Last night, Fight Master: Bellator MMA, a new reality series, premiered on Spike TV. In an effort to avoid copying Zuffa, LLC’s eight-year-old landmark show, The Ultimate Fighter, verbatim, the organization decided to combine the concepts of that and another non-MMA reality show, NBC’s The Voice.

For those who are unfamiliar with The Voice, contestants sing to four coaches, a live audience and millions of viewers in an effort to first get an offer to be on one of the coach’s teams, with the final choice of teams belonging to the singer. The coaches then work with the vocalists on choices of songs, vocal skills and presentation in hopes that one of their team members will become the winner of the season. The ultimate winner, however, is chosen by “America.” This is not the case with The Ultimate Fighter.

The Ultimate Fighter first aired in 2005, versus the singing show’s 2011 premiere, but the show is similar to The Voice in the sense that 32 fighters initially battle in front of two coaches, UFC President Dana White and a small audience in an effort to make it onto one of the coaches’ teams. But TUF is not about impressing coaches or “America” to win the show. In TUF, fighters duke it out for up to five total fights to become the Ultimate Fighter, which includes a six-figure UFC contract. The fighters control their own destiny. After last night’s premiere, Fight Master: Bellator MMA clearly melded the two in forming a “new” concept.

To kick off the season, just like The Voice, the fighters battled in front of a panel of four coaches to earn their spot on one of the rosters to win a six-figure Bellator contract, exactly like TUF. Unlike The Voice, whose title references the contestants, Fight Master: Bellator MMA references the coaches, even though the fighters are the ultimate reason for having the contest. However, the show is aptly named, considering the TUF coaches are current UFC fighters who eventually get a chance to battle each other, but the Fight Master: Bellator MMA coaches are just that, masters of coaching. They are actually legends of the sport, and most have actually appeared, in one capacity or another, on TUF.

UFC Hall of Famer Randy Couture, Greg Jackson, one of the most successful coaches in MMA history, Frank Shamrock, a 15-year veteran of the UFC, Strikeforce and Pancrase, and Joe Warren, a Greco-Roman gold medalist and former Bellator featherweight champ, round out the cast of coaches.

Even though they are all legends of the sport, this is not an apples-to-apples group of coaching minds. Jackson, Shamrock and Couture have all been coaches for a long time, but in different capacities, and Jackson is by far the longest-running and most successful coach of the bunch. Warren, at 36, is the youngest of the four and has the least amount of coaching experience. In fact, since working together on Fight Master: Bellator MMA, Warren has started training under Jackson, which is an interesting twist. The expertise and gamesmanship of Jackson became apparent very quickly as the show began.

In the first episode, “Fight To Choose,” ten of the 32 welterweights battled to make it onto a team. The first bout, between Chip Pollard and Tim Welch, began with a quick introduction of the fighters, much like TUF, before they performed in front of the four coaches, who sat in cushy armchairs reminiscent of The Voice. Welch quickly disposed of Pollard in the first round, and immediately stood in front of the coaches, so they could lobby as to why he should choose to be on their team, exactly like The Voice. After the typical reality show scheme of going to commercial right before the contestant announces his choice, Welch, of course, chose Jackson, because the famous coach pulled out the “all my fighters are champions” trump card. But who wouldn’t play that card after witnessing a quick knockout like the one Welch produced?

The format remained consistent for the next four fights with Eric Scallan going to Team Warren, A.J. Matthews going to Team Couture, and Nick Barnes and Chris Lozano both going to Team Shamrock.

One of the most interesting aspects of the show was hearing the coaches explain why they didn’t want a fighter, versus TUF, where the viewer typically only hears reasons why they do want a guy on their team. The suspense factor of having the fighters choose right away was also a highlight and differentiator from TUF. In TUF, the contestants all fight, one after the next, to earn their spots on the show. Then, they all assemble in the gym to get chosen, similar to a pick-up game of basketball.

With only one episode on the books, it’s hard to judge if the Fight Master: Bellator MMA play-in style is better than TUF’s format from an entertainment point-of-view. The initial criticism of the new show is that after an hour of what turned out to be a lot of talking and abbreviated airing of the fights, only five fighters were chosen. At this rate, it could be weeks before the teams are even finalized, which is really dragging down the show’s momentum. Fans want the action to kick off right away, and this delay is somewhat of a disappointment.

For the most part, the show was a success and left the viewer wanting more. It was definitely well-produced and obviously Bellator spared no expense. The production factor was more that of a performance reality show than the The Ultimate Fighter, which is more like a bunch of guys working out in a gym.

TUF is still the cream of the crop as far as MMA reality shows go, but after eight years, it should be. It will be really interesting to see how Fight Master: Bellator MMA turns out. It’s just a bummer that it will be weeks before the actual contest begins. There are a lot of variables left unknown after the first episode:

When will the teams be finalized?

What will the training be like with each coach only focusing on four fighters?

Will life at “the house” be a big part of the show?

How will the fights be chosen with more than two teams?

Hopefully, the fans will know some of these answers sooner rather than later, otherwise the show may very quickly lose the interest of its viewers.

Photo: Fight Master Logo (Spike.com)