Bellator Fighting Championships, the plucky underdog of the mixed martial arts scene, officially kicks off its fourth season March 5 on its new home, MTV2.
Bellator uses a unique tournament format which makes this group the only pure sport mixed martial arts promotion on the planet. In order to earn a title fight, a fighter must survive a season long eight man tournament.
This ensures that the Bellator titles are the purest of all mixed martial arts championships, something Bellator Chairman & CEO Bjorn Rebney takes very seriously. Just ask Roger Huerta.
Huerta, the former UFC fighter who was handpicked by Zuffa and groomed as their star for the Mexican community, was a high-profile free agent coup for Rebney.
Expected to breeze through the Season 2 lightweight tournament field, Huerta was upset in the semi final by Pat Curran.
When lightweight champion Eddie Alvarez (a rising star who is among the world’s best lightweights) needed an opponent late last year, Rebney did not hesitate to book him against Huerta, in what was easily the biggest fight in the history of the promotion.
The caveat was Rebney refused to sanction this as a title fight, because Huerta did not win the tournament to earn a shot at the belt.
In a sport where promoters do not hesitate to hand out title fights to fighters coming off of losses (Brett Rogers), and fighters with less than a half-dozen career fights (Brock Lesnar), this pure-sport approach is refreshing, and gives Bellator a different feel from other promotions.
The drawback is this promotional strategy has yet to prove it can draw ratings. Hardcore fans may enjoy the format, but they are the only ones watching.
In fact, it’s likely that casual MMA fans may not even realize that Bellator exists. You simply cannot survive long-term in the MMA game by only drawing hardcores.
Bellator Season 1 aired on ESPN Deportes, the Spanish-language branch of the ESPN family that is only available on premium tiers on most cable & satellite systems.
For Seasons 2 and 3, the group moved to FOX Sports Net. While FSN was a clear step up from ESPN Deportes, it is not a strong enough network to support a successful MMA product, as the gravestones of PRIDE Fighting Championships and the IFL can attest.
The main negative of FSN, is constant pre-emption for MLB, NBA, and college basketball games, which causes inconsistent start times, and hinders habit viewing and DVR use.
The end of Season 3, a lackluster season which featured a bad women’s tournament and boring heavyweight tournament dominated by Brock Lesnar training partner (and lay-and-pray artist) Cole Konrad, brought tons of questions concerning the future of the company.
While FSN may have been a bad fit, having any TV is better than having no TV, as no TV would have likely killed the company.
Running deeply in the red due to low attendance and big money owed to tournament winners, it was assumed that barring a miracle investor or strong TV partner, Bellator would not see a fourth season.
Rumors of a move to FX, a high powered basic cable network that would have instantly had Bellator challenging Strikeforce for the position of the No. 2 mixed martial arts promotion in the world, proved to be false (or possibly fell apart at the eleventh hour).
Instead, Rebney signed a three-year deal with MTV2, a network that reaches roughly 70 million homes (compared to nearly 100 million for Spike, the home of UFC), and averages a prime time rating so low, that it routinely bottoms out at 0.1.
Rebney spun this move as a positive, claiming that MTV2 was the destination he wanted to land on all along, but nobody is buying that.
"We are thrilled to partner with MTV2 which has such a strong audience of hard-to-reach young guys," said Rebney.
"With a timeslot on a prominent nationally-distributed cable network aimed at young men, we now have the perfect platform to showcase our exciting, action-packed tournaments and fighters."
A comparable product on the network, the pro wrestling group Lucha Libre USA, which draws similar demos as Bellator, barely cracks 100,000 viewers on Friday nights.
MTV2 is also notorious for quickly giving up on shows that don’t draw, making it a shaky proposition that Bellator even sees the light of day on the network for the second year of the contract.
You get the sense that Rebney, despite the brave face, recognizes the challenge of trying to survive on such a weak network.
Season 4 is stacked, and will feature four tournaments (light heavyweight, welterweight, lightweight, and featherweight), all of which look to be loaded with talent.
The most impressive lineup is the welterweight draw, which features the likes of Season 2 runner-up and Sengoku veteran Dan Hornbuckle, unbeaten Olympic Judo practitioner Rick Hawn, IFL alum Jay Hieron, and the former Bellator champion (and Season 1 tournament winner) Lyman Good.
Featherweight favorites include Eric Larkin, Wilson Reis, and Patricio “The Pitbull” Freire.
Daniel Gracie is the only name announced thus far for the light heavyweight tournament, which will crown the first ever Bellator champion at that weight. Veteran “Razor” Rob McCullough, a former WEC champion, has been announced for the lightweight draw.
Season 4 will almost certainly deliver in the cage, and the slick production and high quality fighters (aside from Alvarez and Konrad, other Bellator champs include unbeaten wrestling prodigy Ben Askren, knockout artist Hector Lombard, and the cocky Joe Warren) should be enough to capture the interest of casual MMA fans, if they only knew Bellator actually existed and could find MTV2 on the dial.
I’m rooting for them, but like most plucky underdogs, the story likely ends in defeat.