Today in wrestling’s Olympic battle

Hey, Dana White! Bjorn Rebney! What do you big-time MMA promoters think wrestling should do to stay in the Olympics?

Wrestling’s leaders have indeed asked, and my former USA TODAY colleague Kelly Whiteside has the story on what they’re considering — everything from dramatic walkouts to new clothes. The story includes this great anecdote:

 “Two pieces? Dan will probably roll over in his grave,” (Mike Novogratz) said about the legend standing next to him.

“Nah. I wore a three-piece in college,” said Gable about his time at Iowa State in the late 1960s. “A shirt, tights and a pair of shorts that went over.”

Someone who wore a lot less than that on his way to nine Olympic gold medals is weighing in on wrestling’s behalf (via OlympicTalk):

As are more Olympic legends of the 70s and 80s:

(Still can’t believe Mark Spitz shaved that mustache.)

The “Rumble on the Rails” — USA, Iran and Russia in Grand Central Terminal — will be broadcast live today. USA vs. Iran at 3:30 ET on NBC Sports Network and USA vs. Russia on Universal Sports at 6 ET. Also online at TeamUSA.org

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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.

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.