Bellator: The Season Before Spike

Bellator’s year-end campaign is the MMA version of the “Milton Berle Game”. Allow me to explain.

This explanation requires two parts. The first is an old Hollywood tale (possibly apocryphal) about comedian Milton Berle participating in “Who has the biggest honker?” contests. He would always allow the other man to go first, look at what he had, and then pull out “just enough to win.”

Hang on. This will all make sense in a second.

The entertaining sportswriter Bill Simmons took this story and coined the term “Milton Berle Game”, which was reserved for NFL games where a good team would beat a bad team without really wowing anyone while doing so. They might hold something back because they had a really tough opponent the following week. The intensity level might not quite be there. They’d pull out just enough to win.

That’s what this Bellator season is. There’s just enough talent and good matchmaking to ensure that MMA fans wont forget that it exists. Believe me … it’s juuuust enough.

Bellator is making it’s debut on Spike TV in January. They’ll be giving up their spot alongside terrible shows like Parental Control to join another lineup of terrible shows like MANswers and 1,000 Ways To Die. More important (and less snotty), they’ll be moving from deep cable onto premium cable, and they’ll be taking the place that the UFC once held with The Ultimate Fighter and various PPV prelims.

But first, they have to trudge through this season, which is truly Milton Berle-esque. Rich Clementi and an unproven Russian prospect in the main event? Sure! Would you like another?

Check out the next three Bellator main events: Lyman Good vs. Michail Tsarev, Rich Hale vs. Thiago Santos (How is this not Eric Prindle? I want to see those two fight until neither of them can have kids) and Owen Evinger vs. the specter of Joe Warren (whose body is still slumped against the cage at the Horseshoe Casino in Hammond, Indiana, possibly gathering layers of rock).

To take it a bit further, check out this list of guys Bellator ISN’T using this season: Ben Askren, “King” Mo Lawal, Eduardo Dantas, Paul Daley, Alexander Shlemenko, Maiquel Falcao, Pat Curran, Marlon Sandro, Alexandre “Popo” Bezzera, Genair “Junior PQD” da Silva, Zach Makovsky. And that’s just some of them.

I’m just giving Bellator a hard time. I totally understand why they’re taking this course of action. After all, why throw all your best guys onto a network that you’re about to vacate?

Bjorn runs the show.

Some fighters have expressed frustration at being shelved, but nobody is better at damage control and promoting their product than Bellator CEO Bjorn Rebney. Seriously, this dude had me convinced that Alexander Volkov could lay waste to Junior dos Santos, and that it was only a matter of time before he found a cure for AIDS. The move to Spike is an “all-in” one for Bellator, and Rebney has even said as much.

It’s strange and refreshing to see a major MMA promotion take such a bold, rational stance in regards to their future, while also being so up front about it.

I consumed last Friday’s Bellator card in its entirety, something that I haven’t been able to do in quite some time. It’s a rock solid MMA promotion, from the way they pump up the fighters (brutal contracts or not, Bellator guys are THEIR guys), to the commentary, to the actual action. Even though the words “Marcin Held” and “standup battle” should never appear in any play-by-play, the fights reminded me of watching an Olympic bronze medal game, where the two parties involved clearly aren’t the best (even in a “second banana” type of promotion) but they still want to give everything they have to try to get onto that podium.

How will Bellator fare on Spike? I’d say anywhere from “pretty okay” to “pretty well”. Mind you, I’m saying that in the context of the MMA landscape in 2012. This means that if you compare this to the Ultimate Fighter boom on Spike in 2005, I’m absolutely certain that 2005 would (and will) crush it. However, if you compare it to how TUF is doing on FX? I mean, it can’t be worse, right? Bellator has WAY more talent than anyone who ultimately ends up on the Ultimate Fighter at this point. It’s not even close. The Ultimate Fighter isn’t unearthing prospects anymore; if anything, it’s become a haven for unknowns and C-level journeymen like Bristol Marunde to try to make it on a UFC card. And I realize that Bellator is planning a reality show, which I don’t think will do much. But if we’re talking about just straight live fight programming, my forecast is good.

Bellator wont be competing with the UFC anytime soon (or anytime later), but after all the fly-by-night, putting-all-their-eggs-in-one-basket promotions that have gone extinct since Bellator’s inception, it’s hard not to be impressed by what they’ve accomplished. They don’t have the brand recognition that the UFC does, which probably means they wont lure too many casual fans in while they flick through the channels. But I’m willing to bet that guys like me (of which there are at least a handful), who catch Bellator on a stream or online after it happens, will be glued to Spike TV come January.




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