The last time Bellator and the UFC shared a date on the calendar, magic happened. It was last November and Bellator opened the evening with a show from Hollywood, Florida. In the main event, Eddie Alvarez and Michael Chandler fought a classic battle that ended in a Chandler upset victory in a match believed by many to be the second-best fight of 2011.
The best fight of 2011 took place a few hours later at UFC 139 in San Jose, California, when MMA legends Dan Henderson and Mauricio “Shogun” Rua warred for five bloody, brutal rounds in a close Henderson decision.
That stirring Saturday night showed MMA at its best. For years, Saturday night has been fight night in the MMA world, and while most of the sport’s major events will still take place on that night, Friday has suddenly emerged as a battleground for viewers, with Bellator and UFC going head-to-head starting tonight.
Ask Bjorn Rebney about the upcoming competition for eyeballs between his Bellator promotion and the UFC’s revamping of The Ultimate Fighter, and the diplomat in him comes out. He carefully chooses his words so as not to incite any anger from the other side, and downplays the budding rivalry.
“I don’t really view it as a competition just because they are such different shows,” he told NBC Sports. “Ours is a live, world-class fighting event happening right there in front of you, and there’s is a terrific reality show.”
While that might be true, it’s no secret that when the shows premiere on Friday night, many will be paying attention not only to the action on the screen, but to the ratings they draw.
This new front in the MMA wars is a byproduct of the divorce between the UFC and its old cable home, Spike.
When the UFC moved The Ultimate Fighter to FX, it was decided to change the show to add a live element and shift nights from Wednesday to Friday. Meanwhile, Spike’s parent company Viacom answered by buying a controlling interest in Bellator and moving them to Friday nights.
The impact of the Viacom deal is yet to be fully realized. As part of the deal, Bellator will eventually be shifted from its current broadcast home of MTV2 to Spike, the channel that helped launch MMA in the U.S. Spike currently still broadcasts taped UFC programming and draws good numbers, so the real test will come when that deal ends and Bellator joins the lineup in 2013.
“It’s the home to MMA for virtually every MMA fan,” Rebney said. “It’s a different structure and obviously a much bigger reality, but the pressure is still the same to put on a great show, pack the house, put on great fights and keep on recruiting unbelievable talent.”
In that sense, 2012 will be a buildup year for Bellator in preparing for the move.
That’s not the case for the UFC, which hopes to bring both guns blazing as it begins on its new cable home on FX. This overhaul of TUF will be the first since the second season, when it did away with weekly challenges in favor of house drama and weekly fights. The season was always taped far in advance, however, and in moving homes, it was decided that format was stale, and that live fights would offer a more dynamic presentation.
The result is a format the UFC calls “jive-live,” in which pre-taped segments show life in the fighter house during the week, transitioning into a live fight between two competitors. As a result, production will take 13 weeks as opposed to the old six-week schedule, and fighters will be secluded throughout the duration, including no phone calls, internet access, etc.
That grueling stretch of focusing on nothing but their fight careers will lead to some attrition, and hopefully, at least one diamond in the rough.
“They'll never face anything in their entire career that will be harder than what they're going to do here for the next 13 weeks,” UFC president Dana White said. “That's why this thing has been such a great tool for us in creating and building new talent.”
Like Rebney, White downplayed the rivalry, although for a very different reason. According to White, he’s never watched the Bellator product due to his focus on UFC. That may change in the near future. While Bellator isn’t likely to approach TUF’s ratings while on MTV2, they could mount a real threat when they move to Spike in 2013.
“They built the MMA space,” Rebney noted. “They know so much about reaching the key demo. They’re the guys who wrote the book.”
And now they’re using it against the UFC, making Friday night the new fight night in the cage and in executive boardrooms.
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