Ultimate Fighter Season 20 and the death of TUF
Before Season 20 aired I wrote an article about how The Ultimate Fighter was showing serious signs of fatigue (I mean, come on, it has been going for TWENTY seasons) and that Season 20 needed to shake things up in order to save it. Things looked promising. For the first time ever there was an all female cast featuring some great professional fighters (and two champions from another organisation, so we are talking high caliber here), and the coaches were the always exciting Gilbert Melendez and the finally healthy Anthony Pettis. The winner of the competition became the UFC’s first Strawweight champion, not only securing herself a belt and a decent payday, but a place in the history books. So it had the cast, it had the coaches, and it had the stakes. It had everything it needed to save The Ultimate Fighter.
So did it?
No it did not. But through no fault of its own.
In fact Season 20 was a top five season in my humble opinion. The only two that were clearly more entertaining than it were Season One (obviously. It had the strongest cast by a mile) and Season Five (BJ Penn playing Ping Pong!). But this season made it clear that the UFC can never go back to the old format again. They can’t go from crowning a champ back to signing some mid level talent (at best) amateur fighter who will fight out his contract and then inevitably be released and snapped up by Bellator.
Season 20 looked like it was going to inject some much needed vitality into the arm of the flagging franchise, but it turned out to be a lethal injection. The Ultimate Fighter cannot continue on as it has. It has to die. And be reborn. UFC President Dana White has said as much himself. He has promised that TUF will be a completely different animal in 2015 and going forward (though what Dana says and what Dana means are often two very different things).
But before it changes forever, it went out on a high. The women were great, and almost all of them will make welcome, exciting additions to the UFC. There were heroes (Randa Markos) and villains (Angela Magana), bitter feuds that were settled in the cage (Felice Herrig and Heather Clark), and shocking upsets (the no. 14th seed defeating the no. 3 ranked fighter). The personalities of the contestants were more varied than in previous seasons, and most interestingly, they were more open about their fears and insecurities. Lisa Ellis’s post loss confession that competing doesn’t matter as much to her anymore since the birth of her daughter was a surprisingly honest moment in a show that usually only has men claiming “I’ll be back and better than ever” after they lose. Her admittance that she is a mother first and a fighter a distant second really brought into focus the difference between this and past seasons. Most of the show’s history is full of swaggering men who show nothing but their bravado. The women of Season 20 seemed a lot more open about who they really are. This made it easier to care for many of the fighters (and to dislike some of the others), and gave the audience a stake in each fight. This was most notable for me during the Rose Namajunas and Joanne Calderwood fight. Rose was by far and away the most entertaining fighter in the house and I wanted to see her go far. Jo Jo on the other hand was the coolest, most down to earth chick on the show and I wanted to see her go far. My interest in both fighters gave their fight a boost of drama that many fights in previous seasons just wouldn’t have.
And then came the finale itself which featured all but one (who was out due to injury) of the show’s contestants competing. Every fight was worth watching. Whether it was Tecia Torres proving that the bully Angela Magana was all talk with a one sided victory, Jessica Penne and Randa Markos’s uber competitive clash, or Jo Jo’s crazy face kick to Seo Hee Ham, every fight proved that these women deserve their place in the UFC. Which is something some TUF fighters fail to prove their entire careers. The final fight for the Strawweight belt, while not an absolute classic, was an entertaining fight that truly proved who the current best in the division is. I look forward to seeing all of these ladies battle it out for their shot at the belt in the future (go Jo Jo!).
Season 20 was solid TUF. The cast were the most vibrant in years, full of personality and eager to step into the cage. The coaches were gearing up for one of the most anticipated Lightweight title fights in a long, long time. And the stakes had never been higher. It was the same old song and dance but turned up to 11. It was the best of the old format. But when Season 21 comes it needs to be a whole new song.