Unsolicited advice for the UFC

When a UFC fight card coincides with a Bellator fight card, the choice should be obvious. And yet it’s not.

The UFC has the talent — by my quick count, 83 of the 90 top-10 fighters in the Sherdog rankings. At USA TODAY/MMA Junkie, which ranks 15 per class but only ranks men (come on, guys!), it’s 101 out of 120, and no non-UFC fighter ranks higher than seventh.

But Bellator, now under the leadership of Strikeforce founder Scott Coker, is going in a new direction that cleverly stakes out a couple of niches. If you don’t believe me, listen to Kid Nate and Luke Thomas in the return of their Tete-A-Tete segment.

This weekend’s Bellator card drew an average of 1.2 million viewers, peaking at 2 million (probably not coincidentally after the UFC pay-per-view card ended). UFC 180’s prelims drew an average of 624,000, peaking at 771,000. World Series of Fighting should have picked another weekend. (I haven’t seen estimates for the UFC PPV audience — it’s not an apples to apples comparison, anyway, because a PPV “buy” usually represents multiple viewers, and you have to figure in people who went out to see it at a local viewing spot. Plus, you know, you have to pay for it.)

It was a strange UFC pay-per-view card. For one thing, the prelims were mostly fighters from The Ultimate Fighter: Latin America, plus one women’s fight that promised (and delivered) a lot of action. The TUF season had generated very little buzz — the foreign installments aren’t really promoted in the USA.

The main card opened with a battle of sheer journeymen, Edgar Garcia and Hector Urbina. Then came Augusto Montano, a Mexican prospect making his UFC debut, for a predictable demolition of Chris Heatherly, who somehow managed to lose his only prior UFC fight by omoplata.

Only the last three fights looked like typical pay-per-view fare. Top-1o featherweights Ricardo Lamas and Dennis Bermudez were a combined 12-2 in the UFC coming into this bout. Welterweight Kelvin Gastelum, a surprise winner on The Ultimate Fighter 19 months ago, continued his rapid rise with a first-round finish of former contender Jake Ellenberger. Then Fabricio Werdum won the UFC interim heavyweight belt in a thriller against Mark Hunt, a compelling substitute for champion Cain Velasquez.

It’s not that the UFC is just coasting on its brand name. This was supposed to be the UFC’s big breakthrough in Mexico, and despite losing Mexican-American Velasquez to injury, it probably did the trick. As is the case with a lot of UFC cards, several fighters had to pull out with injuries, including Velasquez, Mexican star Erik Perez and both sides of an appealing bout between veterans Diego Sanchez and Joe Lauzon. At one time, the card was solid: Velasquez-Werdum (title bout), Gastelum-Ellenberger, Lamas-Bermudez, Sanchez-Lauzon, Perez-Marcus Brimage.

This is all part of the UFC going global. In 2009, the year of UFC 100, the UFC did 15 cards in the USA, two in Britain, one in Ireland, one in Germany and one in Canada. The Germany card was the first held in a country that didn’t speak (mostly) English since 2000. In 2014, the UFC has been to Brazil six times, with a seventh scheduled. It’s been to Macau twice. Three ties to Canada. Also to Singapore, Britain, United Arab Emirates, Germany, New Zealand, Ireland, Japan, Sweden, Australia, and now Mexico. These cards tend to have a bit of local flavor. And why not?

Bellator, despite a healthy dose of international talent on the roster, has only left the USA to go to Ontario. And Coker is putting together clever cards such as the one that drew a couple million viewers over the weekend.

The main event — Tito Ortiz vs. Stephan Bonnar — was a circus. Most fans surely watched out of morbid curiosity, and what they saw looked like this:

But if you tuned in ahead of the graybeards riding on the last few waves of their UFC glory days, you saw a few interesting bouts:

  • Interim lightweight champion Will Brooks outlasting former champion Michael Chandler
  • Joe Schilling knocking out Melvin Manhoef in a battle of kickboxers
  • Bellator veteran Mike Richman taking apart well-regarded UFC veteran Nam Phan
  • Light heavyweight motormouth, former Strikeforce champion and former college wrestling star King Mo (Muhammad Lawal) getting a TKO win over late fill-in Joe Vedepo

So Coker mixed a couple of “fun” bouts (Ortiz-Bonnar, Schilling-Manhoef) with a title fight and a couple of bouts with guys we’ve heard of.

Bellator isn’t out to take the No. 1 spot away from the UFC. But in its brief history, MMA has been better off with a solid No. 2. With Coker in charge, Bellator should have that position locked down for a while, at least in North America.

But even if Bellator isn’t a direct threat to the UFC, this weekend was a reminder that a lot of things aren’t quite right in UFC land. A couple of pay-per-view cards this year have drawn fewer than 200,000 buys. The Ultimate Fighter is no longer a ratings juggernaut. Standard & Poor’s says UFC parent Zuffa may see its profit drop 40 percent from 2013.

It’s not exactly time to panic. The UFC is going global, and that’s going to be costly and difficult. It’s still surely a good idea in the long run.

The U.S. audience, though, has the right to feel a little neglected when we’re seeing the likes of Heatherly, Hans Stringer and other fighters we don’t know on a pay-per-view card.

And the UFC quite rightly avoids “circus” bouts most of the time. Randy Couture’s demolition of boxer James Toney was a rare exception. The UFC is supposed to be about the best fighters gradually climbing the ladder to the top of the ranks. No reason it shouldn’t stick to its guns on that front.

My unsolicited advice goes back to the roots, a topic about which I wrote a book. Don’t look for it in bookstores. Or Amazon. Maybe in the cloud. I wrote about The Ultimate Fighter, and I think that’s where the UFC needs to get back to building its fighters.

The current season of The Ultimate Fighter is the best in years. That’s because the fighters already have a bit of a name, and they’re looking for a breakthrough.

The basic problem with The Ultimate Fighter is that the talent pool is tapped out. The UFC has so many good fighters under contract that it’s highly unlikely that a new fighter is going to have much of an impact. The days of Forrest Griffin winning the UFC belt a couple of years after winning the TUF title are gone. Gastelum may actually be the biggest success story of recent seasons …

… except when the UFC is building a new weight class. This season, they’re doing just that. And the winner won’t just be in the UFC — she’ll be the champion.

So fans like me can’t wait to see the next bouts. Aisling Daly vs. Jessica Penne? That’s quality. Rose Namajunas vs. Joanne Calderwood? That’s PPV-worthy.

TUF 14 had new weight classes — bantamweight and featherweight. TUF 18 had a few good fight veterans in the women’s bantamweight class, though Ronda Rousey’s diva attitude made it nearly unwatchable.

The problem is when TUF goes back to scouring the depths of the talent pool.  TUF 16 champion Colton Smith lost his next three fights. A couple of good fighters have come through — Gastelum has gone from the No. 13 draft pick on TUF 17 to a legit top-10 guy. But too many of the fighters are fleeting memories.

Back up to the basic problem: The UFC has too many fighters and not enough “names.” That’s where TUF comes in.

It’s time to put existing UFC fighters on TUF.

I’m not talking a replay of the “Comeback” season, in which guys who had been in the UFC got a second chance and fought for a title shot (which Matt Serra shockingly converted, beating Georges St. Pierre in an upset for the ages). But take some of the unknown guys who have had a couple of UFC fights and put them on the show. Offer up a headlining spot on a free Fight Night card as a reward.

We’ll get to know more fighters that actually have a chance of sticking around in the UFC. There’s no point in watching TUF if it’s pretty clear only a couple of the cast members are going to be around long enough to know their names.

That’s the simple fix. The other is to keep guys from getting hurt and wrecking PPV cards. That’s beyond a simple blogger’s ability to fix.


Matchups to make in wake of Rampage-Tito announcement

In a mixed martial arts landscape dominated by the UFC, Bellator has made inroads with an alternate approach — mixing just a couple of UFC alumni with some younger or lesser-known fighters in tournaments broadcast for free, now on former UFC channel Spike.

So it’s a little strange to see their big announcement yesterday of a pay-per-view event featuring two fighters waaaay past their primes.

Tito Ortiz was a star of the early UFC. Great. Now let’s check out his last 10 years:

– Convincing losses against the other two light heavyweight stars of the 2000s, Randy Couture and Chuck Liddell.

– A five-fight win streak that included two split decisions and two wins against the aging Ken Shamrock.

– Since then, he’s 1-7-1.

Then we have Quinton “Rampage” Jackson, whom you might remember from the time he “motorboated” a female interviewer. He had a good run when he moved into the UFC in 2007, beating Liddell and Dan Henderson before giving up the light heavyweight belt to Forrest Griffin. Then he knocked out Wanderlei Silva in 2008 to avenge a couple of spectacular losses in Japan.

Since then, Jackson offered little in his grudge match with Rashad Evans, got a dubious decision against Lyoto Machida, beat the faded Matt Hamill, and lost his last three.

So in honor of this matchup, let’s consider a few other pay-per-view possibilities:

– Men’s basketball: Duke-UConn 1999. The rematch. (Hey, at least 3-4 of those players are still in the NBA.)

– Golf: Lee Trevino vs. Jack Nicklaus in a long-driving contest.

– Boxing: Evander Holyfield vs. anybody.

– Tennis: Anna Kournikova vs. Jennifer Capriati.

– Men’s basketball: Duke-Kentucky 1992. The rematch.

– Cycling: Lance Armstrong vs. the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency.

Now here’s the sad part: I bet Rampage vs. Tito actually does pretty well.

Sure, some of the others might draw some attention for the novelty factor. But people won’t turn away from the actual NCAA Tournament to sit in rapt attention as retired basketball players get back on the court. A thrilling finish at The Masters will still outdraw a fun afternoon with Trevino and Nicklaus, who would be more likely to entertain the crowd with a few stories and jokes — something Rampage and Tito won’t really have time to do.

But MMA fans, especially the “casual” crowd, may still react more to the old favorites than the younger, more advanced fighters who have come up behind them. The UFC’s numbers aren’t what they used to be.

The UFC has four pay-per-view events scheduled this fall. The main events:

– UFC 165: Light heavyweight champion Jon Jones vs. Alexander Gustafson.

– UFC 166: Heavyweight champion Cain Velasquez vs. former champion Junior dos Santos, the third match of a trilogy.

– UFC 167: Welterweight champion Georges St. Pierre vs. Johny Hendricks. (Yes, “Johny.” The other n is hidden in his beard.)

– UFC 168: New middleweight champion Chris Weidman vs. Anderson Silva, a rematch of Weidman’s stunning upset July 6.

St. Pierre and Silva are two of the best fighters ever, and Jones is in that conversation as well. Velasquez and dos Santos smashed aside the old guard in the heavyweight division. The UFC cards also will be far deeper than what Bellator has to offer — interim bantamweight champion Renan Barao, fast-rising heavyweight Daniel Cormier and former Strikeforce champion Nate Marquardt are among the undercard fighters already announced.

So the UFC cards should do far better than what Bellator is offering. Will they? We’ll see.

Review: Bellator’s “Fight Master”

For those who don’t know, I’ve written a book on The Ultimate Fighter. It is not yet published.

So with Bellator bringing “reality” MMA back to Spike, I simply had to check it out.

The first word that sprang to mind: Awkward.

It’s awkward in the sense that they’re trying so hard not to be The Ultimate Fighter. Bellator commentator Jimmy Smith welcomed the fighters to the cage with roughly the same speech Dana White always gives — two five-minute rounds, if we don’t have a winner, we go to sudden vic … I mean … overtime! Yeah! Overtime!

It’s awkward in the sense that the winning fighters stand in front of four coaches, sitting in chairs like the judges on The Voice, and (A) get fawned over or (B) get tepid congratulations. After these brief conversations, akin to speed-dating, the fighters pick their coaches.

It’s awkward in the sense that the coaches include the top coach in MMA (Greg Jackson), a legendary fighter who made a solid transition to coaching (Randy Couture), a legendary fighter better known for commentary than coaching (Frank Shamrock) … and Joe Warren, a former world champion wrestler who has had an erratic MMA career so far.

And it’s awkward in the sense that we’ve seen all this before. One guy was an alcoholic but has stayed sober since he turned to MMA. One guy is a self-professed geek who does this for his kid. One guy has a lot of experience, and they allude to it without saying outright that he has already fought in Bellator. One guy got in a lot of trouble in college but found God, who told him to build a gym. One guy is a brash blonde from Kentucky who’s adept at trash talk but has a wicked temper … OK, I’m kidding. Junie Browning is not on this show, as far as I know.

All that said, it’s not a bad hour of MMA programming.

The first winning fighter, Tim “Ginga Ninja” Welch, stood out. He came across as confident but amiable, proud of his Irish-Native American heritage. And he looked sharp in recording a quick knockout. All four coaches were impressed, with Shamrock trying to play up the shared Native American ties. Welch still chose the guru, Greg Jackson.

The next winner, Eric Scallon, opened on a sour note by punching when his opponent tried to touch gloves. Christopher Curtis responded with a big flurry of punches and knees, then spent the rest of the fight fending off takedown attempts.

Some coaches were open with their indifference. Jackson said Couture or Warren would be better fits. Shamrock asked the dazed Scallon if he was scared to get hit. Warren saved his lamentations for a confessional, away from Scallon’s eyes and ears. Bad move — Scallon chose Warren.

The third fight was a good one. Brendan Tierney is one of the more interesting characters introduced, a former ballet dancer who looks at fights as “active problem-solving.” He has long legs and creative submission work, along with some good knees. But Nick Barnes is a better striker, especially on the ground. He won and chose Shamrock.

The fourth winner, AJ Matthews, confesses that Shamrock fought before he was interested in MMA. Ouch. He chose Couture.

Last up was the veteran, Chris Lozano, in a fight that really should’ve been stopped. Josh Quayhagen, he who built the gym as instructed by God, was a bloody mess.

I have a lot of positives, a lot to look at. Just not the mirror right now,” quipped Quayhagen.

Shamrock pulled an interesting gambit. In confessional, he said Lozano was his man. But face-to-face, he told Lozano to pick Jackson, with whom the veteran had already worked. Somehow, it worked — Lozano thanked Jackson for their previous time together but said he’d like to learn from “two great minds,” picking Shamrock.

Next week on The Ultimate Fighter, chaos erupts in the house … oh, no, I’m sorry — a few more fights, with winners picking their coaches.

I’m not going to be recapping each week, but it’s a show worth checking out while the MMA community awaits Ronda Rousey’s TUF exploits.

MMA weekend: Fast and furious

Can Bellator keep up the momentum after a strong Spike debut last week? Who’s the fastest flyweight in the world? Can UFC get a bang for its marketing buck, particularly with a main card that would stack up quite well against some of the recent pay-per-views?

BELLATOR (main card 10 p.m. ET Thursday on Spike)

Ben Askren (champion) vs. Karl Amossou (tournament winner), welterweight title fight: You can hear Bellator and Spike execs now, praying that this will not be a lay-and-pray win for Askren. The former world-class wrestler has won six straight decisions.

King Mo Lawal vs. Przemyslaw Mysiala, light heavyweight quarterfinals: Winner gets Emanuel Newton. King Mo also has some Spike exposure in his side job as a “pro wrestler,” and he’s the only name left in the 205-pound bracket. A Mysiala win might lead to some weeping.

Welterweight quarterfinals:
– Ben Saunders vs. Koffi Adzisto
– Douglas Lima 
vs. Michail Tsarev

UFC on FOX (main card 8 p.m. ET Saturday on Fox; prelims at 5 on FX)

One of the deepest free-TV cards in history …

Demetrious Johnson (champion) vs. John Dodson (top contender), flyweights: Certainly the most hyped flyweight bout ever, and Dodson usually brings the excitement.

Quinton “Rampage” Jackson (lame-duck veteran/former champion) vs. Glover Teixeira (contender), light heavyweights: Will Rampage even show up for his last UFC appearance? I don’t mean physically — I’m sure he will walk out to the cage and participate — but does he even care?

Anthony Pettis (top contender) vs. Donald “Cowboy” Cerrone (top contender), lightweights: Two guys who’ve had classic fights with champion Benson Henderson. Surely the betting favorite for Fight of the Night.

Erik Koch (top contender) vs. Ricardo Lamas (top contender), featherweights: Koch was actually signed to fight Jose Aldo for the title at one point, and Lamas was close. Winner should be next up for the Aldo-Edgar winner if everyone stays healthy and sane.

T.J. Grant (contender) vs. Matt Wiman (contender), lightweights: Might be stretching to put Wiman on the contenders’ rungs, but not if he beats the surging Grant.

Clay Guida (contender) vs. Hatsu Hioki (contender), featherweights: Guida often headlines free-TV cards. Now he’s on the prelims. The UFC must have really hated his last fight against Gray Maynard, or maybe they’re not sure how he’s going to fare at featherweight. Both guys are on the line between contender and veteran, and given their mileage, a loss here probably means a title shot is never coming. But aside from ladder impact, this should be a terrific fight. Guida looked dull against Maynard, but it takes two to make a snoozer.

Ryan Bader (contender) vs. Vladimir Matyushenko (veteran), light heavyweights: Again, two guys who could easily be on a pay-per-view main card. Each guy needs a couple of wins to get into serious contention. Bader’s young enough to do it but needs this win just to stay put on the ladder.

Mike Russow (contender) vs. Shawn Jordan (newbie), heavyweights: Jordan lost his last one to Cheick Kongo. Can he hang with Russow?

Mike Stumpf (newbie) vs. Pascal Krauss (newbie), welterweights: I neglected to include these guys on my welterweight ladder. Stumpf is 0-1 in the Octagon. Krauss, from Germany via Roufusport, has a solid 10-1 overall record and is 1-1 in the UFC.

Rafael Natal (prospect) vs. Sean Spencer (newbie), middleweights: Natal gets a fighter making his debut on short notice.

Simeon Thoresen (newbie) vs. David Mitchell (newbie), welterweights: Two more guys I forgot on the ladder. Mitchell‘s interesting — came into the UFC with wins over War Machine and Bobby Green, then lost his first two UFC bouts, the second against Paulo Thiago. So he’s probably fighting for his UFC spot against a Norwegian who is 1-1 in the UFC and was KO’d by Seth Baczynski last time.

MMA weekend: Jan. 17-19

You may have noticed that I’ve just finished creating “ladders” for each weight class: flyweight, bantamweight, featherweight, lightweight, welterweight, middleweight, light heavyweight, heavyweight and women’s bantamweight. The ladders draw a bit from SB Nation’s meta-rankings, but rather than rating fighters’ skills and other things I’m not qualified to do, they’re basically guesses at where fighters currently stand. We think. Only Dana White, Joe Silva and company know for sure.

Some ladders are more detailed than others, in part because I was rushing to get it done before this weekend, when we have two MMA cards.

That’s a big MMA showdown itself. Bellator isn’t at the UFC’s level and wouldn’t claim to be. But Spike certainly think it’s still the home of MMA, and you can imagine the clatter if Thursday night’s card on Spike does comparable ratings to Saturday’s UFC card on FX.

The stakes in Bellator are nice and straightforward:

– Lightweight championship: Michael Chandler defending against Rick Hawn.

– Featherweight championship: Pat Curran defending against Patricio Pitbull. Yes, they’re making his nickname his last name.

– Light heavyweight tournament quarterfinal: Renato “Babalu” Sobral vs. Mikhail Zayats. Winner faces the winner of the Seth Petruzelli-Jacob Noe fight, which will be online earlier in the evening.

Also earlier and online is another tournament quarterfinal: Emanuel Newton vs. Atanas Djambazov. The winner of that one faces the winner of the Mo Lawal-Przemyslaw Mysiala fight, which they’re saving for next week.

On to Saturday’s UFC card, live on FX from Sao Paulo, Brazil …

– Middleweights: Michael Bisping (top contender) vs. Vitor Belfort (top contender). Bisping definitely gets a title shot with a win. If Belfort wins, the Earth will spin off its axis and we’ll be flung into space. Well, no, but the UFC may be scraping to find a challenger for Anderson Silva that he hasn’t already beaten.

– Middleweights: Daniel Sarafian (newbie) vs. CB Dollaway (veteran). TUF Brazil finalist, who missed that final due to injury, gets a debut against a veteran he might be able to beat.

– Heavyweights: Gabriel Gonzaga (veteran) vs. Ben Rothwell (veteran). Not likely to affect the ladders in the long run but a good matchup of experienced guys.

– Lightweights: Thiago Tavares (veteran) vs. Khabib Nurmagomedov (prospect). Tavares is on a decent run, but he looks like he’s in a gatekeeper role against the unbeaten sambo star from Dagestan.

The prelims on Fuel …

– Featherweights: Godofredo “Pepey” Castro (newbie) vs. Milton Vieira (newbie). TUF Brazil finalist takes on “the Godfather of the anaconda choke,” who drew in his UFC debut. Sounds fun.

– Middleweights: Ronny Markes (prospect) vs. Andrew Craig (prospect).  Both guys are 2-0 in the UFC. Some excitement building around this one.

– Featherweights: Diego Nunes (veteran) vs. Nik Lentz (veteran). Longtime lightweight Lentz is testing the lower weight class. Nunes has a strong 18-3 record.

– Lightweights: Edson Barboza (prospect) vs. Lucas Martins (newbie). Only one loss between them. Barboza has five UFC fights, Martin none.

– Bantamweights: Yuri Alcantara (prospect) vs. Pedro Nobre (newbie). Alcantara is listed at featherweight but is apparently moving down to bantamweight and was supposed to be fighting George Roop, who would slip through a crack in the floor if he cut to 135. So I don’t get this one at all. In any case, Nobre is getting a shot to show what he can do on short notice.

– Light heavyweights: Wagner Prado (newbie) vs. Ildemar Alcantara (newbie). Prado has a no-contest against Phil Davis, followed by an actual loss to Phil Davis. Alcantara is debuting just before his brother fights.

And one they’re saving for Facebook:

– Lightweights: Francisco “Massaranduba” Trinaldo (newbie) vs. C.J. Keith (newbie). TUF Brazil alum is 1-1 in the UFC; Keith lost for the first time in his UFC debut.


Believing in Bellator and Bjorn, reality TV edition

I was wrong about Bellator.

I realize I don’t have to say that. No one asked me if I thought Bellator would survive and thrive. Even though USA TODAY is going for more of a hipster/snarkster audience these days than it was in my full-time decade there, they still would leave headlines like “Another Conversation With Another MMA Promotion Doomed to Fail” to Deadspin.

So I hope I hid my skepticism at the time, when I was thinking, “What? Another MMA promotion? And another boxing guy is running it? Yeah, yeah — I’ll take the call, whatever.”

I’m still not a fan of first-person sports analysis (though I realize two of my recent posts start with confessions of various biases), but I think this is the best way to illustrate the point …

In the two years I spent as USA TODAY’s MMA beat writer, I spoke with all of the promoters with big-time ambitions — Elite XC, Affliction, Strikeforce, WEC, IFL, etc. All of those promotions had decent TV deals at one point, while Bellator was starting out on ESPN Deportes and pushing out highlights on YouTube.

Some promoters believed in MMA. Some believed in their vision of MMA. Hindsight is easy, but only a few promoters grasped the sport and their place within it. Reed Harris and the rest of the WEC crew got it, and they were already comfortably in the Zuffa umbrella. Strikeforce’s Scott Coker got it. And now it’s clear — Bellator’s Bjorn Rebney got it as well.

And still, in today’s Bellator conference call, I had to play skeptic. I’ve just finished a draft of a book on The Ultimate Fighter (and if you’d like to publish it, I’ll put you in touch with my agent), so I’ve been as aware as anyone that TUF isn’t drawing the ratings it once did. Is the reality MMA market played out? And while MMA fans fret that TUF isn’t producing UFC-caliber talent, can Bellator turn up any half-decent fighters?

We won’t know until we see it. But Rebney’s answers showed that he’s not full of the foolhardy bravado that has dragged down other promotions. He’s aware of the challenge, and bringing in Amazing Race producing veteran Bertrand van Munster is a sign of how seriously he’s taking it. They’ll focus on fighters “earlier in that maturation process,” but Rebney wouldn’t rule out the occasional veteran.

Maybe Spike deserves a bit of skepticism here. While Rebney, like Coker before him, isn’t one to poke the UFC bear, Spike still seems to think it’s the network for MMA. Granted, I’m out of the demographic that gets excited about the pro rasslin’ lead-in. In fact, the 10 p.m. Thursday air time for regular Bellator shows will be past my bedtime. (If it’s any consolation, that’s also why I don’t watch much Duke basketball.)

But to put down the first-person perspective for a minute, they don’t have to convince me to stay up late. They need to stand out in a saturated MMA marketplace. And Bellator shows all the signs of being the one group (besides the UFC) that can do it.

Monday Myriad: When figure skaters attack

The weekend in myriad sports …

Figure skating: If you like seeing Americans in fourth place, the Cup of China was the Grand Prix event for you! Mirai Nagasu, Adam Rippon and the ice dance duo of Madison Chock/Evan Bates all took fourth. Chock and Bates set a personal best with 149.54 points.

One surprise: Tatsuki Machida upset fellow Japanese skater Daisuke Takahashi.

And in warmups, this happened:


If you prefer your figure skating routines crash-free (more or less), see the rest of Universal Sports’ YouTube offerings.

Speedskating: The U.S. championships are complete, and the World Cup team will include a lot of familiar names — Shani Davis, Heather Richardson, Tucker Fredricks, Elli Ochowicz and more. Richardson won every distance at those championships.

MMA: The World Series of Fighting debut on NBC Sports Network (after an MLS playoff game) featured three quick knockouts (Andrei Arlovski, Anthony Johnson, newcomer Tyrone Spong) and one upset (Marlon Moraes over the increasingly indifferent Miguel Torres). Spong beat a guy with almost as much belly fat as I have.

Bellator also was knockout-heavy. Richard Hale advanced to the heavyweight final over winded opponent Thiago Santos, and Shahbulat Shamhalaev swarmed Mike Richman to advance to the featherweight final.

Up this week: U.S. women’s hockey in the Four Nations Cup.

MMA tournaments: How to, how not to

The UFC started with a simple concept — eight men, one tournament, one winner.

Since then, the “tournament” idea has remained but has been spread over more time. Japanese promotions have often held quarterfinals one night, then held semifinals and finals on the same night a couple of months later. Strikeforce will do the same with a women’s tournament Friday night (11 p.m. ET, Showtime).

Bellator, which opens its third season tonight (check with your local FSN affiliate) has opted for season-long tournaments over a couple of months. The UFC isn’t such a fan of the tournament concept, but that’s essentially what you get in The Ultimate Fighter.

Shine Fights has announced an old-school fight card next month in Fairfax, Va. Eight fighters — some notable — fighting up to three times during the night for a tournament title.

Several reasons why this is a tricky concept:

1. No time to promote. With The Ultimate Fighter, we know the fighters by the time they reach the final.

2. Logistics. Shuffling fighters in and out can be a challenge.

3. Fatigue and trivial injuries that can affect the outcomes. When one fighter has a brutal quarterfinal bout and the other sails through with ease, who do you suppose gets the win? And heaven forbid someone breaks a finger or gets a cut that would normally clear up in a couple of weeks but causes him to forfeit the next fight.

4. Serious injuries. Dr. Johnny Benjamin explains.

Midweek Myriad:

Free-lance assignments, household emergencies and being yelled at by a couple of Red Bulls fans have taken up much of my time this week, but there’s still plenty to round up while I enjoy my first home HD soccer viewing. (NOW I can’t wait for the World Cup.)

MLS: Four midweek games tonight, with D.C. United aiming to end its winless streak on ESPN2 vs. Kansas City.

U.S. Open Cup: The 2010 tournament will include a curious California play-in game for an extra amateur berth. (TheCup.us)

EPL: Tottenham Hotspur clinched a Champions League berth for next season with a 1-0 win at Manchester City. Could they even take third ahead of Arsenal?

La Liga: Barcelona took an easy win over Tenerife yesterday; Real Madrid tries to keep pace and remain one point back later today against Mallorca.

Coppa Italia: Inter 1, Roma 0 in today’s final, with lots of misbehavior. With these two teams still fighting for the league title, that might not cool down any time soon.

Copa Libertadores: Chivas (the original one) are in the Copa Libertadores quarterfinals, along with (barely) Brazil’s Sao Paulo. (Soccernet)

UFC: Dropkick Murphys fans, mourn — Forrest Griffin is off the UFC 114 card. Instead, Jason Brilz will face Antonio Rogerio “Little Nog” Nogueira.

Also in UFC — the usual recap of The Ultimate Fighter will be on schedule tonight a little after 11 p.m. ET.

Bellator: Thursday’s show has the first semifinals of the season — lightweights Roger Huerta-Pat Curran and Carey Vanier-Toby Imada. Also, lightweight champion Eddie Alvarez fights a “super fight” (keeping him active before he defends title against tourney winner) against UFC vet Josh Neer.

Chess: Veselin Topalov outlasted Vishy Anand in game 8 yesterday. World championship all square with four games left. (Susan Polgar blog)

Bellator nets nice ratings despite uneven distribution

Bellator has the numbers from its April 8 debut on Fox Sports Net, and they have reason to be pleased. The company says Bellator increased FSN’s Thursday night 25-54 male audience by 180 percent. Not exactly sure how they compute national ratings when FSN affiliates can choose different programming, but they share one local success story: 0.85 for a live airing on FSN Pittsburgh. Not bad for something with no obvious Pittsburgh tie-in.

The trick is getting more affiliates to show the fights live. That’s not easy during the overlap of baseball with the NBA and NHL playoffs, but judging from tonight’s broadcast times, distribution is getting better. More than half of FSN’s affiliates will show the fight card live, with others operating on reasonable (and, on the West Coast, helpful) delays.

Sadly, here in Northern Virginia, Comcast Sports Net is opting for a repeat of some sort of Best Damn Sports Show special and the World Poker Tour.

“In your area, we’ve gotten a lot of calls,” says Bellator CEO Bjorn Rebney, who worked out the deal with FSN after the promotion spent its first season on ESPN Deportes. Rebney sees the challenge of getting his fights to all affiliates but says the advantage of FSN is the broad reach to hard-core sports fans.

The fallback option is always the highlight show on NBC, which is broadcast Saturday night / Sunday morning at hours catering to insomniacs or DVRs. The good news is that the production values are terrific, with solid camera work and graphics guiding viewers through Bellator’s tournament set-up. (By way of disclaimer, I should say I’ve known and respected Bellator commentator Sean Wheelock for years from soccer circles, but the production values speak for themselves.)

So far this season, a couple of favorites such as UFC vet Roger Huerta have moved on without too much trouble. One upset in Rebney’s eyes was Pat Curran’s powerful knockout of Mike Ricci, a Georges St. Pierre protege, in the lightweight (155) tournament.

“A guy who fight most of his career at 145 took on Mike Ricci, who a lot of people said was the next GSP, and walked through him,” Rebney says.

Bellator drew attention with some viral videos of spectacular fight finishes last season. The official Curran-Ricci clip is climbing toward six-figure views.

The biggest controversy in Bellator was in the first fight for one of its big-name signings, Olympic wrestler Ben Askren. He got a tough draw against two-time UFC fighter Ryan Thomas and had to escape from a solid submission attempt before landing one of his own. With Thomas caught in a modified guillotine choke, referee Dave Smith asked for a sign that Thomas was OK. He didn’t get it, and he stopped the fight. Thomas, clearly unaffected, immediately popped up and protested.

The aftermath, as shown on the NBC highlights, had one hiccup for the broadcast team, with Timmy Smith saying the one “sign” fighters and referees use to communicate is the tapout. But referees always tell fighters in pre-fight instructions to give a sign when requested. Unconscious fighters can’t tap.

“The referee who made the call is not an inexperienced ref,” Rebney says. “I understand his reasoning. I understand what Ryan said because I talked to him for 15 minutes after the fight.”

The crowd was unhappy, though sportsmanship prevailed between the athletes. Thomas told the crowd how much he respects Askren and reminded them that the stoppage wasn’t his fault. Askren said Thomas deserves another chance.

Rebney said he would make Thomas the first alternate in case someone couldn’t continue in the tournament. He got his opportunity right away, thanks to that annoying volcano in Iceland that is keeping Europeans in Europe. Jim Wallhead couldn’t make the trip, so Thomas will fight again tonight against Jacob McClintock, who has won all six of his pro bouts in the first round.

Also on tonight’s card is another welterweight quarterfinal with Tyler Stinson against Dan Hornbuckle, whose last two fights were wins in Japan’s Sengoku circuit against Akihiro Gono and Nick Thompson.