Spike TV and Bellator confirmed Tuesday the promotion would hold events Thursdays next year in a 10 p.m. ET slot. They announced two championship matches, and the Bellator debut of Renato 'Babalu' Sobral, as the key components of the debut show Jan. 17.
The show, from the Bren Events Center in Irvine, Calif., will open with a featherweight title fight with Pat Curran (17-4) defending against Patricio "Pitbull" Freire (17-1). The main event on the show will have lightweight champion Michael Chandler (10-0), who defeated Eddie Alvarez in Bellator's greatest fight in history, defending his championship against 2004 U.S. judo Olympian Rick Hawn (14-1). Freire and Hawn both earned title shots by winning tournaments on MTV2.
The original plan was to have fans do an on-line vote based on an online reality show for the fight that kicks off the debut broadcast at 10 p.m. Fans voted for Paul Daley vs. War Machine in a welterweight tournament bout, but just before that was to be announced, War Machine broke his tibia and tore his ACL in training. Rebney said they wanted to open spectacularly so they made the decision to put a world title match in the cage at 10 p.m.
Also announced for the first show is a first-round light heavyweight tournament match with Sobral. Sobral (37-9), a former Strikeforce light heavyweight champion who once headlined a UFC pay-per-view event challenging Chuck Liddell for the championship, faces 2008 world Sambo champion and Russian submission expert Mikhail Zayats (19-6). Other names mentioned as appearing on that show as part of the light heavyweight tournament are former UFC fighters Seth Petruzelli (14-6), best known for beating Kimbo Slice on CBS TV, and Jason Lambert (25-12).
The first season will be 12 weeks long with live programming airing immediately after Spike's pro wrestling franchise, TNA Impact, giving the station in excess of four straight hours of live combat sports and entertainment. The strategy is identical to that when Spike in 2005 launched the UFC brand, putting The Ultimate Fighter (TUF) on directly after WWE Raw when it was Spike's most popular show.
"It's the right time slot," said Spike TV President Kevin Kay. "When we launched the other promotion, it was around WWE using the wrestling lead in."
Kay said he wasn't concerned that in most weeks, the main event wouldn't be starting until near midnight on a work night.
"I don't have a lot of concern about it," he said. "One of the things about Spike is guys tend to get the remote at 10 p.m., and that's proven to be very successful for us. A two-hour movie runs well for us at 10 p.m. With world title fights and tournament championships, guys will stay."
But if they don't, Spike will also be airing the shows multiple times each week, including in prime time.
"We're in the Bellator business for the long haul," said Kay. "It probably will be rebroadcast on Fridays, Saturdays, if the fights are great, we'll rebroadcast them every night of the week."
Bellator CEO Bjorn Rebney said the first season would include five tournaments, at featherweight, lightweight, welterweight, middleweight and light heavyweight. He also confirmed that later this year they would run a women's tournament at 125 pounds.
Spike will also be airing companion programming for the live events. A reality show concept is being worked on, although at this point there was no announcement as to when the show would debut or what format it would take.
Kay also mentioned programming like "Bellator 360," a show that would feature tapes of previously aired fights featuring the fighters that are currently being featured on the live shows, similar to UFC Unleashed that aired on the station for years. He also confirmed there would likely be a Countdown type show before the first show aired.
The station will also be airing a King Mo Lawal (8-1, 1 no contest) television special, that will debut on Jan. 17 after the live show ends, and later be replayed in prime time building to Lawal's debut, which will be on the Jan. 24 live show. The Lawal debut will be a joint promotion by both Bellator and TNA Impact. Lawal is under contract to both organizations.
MMA Uncensored, which aired on Thursdays at 11 p.m., will be moved to a new night.
The second live show, on Jan. 24, will be from the WinStar World Casino in Thackerville, Okla., on the Texas/Oklahoma border. Lawal, who will compete in the same light heavyweight tournament as Sobral, grew up in Texas, and was an All-American wrestler at Oklahoma State.
That show will be headlined by welterweight champion Ben Askren (10-0), one of the best American collegiate wrestlers of all-time, defending his title against Karl Amoussou (16-4-2), and also feature welterweight tournament competitors Doug Lima (22-5) and Ben Saunders (14-5-2).
"We're hopeful he'll face Galvao during season eight," said Rebney. "We're not sure how quick from the start it'll be, but anticipate it i the first couple of months of season eight."
Another fight announced for the new season would be the finals of the current season's featherweight tournament, with Shahbulat Shamhalaev (11-1-1) vs. Rad Martinez (14-2). The two were scheduled to fight this past Friday night in Atlantic City, N.J., but the New Jersey Athletic Control Board nixed the fight shortly before they were to go into the cage due to Shamhalaev throwing up a few times due to food poisoning.
Rebney announced on the broadcast that the match would take place this coming Friday, on Bellator's final event on MTV 2 from Hammond, Ind., but since confirmed that due to Martinez having to take care of his paraplegic father this week, it would be impossible for him to fight.