Anyone involved in the world of sports will be able to tell you that it isn’t how you start, it’s how you finish. Players or teams can jump out of the gates with an early lead and appear to be dominant and have everything wrapped up halfway through the first period, but the beauty of athletics is that it really isn’t over until it’s over.

This slogan applies while looking back at the first season of Bellator on its new network of Spike TV. When things kicked off, the promotion sprinted out of the gate, featuring five championship title fights in January and February alone. In those months, Bellator twice featured the newly acquired Muhammed “King Mo” Lawal, and it also held the opening rounds to tournaments in five different weight classes. Things appeared to be going great for everyone over at Bellator.

But if you look at the ratings, it has the feel of a fighter who is tiring out while nearing the championship rounds. According to reports, the season-eight opener reeled in 938,000 viewers, while this past week’s Bellator 94 card did the second lowest total of the season with just 713,000. In perspective, Bellator is still crushing its old numbers from the MTV2 era, when the promotion was averaging around 180,000 viewers per event. However, losing over 200,000 viewers in just three months could be concerning for Bellator CEO Bjorn Rebney and company.

The early part of the season was exciting for a number of reasons, one of which was the kickoff to new tournaments, the format that the promotion prides itself on. But as the tournaments unfold, and cards are reduced to having one or two tournament fights (rather than having four) and two fights between fighters that the casual fan has ever heard of is where things get dicey. Lesser-known fighters fighting in the tournament is one thing, because the viewer can acknowledge that if he goes on to win his fight, he moves on and is one step closer to the title shot. They would have a sense of thinking that this fighter flew under their radar and would therefore want to watch that fighter. This allows Bellator to develop new draws through the tournament format.

But those viewers don’t exactly feel the same way when those unknowns are fighting with nothing as important as the tournament on the line. Those viewers may opt to surf around for something on the tube that is more interesting to them.

The cards that Bellator has put on in March have felt shallow in comparison to those in the months that preceded it, especially based upon this line of thinking. Fortunately, Thursday’s season finale is as deep as some of the earlier cards that the promotion has held this season. On the card, there will be a championship fight, two tournament finals and a fight between a UFC veteran and a promotional star.

The main event features Pat Curran defending his featherweight championship against Shahbulat Shamhalaev. This fight should garner attention from the new viewers to season-eight, because they both fought this season. Those same viewers have also been watching Doug Marshall, Brett Cooper, Frodo Khasbulaev and Mike Richman, who are all finalists for their respective divisions. And, kicking off the show, Karo Parisyan takes on Rick Hawn. MMA fans know Parisyan from his UFC days, while anyone who tuned into the first show of this Bellator season saw Hawn fight for the lightweight championship against Michael Chandler.

Bellator 95 delivers on multiple levels. First, it has a championship title fight as its headliner with one of the top ranked featherweights out there defending his title. Second, two tournament finalists will emerge and earn a title shot. Third, longtime MMA fans will get to see a veteran of the sport who was near the top of the division at one time. And fourth, seven of the eight fighters on the main card have fought in this season, familiarizing the viewers with what they have been watching since January.

As Bellator continues its partnership with Spike TV, a lot of these walls, such as fighter familiarity, will be broken down naturally. But it is good to see that the promotion will be broadcasting a solid card when the curtains go down on this season. Sure, it isn’t a stacked card like that of some of the earlier events, but the intelligent placement of these fights makes it one that MMA fans would not want to miss. You can’t blame the promotion for holding three title fights within the first two cards while trying to attract new viewers to the new network, but now that the baseline has been established, Bellator will be able to spread out the title fights, bolstering thinner cards when necessary.

This card should be a model for Bellator for late events in future seasons. After all, it is a marathon, not a sprint.

Photo: Pat Curran (Dave Mandel/Sherdog)

About The Author

Brian McKenna
Staff Writer

Brian McKenna was born and raised in the suburbs of Boston, Massachusetts. A sports nut from as long as he can remember, he came to be a fan of Mixed Martial Arts from a roommate watching The Ultimate Fighter while attending Westfield State College. Brian came to writing by starting his own blog, Four Down Territory, which focuses on Boston based sports, life, and of course MMA.