By Zach Arnold | September 14, 2011
By Jed Meshew
“Do you want to be a
Six years ago, Dana White posited that question to sixteen upcoming mixed martial artists in the middle of a gym in Las Vegas, Nevada. Several weeks later, Forrest Griffin and Stephan Bonnar would put on what is widely viewed as the most influential fight in the history of MMA. On that night, all sixteen contestants from the first season of The Ultimate Fighter would fight. Of them, eight are still fighting in the UFC, five went on to challenge for a title, and one eventually became a champion. It was a blend of highly touted prospects and established veterans each vying for a golden opportunity into the UFC and though other seasons have produced great fighters and even a few champions, none rival the depth of talent present in the first season of the show.
Instead, each of the subsequent seasons have become increasingly formulaic, the rosters shallower, and while the ratings have only taken a marginal hit the show is no longer creating stars as it did in the first few seasons. Instead, the truly talented fighters who once would find their way into the TUF house are now receiving direct contracts into the UFC and the show’s cast has been relegated to mediocre fighters and over the top personalities rather than true top shelf prospects.
However, season 14 of The Ultimate Fighter looks to break this trend with a roster as deep as the original season. Opening up the new divisions in the UFC has, quite frankly, legitimized those weights to potential fighters. Instead of being put in the awkward position of fighting dramatically above one’s natural weight or toiling in relative obscurity for significantly lower pay, smaller fighters now have the option of fighting at their appropriate level (save for flyweights who will still have to wait another year or so until the UFC can clear up the logistics). By creating belts in these weight classes, the UFC has opened up a hitherto untapped cache of talent and the sudden influx of fighters clawing for a spot into the UFC at this new developing weight range has resulted in an entire season of quality fighters. Unlike the last several seasons, where there is perhaps one great fighter amid the ranks if any, this season boasts a cast where the question of who wins is legitimately difficult to answer. Make no mistake — this cast has at the minimum several future top-10 fighters and probably at least one champion as well.
Who to watch for
The high quality of fighters accrued for this season of The Ultimate Fighter is highlighted by the UFC seemingly recruiting out of the top camps in the sport right now. TJ Dillashaw and Bryan Caraway are both Team Alpha Male fighters; Marcus Brimage and Micah Miller both train in Coconut Creek Fl. with American Top Team, and John Dodson and Diego Brandao are products of the Jackson Mixed Martial Arts system. Mixed in with these men are a host of other up and comers training with UFC veterans and in elite gyms around the world. The cast boast six fighters who honed their skills in the Bellator Fighting Championship, as well as several EliteXC and Sengoku veterans, the Cage Warriors featherweight champion, the Ring of Combat featherweight champion, the King of the Cage flyweight champion, and a myriad of fighters decorated in wrestling, jiu-jitsiu and kickboxing. Top to bottom this class is the deepest since the first season and quite possibly the most talented group ever assembled.
Headlining this group is Urijah Faber protégé TJ Dillashaw. Training at Team Alpha Male with Faber and Joseph Benavidez, Dillashaw was a reasonably accomplished amateur wrestler and has adapted an mma style which matches what one would expect of an Alpha Male product. He puts on a high pressure offense and has an intuitive sense of ground and pound. He is hyper aggressive and though he may occasionally make positional lapses in his zeal for damage, his quickness and instinctive grappling game have kept him safe from any real trouble. Dillashaw is one of the rawest talents on the show, but his wrestling abilities and natural athleticism should carry him far and I fully expect him to develop into a perennial top 10 fighter given time.
John Dodson is another fighter of particular interest. A product of Greg Jackson, “The Magician” is already a a top ten fighter… in the flyweight division. He, along with Jimmie Rivera, are awaiting the impending flyweight division but in the mean time have decided to try their hand at the UFC bantamweights until an adequate home is created for their talents. Dodson has spectacular physical gifts and has proven his ability to take a punishment and continue fighting seemingly unfazed. He is a talented grappler with very capable standup and should be a force for quite some time once the flyweight division is established and could even make waves in the developing bantamweight division.
Probably the most recognizable fighter in the house will be Cole Miller’s younger brother Micah, who is well positioned to make a deep run towards the finals. Micah’s style is very similar to his brother’s which has resulted in a four year career in the UFC, so I see no reason why Micah wouldn’t have similar success. Expect to be seeing him in the UFC for many years to come. These three fighters are just a small sampling of talent that the TUF 14 cast contains.
Back to the basics
Though the talent level harkens back to the original season, it will be tough to capture that magic both in viewership and in relevance. Reality television is over-saturating by nature and The Ultimate Fighter is no different. What originally was a novel and unique idea was quickly packaged by Spike executives and presented for viewing consumption with decreasing quality in exchange for quantity and ratings.
The first season was a magical blend of talent and turmoil, combining the volatile nature of men who fight in cages professionally with real emotional arcs. In the first season everything seemed real (though its possible it was completely different). These weren’t people trying to get famous for reality TV, these were fighters trying to make a life for themselves and the audience responded. Chris Leben breaking down and crying on national tv is what made him a star and part of the reason he is still beloved today and also partly why many people still intensely dislike Josh Koscheck. The genuineness of the first season has been lost in the subsequent years (probably around the time Gabe Ruediger missed his weight cut) and has been replaced by trite character archetypes. Each season, the viewer can be relatively certain they will see doors smashed, angry guys yelling at each other, drunken debauchery, and some mixture of tears and urine. Its the norm now.
In many respects, The Ultimate Fighter can be viewed as a microcosm of the UFC and MMA in general. MMA has long struggled with balancing the sport versus the spectacle; trying to increase revenue through viewership while still maintaining the integrity of an athletic endeavor. Its why Bob Sapp and Kimbo Slice are huge stars despite only a modicum of talent and why Pride pitted the greatest HW of all time against Zuluzhino. And though under the Zuffa banner the UFC has, for the most part, foregone these “freakshow” type of fights this is still the same company which put James Toney in a cage with Randy Couture, so the degradation of a reality show based around fighters being forced to live together for six weeks with no form of entertainment other than alcohol should come as no surprise to anyone.
What has kept the show afloat the past few seasons has really been both the power of the UFC brand and the stars the company has attached to the show. The last four seasons have been coached by Brock Lesnar, Georges St. Pierre, Chuck Liddell, and Quinton Jackson quite possibly the four biggest names in the company. Throw the presence of Kimbo Slice in season ten and its clear to see that the UFC is using its biggest stars to attract eyeballs to the show.
Will personalities sell this time around?
Season 14 is no exception to this rule as Mayhem Miller, fresh off his MTV Bully Beatdown fame, will be coaching opposite Michael Bisping. While this is likely the gimmick which will attract the most viewers, its quite possibly the least interesting angle of the whole show. Even though Bisping and Mayhem are both highly capable fighters and their interactions will probably be rife with “TV gold” due to Mayhem’s antics their forced rivalry just pales in comparison to the genuinely interesting story-lines revolving around this cast, most notably that there are several sets of teammates on this season who could potentially be matched up with each other. Not only that but there are two brothers who could feasibly be forced to fight. In the current UFC climate where fighters refusing to fight teammates puts the kibosh on several tremendously entertaining fights (*cough* AKA *cough*) the possibility of brothers going toe to toe simply for a chance at a contract rather than huge sums of money is both refreshing and intriguing.
The Ultimate Fighter 14 is an important season for the UFC, marking a potential turning point for the franchise and it will be interesting to see how it plays out. Increasing the talent level on the show bolsters both its credibility as a source of talent as well as presents the potential for increased viewership which could prove important considering the ensuing move from Spike to FX and the possible changes which could occur as a result of the new production team. When the UFC signed their network deal with Fox they made sure to retain control of the production of their product; however, White admitted that he sees “this Fox deal as a fresh start for us, so I want to change everything…. everything is going to have a different feel to it.”
This change can already be felt with the impending doom of the “Gladiator Man/Face the Pain” entrance which the UFC has used since 2002. The Gladiator man entrance has been consistently derided by the majority of the MMA media as an encapsulation of all the deplorable stereotypes associated with MMA and the UFC’s willingness to dump is indicative of their continuing efforts to to push their company brand further into the mainstream. When The Ultimate Fighter makes its move to FX it will become a show in the Fox family of programs; a representative of both Fox and the potentially reinvented UFC. If Dana White is serious about refreshing the UFC in look and style then the most obvious place to start would be the company’s flagship series; which begs the question, if the demographic to which the Gladiator man intro appeals is the same group that enjoys watching urination and destruction of property on TUF and if they are moving away from that demographic, do the production values of the show change the with it?
The answer is most probably yes. The UFC name brand alone is now enough to draw in the eyes of the coveted male 18-35 demographic, and while the show is reality TV and with thus be allowed some leeway, I expect to see the baser forms of debauchery curtailed under the Fox banner. The fighters themselves have begun to do a decent job of policing themselves from perpetrating sophomoric acts in recent seasons and the UFC seemingly moving from the “meathead” population (which they already have a hammerlock on) to try an bring in new viewers will only result in less ridiculousness. Also, the fact that FX is intending to broadcast live fights creates an interesting wrinkle in the system which will impede the production team from forcing story arcs as reality TV is wont to do.
Instead of having an entire seasons worth of material to edit into a finished product the TUF production team will be working on a weekly basis so they will have less material with which to craft story-lines and will be forced to present what is available. The combination of FX having a say in the content and the transition to weekly live fights will invariably end up with a tamer show, focused on the prospects themselves rather than the drama in the house. Any drop in the ratings which would be caused by the lack of drama should be offset by the fact that FX is available in more homes than Spike is and thus is going to naturally draw in more viewers. Also, the live aspects of the fights is a major upsell for the network and the UFC. Live television has s certain magic the taped broadcasts cannot replicate and thus live fights are more likely to draw in viewership than a prerecorded show.
Will the Friday night time slot sink the show?
The biggest potential hiccup for The Ultimate Fighter and FX is the unfortunate time slot which it will occupy. Friday night is a relative dead zone of programming so it will be interesting to see how the show can handle that. The fact that it is a dead zone means there won’t be much competition at the time slot for the male demographic and with football taking up Thursdays, Saturdays, and Sundays there is a window there for TUF to produce results. When FX ran their Toughman Series in the same time slot it consistently placed top in the males 18-35 demographic and that was sans the same marketability as the UFC brand name. Also, ESPN has been posting solid ratings with their Friday Night Fights series so the opportunity is certainly there for the first season of TUF on FX to do well. And if the show can succeed on FX supported primarily by the talent of the fighters, it gives the UFC more incentive to continue recruiting top tier prospects for the show rather than filling it with mid levelers. Attaching the UFC name brand to live fights, as well as moving the show onto a bigger network with the Fox marketing machine behind it, could very well bring more eyeballs to the TV. I don’t know and I won’t know for certain until the season premieres. But what I do know is that the UFC has a unique opportunity to start anew here and rebrand their franchise.
The show has become stale and outside of a few athletes being injected into a still thin Heavyweight division has not produced a truly talented prospect in years. With the change in both network and time-slot and possibly casts with improving talent levels, the UFC has the chance to revitalize their flagship franchise and re-establish The Ultimate Fighter as its premiere feeder program. For the past few years TUF has lost sight of the goal of developing prospects into contenders and champions in lieu of promoting headlining fights but now is a perfect time to return The Ultimate Fighter to its roots and introduce the world to the next generation of UFC stars. Whether or not they do is up to them, but just the potential for true high caliber fighters on weekly TV has me eager to find out.
Jed Meshew is an aspiring writer/journalist who will hopefully be writing content more frequently. You can contact him with comments, questions, concerns, or criticism at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at Twitter.com/StanleyKael.