The challenge was to create something different than The Ultimate Fighter (TUF), the surprise-hit reality series that launched the Zuffa-era UFC in 2005 and put a fledgling Spike TV on the cable network map. Yet, there's only so much that can be done with an MMA reality series. There had to be fighters, there had to be fights, and there had to be some kind of elimination structure that left the best fighter standing in the end to claim his prize. (In this case, $100,000 and a spot in Bellator's tournament.)
These vital elements were untouchable, so producers turned to something in the formula a little more malleable: the coaches. The result is Fight Master: Bellator MMA, debuting on Spike at 10 p.m. ET on Wednesday.
Fight Master, co-helmed by Bertram Van Munster and Elise Doganieri's Profiles Television Productions (The Amazing Race), got its inspiration from another series confronted with the task of following a wildly popular show that defined its genre.
"We spent a lot of time thinking about what would make this show different and special," said Spike TV President Kevin Kay, whose Viacom parent purchased a majority stake of Bellator in 2011 to fill the programming void left by UFC's move to Fox. "We're all really big fans of The Voice, too. We looked at the four chairs and that kind of sparked things. What if we had four coaches and they all commented from a different point of view?"
Fight Master's one-hour debut quickly establishes the coaches -- Randy Couture, Greg Jackson, Frank Shamrock and Joe Warren -- are just as much of the focus as the fighters auditioning for their four-man teams. The coaches are technically vocal about what they see: the flaws or finesse in skill, the strengths or weaknesses that either draws their interest or repels it away.
In between, they cheer on performances or take cheeky swipes at one another to set up an ensuing battle over a fighter later in the series. This is where Fight Master first begins to show its personality and it hardly resembles UFC President Dana White scrutinizing hopefuls from cageside with single-word assessments, flanked by two starchy fighters on their best behavior in front of the boss. Fight Master's tone is lighter and funnier. This is serious business, it says, but can't we have a little fun while we're doing it?
There are five bouts (some edited, some not) that yield the first of 16 contestants who will move into a makeshift warehouse compound in New Orleans for the 12-episode competition, which was shot over six weeks. After each bout, the winning fighter approaches the coaching quartet at their cageside perches, where the second dance begins.
The contestants approach this moment differently. They will all get the choice to choose their coach, though this doesn't stop some from treating this phase like the second part of a job interview. Others turn the tables with a "What can you do for me?" attitude, and one not-so-subtly tells former UFC champion Shamrock, whose glory days date back circa the late 90s, he is out-of-touch and has nothing to offer him. Shamrock takes this affront without the bat of an eyelash. He doesn't want this fighter, so he could care less what he thinks. The 40-year-old Shamrock, who's found employment out of the cage with nearly every big promotion outside UFC for more than a decade, relishes in the game of manipulation during this courting process. He dramatically rejects the fighter he covets, only to win him over with some reverse psychology. He pawns contestants off onto the other coaches, hoping to weaken their units.
"Frank immediately understood that this is a reality show and he knows what they're about," Kay said. "He had a little bit of a disadvantage because he hasn't fought in a while, but you have to love his strategy."
Couture and Jackson, the two more reserved, yet-no-less wily coaches of the bunch, watch Shamrock's antics with amusement. UFC legend Couture, who defected to Spike in February as part of a multi-tier entertainment deal with Viacom, and Jackson, who currently trains multiple UFC champions, have the benefit of being the most sought-after coaching candidates. They play their hands slowly and wisely.
That leaves Warren, the youngest and least identifiable, but only active fighter of the four coaches. The 36-year-old Warren is a 2006 Greco Roman wrestling world champion and a former Bellator titleholder, but realizes he's at a disadvantage stacked up against his notable peers. To compensate, the elastic-faced Warren goes for the hard sell with the confidence of Christina Aguilera at a local singing contest and steals the show in the process.
"I believe I'm one of the best coaches in the world anyways," said Warren, who was the first potential instructor approached for the series. "I've been coached by the best coaches in the world since I was a little kid. I understand what these guys need to win and I understand them standing up there not sure if they should pick me over these three other guys... [but] I've always had to sell my fights and be a bit of the bad guy."
Warren, who's training under Jackson for a bantamweight tournament bout at the show's live finale Sept. 7, said he felt like a younger brother to the experienced trio, who all knew each other prior to the series.
"There was no lines, no script -- it was all light and fun," Warren said. "They told us to keep an open mind and have fun with it, and that's what we did. There's some messing with each other and some bumping of elbows, but there's a definite chemistry that works."
In the first episode, the coaches banter back and forth like fraternity members, but there is an underlying competitiveness always present. None of these four coaches wants to lose and watching them try to trip each other up provides another layer to the show. This pivotal interplay is prevalent throughout the series, Kay said, unhindered by the added responsibility of selling a pending fight between them.
"The coaches on The Ultimate Fighter -- it's about promoting a fight at the end," Kay said.
The mentoring relationship between coach and team comes into focus in the show's fourth episode, when the participants settle onto their compact, four-man squads (TUF teams are usually eight fighters). During a group session between coaches and Bellator president Bjorn Rebney, the 16 fighters are ranked 1-through-16 until a consensus is reached. The one through eight seeds get to choose their first opponent, though the order of the fights are scrambled to keep the rankings secret.
How a fighter interacts with his coach, assistant coaches and team, who he picks to fight and why -- these could all act as indicators that further flesh out the fighter for the viewer. Of course, there will still be the requisite storytelling paramount to any good reality show, producer Doganieri said. And contestants will share their backgrounds and life challenges.
"Casting is a huge ingredient [for any reality show]," said Doganieri, whose Amazing Race is in its 23rd season. "Along with Spike and Bellator, we interviewed every single fighter on the show. I looked for different things. They looked for different things. I looked for personalities, for interesting background and stories."
If the show manages to balance the entertaining levity of its first episode with the reverence these athletes deserve throughout its run, MMA fans will find both novelty and familiarity in Fight Master. Captivating fights will also be a requisite, as will a winner who inspires confidence in the entire process by making something of his career once he joins the promotion's ranks.
"It's not like in TUF, where you win, then you get a fight, maybe you get another fight, then another and eventually you work your way to premiere talent," Kay said. "Whoever wins this goes right into the tournament. They don't get tune-up fights."