By BOB EMANUEL JR. | Scripps Howard News Service
For Bellator MMA president Bjorn Rebney, the time has come.
This month the promotion switches from MTV2 to fellow Viacom-owned and higher-profile Spike TV, the previous cable home of the Ultimate Fighting Championships. Season eight kicks off with a lightweight world championship between Rick Hawn and Michael Chandler Jan. 17 in Irvine, Calif.
“The Bellator brand, which was an idea in my head in 2008 when I was out searching for financing, I see that coming to fruition,” Rebney said. “I see it directly tied to … Spike network, who I’ve watched for years and years in the MMA space. To some extent, it’s a bit surreal.”
In addition to the network switch, Bellator — which replaced rebranded itself from Bellator Fighting Championships to the more streamlined Bellator MMA — will move from Friday nights to Thursdays, airing live at 5 p.m. HST.
The premiere card includes the Bellator debut of Renato “Babalu” Sobral. The first card will be capped with a second title fight when featherweight champion Pat Curran faces Patricio “Pitbull” Freire.
“It is just a completely stacked show top to bottom with two big world title fights (and) Babalu’s premier with our company,” Rebney said. “We are just wickedly excited to kick off in our backyard with this type of a fight.”
Several title fights will follow over the next four weeks. On Jan. 24, Ben Askren will defend his welterweight championship against Karl Amoussou. On Feb. 7, Alexander Shlemenko will face Maiquel Falcao for the vacant middleweight championship. The next week, bantamweight champion Eduardo Dantas will defend his title against Marcus Galvao.
This season will feature tournaments in five weight classes — featherweight, lightweight, welterweight, middleweight and light heavyweight. Prized light heavyweight addition Muhammed “King Mo” Lawal debuts on Jan. 24.
Rebney and his staff worked overtime for the last few months to prepare for the eighth season. Traditionally, Bellator’s spring season began in March or April. For this season, however, the break will be just four weeks.
“There’s really not any down period for us,” Rebney said. “We (got) a little bit of time over Christmas, but there’s no down period. It’s full steam ahead until April, which will be cool. It’s a good run.”
QUICK JABS: Cain Velasquez earned a unanimous decision over Junior dos Santos to regain the Ultimate Fighting Championship’s heavyweight title on Saturday in the main event of UFC 155. Velasquez, the promotion’s former champion, lost the title to dos Santos in November 2011 on the UFC’s debut on Fox … “The Ultimate Fighter,” which will shift from Friday night to Tuesday night, begins its 17th season Jan. 22 on FX. UFC light heavyweight champion Jon Jones and former middleweight contender Chael Sonnen will serve as coaches this season. Jones and Sonnen are scheduled to fight April 27 in New Jersey … Strikeforce, which was purchased by the UFC’s parent company Zuffa in 2011, will air its final card Jan. 12.