Inside The Ultimate Fighter: Why the reality show was (is?) so important

“I'll never forget being at the airport once we all got out. We all went in different directions, and I turned my phone on.…

By: Beau Dure | 7 years ago
Inside The Ultimate Fighter: Why the reality show was (is?) so important
Bloody Elbow 2.0 | Anton Tabuena

“I’ll never forget being at the airport once we all got out. We all went in different directions, and I turned my phone on. I’ve got all these messages and Facebook and everything else, and it’s like, ‘Did that just happen? Did I just make it through six weeks of complete hell? And now I’m supposed to just go back to normal life?’” – Chris Cope, writing about his experience on TUF 13.

Nothing really goes back to “normal” after The Ultimate Fighter. Not Spike. Not the UFC. Certainly not the fighters. The Ultimate Fighter changed everything and created new pathways to participate in the sport at all levels.

For fighters, The Ultimate Fighter is one path to reach the big show or return to it. Hundreds of fighters, some with impressive resumes, turn up for tryouts. Even Kimbo Slice, a YouTube legend who had already been on prime-time network TV, accepted an offer to go through the TUF gauntlet.

For fans, the show is an introduction to the next wave of talent. The winner is guaranteed a contract, but as in American Idol, the runners-up can also go on to successful careers. The talent pool has been thin for some seasons, with several weight classes already combed over for the best non-UFC talent, but each season of the show still produces a few fighters that stick around in the UFC for a while.

For those curious about MMA, it’s also an introduction to the inner workings of the sport. This isn’t baseball or soccer — fans didn’t grow up in MMA youth leagues, learning basic drills and exercises. The Ultimate Fighter shows fans how fighters prepare in the gym, in the kitchen and sometimes in the sauna for desperate weight-cutting efforts, something that’s still a jolt of reality in the reality show:

Best of all, for a sport still derided as “human cockfighting” or modern-day gladiatorial combat, TUF puts a human face on cagefighting. Fighters are caught at their best and worst. They struggle with each other. They miss their families. They talk about their motivations and their sacrifices. They show impeccable comic timing — American Idol was never this funny, at least not intentionally. At least not after Simon Cowell left.

And it worked. Especially in the early seasons, when the show introduced the sport to a wider audience.

The fighters in that first season were a perfect reality show cast. Some MMA purists weren’t enamored of the antics in the house, and some of the fighters didn’t come across as great guys. But they were entertaining.

Sam Hoger, for one, had figured out the game behind the game. He got plenty of attention. That’ll happen when some fighters’ gear turns up missing and, lo and behold, similar items turn up in Hoger’s stuff. Hoger’s excuses were quickly refuted on camera.

Kenny Florian recalls: “He never admitted to it. He tried to put the blame on something else — there was a miscommunication, he was told he could take that stuff or whatever. The reality was that he definitely had a lot of our stuff. He was scooping up a lot of things that were supposedly left around the gym or left around the house and placing them in his luggage very nicely and neatly. We were definitely on to what he was doing. … I know a lot of the guys on the show weren’t big fans of Sam’s.”

Hoger never really backed down, insisting that others took things from the office as well. But he did apologize for the confusion, and he left a bag of stuff for others to sort through.

What did Hoger gain from his shenanigans? He explained by email:

From the show I learned about how the UFC works and what it takes to make good fights and I learned what to do to make a show interesting. I also learned about different people’s backgrounds and how they affect their actions in reference to their choices.

I realized early that most of the people around me were not thinking much about how to set things up for the win. So I had a good time playing the game while trying to win. I didn’t win the show but in the end I won by accomplishing my goal of getting to the UFC.

Other fighters also realized it was better to be remembered than forgotten. Lodune Sincaid had a wry sense of humor and paraded around the house in women’s clothing. Diego Sanchez was into yoga and stood outside in a thunderstorm to absorb energy.

And they weren’t one-dimensional. Chris Leben announced his presence with authority, getting wasted in the house and pissing on Jason Thacker’s bed. Then he woke up the next morning on a couple of hours’ sleep and crushed a cardio test that had gotten the better of other fighters. He became a sympathetic figure later when, in the midst of a volatile exchange with Bobby Southworth and Josh Koscheck, Southworth threw his troubled family history in his face. “Fatherless bastard,” Southworth said in one of the more shocking moments caught on TUF’s cameras and microphones.

Cruel, but Southworth was also a complex character. When the first fighter, the overwhelmed Thacker, was eliminated from the show, Southworth embraced him and told him to leave with his head held high.

Better yet for the sport’s reputation, Southworth offered a glimpse into the soul of a fighter beyond the violence. He was picked for the first fight — a milestone for a sport that was not yet broadcast with any regularity outside of pay-per-view events — and he had to get through a difficult weight cut.

Then he described his motivation for fighting. He didn’t want to hurt people. Fighting wasn’t about the violence to him. He wanted to compete.

Southworth cleanly knocked out Sincaid in that first fight, throwing a simple but devastating combo that forced referee Big John McCarthy to jump in to stop the fight right away. The camera followed Sincaid back to the corner as he checked in with Nevada commission fight doctor Margaret Goodman. “Got anything for a broken heart?” Sincaid quipped to Goodman.

Fighting and training don’t just break hearts. They break bodies and spirits. In front of the TUF cameras, fighters have endured brutal workouts and grappled with their own self-doubts and fears. We saw it first-hand through Thacker’s struggles and a considerable amount of puke. Josh Rafferty threw up four times by his count on the first training day, leading someone to ask offscreen, “Do we have any cleaning products?” TUF 1 even showed puke in the opening credits. A couple more fighters lost their lunches in the gym — Jason Von Flue on his “hell day” after coming in as a replacement fighter in TUF 2, the loquacious Shonie Carter in TUF 4.

In later seasons, the puke was dialed back a bit. Abe Wagner vomited before his bout in the first episode of TUF 10, but that was overshadowed by the massive cut he suffered in the fight. Producers didn’t mind showing the cuts, too — Dr. Gregory Hsu appeared several times in early seasons stitching up various wounds.

Then come the fights, which bring out complex emotions. Good friends Brad Imes and Seth Petruzelli had tears in their eyes after an epic battle in TUF 2. The outwardly cocky Cole Miller won his first bout on TUF 5 and raced to the dressing room to cry.

Fighters are human. Hardcore fans always knew that, and we all know it today. But in 2005, this was a revelation. And it helped the UFC and MMA move out of the “human cockfighting” stereotype and into mainstream acceptance.

In retrospect, it’s easy to see how TUF builds brands – fighters, broadcasters, Dana White, the UFC and the sport itself. But heading into that first season, no one realized the impact it would have.

TUF 1 fighter Mike Swick wasn’t even sure the show would ever air. If the show made it to TV, great. If it didn’t, at least he had the opportunity to train and fight in front of Dana White, Chuck Liddell and Randy Couture.

“I didn’t think of it as a TV show,” Swick said. “As negative as it might sound, me and quite a few people on the show didn’t even think it was going to air. We didn’t think we were going to be on some hit TV show. Anything that had tried to push MMA mainstream had failed to that point. I’d been through so many different things to bring the sport mainstream, and every single one had been shot down. You had to assume this was probably not going to get picked up and be a hit show on TV.”

In later seasons, Dana White used brand-building for inspiration. Even if you don’t win, you can get in a couple of notable fights and parlay your rep into a good career like Josh Koscheck, Kenny Florian, Gray Maynard and other fighters who didn’t win their respective seasons. Even if you don’t get in the UFC at all, you can jumpstart your fighting or coaching career.

Koscheck was one of those who learned right away the importance of building a brand on the foundation of a TUF appearance. Swick learned it later:

“On the TV show, there was a lot of other strong personalities,” Swick said. “My goal was to get in the house and be a fighter. It wasn’t to make my mark on the show. I was just there to do one thing, which was to get to the UFC and fight. I learned a lot as well. I wasn’t going to fake anything or cause controversy. Since The Ultimate Fighter, as soon as we got done filming — I went with Dana on a bunch of media tours, and he’s the one that taught me the importance of doing publicity, PR and all this media stuff. It really got my brain thinking — I need to do a lot more, not changing as a person and trying to be something I’m not, but doing the promotion, the PR, the interviews and any type of social media. Anything to get my name out there. Because you’re building a brand name, and the more people that know about it and are interested in it, the more opportunities you have.”

Swick went on to build a strong social media presence.

Some fighters even feel a responsibility beyond themselves. Nam Phan went into TUF 12 determined to put forth a positive image: “I was very conscious of what I was saying. I never tried to lose control when I was in the house. I’m very proud of my Asian culture. I was the one guy from the Asian community, I didn’t want to give them any ammunition. I did my best to stay focused and keep my composure.”

Like any TV show that has been on the air for several seasons — The Simpsons, Saturday Night Live, Survivor, etc. — some fans and critics will always say that the show isn’t what it used to be. But unlike a scripted show, The Ultimate Fighter can be retooled without losing the basics. Like Saturday Night Live, new cast members are always available to bring a fresh approach.

The show may have bottomed out in Season 13, when former pro wrestler Brock Lesnar turned out to be more subdued than anyone would’ve thought, and the welterweight talent pool appeared to be running dry. The next season revved the series back to life — Bully Beatdown host Jason “Mayhem” Miller brought his lively banter against controversial TUF alum Michael Bisping, and the previously untapped bantamweight and featherweight classes put on a show.

That revival was just in time for the show’s biggest transition. The UFC and Spike had grown up together, with The Ultimate Fighter and other UFC programs serving as a flagship for the young men’s network. But the UFC leveraged its status as a TV draw to get a major deal with the Fox networks. Some major UFC fights, starting with a heavyweight championship bout, would be on prime time on Fox. Other Fox-affiliated networks would pick up smaller fight cards and other shows, including The Ultimate Fighter. For the first time, the show was substantially revamped, with the fights airing live.

And White was finally ready to do something he had planned for years — taking The Ultimate Fighter overseas. The show already had a USA vs. UK season, and the UFC had a solid record signing fighters from Brazil, Britain and Japan. White had long talked about bringing in fighters from the Philippines, but the show first went to Brazil, with a season that overlapped with the first The Ultimate Fighter Live season on FX.

Ratings dropped on the Fox networks. The seasons that followed have had a few novelties – a season in which the winner took the first UFC women’s strawweight belt, a season in Miami featuring rival camps, a season of other promotions’ flyweight champions battling for a title shot against dominant UFC champ Demetrious Johnson – but the basic format is the same as it was in the Spike days.

The show is still entrenched as a talent-feeder to the UFC. And it is truly going global.

So if The Ultimate Fighter is declining in importance, someone forgot to tell the fighters. And someone forgot to tell the rest of the world. While ratings in the USA dipped below seven figures, they hit eight figures in MMA-crazed Brazil, where a second season was quickly arranged. Hardcore U.S. fans enjoyed The Smashes, a Britain vs. Australia matchup with a clever pun on the historic cricket rivalry known as the Ashes, along with the audiences overseas. And the UFC made a daring move into a new market with The Ultimate Fighter: China.

“This is the ultimate,” boasts The Ultimate Fighter’s original theme song. And that’ll be said in more languages as the impact of this show continues to be felt around the world, even if the upcoming 25th season pitting former TUFsters against each other can’t add new life to the show.

If The Ultimate Fighter stopped production tomorrow, it would be an essential part of one of the biggest success stories of 21st century sports — the growth of the UFC. And it’s a lot more fun to watch than the typical reality show.

A quick note on quotes: When quotes are taken from TUF broadcasts, books or other sources, they are attributed as such. Unattributed quotes are taken from first-hand interviews for the book Inside The Ultimate Fighter, which was never published. See the intro to this series to see what happened to that book.

Next week: Day 1 – not enough food, but plenty of alcohol.

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