.com, Caplan discussed his Bellator departure, future plans, the fighter who got away and much more.

Sherdog.com: With Rich Chou coming aboard, Scott Coker said there wasn’t enough room to retain you as part of the Bellator matchmaking team. What explanation were you given by the promotion in regards to the decision not to renew your contract?
Sam Caplan: I really didn’t get much of an explanation from Scott. All this was done with a Bellator attorney. [Coker] made an attempt to reach out about five minutes after I was informed that my contract wasn’t going to be renewed. I was on the phone making some calls, and I told Scott I was a little bit busy and I would try to call him back later that night. I tried to get in touch with him that night and the next day, and he’d been busy, so our schedules really didn’t mesh. I tried to hit the ground running, because there was a lot of people that had contacted me over the years about working with them. Legally, I couldn’t even talk to them [then]. They would call me up and pitch something, and I would just inform them, “Hey I have a contract with Bellator; we can’t talk.” I was just so busy doing what I was working on, and I know Scott’s been incredibly busy trying to get Bellator to the point he wants it to go. Scott reached out through an associate and invited me to the show [Bellator 123]. Schedule-wise again it didn’t work out for me. He wanted to have me up there, and I would love to go to a show in the future and talk to him.

Sherdog.com: Would you have liked to stay with Bellator?
Caplan: Absolutely. Because I knew when Scott took over there could be a change there. When Rich [Chou] came in I had a strong feeling that three matchmakers wouldn’t be kept around. I could have always tried to resign and somehow save face, but when I thought about it, that wasn’t what I wanted. If there was an opportunity to stay, I definitely wanted to stay. I feel like with Scott there, it’s going to be a much better working environment internally, and it’s going to be much better for fighters. Working with managers, I’ll think they’ll be a little more fighter-friendly with Scott in there as opposed to Bjorn [Rebney]. The vision that Scott has was really a vision that myself and other people within Bellator had felt like we should have [already had]. The direction that he’s going to go in, that’s the direction that quite a few people at Bellator felt like we should have been doing for at least a year prior. Philosophically, I was completely in tune with what Bellator was doing. There would have been no reason why I couldn’t have continued there.

Sherdog.com: When did it become clear that former CEO Bjorn Rebney’s days with the promotion were numbered?
Caplan: I knew for sure that he was probably on the way out during the pay-per-view. We had a production meeting, and Frank Shamrock was the backstage interviewer. Frank came to one of the production meetings wearing a Strikeforce hat. I’m friends with Frank, and I think Frank is great, but I know Frank, and Frank doesn’t do anything by accident. That Strikeforce hat didn’t just magically end up in his suitcase, and he didn’t just randomly decide to wear it in a production meeting. I think Frank had some friction with Bjorn over some things. I know that Frank was pretty good friends with Scott Coker. For Frank to wear that hat in front of Spike executives and Bjorn, he was probably sending an under-the-radar message there. I was aware of the rumors; I read the Internet. I knew that Bjorn was definitely treading on some ice there.

Sherdog.com: How difficult was it to work with Rebney? Was there a lot of tension behind the scenes?
Caplan: I didn’t work out of the California office, so I can’t speak to the relationships Bjorn had with other employees. I can only speak to mine. I know that he and I ran very hot and cold over the four-and-a-half years I was working with him. It was very stressful at times for me to work with him, and I know it was very stressful at times for him to work with me. There were times when we got along very well and we saw eye-to-eye on things, and there were times where we didn’t see eye to eye, and things got very tense between us. To our credit, I think we always acted professionally in front of staff, and no one knew that there was tension at times between us. When it came to being productive, we always put our differences aside and did what was best for Bellator. I think that the end product was very credible and very reputable as far as the fighters we were signing and the talent we worked with. Professionally, I think we got past a lot of our issues and worked well for the most part. It went both ways; there were times Bjorn got frustrated with me, and I was frustrated with him. The one thing I’d really like to convey is that behind it all, even if we disagreed, we both wanted what was best for Bellator.

Sherdog.com: What does the future hold for you?
Caplan: Once people found out that I wasn’t with Bellator any longer, I started getting a lot of interesting phone calls from people in the industry. I have some ideas about the industry and sport as a whole that can be really unique and creative. I think MMA has gotten a little stagnant in some areas, and I think it needs some new vision and a fresh take. I’m talking to some people about some things right now to maybe take the sport in a little bit different direction. Nothing is final in that regard, and those big-picture projects take months to finalize. In the short term, I want to do some things to stay busy. I’ve got a podcast which just launched, and I’ve gotten great feedback from that.

I’m doing a seminar for fight managers. One of the biggest things I saw in my position as a matchmaker and in talent relations was that fighters weren’t being represented properly, for the most part. There’s some great managers out there, don’t get me wrong. But there’s a lot of fighters out there that don’t have professional level management. Sometimes it was because the people that were working for them were just complete wack-jobs. They were crazy and coming out of left field, and they were not fit to be a manager. But other times there were guys that were really sincere and hard working -- it’s just that they didn’t have the experience or the knowledge, and it’s tough for a manager to get that experience because other managers that are successful are not going to pass down the keys to the castle. I have a unique insight having worked inside for a major promotion for four-and-a-half years. I see a lot of the mistakes and successes that are going on, and I want to help managers do better and help them achieve a lot of their goals. I’m doing a seminar, and the first one is going to be Jan. 17 in Philadelphia. The website, fightseminar.com, is live.

Sherdog.com: Should MMA managers be required to have a license?
Caplan: I think it could happen, and I would love to see it happen. If you look at the NFL, NBA and MLB, you have to be certified to represent players within their league. I think that’s great. I think it weeds out a lot of the unsavory characters, and it protects the athletes from getting taken advantage of. I would love to see MMA do that. It would be an epic undertaking. But I do think the infrastructure is there between the athletic commissions -- which many of them force fight managers to apply and get licenses anyway -- as well as the major promotions. I guess it’s a question for a lawyer, but could the UFC or Bellator say, “Hey, we’re not going to communicate with you unless you go through a certification course.” Legally, if it could be done I would love to see it done. I think it needs to happen.

Sherdog.com: What was your favorite behind-the-scenes Bellator moment?
Caplan: Prior to the Joe Warren-Patricio Pitbull fight, Joe had food poisoning. We were setting up the show, it was getting ready to start and some of the staff rushed out of the locker room and said we were in trouble because the main event was off. I said, “What are you talking about?” They said Joe was sick and could barely move. I went backstage and we took a look at Joe, and he was laying down on the workout mat in his locker room. He was face down and wasn’t moving, and I said, “This is insane, we’re going to have to call the fight.” I think some people in his corner said, “Before you do that, let’s see if we can get Joe up and get some fluids in him.” I think they somehow found a way to get somebody to come in with an IV -- I think they had to take Joe out of the locker room and take him somewhere. I think he completely did a 180 and felt like a million bucks and went out there. He got off to a slow start in that fight but came back like a maniac. I was just amazed to see that performance out of Joe considering where he had been just a few hours earlier in that day. I was amazed at how much heart and tenacity he was able to show in that fight after going through that ordeal.

Sherdog.com: What is something people may not know about the lifestyle of a matchmaker?
Caplan: I think some people think it’s just simply saying, “Hey, if Fighter A fought Fighter B, that’d be a great fight.” But there’s a lot more to it. There’s a lot of mechanics involved; there’s a lot of human relations involved. You’re constantly dealing with the fighters and management. Some fighters are easy to work with, but a lot of fighters go through highs and lows emotionally and you’re on the other end of that phone or email when they’re going through that. It’s kind of up to the matchmaker as a function of talent relations, to work with them to make sure they feel as good as possible about fighting for the organization. There’s a lot of mechanics involved as far as paperwork. I don’t think anyone knows the extent of the paperwork you have to be involved with as a matchmaker. I would tell anyone that’s aspiring to be a matchmaker: If you’re not good with details and paperwork, you’re gonna have a hard time cutting it as a matchmaker in this sport. There’s so many compliance issues that you have to work on with your legal team as well as with the athletic commissions.

Sherdog.com: Is there a fraternity among matchmakers? In other words, do people in the matchmaking business talk to one another on a regular basis?
Caplan: If there’s a fraternity, I’m not a part of it. I think that a matchmaker at a high level is very busy, and they don’t really have time to interact with very many people. I think that their highest priorities are the fighters and managers that they work with. Especially at a Bellator, UFC or World Series of Fighting level, there probably isn’t much time to engage in relationships with other people. A lot of the knowledge that we have is proprietary in nature, so it’s just a conflict of interest to really reach out to other matchmakers and talk to them. Maybe one day when I’m retired and Joe Silva and Sean Shelby are retired, I would love to be able to talk to them about some of the crazy war stories that I’ve gone through as well as the crazy stuff they’ve seen. I can only imagine the things that they’ve experienced. When you’re in the game, it’s really difficult to reach out and interact with people from other organizations.

Sherdog.com: Was there any fighter that you were really close to signing to Bellator that got away?
Caplan: Chris Weidman. I thought we had that deal done. I put a lot of time into that, and we had Chris come out to the Huerta-Alvarez show [Bellator 33] as our guest and we got him a hotel room. It was a big recruiting visit. We took him backstage, spoke with Bjorn and shook his hand. Chris was really excited walking out of that meeting about fighting for us. I was told by his managers that the deal was done. I think Chris took the contract to a lawyer who was also a relative, and I think the relative had some questions about the nature of the contract. I think Chris felt like we had misled him. I read an interview where we had said that. It took me by surprise, but I think what had happened was, the guy that was working with him was trying to get other fighters into Bellator and had spoken to Bjorn about possibly working for the company. I think he felt like whether or not he was going to be able to do business with us outside of Chris Weidman, he felt like that was going to be dependent on if he could get Chris to sign with us. I think he might’ve misled Chris on a few things to get Chris to sign a 36-page document. I can tell you from my end, I don’t know anything that Bellator did to mislead him. I wonder where the disconnect was. I thought that was a done deal. Bjorn was like, “How good do you think he can be?” And I say, “If we sign him, he’s going to be our middleweight champion.” When Chris won the title from Anderson Silva, I was like, “Well, I was wrong. He’s not our champion, he’s the UFC middleweight champion.”

Sherdog.com: Are there any fights you wish you could have made?
Caplan: There’s a lot of them. Because of the tournament format, there were a lot of fights that a lot of us on the staff wanted to see happen that just couldn’t happen. We were hoping for Paul Daley-Douglas Lima. That was a big reason why we brought Daley in, because we weren’t sure if Ben [Saunders] was going to be with us long term at that stage. It’s a fight that didn’t happen because Paul had gotten into a little bit of trouble over in the U.K., and there were some questions about whether he was going to get approved for a visa. That fight didn’t happen, and we ended up releasing Paul per his request. It’s interesting that Paul is back in Bellator, and I think that’s a fight you’re gonna see happen under the Scott Coker regime. It was a fight that almost happened under the Bjorn Rebney regime.

Sherdog.com: How close were you to adding Kimbo Slice to the roster?
Caplan: I wanted Kimbo Slice vs. James Thompson for [Bellator 123]. That was one thing we had looked at before Scott Coker came in. I had Bjorn sold on that idea. I started negotiations with Kimbo’s management, and Bjorn went down there to close, and he met with Kimbo’s manager in Miami. It was a great meeting. We thought it was going to happen, but I think Kimbo had some reservations about getting back into MMA. I think he wants to stick strictly to a stand-up fight style.

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