My thoughts on Bellator’s debut on SpikeTV and what the future holds.
MMA returned to SpikeTV this past Thursday and things couldn’t have gone better for Bellator.
Throughout the entire day, there was a certain buzz on social media that I don’t think Bellator has ever had. Even with a UFC event on Saturday, the MMA world seemed more excited about Bellator’s debut on SpikeTV. And with good reason I might add. Not only was Bellator moving to a network that helped build the top MMA company in the world, they put together two outstanding title fights featuring four men who could be competitive with anyone in any company.
The night got off to a great start as Pat Curran and Patricio Freire engaged in a back and forth striking battle that should’ve been appreciated by all fans. It wasn’t an exciting, knock down, drag out, brawl that people will think of as a fight of the year candidate, but it was a high-level MMA contest on the feet. Curran displayed some of the best boxing in MMA, utilizing his jab to perfection and throwing slick counter strikes to bust up the face of Freire. As for Freire, he hung tough for five rounds, and won two of the first three on most scorecards, thanks to his aggression and leg kicks. Bellator couldn’t have asked for much more in their opening fight as Curran and Freire was a very good fight that built up over five rounds.
It was not only important for the first fight to be good in order to maintain the TNA Wrestling audience, but it was important for this fight to be good because Bellator’s featherweight division is by far their deepest and most competitive division. By winning, Curran established himself as the champion to a new audience and Freire likely won some fans as well with his performance in defeat. Curran already has two fights on deck, first against Daniel Straus and then the winner of that fight will fight the winner of Rad Martinez vs. Shahbulat Shamhalaev.
In the next bout, “MMA legend” Renato Sobral probably saw action for the last time in his career as he was once again KO’d by Mikhail Zayats. Sobral has been brutally finished in each of his last six losses and still has the same bad habits on the feet, including throwing a stupid push kick that led to his downfall in this fight. The fight wasn’t much up until the KO, but a spinning backfist leading to a clean knockout never looks bad on the highlight reel.
In the advertised main event, Michael Chandler proved why he’s one of the best lightweights in the world by easily dispatching of Rick Hawn in the second round with a rear naked choke. If you’d never seen either man prior to the fight, you would have thought that Alvarez was Kevin Durant and Hawn was Earl Boykins and they were playing one-on-one with “make it, take it” rules. That’s how easy Chandler made it look, but instead of playing Boykins, he was playing someone more along the lines of Luol Deng.
Chandler should be the face of the organization. Eddie Alvarez was the face of the MTV2 era and Chandler was the man that defeated him. Now on SpikeTV, with Alvarez all but gone, Chandler should be the guy that Bellator puts in front of the camera as often as they can. I think he’s a legit top five lightweight in the world, he’s only 26, and he has a certain charisma and likeability about him. He’ll never be “the guy” on SpikeTV as long as “King Mo” Lawal is under contract and working with both Bellator and TNA, but Lawal can come off as annoying and isn’t exactly trust worthy given that he’s been caught using PEDs and his history in social media.
The problem moving forward with Chandler is his competition level. Hawn is a very good lightweight that Chandler had no problems with. Next up for the lightweight champ is either Marcin Held, who Chandler already submitted in the first round two years ago, or Dave Jensen, who doesn’t have a significant win under his belt. I’ve always maintained that you could take the top 64 lightweights in the world, put them in a March Madness style tournament, and you’d get a different result each time. That’s how competitive and equal the 155lb division in MMA is. Unfortunately for Bellator, they don’t have many of the top 64 lightweights. They have a bunch of mid-majors looking for that Cinderella miracle. And it could happen, but when you’re a company trying to establish an identity, you don’t want that to happen. You want Duke to dominate because, whether you love or hate Duke, you’re going to watch them.
Almost everything went Bellator’s way on Thursday, but that doesn’t mean that problems, all of which are fixable, don’t exist. First off, I don’t care what Bjorn Rebney has to say after fights, and, based on feedback I got on twitter, I’m not alone in my thinking. If I want a figurehead talking about the fights and his fighters and taking away focus from them, I’ll watch the UFC. To Rebney’s credit, he’s always positive, but talk to the fighters. I want to know what they think after the fight. If I want to know what Rebney thinks, I’ll watch the post-fight press conference. Second, stop holding fights after the main event. Bellator had their UFC 100 moment on Thursday when Seth Petruzelli vs. Jacob Noe closed the show. Airing prelims after the main event is fine, but live fights are unacceptable. The TV and live audience tune in and pay to see the advertised main event, and when it’s over, they’re ready to change the channel or leave. No one wanted to stick around for Jon Fitch vs. Paulo Thiago or Petruzelli vs. Noe.
This is something that Bellator has done in the past that has always annoyed me. Put your prelims on first. Don’t have dark fights after the main event. Don’t no one have time for that.
The ratings for the debut event came back strong as 938,000 people tuned it. While the first few shows should draw good ratings, it’ll be interesting to see whether or not the numbers will hold up. Obviously bigger fights will draw a bigger audience, but is the Thursday at 10pm time slot the best for Bellator? Having the TNA Wrestling lead in is nice, but let’s not forget that Thursday comes before Friday, which is before the Saturday, which is when we can start partying, partying. Normal people have to work or go to school on Friday. They can’t always stay up until 11:30pm to watch a fight that they may not care about. Plus they’ll be competing against late night talk shows and the Thursday NBA on TNT game, which is usually one of the better weekday games. I know Bellator’s logic of pairing their two best original shows together for one action packed night, but if Bellator is going to continue to run on weekdays, a 9pm move could be in the works.
I have no doubt that SpikeTV will do the right thing when it comes to Bellator. They, more than anyone else in the world, want to prove that MMA exists beyond the UFC, and the as the station that helped build the UFC, they want to provide a viable threat to the #1 promotion in the world. They’ve already helped land Bellator some bigger sponsors and advertising deals and they’re going to go out of their way to push Bellator to succeed, much like they did with UFC and they’ve done with TNA Wrestling. Of course they have to be careful not to push them too fast (see; TNA vs. WWE Monday Night Slaughter) but to keep them progressing nicely over the course of the contract. SpikeTV is going to constantly air Bellator events, highlights, and commercials. They’re already working on a reality show, which I have my doubts about given how played out the concept is, but maybe they’ll freshen things up. SpikeTV is 100% behind Bellator and they’ll do everything they can to prove that.
And Bellator needs to do their part as well. I hate to say it, because it’s helped Bjorn Rebney and his organization turn unknown fighters into champions seemingly overnight, but the tournament format needs to be revamped. Champions can’t sit out or fight non-deserving competition in “super fights” while they wait for a tournament champion to be crowned. You also eliminate potential contenders with the tournament format because only one person ends up coming out with a win, while everyone else would be coming off a loss. Maybe they could use tournaments to establish contenders from mid-level fighters, but not the #1 contender. Adding a “championship clause” for immediate title rematch was a nice idea, but that means tournament winners may have to sit out or risk their title shot if a rematch takes place. And what if the tournament winner loses, does the guy who beat him become the #1 contender who does he have to go through the tournament? It’s just a mess that Bellator can completely avoid by scrapping, or putting less value on, tournaments.
I know Bellator’s tagline is “Title shots are not given, they’re earned,” but you know how you can stay true to that tagline? By giving title shots to fighters who earn them. It’s not hard to give a title shot to the right guy, even if he’s not the most marketable. Bellator can stay true to being sports over entertainment without tournaments.
This relationship is still new and there will be growing pains. Like any relationship, both parties will have to make concessions to make the other happy. SpikeTV has already been in a successful relationship that ended in a messy divorce, but you can’t discount the years of happiness they had with the UFC. Bellator has been in a number of minor relationships, but now they have to be 100% committed to a real relationship. The relationship is off to a good start, but don’t all relationships start with great sex and that sense of excitement? It’s maintaining that relationship which, is going to involve arguments, fights, and likely a scorned ex-lover trying to bring them down for months and years that is going to make or break things between SpikeTV and Bellator.