The typical path to The Ultimate Fighter today: Send in an application, go to a tryout with a couple hundred others, and hope.
As of 2011, that application asked for:
– A DVD with an interview and fight footage, at least two minutes long, that becomes the property of the producers.
– A record of at least three pro fights. (The show obviously made a couple of exceptions in subsequent seasons.)
– An info sheet that included records, team information, other experience, criminal record, info on performance-enhancing drug use (“PLEASE BE HONEST ALL APPLICANTS WILL BE TESTED!”) and an opportunity to “Tell us something interesting about yourself.”
And yes, “something interesting” is important. The show has always sought a mix of personality and fighting ability. Former producer Brian Diamond explains:
The casting process is very collaborative. There are a couple of masters you have to serve, and they both have to work in sync with each other. One, these guys have to be able to fight. When we first started doing the show, when we did our open calls, we didn’t have any kind of restriction on guys’ ability coming in. In retrospect, we got a couple of good characters, but it may have hurt us a little bit. That’s why a few seasons ago, when we did open call, we said you need to have three professional fights to get into the show. That, in combination with the sport growing and the level of talent increasing just by virtue of the popularity of the sport and how many people are doing it and doing it well, took care of that.
The second part of it is: It’s a television show. Like any television show, characters have to be engaging. The very basic premise in a lot of Hollywood movie plots and television plots is a good guy and a bad guy. The key is, you don’t want the boring guy. It doesn’t matter if you love him or hate him as long as you don’t ignore him. That’s a factor, too.
We would make sure these guys could fight, but we would sit them down and grill them and interview them and basically see what they were like in the character and personality department. The goal was to find those guys who fit both bills.
Records have become crucial. That’s a problem in a sport that isn’t always well-documented. MMA isn’t tennis or golf, with every junior tournament’s results easily accessible. The TUF application says records will be checked against the databases at media outlets Sherdog and mixedmartialarts.com. (Ironically, Sherdog isn’t credentialed for UFC cards due to long-standing disputes with Dana White, but the site’s database is considered authoritative. Printouts from Sherdog’s site are all over the table in front of White and matchmaker Joe Silva at tryouts.)
John Dodson, who went on to win TUF 14, lamented at his tryout: “My record’s 11-5 at Sherdog, but my actual record’s 16-5. I had five fights — no one can find them.”
But in some cases, they’re still looking for diamonds in the rough. When TUF did an all-heavyweight season, producers opened the door to inexperienced fighters.
Matt Mitrione, who brought a 0-0 record to his TUF tryout, says they took recommendations from his manager, Ken Pavia, and a key training partner, TUF alum Chris Lytle, to vouch for his fighting aptitude. Then it came down to personality.
“I sent in a videotape, and I thought the videotape was pretty abrasive, pretty funny. They flew me in for an interview, and the interview was it. I showed quite a bit of sense of humor. It was gold. It showed a little bit of my personality, showed I was a bit of a jokester. It was aggressive toward a few people who were currently in the UFC. It showed I wasn’t afraid of confrontation. Next thing I know I was in Vegas for an interview.”
On March 21, 2011, the UFC held tryouts for the 14th season of The Ultimate Fighter — all bantamweights and featherweights — at a hotel near the Newark airport. I was working on Inside The Ultimate Fighter, the book that was never published, and I got a credential alongside a couple of other East Coast reporters to go.
More than 400 fighters turned out. Some others had already advised not to turn up when their fight records couldn’t be verified.
The fighters were called in groups of about 50 into a hotel ballroom with mats in the middle. At one end was a long table with Dana White, Joe Silva, a few other UFC officials and reporters.
Most guys dressed in typical fight gear, some with a bunch of sponsors on their shorts as if to remind everyone that they’re already pro fighters. But some people went for the outlandish. One fighter strolled into the room in a white suit that recalled the stylish wardrobe of TUF 4’s Shonie Carter. He shed the suit before grappling, but another competitor grappled in a dress shirt and tie.
Other guys found other ways to stand out. One did a dizzying jump rope routine right in front of Silva to “warm up” before they started grappling, the first elimination round in these tryouts.
Yet it was a grappling session with a few limitations. They don’t want to slow things down with an injury. (A medical crew was present, just in case.) The fighters started on their knees, eliminating the chance to show their skills in the clinch or takedowns. Dana White warned as each group comes in that the producers “don’t want any crazy shit” like leglocks or slams. He awarded $100 per submission, and he frequently stopped the action when one fighter was refusing to tap to an armbar, awarding the $100 rather than seeing a stubborn fighter’s arm pop.
For all the high stakes, there was an air of mutual respect. Most grapplers slapped hands before the biggest 90 to 120 seconds they’ve spent on a mat.
One guy begged out of a matchup when he was called to grapple with his training partner. White agreed. The training partner was postponed until the next bout then won $200 with two submissions.
One fighter was missing part of his left leg. He arrived with an artificial limb that he shed before grappling. He fought off a submission and drew a round of applause from fellow fighters after his session. White joked with him about getting out of the submission: “You robbed him of $100, you know.”
The long day tests everyone’s endurance. Joe Silva will have watched more than 200 grappling bouts lasting a total of 300-400 minutes, plus another three hours or so of guys hitting pads. Dana White barked after someone took too long to shed warm-up gear and get to the mat: “Be ready to go, guys.”
UFC veteran Clay Guida, who was in the room to support a couple of guys from his camp, fell asleep against a wall. White noticed him after one grappling bout: “That guy was in that triangle for two minutes and didn’t go to sleep, but Clay Guida did.” No response from the still-snoozing Guida. Someone woke him up when one of his guys popped up for his turn to grapple. Silva: “Guida’s awake!” White: “Good morning, Clay!”
After each fighter in the group has grappled, it’s cut time. White told guys who are cut that it’s mostly because of their records, telling them to go back, build up their records and try again some other time. (It worked for Tony Ferguson.)
A handful of people from an early group went up to White in surprise. White launched a pre-emptive strike in the next few groups: “If you’re telling me and Joe these other guys padded their records, pad yours, too.”
In the hallway, one fighter did an interview with Canadian crew complaining that they did grappling before striking. “Dana knows I’m a striker,” he says.
It’s clear that a couple of impressive big-time wins won’t do it. Bryan Goldsby, who beat Jeff Curran in Bellator, didn’t make it past the grappling stage. Neither did Savant Young, even after competing to a standstill against feared WEC veteran Wagnney Fabiano.
Silva, White and company clearly have made a few decisions ahead of time. One fighter got three submissions and $300 but didn’t advance.
The producers cut roughly 40-50 percent of the fighters after grappling. The survivors in each group immediately put on gear to hit pads and show off their striking. Some camps had a few assistants roaming around just to hold pads for their fighters. The fighters and their pad-holders all crowded onto the mats just to show basic competence with punches and kicks. Diminutive fighter John Dodson, whose small frame struggles to contain his boundless energy, went a step farther with dazzling aerial kicks.
Another 10-20 percent of the fighters were cut after the striking round. Then it’s changeover time. The survivors went into the hallway to wait for interviews while the next group walked in for its turn on the mats.
The fighters who advanced were called in groups of 15 or so for a quick introduction, then back in line for individual interviews that last about three minutes each. Executive producer Craig Piligian, who watched the first group grapple and strike, spent the rest of his day in the interview room. White and Silva spend the whole day in front of the mats, missing the interviews that will be so crucial for these fighters.
Gilbert Burgos Jr., who drove 25 hours from Tampa to Newark, knew the stakes of the interview. “For three minutes. That’s when it matters. They don’t care what happens in the grappling or the mitts.”
Burgos was asked one question. “They asked me about my mom. Cause I never had parents. But it’s cool. I can survive one question.”
Travis Marx didn’t recall a specific question. “It was a little chat. Definitely not like an interview for a job.”
Some were more confrontational. Roland Delorme told the Winnipeg Free Press that producers told him Canadians were boring. His response: “Who the **** are you?” Delorme made it to callback interviews in Las Vegas and then onto the show itself.
With a fresh pool of candidates, the producers wound up with a cast that had plenty of personality — some feuds, such as one between Diego Brandao and Steven Siler, didn’t get enough airtime to be fully explained while the show careened between all the compelling storylines.
Marx had a good following in Utah, doing double duty as a fighter and police office. He had moved to New Mexico to be with ubertrainer Greg Jackson’s camp. Like a few others trying out for TUF 14, he had come out a low point of fighting — he was on a card in the Dominican Republic in which the promoters had not come up with money to pay anyone, and he was just hoping to get his fight video to show off for future promoters.
“Obviously, the goal is the UFC. It’s the peak of everything for everyone. Greg kind of had me on target where he felt like maybe by the end of the year we’d be able to get contracted with them. But this would just be a slingshot, like a shortcut. So why not try? And my wife is very supportive, obviously — she let me pick up, quit my job and move, so six weeks in a house wouldn’t be an issue, and it’d probably be more beneficial monetarily than it is right now for me anyway. Without her support, I couldn’t do it. But with that, it was a no-brainer for me.”
Marx didn’t make it, landing instead in Bellator. Teammate John Dodson did, with rapid-fire punches and quips. After showing off in the striking exhibition, he was happy to chat while waiting for his interview.
“I just want to make sure everyone knows all about The Magician. Everybody has to know about me. … My whole team was telling me I should go. ‘John, you’re perfect for TV. You’re perfect for The Ultimate Fighter. Your personality is too crazy, but you’re the nicest guy I’ve ever met in my life.’ I don’t believe I’m nice — I always tell everybody I’m an asshole, but they don’t ever believe that.”
Coach Jason “Mayhem” Miller was impressed with the fighters when he spoke on a pre-broadcast conference call. “It wasn’t the normal crop of TUF crowd where you had some guys who like 2-0. Some of these guys had 30 fights. These were developed, excellent athletes and great fighters already.”
For some seasons, the show has abandoned open tryouts. But other seasons’ tryouts look pretty much the same as that day in Newark:
White told fighters who failed to make the cut to keep working and come back again sometime. “This show’s not going anywhere.”
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: The final installment — fighters tell what the show meant to them.
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