In January, Bellator will make its move from the non-high definition world of MTV2 to Spike TV—a move that will instantly bring in a larger audience. However, rather than fill its seventh season with its biggest names and fights, the Chicago-based promotion has chosen to coast to the finish and save a number of exciting fights until after the switch.

As the home of the UFC for 14 seasons of The Ultimate Fighter and countless “Fight Night” events, Spike was the de facto “UFC channel,” but that all changed when the UFC inked a deal with Fox in late 2011, moving its content to FX and Fuel TV. The Viacom-owned Spike was then left in a conundrum, continue to broadcast past UFC events and content for 2012—a large portion of its programming­—or move Bellator immediately and forfeit the rights to the UFC footage.

Viacom ultimately decided to continue its use of the UFC content—even counter-programming the promotion’s new content on the Fox family of channels. That left Bellator relegated to MTV2 for another year, essentially a standard-definition graveyard. Fortunately for fans, there was a loophole, as Bellator events could be streamed live on without forcing the channel to abandon its UFC-related programming.

Now, with three months left before the changeover, Bellator is holding its seventh season. The season includes tournaments in the featherweight, lightweight, welterweight and heavyweight divisions. Yet, other than the non-tournament, non-title affair between Eddie Alvarez and Patricky “Pitbull” Freire and a bantamweight title bout between champion Eduardo Dantas and Marcos Galvao, the schedule is largely void of big-name fights.

In fact, the promotion has already announced that it will wait until it settles into its new home on Spike to hold the highly-anticipated featherweight title fight between champ Pat Curran and challenger Patricio “Pitbull” Freire and the lightweight title clash between champ Michael Chandler and Rick Hawn. Also, it is expected that Bellator’s most dominant champion, welterweight kingpin Ben Askren, will be shelved until the new year as well.

From a business perspective, holding their biggest stars for an expanded audience makes perfect sense. But, at the same time, one of the biggest criticisms of the promotion—and its tournament format—is its struggles to keep its champions active. Chandler hasn’t competed since a non-title bout with Akihiro Gono in May, Askren hasn’t fought since a successful title defense in April and Curran has been inactive since capturing the belt in March—although a broken orbital contributed to his layoff.

Regardless of the motive, by holding some of its best talent in the wings, the promotion is essentially resting on its laurels. Instead of showcasing its top draws to entice more viewers before the move to Spike, it is expecting that Spike’s existing audience will naturally gravitate to its events. It remains to be seen whether that approach will pay off come 2013.

While the promotion does have talent on its roster and in the season-seven lineup, keeping Askren, Chandler and Curran on the sidelines is the equivalent of mailing it in for the promotion’s last season on MTV2. Diehard fans may not be affected by the decision, but Bellator is losing any added exposure and build-up that high-profile fights like Curran-Freire and Chandler-Hawn could provide before the transition. Hopefully for the promotion, its fighters and Viacom, the move doesn’t backfire.

Photo: Pat Curran (Dave Mandel/Sherdog)

  • unbeknownst

    What it also does is put a log jam in the divisions. I know Bellator wants to get away from the non-title super fights completely, that they book their champions to do when there is no tournament winner waiting to challenge them each season. But right now, Curran still has to defend against Patricio Freire, and also Daniel Straus. Plus Bellator is doing another FW tournament this season. So by the time the SPIKE deal comes through, we’re going to have three FW challengers waiting to fight the belt holder. I know Bellator had announced that Patricio Freire and Daniel Straus would be fighting for an interim belt. Is that still being planned and booked this season?

    • Rob Tatum, News Manager/Assistant Editor

      I don’t believe that was ever finalized, but it brings up a great point. In some divisions they don’t have a challenger, but in others there are plenty. As far as I know, Curran was only expected to be out 3 months, so he should be healthy before 2013. However, an interim fight would make a lot of sense at this point, especially since Freire hasn’t fought since May of last year.