When it comes to televised mixed-martial-arts (MMA) competitions, UFC's Ultimate Fighter on FX is the undisputed champ. But recently, the sport's other big player, Bellator, has been putting up a fight. Earlier this year, Bellator started airing on Spike TV (Thursdays at 10pm/9c), and the challenger, which has only been around since 2009, is starting to win over even more new fans with its March Madness-style tournaments (versus UFC, which creates matchups based on whatever seems most exciting, as in boxing). Bellator also features popular fighters such as and Pat Curran (who will defend his featherweight world title against Shahbulat Shamhalaev on April 4).
If you've only seen Bellator on TV, you're missing out on a big part of the experience. In person, the traveling competition is even more action-packed than the television broadcast – a four-hour-plus frenzy that makes extensive use of music, lights, video, and other features not captured by the cameras. "The whole idea is, I want people to leave a live Bellator event and almost be trying to catch their breath," says CEO Bjorn Rebney, who in coming weeks is staging events in Tampa and Atlantic City. "Just like, 'Whew, I'm gonna go home and rest.' I tell my production team to feed content to people [so they feel] like they're trying to get a drink of water out of a fire hose."
Of course, the main attraction is still the fights. In the early days of MMA, many sports fans were repelled by its violence and air of lawlessness. But with increased regulation and growing corporate sponsorship (not to mention ownership; Viacom bought a majority stake in Bellator in 2011), the sport has gained some measure of respectability. It's also just plain exciting to watch. "In football, we all love the big hit," says Rebney. "In basketball, we love the big slam dunk. Every sport has its seminal moment, and those moments are about speed and power and aggression and impact and technique. Young male fans love this sport because it gives them all those things that we want so badly in other sports – but in MMA we get it with a great deal of frequency."
More information: After tonight's Lewiston, Maine event (televised live on Spike), the next live Bellator event will take place at Tampa's USF Sun Dome on March 28 (prices range from $27.50 to $117.50). On April 4, the tournament travels to Atlantic City's Revel Ovation Hall ($35 to $275). Look for more Bellator events this summer, and a complete new season starts in September. [bellator.com]