'Fight Master' debut episode is no 'Ultimate Fighter' clone

Esther Lin

WEST HOLLYWOOD, Calif. -- It doesn't take long to realize that "Fight Master," which premieres June 19 at 10 p.m. ET/PT on Spike TV, isn't simply a rehash of "The Ultimate Fighter."

A competitor on the debut episode, who will be kept nameless for spoiler purposes, won his preliminary fight in less-than-spectacular fashion. As the fighter goes to choose which of the four coaches -- Randy Couture, Frank Shamrock, Greg Jackson, and Joe Warren -- he wishes to join, the quartet engages in a mental jiu-jitsu game. Each tries to get one of the others to take the fighter so they don't have to coach him. The coach who gets saddled with the fighter is visibly unhappy with the result.

You won't see that on TUF very often.

"We don't sugarcoat it," Bellator CEO Bjorn Rebney said Monday after a sneak preview of the series at the swank SoHo House on the Sunset Strip. "The coaches wanted to win, so ultimately they were going to pass on guys if that's what they want. If they didn't want somebody, then they made it clear "I don't want that guy, I want to get Randy to take him' or get Frank to take him, or Joe, or Greg.'"

Within minutes of the start of the debut episode, it becomes clear the competitiveness which drove each of the four coaches to great heights spills over onto the set, even as they simply sit together and watch the fight-in bouts which kick-off the series. As 32 fighters narrow their way down 16 in order to be placed on four teams and enter the competition set in New Orleans, the coaches engage in an MMA version of The Dozens, each trying to top the last person's zinger.

"We're all very competitive and have a healthy respect for each other and what we've accomplished and what we're capable of," said Couture. "But at the same time we're there to win, we had a good time, we had fun. It was never slinging mud or in a vindictive sense, it was all in good sportsmanship and just having a good time."

"It's constant, they asked us to keep it pretty loose," said Warren. "And then we were so loose that they said ‘can you tone it down a little bit.' There's some real grey areas, Greg was messing with me a lot. It was fun, there's so much personality between the four of us that I was able to break through the tension and hopefully that's what we were able to do."

Indeed, Warren shines through as the breakout star of the opening episode. Had the producers done their job wrong, Warren would have looked out of place alongside the likes of three of the sport's legends. Instead, the former Bellator featherweight champion fits in and gets the rub from being alongside the stars.

"Warren just leaps off the screen, man," said Rebney. "The one guy without any question I knew had to be on the show was Joe Warren when the concept started coming together. I said ‘Joe Warren has got to be on the show, he's got to be approached.'"

Warren, for his part, didn't have any trouble taking to the cameras. "See that's just me, I'm real comfortable with the camera, I don't change my personality for anybody. The coaching staff, Randy and Greg and Frank, those are my boys, so it was real easy, there was great chemistry, we could sit up there and jab at each other and I was like their little brother, so it was a lot of fun. it was a clash of culture."

One person you don't see much of in the debut episode is Rebney, and that's by design.

"When you do see me on the show, you'll see me in a capacity not where I'm yelling at fighters," said Rebney. "You'll see me in a capacity in which I function in in the real world. It's very real in terms of guys choosing who they're going to fight for, and my role in the show is similar to my role in the real world."

"It never felt like it was about him," said Couture. "It wasn't like he was interjecting himself into it or trying to upstage anybody or right here being front and center in the whole thing. It was about the fighters."

Will that be enough to make "Fight Master" stand out and build an audience on the network which was TUF's original home? Spike's executive vice-president in charge of original series, Sharon Levy, has faith in the finished product.

"Fighting lends itself very well to reality," she said. "Because it's visceral, because people are incredibly passionate about it, as they are about tattoos or about cooking for whatever's your passion. Also, there's a clear-cut winner. Someone is going to win the fight and someone is going to lose, and that's a very finite thing that makes it great to build the show around. Our challenge was creating a mixed martial arts series that hasn't happened before and I think we accomplished that and we feel very good about it."

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