There's a chill in the air when the man formerly known as Jon Koppenhaver steps out of prison, tasting fresh oxygen for the first time in nine months. Waiting to greet the fighter, now officially named "War Machine" as a final FU to TNA wrestling and its legal team, are some old friends.
And while agent Ken Pavia may meet that description, I'm talking more specifically about the cameras that are right there lurking, less than 10 feet from the fighter as he takes his first tentative steps back into the civilized world.
"I didn't know they were going to be there. I was kind of surprised," War Machine told Bleacher Report in a recent interview. "It was pretty surprising to see them. You come out and there's a camera in your face, it's weird. It's like a little dream inside real life."
There's no rest for the wicked—not even a single moment that he can call his own. Spike TV is back in the fight game and War Machine, like it or not, is simply part of the show.
"This guy really has an incredible life story...he's lived a pretty traumatic life," said Dave Phillips, executive producer of the "Vote For the Fight" reality series on Spike.com. "He's a guy, when you hear everything he's been through, you kind of want to root for him in a way. We're going to tell the whole War Machine story...we were on the street with him with a camera crew at two in the morning outside his prison in Nevada and we spent his whole first day of freedom with him."
Although no one else boasts quite as compelling a story, War Machine is joined on the reality series by the most star-studded cast in Bellator tournament history (Ben Saunders, Douglas Lima and Paul Daley round out the four contenders). And while the promotion won't officially debut on Spike until January, fans and fighters are getting a sneak peak at what the team behind the UFC's rise is bringing to the table with their Vote for the Fight promotion and the Web-based reality series that accompanies it.
To say this first tournament is key is an understatement. January's welterweight tournament will do more than just launch a contender for Ben Askren's 170 pound title. It will essentially relaunch the entire Bellator brand. The Web series is step one, and if any indication of what's to come, a great sign for fans looking for more MMA action than they can get with the UFC alone.
It's behind the scenes drama at its best—not that you'd expect anything less from Spike, which practically invented the genre. Phillips, a veteran producer who worked with the UFC on Spike, credits incredible access with making the show so immediately riveting, the Internet version of HBO's 24/7 and UFC's Primetime.
"What we've always done, when we promoted (UFC's) The Ultimate Fighter back in the day and MMA as a sport all these years, is to tell the story of the athletes. And to convey the sport in the best light we can," Phillips said. "...We've got a great partnership with Bellator and (founder) Bjorn (Rebney). Once he was on board, we knew we would be able to get really great access with the fighters...and getting great access with the guys was going to make or break the show."
Phillips and other producers at Spike understand as well as anyone that, in many ways, the UFC was built not just on great action fights but also on reality television. On humanizing the fighters who do the unthinkable, men who step into a cage and confront head-on the kind of terrifying human drama most of us would scurry across the street to avoid.
Men like War Machine.
For nine months he's had almost no human contact. His body and skills have atrophied, his normally carefully cropped hair grew into a wavy coif that in another life might have rested on the skull of an accountant, not a man with a grenade tattooed onto his neck.
Thanks to Phillips and crew, you can see the concern etched on his face. He has two months to work himself into shape, two months before fighting one of the top twenty welterweights on the planet.
That's a lot of pressure for a man who is also trying to assimilate himself back into the human race, avoiding bars and clubs in favor of simple nights out with friends and trips to the grocery store. The kettle will be close to boiling and the additional media, cameras and popularity contest may push him over the edge. If so, there's no doubt Spike will be there to catch all the action (see War Machine's first day out here).
But so far, so good.
"They only followed me that one day when I got out of jail, and they haven't come back yet. So far I'm just leading my normal life," War Machine said. "I think it's great. I was in jail and now Spike has given me this big opportunity. It's a chance for the fans to get involved, so it's great."
And though he's uneasy about Spike's contest allowing fans to choose their favorite matchup among the promotions top four welterweight contenders, afraid it will end with him taking on the toughest guy before he's quite ready, he can't help but lobby for your vote.
"I've never won a fight by decision," he said. "A lot of guys play it safe, with a safe game plan. But not me, though. I got heart. It's a no-brainer to pick me."
War Machine, of course, isn't the only fighter in the mix. Three others are being propelled into our homes as well. Machine and British knockout artist Paul Daley are the anti-heroes, the wild cards who exude violence from their pores. But MMA has another archetype, created with the help of Spike and perfected by Forrest Griffin and Stephan Bonnar during the first season of The Ultimate Fighter.
The nice guy, self-deprecating and funny, is a staple of the MMA world. The every day guy next door, one who happens to be able to fight his tail off, has become a stock character in the sport, but with Ben Saunders, it feels genuine.
A master of the clinch game, Saunders has grown up in the sport with the cameras front and present. A former reality show contestant, he's comfortable and natural when in the spotlight, an actor who knows how to hit the right marks and say all the right things.
"I've been used to it ever since The Ultimate Fighter," Saunders said. "My whole life changed after that show. For a long time I'd wonder why people were looking over at me in a restaurant. Most MMA fans are male, and most guys won't walk up to you because they don't want to look like a fan boy. Either that, or they judge you. But being on Spike, for Bellator it's all good publicity and good marketing."
Thus far during the reality series, Saunders has been paired with former foe Douglas Lima. An unassuming Brazilian fighter, Lima is the one fighter in the contest not used to the publicity or playing to the cameras. He's a fighter first and foremost, and as such, hopes that his time in the spotlight can help educate fans about his life and what it takes to make it to the top of the sport.
"They're going to come into my home soon and they're going to come to the gym and film my training. They're going to show people what it's really like, the work and the diet and the eating," Lima said. "Sometimes a lot of people just see the fun part. But they don't see what goes on behind the scenes. That's the hard part. Diet and cutting weight is the hardest part for me. I like my food. The more you train, the more you eat. So that's hard for me. Everyone is going to see that part of it."
Lima and Saunders squared off last year in the finals of a previous tournament to decide who would get a shot at champion Ben Askren. It was a closely contested bout, but Lima allowed no ambiguity into the process, knocking out Saunders with punches in the second round
Despite their shared history, the two are friendly on the reality show, greeting each other with a smile and a hug. But there is underlying tension that lingers. As relaxed as they seem, neither man can completely let down his guard. After all, if things go well for both in this tournament, the two will fight each other again one way or another either in the first fight or the finals.
Reality cameras rolling, Saunders joined the Bellator broadcast team to help call Lima's catchweight fight with Jacob Ortiz, a bout Lima finished in the final seconds with a furious striking assault. After the bout, Lima addressed the fan contest in the cage, but didn't call out anyone in particular, only thanked fans for their interest.
Rookie mistake, one Saunders wasn't about to repeat. He knows fans crave specificity and a certain cocksure attitude. Saunders doesn't just want fans to vote for him, he craves a specific fight. When he got his chance, he went straight for the jugular, telling the world exactly what he wanted—Daley.
"Me calling out Paul Daley is something they're trying to push out and broadcast," Saunders said. "I went on TV and the broadcasters asked me who I wanted, and I said Paul Daley. I was very straightforward. He has some of the best striking from a welterweight point of view. If you say tell me who the top 10 welterweight strikers are, I'm sure Daley would be on that list. And I definitely want to be on that list.
"I think it's one of the greatest things in the world," Saunders continued, talking up the Bellator contest. Normally the matchups in the promotion are decided, in a sense by the fighters. The tournament format sorts out the top fights by the process of elimination. For the first time, thanks to Spike, fans get to choose the fight they want to see.
"And with the four guys in the running, fight wise there's really no bad way to go. I'd just say to people that if you like my style, then let's make it happen. I try to take people out. Let's go."
All agree that the move to Spike will be huge for Bellator in 2013. The network, with a mix of programming already geared towards young males, is well suited for MMA.
"I think it's going to be good for me, and for all the fighters, and for Bellator," War Machine said. "MMA blew up on Spike, so it will help us to be there and it will help more people to know about us."
That's the glass half full look at the lay of the land. But there is a dark side as well. It's also a move that puts them squarely in the UFC's sights and a battle is brewing.
This year, while the UFC moved its primary programming to the Fox family of networks, Spike retained the rights to the UFC broadcasts they had aired over the years. As a result, Spike often went head-to-head with FX or Fuel, pitting classic UFC bouts and The Ultimate Fighter broadcasts against the current product on FX. And they weren't shy about sharing their success with the press.
"Spike clearly has been dogging us for most of this year...by trying to create viewer confusion and scheduling old episodes against The Ultimate Fighter and trying to pass them off as new content," FX Executive Vice President Chuck Saftler told the MMA media in October.
"They'll be out of the UFC game effective in January. They're going to try and launch a new product, they're going to try and launch their own reality show that competes with The Ultimate Fighter...with their Bellator product. We watched how they behaved, and we're well aware of their behavior and how they've acted competitively."
The two networks now find themselves playing chicken with their 2013 schedule. Neither has released a day or time for their flagship shows and Fox would dearly love to go head up against Bellator and stop a potential freight train before it gets rolling.
"Spike should watch their *ss," Saftler simply said.
For fans, it was a peek behind the scenes of the television industry, a cutthroat business every bit as brutal as the fight game. Spike officials, for their part, seemed amused by Saftler's salty language. They could eliminate any chance of a head-to-head showdown by scheduling opposite one of FX's flagship shows like Sons of Anarchy, but a promotional battle has its own unique dynamic.
When wrestling's WCW challenged the industry leading WWE on Monday nights in the mid-1990s it led to unprecedented interest—in both companies. Could history repeat itself in MMA? Or would the UFC leave Bellator in its wake?
Whatever happens next will be keenly felt by the fighters in Bellator, but they seem to realize it's beyond their control.
"I don't know anything about that part of it," Saunders said. "I'm a fighter. But yeah, I'm just extremely happy to go back to Spike."
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