Can TUF 20 save The Ultimate Fighter?
The Ultimate Fighter saved the UFC.
Before TUF Season One mixed martial arts had not yet broken out of its niche status (in the Western world at least. In Japan MMA was huge). It was a sport that most people knew existed but didn’t deem worthy of their attention. MMA had its stars but they weren’t really “stars”, not in the way championship caliber boxers were stars. People just weren’t watching and Pay Per View sells of UFC events were dwindling. They desperately needed mainstream exposure so company owners Lorenzo and Frank Fertitta and UFC President Dana White took a chance on an idea that at the time must have sounded a little crazy:
The television network Spike TV wanted sports programing and so together with the UFC they created The Ultimate Fighter, a show that would follow a group of mixed martial artists from around the world (although mainly from North America) as they lived together, trained together, and competed against one another in a tournament with the winner of the live finale getting officially signed to the UFC.
MMA may not have been widely popular at the time but Reality TV was still riding the wave that began with The Osbournes and Big Brother, and audiences were hungry for anything that involved real people in a house filled with cameras. The show proved to be a success. Audiences who didn’t know the ins and outs of the sport found themselves responding to the personalities of the contestants and picked up the basics as they watched. Dana White himself became a big draw, with the fans appreciating his brash attitude and brutally honest opinions. By the time the finale came around Joe and Jane Public had their favourite fighters and they were invested. But then something special happened. The fight between the two light heavyweight finalists Stephan Bonner and Forrest Griffin turned out to be one of the greatest fights of all time, an all out war where both competitors gave it their all to secure a future for themselves. The fight had to be seen to be believed, and instantly converted many casual fans with only a passing interest into true MMA diehards.
Dana White credits that fight as the salvation the UFC desperately needed at the time, “It’s amazing to think… how close we came to not being here today. If it weren’t for what these guys did, I don’t know if there would even be a UFC. I’ll never forget these guys. Ever.” As a thank you to Bonner and Griffin both men were inducted into the UFC Hall of Fame when they retired from the sport.
It’s hard to argue with Dana. Before that season, and more specifically that fight, the UFC was struggling to get a footing on the mountain that is popular culture, but after that season it started its ascent. MMA has been accepted as a legitimate sport with dedicated and highly talented athletes. And those athletes are well on their way to becoming genuine stars. Light heavyweight champ Jon “Bones” Jones is one of the faces of Nike, and female bantamweight champ Ronda Rousey is appearing in major Hollywood movies. You can trace it all back to The Ultimate Fighter.
And so after Season one’s success further seasons were commissioned and the show became the best way for an MMA fighter to get noticed in the sport. Because of this each season had a number of exciting and talented fighters eager to showcase their skills on TV. Season One introduced the world to Kenny Florian, Josh Koscheck, Diego Sanchez, Nate Quarry, Mike Swick, Stephan Bonner, Forrest Griffin, and Chris Leben. Season Two gave us Keith Jardine, Melvin Guillard, and Rashad Evans. Three has Matt Hamil and Michael Bisping. Four results in Matt Serra winning the Welterweight title from Georges St Pierre in one of the most shocking upsets ever. Five features Cole Miller, Gray Maynard, Joe Lauzon, and Nate Diaz. Almost all of these fighters have fought for titles or at the very least have gone on to have impressive careers. The early seasons of the show were stacked with talent.
Then it dried up.
By now MMA’s popularity had risen to the point where smaller rival organisations had popped up and were snatching any rising talent who didn’t want to wait for the latest season of TUF to get a chance to fight. The Ultimate Fighter was struggling to find fighters anyone would consider great, let alone “Ultimate”. Season Six’s winner Mac Danzig never really amounted to much once he’d earned his contract. Nor did the winner of S7, or 8, or 9. Every few seasons someone would pop up, like Roy Nelson in 10, TJ Dillashaw and John Dodson in 14, and Uriah Hall and Kelvin Gastelum in 17, but the show was no longer the consistent source of quality fighters it once was. And the fighters abilities are not the only things lacking in the later seasons. What happened to the big personalities of the early days? Where are the Chris Leben (Bed wetter) and Diego Sanchez (believes thunder storms give him powers) level nutcases? Where are the Nick Diaz and Michael Bisping level trash talkers? The fun figures we enjoyed watching have faded away only to be replaced by the bland and forgettable.
When the fighters fail to perform it falls to the coaches to engage the audience, and the show has had its ups and downs in that regard as well. In Season Three it was decided that at the end of the season, not only would the finalists fight each other, but the coaches would also. This has given certain seasons some spice as tensions rise over their run. Tito Ortiz and Ken Shamrock had a heated rivalry, which was obvious every time they were near each other. The same goes for BJ Penn and Jens Pulver. But none was more volatile than the pairing of female fighters Ronda Rousey and Miesha Tate. Their disdain for each other, and their eventual fight, saved what would’ve otherwise been a lackluster season.
But what happens when the cast and the coaches don’t really do much of anything? What happens when the fights are dull and the coaches are amicable? Season 19 happens that’s what. Season 19 is the season that Dana White called “the year no one gives a shit”, and that applied as much to the audience as it did the cast. The Ultimate Fighter needs a shake up. It needs a shot in the arm if it wants to remain relevant to the sport rather than just the kinda gross platform for product placement it has become (and if we’re honest, always been. But it used to be easier to forgive).
Season 20 looks to be that shake up.
The Ultimate Fighter Season 20 is the first season with all female competitors and is ushering in the strawweight weight class (previously the only weight class for women in the UFC was bantamweight). A further twist to the format is that the winner of season 20 won’t just be earning herself a UFC contract but will be winning herself a UFC title. Season 20 crowns the strawweight champion. What this also means is that this season the Ultimate Fighter house will be home to almost an entire division. That’s crazy. To give that some context, think of it this way, imagine if Welterweight champ Johnny Hendricks had to live and train with Robbie Lawler, Matt Brown, Carlos Condit, Tyron Woodley, and the rest of the top 10 welterweights. The tension is going to be unbearable. There will be fights. And then there will be more fights.
The UFC recently made a deal with Invicta FC (an all female fight promotion) to stream their previous events on the UFC’s Fight Pass service, and in the process acquired a number of their strawweight fighters. This allows us to watch some of season 20’s fighters in action already, and get a sense of their skills before we witness what they are like around the house in the show. Notable competitors this season are Carla Esparza (who was previously Invicta’s strawweight champ), Rose Namajunas (who won multiple submission of the year awards for her insane flying armbar against Kathina Catron 12 seconds in to the first round!), and Jessica Penne (who was Invicta’s atomweight champ until her loss to the “Karate Hottie” Michelle Waterson). Though personally I’m looking forward to seeing undefeated Joanne Calderwood, a quiet, mousey Scot with absolutely lethal striking. Many of these women have fought previously and so there are already some grudges to settle.
So the cast is extremely talented and the prospect of one division sharing a house is interesting, but that’s not all there is to get excited about in Season 20. This season sees the return of “Showtime” himself. Lightweight champ Anthony Pettis is one of the coaches. Pettis will be coaching one team, with Gilbert Melendez coaching the other, and then in the season finale the two of them will fight for the lightweight title. Pettis has been out of action with a knee injury since he won the belt and fans have been eagerly anticipating his return. You don’t think Pettis Melendez is all that exciting? Go and watch Melendez vs Diego Sanchez and Pettis vs Henderson for the WEC title (hello off the cage flying kick) and try telling me that’s not an explosive combination. Plus, apparently Melendez wants to bring Nick and Nate Diaz in as assistant coaches. Let the trash talking begin!
There is a lot to like about Season 20 of The Ultimate Fighter and for the first time in a long time it’s a season to get excited about. Will it live up to expectations? Impossible to say until it does or doesn’t, but for now it really seems like Dana and the Fertitta brothers are trying bring TUF back to life.
The Ultimate Fighter saved the UFC. Now it’s time for the UFC to return the favour.