Inside The Ultimate Fighter: On injuries and discipline, there are no rules

MMA is governed by the Unified Rules. The Ultimate Fighter is governed by Dana White. The UFC president is consistent in some ways. He’s…

By: Beau Dure | 7 years ago
Inside The Ultimate Fighter: On injuries and discipline, there are no rules
Bloody Elbow 2.0 | Anton Tabuena

MMA is governed by the Unified Rules. The Ultimate Fighter is governed by Dana White.

The UFC president is consistent in some ways. He’s sympathetic to those who’ve been injured. He’s not sympathetic to people who quit in any sense he can define.

Trouble at home? Depends. Abdel Medjedoub got a trip home, an accommodation usually reserved for those who’ve had a death in the family, to talk to his fuming wife. Noah Inhofer couldn’t even get a phone call and chose to leave TUF and the UFC’s good graces forever.

Maybe not forever. UFC Fight Pass recently had a friendly “Where Are They Now?” chat with Inhofer, who has indeed lived happily ever after with the woman for whom he ditched reality TV and the UFC. His appearance on a UFC production might be the most surprising reconciliation of a shunned TUF contestant since Gabe Ruediger, who committed the mortal sin of missing weight, got the call to face Joe Lauzon and Paul Taylor.

So when it comes to discipline on The Ultimate Fighter, the UFC borrows from its long-discarded slogan: “There ARE no rules!”

But we have what lawyers would call precedent.

When it comes to weight cutting, White made his feelings known right away. He showed little sympathy for Bobby Southworth’s struggle in TUF 1. When Kenny Stevens failed to make weight for the first fight of TUF 2, angrily throwing things at the sauna door and shedding roughly three-quarters of the weight that he needed, White questioned the cast’s heart.

A few seasons later, White was even less sympathetic. Christian Fulgium stumbled as he tried to shed a few more pounds. “It’s Season 9!” White yelled. “If you don’t know what goes on by now …”

White made Fulgium admit that he quit, then kicked him out.

Ruediger already had a fight in the UFC — a knockout loss to TUF 2’s Melvin Guillard — before joining the TUF cast. But he didn’t impress teammates with his training or his weight-cutting efforts. He wound up asking coach B.J. Penn if he could take a colonic, a procedure to clean out his system. That led to a memorable scene at a place called “Healing Waters,” where an attractive technician gleefully told Ruediger she was “looking for a mudslide.” The team found the whole thing just another way to get attention. (It worked, right?)

When called to fight Corey Hill, Ruediger’s attempt to get to 156 went poorly. Teammates wavered between helping him and laughing at him. After his departure in an ambulance, the fighters made more jokes, recalling all the time he spent eating cake and snacking. Brian Geraghty had the best suggestion: a stint on Celebrity Fit Club.

White kicked him out. “I don’t know what you want to do with your life, but bro, you (bleep) blew it.”

Then in 2010, Lauzon was scheduled to fight Terry Etim in his hometown of Boston. Etim withdrew with an injury. The replacement: Gabe Ruediger.

“I was pretty shocked,” castmate Rob Emerson said. “But I know they kind of brought him so Joe Lauzon would look good. It was a perfect fight for Joe Lauzon.”

Ruediger made the most of his return to the UFC limelight, turning up a weigh-ins with a cake for Lauzon that read “Sorry for your loss.” Lauzon laughed last, quickly dispatching Ruediger with an armbar to the delight of the hometown crowd. But Ruediger got one more shot, losing to Paul Taylor, before leaving the UFC again.

Injuries will earn Dana White’s sympathy … if you can convince the coaches they’re real. Everyone from Matt Hughes to Tito Ortiz has fancied himself a doctor during the run of the show.

In TUF 2, Hughes also didn’t realize the extent of Tom Murphy’s MCL tear until well after the fact. In the early seasons, eliminated fighters left the house and gym, so Hughes didn’t see Murphy from his loss to Rashad Evans until the season wrapped up.

“I had surgery, so I was in a cast,” Murphy said. “When we had dinner the last night, Matt saw me on crutches and a cast and says, ‘Oh geez, you really were hurt.’ I said, ‘Yeah, Matt, I was hurt.’”

TUF 11 coach Tito Ortiz also turned out to be wrong about fighter Clayton McKinney’s shoulder, but in Ortiz’s defense, the doctors misdiagnosed the fighter. And out of a long explanation of what doctors thought was ailing McKinney, the only word Ortiz heard was “bruise.”

But White and the coaches are at least generally aware that punching, kicking, wrestling and even working out can cause injuries. (Or, in the case of TUF 4, staph infections can strike multiple cast members.) At the outset, the show had some internal debate about workout safety, as Randy Couture recounts in his book, Becoming the Natural:

Earlier, Dana and I had argued about the fighters wearing headgear. Dana wanted them all to wear it during the sparring.

“Headgear is for pussies,” I told Dana. “The guys can’t grapple and do MMA with big-ass headgear on.”

In the sparring tryouts, I yelled at Forrest to watch his intensity and told Liddell he needed to keep an eye on him. Sure enough, within five minutes, Forrest and Stephan collided and Stephan was rushed off the set to get stitches in his forehead. I was pissed that it happened when it could have been avoided. To make it worse, Dana said, “I told you so.”

Bonnar was able to continue. Nate Quarry, on the other hand, never got to fight on the show after suffering a freak ankle injury in training. Couture kept him around as an assistant coach, and Quarry had a long run in the UFC. Over the years, White has given plenty of second chances to injured fighters such as Kerry Schall, Chris Camozzi, Myles Jury and Roman Mitichyan, who may have ranted his way into a couple of Octagon appearances when he refused to accept his diagnosis of a broken elbow.

But with so much at stake through a brutal schedule of training and fighting, fighters are tempted to disclose as little as possible. Nam Phan found himself trying to hide several ailments:

“I’ve never fought four times in one month. That was tough. I hurt my hand. I tried to do therapy and tried to disguise it. I would take a bunch of tissue paper and roll it into a ball, and I kept squeezing it like I was bored. What I was really doing was exercising my hand. My shins, my gosh — my shins were freaking busted up. I had to ice them up every day.”

Phan stayed ready to fight. And that’s the surest way to stay in Dana White’s good graces. But even those who turn down an opportunity to get back in the competition — like TUF 3’s Kristian Rothaermel — may still get a shot down the road.

Even breaking the rules of the show doesn’t guarantee a lifetime ban from the UFC.

TUF 4’s Jeremy Jackson cleverly convinced a lifeguard at the local Y, where the cast took a field trip, to meet him by the house that evening. He managed to hop over the backyard wall and get out, but the camera caught him. White kicked him off the show but let him fight in the finale. (Jackson is currently serving 25 years to life after pleading guilty — against his attorney’s advice — to rape charges.)

White’s disciplinary ax swung harder in TUF 5. Marlon Sims, a good if not credible storyteller, got into what Cole Miller called “the most technical street fight I’ve ever seen” with Noah Thomas, a scrap that included some ground-and-pound on gravel and a slam on concrete. White told the cast how much he was striving to change the image of the UFC, and that he simply couldn’t have idiots fighting in the house. Sims was out. Thomas was out. And Allen Berube, who seemed a little too enthusiastic about the fight, was also out, leaving the rest of the house wondering how to finish up the dinner he was preparing. Still, Berube got a slot on the finale. Instead of fighting a castmate, though, he fought veteran Leonard Garcia, who won by rear naked choke in the first round. Berube fought a couple more times but turned his focus to his restaurant business.

Jesse Taylor was booted from the TUF 7 final after a drunken incident after the show wrapped in Vegas, but he got one shot against C.B. Dollaway in the UFC and is back on the cast of TUF 25. Junie Browning spent most of TUF 8 on escalating levels of probation, but he got a Fight of the Night bonus in the finale.

To keep alive any hope of reaching the UFC, the one thing TUF contestants must never, ever to do is quit.

Eli Joslin, who couldn’t handle the cameras in TUF 2, barely continued his MMA career. Inhofer kept fighting after leaving TUF 3 to be with his girlfriend (now his wife), but he wasn’t holding his breath for a UFC call. Neither were Joe Scarola and Keon Caldwell.

Scarola was a close friend and student of TUF 6 coach Matt Serra, but Serra fretted about his mental state before his unimpressive performance against Mac Danzig. Then Scarola didn’t show up for practice. And called Serra, pleading to call his girlfriend. Serra warned him that he’ll lose his job teaching at Serra’s schools if he left.

On the show, the Scarola saga lasted three episodes. The real timeline: Scarola lost to Danzig on June 11. UFC 72 took place June 16. Then Dana White returned and went straight to the house to try to convince Scarola to stay, but to no avail. Serra cut ties with the man who had been best man at his wedding. Scarola started teaching elsewhere.

After that, the show went several seasons without seeing fighters walk away. The streak ended in the unlucky 13th season.

Keon Caldwell was the last draft pick, and he struggled right away to keep up with coach Junior dos Santos’ training sessions. He said he needed to throw up, which the English-impaired dos Santos didn’t understand until Caldwell made a universal motion for “You don’t want to be standing in front of me right now unless you like cleaning vomit off your clothes.”

Caldwell also missed his 6-year-old daughter. Dana White and dos Santos convinced him to stick it out a little longer, but the drama didn’t drag out much longer. Caldwell went home, leaving early enough in the season for the producers to bring in alternate Justin Edwards to make the most of the opportunity.

Missing family is tough for everyone. Fighters may get phone calls or video if a child is born during the show (TUF 4’s Jorge Rivera, TUF 11’s Kyacey Uscola), but they’re not going to see their young ones otherwise. Even a hard-fighting and hard-partying guy like Jesse Taylor fretted over missing his 3-year-old son.

Matt Mitrione had it even worse: “My baby son was two months old when I left. Brutal.”

So the fighters get no news during their isolation aside from birth or death.

And a letter from Noah Inhofer’s girlfriend.

Inhofer always looked like an odd fit. With his glasses, he looked like soccer goalkeeper Kasey Keller. He was teased by housemates who hid and then stabbed — yes, stabbed — a basketball Tito Ortiz had given him for an offbeat training exercise.

But Inhofer had the same reasons as anyone else for trying out for the show:

“Because I wanted to fight dudes, pretty much. I was fighting them anyway in shows all over the place. I thought it was exciting. I’m pretty much an adrenaline junkie, so whether I’m on a dirt bike or whether I’m getting locked in a cage with somebody, it feels the same to me.”

Opposing coach Ken Shamrock thought Inhofer would be no match for Jesse Forbes, Shamrock’s top draft pick, in the season’s second fight. Forbes himself was confident to the point of overconfidence. But after Forbes got an early takedown, Inhofer worked for guard and calmly locked in an armbar.

Inhofer insists the result was no surprise to himself or others in the house. “I didn’t view it as a surprise, and I didn’t think anybody else did. Maybe Mr. Shamrock.”

The win changed the balance of the season, as Tito Ortiz got the hammer (the right to pick the next fight) and used it to bludgeon Shamrock the rest of the way.

Inhofer wasn’t there to see it.

Thanks to a mysterious letter that appeared in the house, Inhofer learned that his girlfriend had apparently seen some damaging (and false) information online. He said someone was trying to sabotage his relationship, and he wanted to call his girlfriend, thinking he could set things straight.

White said he’d let Inhofer do whatever he needed if someone was sick. But not for a confused girlfriend. “Screw your head on,” White said, or fly home today. Inhofer chose the latter.

“I hope they get married, live together and have 19 kids,” White said upon Inhofer’s departure.

Close. They got married, and the Fight Pass “Where Are They Now?” feature showed the happy couple living in Hawaii.

Inhofer has no regrets, but when I chatted with him a few years ago (well before the Fight Pass feature), he raised a few questions.

The big question: How and why did Inhofer get the letter?

He thinks the producers knew exactly what they were going to get.

“It’s TV,” Inhofer said. “First and foremost, what people gotta realize — it’s there for entertainment. Fighting is a part of that, but also the TV show and all the drama that goes with that. I knew that, everybody knew that signing up for it. If they didn’t, they were naive.”

Here’s how Inhofer describes it:

They say, OK, you’ll have no contact with the outside, no phone calls, no mail, no nothing. That’s a rule they set in place to protect themselves, not protect us. So *I* get handed a letter, which was against their policy.

So they got that letter from my girlfriend at the time, who is now my beautiful wife. There were some family issues going on. I asked for a phone call.

They got the letter, and they read it and knew I would freaking get crazy over it. So in my opinion, they got exactly what they wanted. All I wanted was a phone call. I just wanted to call her. I wanted to talk to her, wanted to let her know that I was thinking about her. She would never have asked me to leave the show. That’s not even … all that shit on the Internet and whatever. She thought that I would get that letter after the show got over.

Without a phone call, Inhofer had no doubts about his decision to leave.

I grew up in a small town, I grew up in a great family, and we take care of each other. …

They probably didn’t think I had enough balls to freaking jet. My family’s No. 1 — they supported me through everything. They supported me getting on the show, they supported me with my decision. …

I sacrificed something that I dreamed of doing to take care of my family and take care of my girlfriend. That’s an honor. People don’t usually get a chance to do that.

White hasn’t expressed much sympathy for Inhofer. But Inhofer also lost a lot of respect for White that day.

“Dana wasn’t going to allow me a freaking phone call. Sitting there telling me, ‘Oh, you’re going to have so many more girlfriends, you’re going to be rich, you’re going to be famous, you’re going to get so much pussy.’ That talk to me is just disrespectful and stupid. If I freaking wanted to be a millionaire, I would’ve gone to school to freaking do something other than freaking trying to fight. After I had that conversation with him, I was like ‘Why do I even want to work for these people?’”

Going out and getting another girlfriend wasn’t an option Inhofer cared to hear. He and his girlfriend hadn’t been dating for that long, but he knew the night he met her that he wanted to marry her. And he did.

He says he sent White an invitation but heard nothing back.

“There was no reason I should’ve made it on the show. I was training in my damn basement. I never had a coach, nothing until I got to The Ultimate Fighter. So going from hitting a heavy bag in my basement to training with Tito Ortiz, that was a transition that I made. Life’s a trip, man. Might as well have some fun.”

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: About those fights …

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