On the Set of Fight Master: Can Bellator's New Reality Show Take Aim at UFC?

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On the Set of Fight Master: Can Bellator's New Reality Show Take Aim at UFC?
Image via Spike TV

When Spike TV's Fight Master debuts tomorrow, on the surface at least, it's going to look awfully familiar. Thirty two mixed martial arts fighters will attempt to realize a dream, to win a single-elimination tournament and earn their spot alongside the world's very best fighters. Leading the way will be iconic coaches, some of MMA's biggest and brightest names. They will live together, train together, break bread together and do battle together.

Deja Vu?

That could have been the mission statement for The Ultimate Fighter, a 2005 reality series on Spike that helped put MMA, and industry leader UFC, on the map. Today, a year or so removed from a bitter divorce between the network and its muse, it's not a comparison Spike TV executive vice president for original programming Sharon Levy is comfortable with. 

Levy and Spike's parent company Viacom replaced the UFC with Bellator, a rising promotion concentrating on developing new talent. But other than being representatives of the same sport, Levy rejects attempts to draw parallels between the UFC and Bellator—or between the competing reality shows.

"I don't compare Fight Master to TUF," Levy said, cutting my question off at the pass. "I wouldn't do a carbon copy of what came before. The world doesn't need another version of that. It's a completely unique show.

"Yes, guys are fighting and all elimination concepts work on the same premise. People are going to be eliminated and someone is going to win. I think it's about taking a fresh perspective. What any great television executive tries to do is take something and make it even better, to make it new. To make it fresh. To make it feel like it belongs."

Curious about how Spike and Bellator could pull this off, and skeptical that they could create a product in the same genre that would stand out from the wearying The Ultimate Fighter, on its last legs as it enters its eighteenth season, I traveled to New Orleans, Louisiana to see what the new show was all about.

The first thing I can report, as we travel from the swanky Loews Hotel near Harrah's Casino, is that this show most definitely isn't in the heart of the city. This is a show filmed in New Orleans, but not of New Orleans. As the GPS attempts three times to take us onto a Ferry boat to nowhere, I learn that the fighters don't get to partake of the nightlife on Bourbon Street, didn't enjoy any jazz and ate not a single crawfish. 

In fact, their existence is confined to a single giant warehouse. It used to house Mardi Gras floats, at least on the 364 days they weren't put to good use. Now it houses a giant circular cage, serving as a production facility as New Orleans throws its hat into the ring to compete with Atlanta and other rising southern powerhouses in the new look television industry.  

Fight Master may be in New Orleans, but it isn't a show about the drunken hi-jinks the city, and The Ultimate Fighter, are famous for. Show runner Mark Seliga, who once worked in a similar role on the UFC's show before graduating to Project Runway and a variety of bad girl shows, says almost all the hi-jinks, pranks and drunken tomfoolery that have come to define MMA television were all but abandoned this time around.

"That's the tenant of this show. To really make it about fighting. There's something that we're doing here that I used to focus on at The Ultimate Fighter but it never really aired," he said. "And it's the pre-fight ritual of getting your hands wrapped and what a fighter does in those given moments. What's going on in their head the hour before they are about to fight? What a crazy moment in someone's existence. Some dudes chill, some dudes scream. It's an individualized thing. So you're in the moment. You get the sense that the fight is about to happen. And you get these stories of what they were have supposed to have learned during the week infused into that moment.

"What we're really endeavoring to do here is to have something that is more analytic. We are sharing the hero's journey as a fighter. Not as a meat-head or an idiot. It was serendipity. There was a lot of really good talent with good drive. Lots of diamonds in the rough. And not a lot of juvenile crap. It's very clean, very smart."

As we sit in the Fight Master brain center, plastered wall to wall with reminders to stay the heck off of social media and to keep the show spoiler free, former UFC heavyweight champion Maurice Smith strolls in to grab a drink from the refrigerator. Smith has coached a who's who of the sport's best fighters from Ken Shamrock to Randy Couture and everyone in between—but on this show, the kickboxing icon is an assistant.

While Smith is certainly capable and worthy of a spot as the head man in any fighter's camp, Spike was looking for bigger names to kick off the show—and got them. The headliner is Randy Couture, UFC Hall of Famer and burgeoning movie star. Joining him are the sport's top trainer Greg Jackson, former UFC light heavyweight champion Frank Shamrock and Bellator tournament winner Joe Warren.

"I had to have them all...it was a dream team of those four. And it took a lot of work to get them, I'm not going to lie," Levy said diplomatically, before eventually highlighting the biggest coup of them all—signing Couture for this and other television projects. 

"We desperately wanted Randy," she conceded. "Not only because he's a legend but because he really cares about the future of this sport. He cares about building great fighters."

Couture, wearing a t-shirt with with his own Xtreme Couture brand prominently displayed, wanted to be sure to clear up confusion about the revival of his role as reality television coach.

"I didn't come to Bellator, I came to Viacom," he said. "It's a common misconception. I signed a two year deal with Viacom. For potential scripted and unscripted television. The first show that we loaded up and that we're obviously doing right now is Fight Master...obviously Bellator is part of it, but I don't have any deal with Bellator.  I had never even met (Bellator President) Bjorn (Rebney) until we started the process for this show. Never spoke to him."

Couture was one of the coaches for the inaugural season of The Ultimate Fighter, another call back to the original MMA reality show and a sure talking point in the press. But he maintains this was a very different experience.

"The biggest difference is the focus is a lot more on the fighting and the athletes. And the athletes have a lot more control over their own destiny. It's laid out differently and has a different feel," Couture said.

"Bellator wants to build their own stars. It would be easy just to pluck free agents out. And some of those guys have come over. But, on the whole,  they've used this tournament format to create new stars and give a new outlet to athletes coming up in the sport. This is another opportunity to do that. They're using that tournament style format in the show. These guys aren't getting a shot with just one fight. They're getting a shot in another tournament. They're fighting to jump out of the frying pan and into the fire, into another tournament with a bunch of seasoned veterans. It's a unique deal."

It was a format Frank Shamrock loved. The former Showtime announcer was relaxing at home and considering his next move when Spike President Kevin Kay called him with the idea for Fight Master. He was reluctant at first, but the ability to do things his way, and to get back in the thick of things with hungry young athletes, swayed him.

"One of the unique things that got me on board is that each coach gets to run their own show, their own camp, according to their own method and philosophy," Shamrock said.

Not only does each coach get to do things his way, they each carved out their own man dens in the facility. The distinctions were fascinating, even to a relative MMA neophyte like Levy.

"The differences and the nuances between how Greg trains and how Frank trains are so interesting," she said. "You wind up learning so much that you didn't know, but in a very palatable way."

Behind the doors, secrets lurk. Image via Spike.

No two rooms looked alike. The coaches focused on different areas, from philosophy to the hardcore grind every wrestler knows all too well. Even the equipment was different.

"The dynamic of having four camps instead of two is so extreme.This is less about personalities and more about styles. How do these coaches motivate and train their guys? Some dudes train their fighters a lot and hard. Some dudes are very light," Seliga revealed. "Every coach has their own style—and it doesn't necessarily work for every fighter. And it goes back to the hero's journey. Do they listen to their master, that whole sensei theory?"

"The real specificity of training becomes very hush hush," Seliga continued. "If they're in the cage it can be viewed by anybody in the space. So there's some guys who will fake things they are doing in the cage because they know homeboy they are going to fight is watching them. And they'll do things to try to mislead or manipulate their opponent."

Though he once trained Smith to UFC gold and helped found the now iconic American Kickboxing Academy's MMA program, Shamrock hadn't worked with a fighter on a regular basis in some time. It turned out, he said, to be kind of like riding a bike.

"It was pretty much the same thing it's always been, which I was kind of surprised by. I thought the general knowledge in the sport had advanced much further. I haven't taught for years and years, but as soon as I got going on it, it all fell into place. Fighting is fighting. You close your fist and it's all pretty much the same."

For trainer of the stars Greg Jackson, rust was not a problem. It was just another day at the office. Among the coaches competing on Fight Master, he is the only one who makes his living training fighters. 

"A lot of it is what I've been doing for years. Once you figure out who the fighters are, you assess their strengths and weaknesses and try to put plans together for each individual. I'm constantly working with new fighters all the time. I can get a handle on it pretty quickly. I've been doing it so long that I have a pretty good sense of a fighter pretty early," Jackson said.

But as comfortable as he was, the show did present some unique challenges.

"In a way it's something that is new. How do you do what you do in the confines of this reality TV show? It was a challenge for me and I really enjoyed that it wasn't something that I do everyday. It's MMA and it's combat. But it was in parameters I've never worked within and that was very intriguing to me."

Jackson wasn't able to spend every day on the set. I know first hand, as several attempts to visit were delayed as he had to jet around the world, coaching some of the top fighters in the business. But, he feels good about the time and effort he managed to spend on the show.

"I had very competent assistant coaches. We'd go over the game plan and I was calling them and bugging them all the time," Jackson said. "And they would call me. So we stayed in touch. And we have a formula that works well. And that means coaches working synergisticly together. And we do that extremely well on my team. Even that was kind of par for the course. That's what we do."

In many ways, he said, it was similar to how he handles business with his own athletes, delegating that he can't do himself to trusted assistants like former Strikeforce fighter Joey Villasenor.

"The one thing that makes our team so successful is team. Greg Jackson is our head coach," Villasenor said. "He overlooks everything. He's there for the fights. But Greg Jackson doesn't hold pads for a hundred guys. He can't break down techniques for a hundred guys. He has a group of people and a team of people and a bunch of athletes who understand and buy into this system."

The wild card was Joe Warren. The former Greco Roman wrestler was a 2006 world champion, but it was a different resume line item that got him the gig—former Bellator champion.

Producers wanted at least some connection to their new promotion and none of the other coaches were closely associated with the brand. And, while Warren doesn't have the name recognition of some of his big name opponents, that doesn't mean he didn't hold his own. The voluble star was made for reality television and his infectious personality won many skeptics over.

"Joe, God bless him, has such an incredible energy level," Seliga said. "He's so cool that even in the selection process, he wasn't slighted. He sold himself well in the chair, his team and his training partners in a really great way. I think he did well, even though Randy and Greg and even Frank are such massive names in the fight game."

Yet, for all the talk of coaches, this is really, first and foremost, a show about fighters.

"The thing that separates us from Fighter is that this is a fighter destiny show," Seliga said. "The fighters choose everything. They fight to get into the house in the first round. Once they are in, they choose their coach and keep on choosing their destiny every step of the way."

via Spike TV

Watching this play out is compelling. The 32 fighters duke it out for a spot in the house and, as they go at it, the coaches sit on a stage, relaxing on leather recliners and chatting amongst themselves.

"They're funny. They bust each other's balls like you can not believe," Levy said. "We have four legends up there doing running commentary because they can't stop. And you're hearing what Frank likes and you're hearing what Randy likes and you're hearing Greg's critiques. And they're starting to mess with each other's minds. That was completely fascinating and something I hadn't even anticipated."

And then, the moment of truth. On The Ultimate Fighter, the coaches would take turns selecting the fighters who had impressed them. But that's not the Bellator way. Instead, the cage swings open and each winning fighter gets to grill the coaches and choose who he wants to lead the way.

"It's The Voice moment," Seliga said. "Them really having to choose. It was a risk. You worry about fighters. Can they talk? What will they say? But they were so insightful. Once the cage opened, I didn't have to do anything."

The coaches, however, aren't completely out of the game. Each had a limited number of slots to fill. All of them wanted to avoid weak fighters and convince the alpha dogs to join their team. It created an interesting dynamic as coaches tried to subtly control the fighter's actions.

"There was definitely some strategy involved," Couture said. "I had to kind of tactfully dissuade some people I thought was maybe going to pick me and my team, to try to hold out and get the guys I really wanted to work with. That had a shot at winning. At the end of the day you're still here to win. Even as a coach, I want that guy that's going to walk away with that money and a shot in that tournament."

Shamrock, a master manipulator and genius fight promoter, was in his element, capable of throwing words as fast as he ever did fists.

"I played that game really hard," Shamrock admitted. "I could see in the moment that it was pivotal. I did all kinds of cagey stuff. I sang and danced and did every necessary to fill my team up with tough guys. You're going to be pleasantly surprised at the quality of talent that's in the show."

Once the fighters are selected, control again shifts to the coaches. But only for the briefest of moments. They work with Rebney to seed the athletes from top to bottom. And then it's up to the fighters to, once again, choose their destiny. The top seed is given the choice to decide what comes next for him.

"He could walk up and say 'I want number three.' Because they think their best chance is to take him out now," Seliga said. "Because he's had a hard weight cut. They could pick internally from their team. They could pick anyone they want. It's up to the fighter. What are you going to do? The coaches can give them information. But they can't tell them who to pick. It's the fighter's decision. It's always their journey, their quest. To become the Fight Master."

Of course, it all comes down to the fights. All the set up and set design in the world can't make up for a lack of excitement in the cage. The fights on the initial episodes, as they whittle the field down from 32 to 16, are edited for time. From there, Spike executives say they will air in full—and that they are well worth seeing.

"The fights were extraordinary," Shamrock confirmed. "These guys took advantage of the stage that was provided for them. Living under that kind of pressure creates so much emotion and intensity. When they fought it was amazing."

The end result is a show bound to delight hardcore fans, abandoning the worst parts of The Ultimate Fighter, the petty arguments, drunken squabbles and rampant property destruction, while maintaining it's core.

"That's what's critical. It's not just another fight promotion. It's tournament style. Where the fighters are really empowered," Levy said. "And the tournament style makes it really user friendly for non-hardcore fans like I was before I came to Spike. I understand the logic behind why that guy is fighting that guy. It's not a promoter picking it. That's what makes it different. And as long as you're different, there's room for something else."

Bellator's new season of fights kicks off at 8 P.M. ET tomorrow night on Spike, followed by the series debit of Fight Master. Jonathan Snowden is Bleacher Report's lead combat sports writer. All quotes acquired first hand by the author.

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