Can Bellator's Fight Master Match the Success of TUF?

Adam HillContributor IIIApril 25, 2013


Look out TUF, Bellator MMA is prepared to take on the UFC's flagship show with the debut of its own reality style competition, Fight Master, this summer.

Over the last 20 years, the UFC has established itself as the pre-eminent destination for the world's best mixed martial artists.

During that time, plenty of other MMA promotions have emerged, but most have gone belly up and had their rosters cannibalized by the UFC.

The UFC's level of market saturation reached critical mass in 2011 when FOX agreed to a seven-year, $700 million deal to bring MMA into every American home. This arrangement has granted the UFC a virtual monopoly over the sport much akin to that of the NFL or MLB.

However, there still are smaller MMA organizations attempting to carve out a niche in the marketplace. And arguably, Bellator MMA, the second largest mixed martial arts promotion in the United States, is thriving.

Bellator was formed in 2008 by chairman and CEO Bjorn Rebney as a tournament-based MMA competition. The tournaments are weight-class specific and scheduled over eight week long seasons.

The number of participants varies, but for the most part, there are eight competitors per tournament with the winner being awarded a $100,000 check, the title of No. 1 contender in the division and a shot at the Bellator champ in his next bout.

This is a major selling point for Bellator, which exploits fan puzzlement with the seemingly capricious way the UFC grants title shots. In Bellator, the fighter earns his shot at the belt by first having to make it through "the toughest tournament in sports."

For three years, Bellator lingered in relative obscurity on ESPN Deportes and the underwatched MTV2, but the UFC's move to FOX, which could have been a death knell for Bellator, proved to be a blessing in disguise.

The UFC's old home, Spike TV, still wanted to be in the MMA game and reached a deal to distribute Bellator MMA events. This relationship has been advantageous for both parties. 

Since joining Spike TV, Bellator has seen a significant jump in its viewership. The most recent season drew 861,000 viewers per event or five times more than the previous season that aired on MTV2 (via MMA Weekly).

Now Bellator is attempting to take another bite out of the UFC's piece of the pie with the announcement of its own mixed martial arts reality show, Fight Master: Bellator MMA.

The show's premise is almost identical to that of The Ultimate Fighter. Thirty-two up-and-coming fighters will compete on the weekly show for a chance to win a spot in Bellator's fall welterweight tournament.

Also like TUF, Bellator has lined up MMA personalities to coach and train the fighters including Greg Jackson, Frank Shamrock, former Bellator featherweight champ Joe Warren and UFC Hall of Famer Randy Couture. Each of the coaches will lead four separate camps of fighters.

The inclusion of Couture, who coached opposite Chuck Liddell on the inaugural season of The Ultimate Fighter, did not please UFC president Dana White, who perceived the move as a stab in the back that ultimately ended their friendship.

The first TUF season was the watershed moment in American mixed martial arts. It brought the sport to the masses and helped to shed the "human cockfighting" comparisons. 

Bellator is hoping that Fight Master will have a similar effect and help to continue to grow the brand. And even though Fight Master appears to be a carbon copy of TUF, a few distinct differences could make it successful.

1. It's not airing in direct competition with TUF. This is important because it will allow Bellator to grow the show in a vacuum and hopefully lure in the nearly million-plus regular TUF viewers who might be intrigued by what the competition has to offer.

2. Usually in America, the most important thing is being first, but in this case coming in second might be a good thing for Bellator. Spike TV produced 14 seasons of The Ultimate Fighter. In that time, the producers were able to perfect the process, so it is unlikely that Fight Master will experience the glitches or problems that normally plague first-time shows. 

3. Fight Master is all about the fighters, whereas The Ultimate Fighter has become more about the future matchup between the feuding coaches. Also on Fight Master, the competitors have more control over their destiny. They will choose which camp they want to be a part of and have some influence over the fights they take.

4. Fight Master will build anticipation for the tournaments. One of Bellator's biggest problems is name recognition of fighters. The show will put faces to names by devoting a portion of the show to their personal stories. This is important because Bellator is hoping that one of these fighters will make it through the tournament and get a crack at the welterweight strap.

Bellator's future is bright as an alternative to the UFC, and while Fight Master may never reach the success of TUF, it still should be an entertaining viewing experience full of fireworks.

Or at the bare minimum, it will give MMA fans something to fill the void until the next season of The Ultimate Fighter.

Fight Master: Bellator MMA is scheduled to debut on Spike TV on June 20, 2013.