Thursday night's Bellator 19 show on Fox Sports Net got off to a shaky start when ring announcer Michael C. Williams flubbed the name of the arena during pre-fight introductions. But that was no bad omen: Other than that mistake, the Bellator announcing and production crew put on one of the best MMA broadcasts I've ever seen.
Prior to the first fight, Dan Hornbuckle vs. Steve Carl, viewers saw a couple of taped features explaining Carl's backstory (he's an Iraq war veteran and he once suffered very serious injuries in a car accident) and exploring Hornbuckle's friendship with a young boy who has a terminal illness. I'm usually a little too focused on the fights themselves (or maybe just a little too jaded) to care much about pre-fight features, but I have to admit, I found both the Carl and the Hornbuckle features kind of touching.
When the fight started, announcers Sean Wheelock and Jimmy Smith were right on the money: They correctly pointed out that Hornbuckle was trying to set up a kimura from his back about 45 seconds before Hornbuckle actually got Carl to tap from it.
The second fight was also preceded by a good pre-fight feature, this one explaining that Ben Askren and Ryan Thomas had already fought each other five weeks earlier and that a referee's mistake awarded Askren a victory. I thought the trash talk between Askren and Thomas leading up to their rematch seemed mostly fabricated, but that's par for the course in combat sports, and the broadcast didn't really overdo it.
And once the fight began, Smith did something that MMA commentators don't do nearly often enough: He acknowledged that we weren't seeing a technically proficient fight. Askren, an Olympic wrestler but an MMA beginner, overpowered Thomasbut wasn't able to do much with his dominant positions, and Smith pointed out that Askren was making technical mistakes.
"His style is so funky, he doesn't hold position like a jiu jitsu guy does, he puts his head down and it's really strange to watch as a jiu jitsu fighter myself," Smith said. "You can see Askren's inexperience in jiu jitsu. He's making some really strange technical mistakes, but he's so physically gifted, so experienced in wrestling, so flexible that he kind of makes up for that awkward style. ... It's anything but technical. It's very wild, very sloppy, from a jiu jitsu point of view it's anything but a technical grappling match."
Too often MMA announcers (especially announcers on non-UFC cards) feel the need to talk up their promotion, as if they want to convince the viewers at home that they're watching the best fighters in the world. Bellator's willingness to point out the weaknesses of its fighters is one of the strengths of its broadcasts.
Finally, the third fight, Joe Soto vs. Diego Saraiva, contained my favorite element of the whole broadcast: Smith's use of the telestrator. During live action -- not a replay -- Smith spent a few seconds explaining how Saraiva was controlling Soto's wrists from the bottom, and circling Soto's wrists to illustrate it. The telestrator has been around for decades -- I can't remember a time when John Madden wasn't using it -- but Smith using it seamlessly during live MMA action was a step forward for the sport on TV.
Depending on which cable or satellite provider you subscribe to, finding Bellator on Fox Sports Net can be a chore. But it's worth the effort: This promotion is putting on great shows.