By Chuck Mindenhall
Spike TV invited Los Angeles-based media to the SoHo House for a sneak peek at Bellator’s new “Fight Master” series. On hand were the inaugural season’s hydra of coaches: Joe Warren (former Bellator Champion), Randy Couture (former UFC Champion), Frank Shamrock (giddily retired and eager to tell you about it), and Greg Jackson (from Albuquerque, a port within the Degobah System).
The show, as one official with Spike actively described it, is sort of like “MMA meets The Voice”-which isn’t a terrible stretch from “The Ultimate Fighter,” the original MMA franchise the network rolled out in 2005. Biggest difference is that Mike Rowe isn’t the ghost voice introducing the fighters and the “reality” situations they found themselves in. Other differences are A) that Bellator is the promotion behind the “Fight Master” series, while the UFC was the vehicle behind “TUF”; B) the fighters pick their coaches and fights, instead of vice-versa; C) the coaches are friends rather than foes; and D) there are four coaches rather than two.
What’s amusing is that these four coaches-all of them mic’d for maximum intimacy-sit in observation of the fighters, and then make pitches afterwards as to why that fighter should join their team.
“Iron sharpens iron,” Couture tells one fresh winner, “and I think we can make you sharp.”
“I love your style, I love how you fought-I could see you thinking and learning as you moved in there,” Shamrock gushes to another raw moldable talent. “You’ve got all the tenants necessary to win this thing, you just need the right camp-and Shamrock MMA is your camp.”
“Understand, we had one little sales pitch-so it was who’s the better salesman?” Warren told me after the season was taped. “You’re going to see-down the line-all of us doing that. The difference is those guys are veterans, hall of famers, great coaches-and then there’s me, having an opportunity to coach in MMA. So it was kind of weird. You’re not sure if they’re going to take your team or not, so you got to put a little sales pitch out there.”
This is, of course, the reverse of those familiar “TUF” settings, where coaches have been known to treat the fighters as pawns for their own competitive ends. Suddenly, some of MMA’s brand names become the skinny-tie salesmen, and the (mostly) anonymous fighters are given the initial reigns of control.
In other words, the first drama of “Fight Master” is simply this: Should you select the wrong coach, you’re up shit creek without the proverbial paddle. And of course, this is the kind of drama we can’t get enough of. Vicarious failure has become a national pastime-it’s always fun to watch people make horrible decisions.
“And the whole thing was choose your own destiny,” Warren says. “So after all 32 fighters fought, whoever won those fights had the opportunity to ask the four of us questions. Then we asked them a few questions, and they got to choose their coach. Then they choose their own fights. And they choose their own destinies.”
It’s a lot of fate-mongering for one hour-long show filmed down on the water in New Orleans. But it all translates well into the hyper-fabricated world of “reality” TV-where reality sort of flees the moment the first boom mic enters the huddle.
In one instance on the initial episode of “Fight Master,” all of the coaches go gaga for a red-headed kid from Montana named Tim Welch, who is half Native America, half Irish-which makes him pure-blooded badass in the coach’s eyes. They go about selling “The Ginga Ninja” on the benefits of joining their camps. You’d think he was the best fighter any of the pantheon of greats has ever seen in all their years of leading extraordinary lives.
Welch ultimately goes with Jackson, who, as you know by now, has cornered the market in fighter-friendly parables. The best part though? Watching the other three immediately shrug it off as if Welch, for how good he is in the cage, just doesn’t have much common sense out of it.
A very realistic response in the now you’re here, now you’re not world of MMA…