For many, the allure of MMA reality shows has long lost its luster, but where others may falter, Bellator’s innovative new entry into the genre hopes to shine.
Bertrand Van Munster and Elise Doganieri, the creative forces behind the smashingly successful reality game show The Amazing Race, had been briefed on the pitfalls of a show about professional fighters. Show-runner Mark Seliga knows them as well as anyone. He had worked on mainstream shows like Project Runway and The Real World, but he was also hired because his résumé included stints on the first, sixth, and seventh seasons of TUF. He considers himself a fight fan, and he told the somewhat green-to-MMA team that shooting a show around the sport could be “raw.”
What he meant: Being called to a booze-soaked set at 2 a.m. to talk down someone having a nervous breakdown or to put down a real fight; watching the fighter house be destroyed by young men out of their minds with boredom; and witnessing one fighter leave an “upper-decker” in the toilet. All of these things he had seen.
“For a long time, The Ultimate Fighter did a lot of the stories in the house,” Seliga says. “I think TUF didn’t encourage them not to act like savages.”
Titillating as the juvenile hijinks were to much of TUF’s young male audience—which helped spark the UFC’s explosive growth in the mid-2000s and drew an average weekly viewership north of one million for Spike—they weren’t as appealing to Seliga as the stories behind the fighters and fights or “the intellectual elements of fighting that people really gloss over.”
“I always want to tell the reason, the actual chess structure, of a fight,” says Seliga. “It’s such a scientific thing.”
Luckily, his bosses felt the same. In November 2012, when dozens of experienced vets and prospects converged at American Top Team in Coconut Creek, Fla., to audition for the project (both lightweights and welterweights were summoned), they were told at the top of interviews: You know the stereotypes—try to avoid them.
“Don’t try to make TV,” Seliga says. “Just be you—a fighter.”
Thirty-two men from the 170-pound division were selected for a single-elimination tournament, with MMA luminaries Randy Couture, Greg Jackson, Frank Shamrock, and Joe Warren coaching teams of four, after the elimination round. The winner earns a $100,000 grand prize and a spot in a future eight-man competition for Bellator (and five additional wins on his pro record—in contrast to TUF, where the bouts are considered exhibitions).
The result, Fight Master: Bellator MMA, debuts this summer on Spike. Its creators hope to change the faces of MMA reality.
“I think we’ve got some amazing fighters,” says Bellator CEO Bjorn Rebney. “What I think this is going to do is develop them to the next level. If we can create the next Michael Chandler or Pat Curran or Ben Askren, then it will have been wildly successful.”
The aim of creating a pipeline of promotable talent via reality TV is, of course, nothing new to MMA. When it was developed in 2004, the UFC called TUF 1 its Trojan Horse. The theory was that through the medium’s well-worn conceits of single-elimination competition and end-of-show contracts, the promotion would expose the sport and its personalities to a larger audience, which would translate to bigger pay-per-view business.
It worked out, and then some. Spike, which broadcast 14 seasons of TUF before the promotion moved to FOX, helped create several of today’s MMA stars. It also helped define the genre, which has since been copied (badly) by knock-offs such as Fight Girls, Ultimate Women Challenge, and, most dubiously, Iron Ring.
If successful with Fight Master, the network, whose corporate parent Viacom owns a majority stake in Bellator, could build future stars for the promotion’s live events and, perhaps, pay-per-view broadcasts. Instead of spotlighting damaged goods alongside talented up-and-comers, it’s banked on a small, powerful idea to drive the show’s drama: choice.
Unlike TUF, after Fight Master’s elimination round, it’s the fighters who pick the coaches and select opponents as they progress through the tournament. The coaches and Rebney do retain some sway—they seed contestants after every round, which gives early picks more leverage in the competition. Producers, nonetheless, are confident the switch will shift the focus from alcohol-fueled misbehavior to the tension of navigating challenges and consequences among trained brutes.
“It’s on the fighters and the training and the coaching, and the fighters are in control of their destiny,” says Randy Couture.
It’s also a nod to Bellator, whose “Toughest Tournament in Sports” tagline is founded on the idea that combatants, not promoters, control their futures. Fighters and egos will provide the usual drama, of course. The set is stocked with Miller Lite, who sponsors the show—so, some things haven’t changed.
“I’m not going to say our show didn’t have drama, but it was always fight-based, and it didn’t go to the extremes of crazy, insane bullshit,” Seliga says. “It was more stuff that’s really based in the fighter world. What we really want them to do is live in a fight camp.”
Considering the show’s physical environment—the “fight camp” of Fight Master—it’s impressive the show didn’t quickly devolve. In February, the cast assembled at a warehouse in New Orleans and quickly noticed something: a lack of places to escape. Unlike TUF, there would be no separation between fighter house and training center. They called it “The Compound.” Nine handheld cameras monitored four separate training centers, bedrooms, and a video breakdown area 24 hours a day. There were 13 cameras shooting on fight days, which came every eighth day, and a smattering of what Seliga called “oh shit” cameras for stuff that couldn’t be captured.
There was no hot tub, no swimming pool—just ping-pong, billiards, the hum of humidifiers (Nola can get sticky), and the thwack of heavy bags.
“It’s not a mansion in Las Vegas,” says Spike senior publicist Salil Gulati.
Potential drama emerged early when teams were picked after the elimination round. Seliga said one coach objected to opposing team members bunking together and complained outright. There were also concerns that eliminated cast members would distract those still in the competition, as with TUF, where booze flowed freely among those with little left to lose.
Non-disclosure agreements aside, it sounds like producers managed to avoid meltdowns.
“At first, I thought it could be an obstacle,” says Joe Warren. “But these were all pretty knowledgeable fighters and athletes, so they adapted really well. Everything was inclusive, and nobody had to leave but us.”
The proximity also fostered closeness between the fighters and the coaches.
“A lot of the coaches would just hang out,” Seliga says. “That was a lesson for these fighters, hearing their gods tell them tales of their glory days over a beer. They might even go back in the cage—like with Randy, showing how he beat Chuck [Liddell]—and then it would go back into a training session. Frank Shamrock is a Zen-chi guy. His salutation is ‘Chi’ to everything, so he hung out with his fighters, not just because of the training, but because he thought getting to know them on a totalitarian level was all part of it. Joe Warren is a little prankster guy—he’d hang out and be goofy and make fun of people. When Greg Jackson was there, he was all about work—he’s a guru.”
Couture, who broke new ground as a coach on the first The Ultimate Fighter, says that while the focus of the show was different, his job was the same.
“At the end of the day, it’s still coaching, and something I did for a long time in the wrestling world before I ever started MMA, and I translated that experience into coaching at Team Quest and working on TUF,” Couture says. “I’m certainly a much better athlete and better coach than I was back then.”
Is the next Bellator champ on the show?
“I definitely saw some good talent,” Couture says. “Some of it a little more raw than others, but a ton of potential, and guys who could go all the way in given time. Is there anybody that’s going to jump in right now and be a champion? Probably not right this minute. But there’s definitely a ton of potential.’
Whether that potential translates to an audience is Spike’s unanswered question. As Rebney often has noted, a large swath of MMA fans still associate the cable network with MMA, which has helped account for Bellator’s jump in ratings since vacating MTV2. But it’s still a new venture, and there remains stiff competition. The network covets the same demographic as TUF, which soon films its 18th season with a new twist: a co-ed cast and female coaches. By all estimates, it’s a recipe for the kind of soap opera you’d expect from seven people picked to live in a house and have their lives taped. That’s exactly the opposite direction Bellator is running. Is it the right one?