How many different ways are there to do a reality show about professional mixed martial arts fighters living and training together coached by celebrity trainers or former fighters? Despite that narrow window of creative room, Spike TV and Bellator are betting there's enough for one more addition to the genre.
'Fight Master' debuts tonight on Spike TV after a live airing of Bellator 96. From what's been made available to the media and fans, the show appears to be a cross between NBC's 'The Voice' and the original fight reality show that first appeared on Spike TV, 'The Ultimate Fighter'.
It'd be unfair, however, to discuss the show's value or authenticity as a function of the other reality shows from which it borrows. The reality genre routinely makes effective use from recycled or appropriated ideas. The creative origins of 'Fight Master' aren't particularly unique, but neither are those of TUF. As long as the show earns the ratings and fan fare Spike TV is looking for, hand wringing over creative beginnings will be few and far between.
What Spike TV and Bellator appear to be looking for is difference: is the show different from TUF? Is it different in a good way, in a way that speaks to reality show fans and in a way that's still true to MMA? From what's been released publicly, 'Fight Master' is a blend of the absurdist circumstances of reality show fiction and the unadulterated competition of mixed martial arts.
Two of the coaches this season, former UFC light heavyweight and heavyweight champion Randy Couture and trainer to the stars Greg Jackson, believe the show achieves the aforementioned goals Spike is reaching for. They also contend those differences are unmistakeable and critical to its identity.
"The focus of the show is definitely on the tactics, the techniques, the differences in coaching styles and the choices that these athletes make," Couture told MMA Fighting. "Which is, I think, in sharp contrast to some of the other reality genre-type shows. It'll get a real good, technical inside look at the sport of mixed martial arts, which is going to both appeal to the hardcore fans and I think attract a lot of new viewers and new fans to the sport."
In other words, where TUF has historically put focus on interpersonal squabbling between coaches or fighters or some other permutation (admittedly, often with great ratings success), Couture suggests the architecture of Fight Master is nakedly structured to appeal to the sort of reality show or fight fan who prefers a game of wits, cunning and strategy. Think Survivor over The Real World. There's unavoidable drama in both formats, but strategically navigating 'the game' is a more significant component in the former.
"It's a reality show, so you have to let guys be who they're going to be and some guys are wired that way. There's always going to be a little of that," Couture continued. "And there's a psychological aspect to the sport. There's a little gamesmanship involved when you're picking fighters and you're living in the same space when you're competing against each other, so I think there's a always going to be an undertone of that.
"But you can focus on that, highlight that and make that a much bigger deal, which seems to be the case with TUF or you can really choose to shy away from that, focus on the tactics, the training, the progression of the fighters, the fights themselves and diminish some of that house drama."
In fact, while Jackson stops short of saying Fight Master is a look into a true mixed martial arts camp, he does underscore what he did on the show and does in real life are far apart enough to draw in a reality audience while not being radically dissimilar to his everyday responsibilities as a trainer.
"You have such an intensive environment. You have to fight every week. In some ways, it was the same. The training was kind of the same," Jackson told MMA Fighting.
"In some ways, it was very, very different. You don't fight every week for, what was it, six weeks in a normal fight camp. And when you're done, you're done. You never fight again, but you still have to be there in the environment training. There were a lot of differences, but there were some similarities as well, which was the reason I did it. All of those kinds of challenges and figuring out how to do all that stuff under that kind of pressure was a lot of fun."
There's some relationship to reality in terms of how training and camp are run, but what to make of four coaches evaluating talent, jawing at one another for no other conceivable purpose than the amusement of the audience?
"[The focus on the coaches] is certainly an aspect of it," Couture admitted. "I think the unique thing is with this format is that the athletes ultimately have the choice. They choose their camps, which coaches they want to work with, and which guys they want to compete against stay in the show. They ultimately have their destiny in their hands and that makes it interesting.
"So, which coach are they going to pick and why?," he continued. "And then, how does that decision unfold and affect their ability to progress and compete? All of us have different coaching styles and different experience levels and bring different things to the table, so it creates another layer of interest."
Does that mean the Couture or Jackson we see is a fuller expression of their personality or one affected for TV's sake?
"I don't know. I do a lot of interviews about what my interests are and stuff, so I don't know. Because it's TV, I let the competitive side come out of me a little bit more," Jackson contends.
"It's not like a print interview, so in a way, it's probably a little more intimate because you get to see facial expressions and that kind of stuff. You get to read a little bit more into it. I guess in that way, it's certainly a little more me. And you get to see me hanging around and messing around with my friends, which is basically what that show was: training fighters and screwing with my buddies," he said.
That jocularity Jackson alludes to is nowhere on display more than with one of the surprise choices for the coaching staff, former Bellator featherweight champion Joe Warren. Where Couture, Jackson and Frank Shamrock have some level of popular name value, some MMA fans expressed surprise at Warren's selection or being labeled in Fight Master commercials as a 'legendary coach'.
But to hear Couture and Jackson tell it, the coaches' interaction and the nature of their rivalry wouldn't have been possible without Warren's contribution.
"I already knew Joe from the wrestling world," Couture explained. "We come from similar backgrounds. He's a very accomplished athlete, both in wrestling and in fighting. I think the question is whether or not he would have the chops to coach and to translate some of what he does to help out other athletes. I think he certainly has that ability. He just has such a gregarious personality and that's, I think, what comes across."
"The best part of the show for me was discovering how funny Joe Warren is," Jackson added. "That guy makes me laugh so hard I can't catch my breath. He's literally hilarious. For me, that was the biggest fun of the show, was getting to see him interact with the fighters and the other coaches and messing with him myself. It's really fun to make new friends."
For all of the show's fun and games, its existence is purposeful and value-add desperately needed. Bellator is still looking to develop its bond with the MMA fan base. And much like TUF, the show will need to serve in some capacity as a developmental program to attract and groom talent for fans at home to discover and follow as their careers progress. Yet, if TUF is having issues accomplishing these tasks, there's an open question about whether Fight Master has any hope.
Couture is sanguine on the matter of Bellator-fan relationship building.
"Well, I think that's going to happen with time," he said. "Obviously Viacom and Spike have made considerable investment in building and putting the Bellator brand out there. This will give fans of these athletes that are vying for a shot in the Bellator tournaments someone to follow. Someone that they'll look at and I think any time you create that vested interest in the athletes, it's important piece of the puzzle.
As for the fighters themselves, much like TUF, Couture views Fight Master as an important vehicle for career development.
"I think it absolutely gives guys exposure, not only to high-level coaching but exposure to the general public and gives them a chance to compete and test their chops, see where they're at with a wide base of guys from around the country. That's important information."
The level of talent the show attracts in the competitive space, however, will remain an ongoing question. Insofar as the first season is concerned, both coaches used the word 'impressive'. Jackson, though, stressed potential is key term in trying to understand who is there and what they can do.
"There's a ton of potential there. There's a few guys there that have some experience and they're very good, but what I was happy with was the potential. Those guys have a lot of talent and a lot of potential can do very, very good things in whatever organization they choose to fight. Of course, they're Bellator at the moment. I think overall there was a lot of great potential there."
Couture and Jackson both underscored they worked for Spike TV and not Bellator. While Couture's relationship with the UFC is likely beyond repair, Jackson is adamant he's faced no repercussions for taking part in the Spike TV show. In the words of UFC President Dana White, everything is 'business as usual' for Jackson when it comes to the UFC. They also both unequivocally expressed interest in being a part of future Fight Master seasons.
"Oh, I loved it," Jackson said. "It was just different, you know what I mean? Day in and day out I do this all the time. Anything different is good. It's what I do, but it's kind of stepped out of my comfort zone a little bit. It was good, so I'd do it again in a minute. I made new friends and had an experience that I wouldn't have had in any other way.
"I don't have any other skills, right? I could work at McDonald's or do MMA. That's it. I was lucky to have an experience that I wouldn't have had any other way in my life."
"I would definitely do it again. I enjoy coaching," Couture claimed. "It was a great group of guys from the coaches, all the way down. The production was fun to work with. New Orleans is a great town, which is where we filmed. I don't see a single downside, so I think this is going to be very successful and there's no doubt in my mind we'll be doing a second season."