Bellator is kicking off it's campaign to replace the UFC in impressive fashion, with a strong debut card on the UFC's old home, Spike TV,

The Bellator Era on Spike TV begins tonight


For many years, Spike TV was known as the home of Mixed Martial Arts. And that’s a hefty distinction indeed, when the alternative is being known as the home of “Manswers” or “1000 Ways to Die.”

Yes, no matter what you think of Spike TV and it’s choice of…uh…programming, let’s say…you can’t deny the incredible impact the basic cable channel had on the growth of MMA in North America. Spike TV was the original home of the UFC, the place where the promotion first found a (mainstream) audience. The two prospered and grew together, each one helping the other to reach new heights. It was a beautiful relationship while it lasted.

But like so many great relationships, the Spike/UFC marriage eventually turned sour. The UFC started looking longingly at other women – like FOX – while Spike TV wanted to have more control over the promotion. Then came the messy breakup, with all the tell-tale signs. Publicly, both sides played nice, and claimed it was an amicable breakup. Then came the fights. The counter-programming . The petty contract squabbles. And endless “Best of Roy Nelson” marathons (though perhaps it was Roy who seemed endless, not the marathons).

Now, after a year of contract-mandated apart time (Spike was forbidden from broadcasting MMA for the past year due to terms in the Spike TV/UFC deal), Spike TV is ready to re-commit to MMA – only this time, their partner is Bellator FC, chief North American rival to the UFC.

Tonight, Bellator looks to make a splash in their Spike TV debut with one of the most stacked cards in the promotion’s history. It remains to be seen if MMA fans will flock back to Spike TV after a year’s absence, but Bellator is certainly putting their best foot forward with this debut card.

Let’s break down the night’s fights, shall we?

Featherweight Championship Fight: Pat Curran ( c ) vs. Patricio Freire

Bellator

As you can see, I’ve always been a fan of Pat’s. Here we are sharing a beer after his win over Toby Imada at Bellator 21 – the first MMA event I ever covered.

I’ve always been a big fan of Pat Curran’s. Aside from the now departing Eddie Alvarez (or not, depending on how his contract battle plays out), no Bellator fighter felt like more of a “homegrown star” than Pat.

The cousin of MMA veteran Jeff Curran, Pat has been one of Bellator’s most successful fighters since debuting in in 2010. He won his first three fights to take the season 2 lightweight tournament, before dropping a hard-fought decision to the aforementioned Eddie Alvarez. After that loss, Curran moved down to 145 pounds, and won three straight there to claim another tournament victory. This time, Curran made good on his title opportunity, shredding Greco-Roman wrestling standout Joe Warren to become the Bellator featherweight world champion.

Which is all well and good, but he’s up against another red-hot prospect in the Bellator ranks: Patricio “Pitbull” Freire.

Under the tutelage of “Minotauro” Nogueira, Patricio has emerged as a force in the Bellator featherweight division. He’s currently 17-1 as a professional, and 5-1 inside the Bellator cage. His lone loss came in his title fight with Joe Warren, in an extremely close split-decision. Many felt he should have gotten his hand raised that night – now he’ll get the opportunity to redeem himself against the man who took Warren’s belt.

This fight is an outstanding main event, and showcases Bellator’s commitment to building their brand around their champions. Should be a brawl.

Lightweight Championship Fight: Mike Chandler ( c ) vs. Rick Hawn

Bellator

Sadly, I don’t have any pictures of me drinking beer with Bellator lightweight champ Mike Chandler, so enjoy this one instead.

One of the things I love about this card is that unlike so many other promotions who try to take on the UFC, this event isn’t being fronted by UFC castoffs and over-the-hill MMA veterans. Instead, the top two fights feature guys who have all cut their teeth in the Bellator ranks – some more recently than others.

Alliance MMA product Michael Chandler moved from obscurity to stardom almost overnight, due to two very important factors. The first was his shocking defeat of Eddie Alvarez, the most dominant champion in Bellator history, for the lightweight championship. The second was that fight being many people’s choice for “Fight of the Year”.

Though he won the Bellator lightweight championship over a year ago, he’s finally set to defend it tonight (Bellator’s absolute commitment to the tournament format makes regular title defenses something of a rarity).

His opponent is former Olympic judoka and Bellator veteran Rick Hawn. Hawn, like Curran above, is a veteran of multiple Bellator tournaments across multiple weight classes. He advanced all the way to the finals of the season 4 welterweight tournament before dropping a decision to Jay Hieron, the only loss of his professional career. After that setback, Hawn dropped to 155 and tore through the season 6 lightweight tournament, eventually earning the right to face Chandler.

This fight is a very interesting stylistic matchup. Chandler brings a strong collegiate wrestling background to the fight, while Hawn has his Olympic-level judo. We know Hawn has some serious power, just like we know Chandler has an underrated submission game. We know they have a combined one defeat between them, and it was Hawn’s split-decision loss to Hieron.

And we already know Mike Chandler can put on “Fight of the Year” performances. No reason to think he won’t make a similar attempt against Hawn.

Renato Sobral vs. Mikhail Zayats

Remember when I said that this card wouldn’t feature any UFC castoffs or over the hill guys? So what the heck is “Babalu” doing here?

…Or “Babalu”, pictured here giving Robbie Lawler an extremely painful kick in the guts.

That’s an interesting question, and I hope the answer is not just for some added eyeballs in a one-and-done. Sobral has been not been very active in recent years (he’s fought 3 times since 2010) but he is coming off a recent victory in the ONE FC promotion over Tatsuya Mizuno. He’s also not as over-the-hill as you’d think, going 7-3 in his last ten fights.

I’m hoping “Babalu” is rededicating himself for this Bellator campaign, because I believe he still has something to offer the light-heavyweight division. He’s still has an excellent ground game and experience fighting (and beating) the very best in the world. His name on the bracket adds a certain degree of legitimacy to this season’s light-heavyweight tournament.

That’s assuming he can get by Mikhail Zayats tonight.

I’m going to be straight with you folks: I don’t really know much about ol’ Mikhail. I know he fought in M-1 for a good stretch – but all of Russia has fought in M-1 at some point. A quick sneak over to his Wikipedia page reveals that he’s 31, was the 2008 world Sambo champion, and has a professional record of 19-6.

So he may not be a “name” fighter, but he’s hardly an easy first-out for Sobral, either. This fight also isn’t the main or even co-main event, so at the end of the day I have no problem with it. Put a “name” face at the start of your broadcast, and hope fans stick around to watch your champions and homegrown stars. It’s a smart move.

So all in all, I’d say this is a very strong opening card for Bellator’s arrivial on Spike TV.

Whether or not the old UFC fans will be arriving also remains to be seen.

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Tags: Bellator Pat Curran Pitbull Friere Rick Hawn