The more things change the more they stay the same, it seems, and after an interesting experiment by going live each week, the UFC’s staple “The Ultimate Fighter” is going back to its familiar, pre-taped format. Going from a championship level fight in Urijah Faber vs. Dominick Cruz, which was aborted due to Cruz’s ACL tear, to a pair of contenders working their way up the promotion will also change the tenor of this season.
Now we get the third season coached by heavyweights. Shane Carwin and Roy Nelson join heavyweight luminaries such as Brock Lesnar, Junior Dos Santos, Frank Mir and Antônio Rodrigo Nogueira as coaches fighting at the 265 pound limit. So far the rumblings out of the production were that Nelson and Carwin weren’t the best of friends. Of course, that ought to make for entertaining television.
But just how interesting will this season be? The first episode often sets the table for how the season will progress. Here are 5 questions that once answered by the end of episode one will showcase the tone and focus of the season.
1. How deeply invested are Shane Carwin and Roy Nelson into the coaching?
You know how you could tell that GSP, Tito Ortiz and a handful of others were going to outclass their competition as coaches? By how they treated the fighters during the elimination fights, that’s how. Tito was active in his second stint as coach, shouting instructions to a handful of fighters who responded to him. Others coaches didn’t seem to get into it as much and the dedication of each coach is going to come out fairly quickly by how involved they are in the evaluation process.
2. How polished are TUF 16’s prospects?
The level of talent has varied wildly through the show’s run; the first couple seasons were so loaded in comparison to the rest of the seasons because the overall talent level working in the regional circuit has found its way up. Scouting has gotten better, too, taking away from the potential pool of strong TUF candidates. The guys who go through the TUF marketing machine today aren’t nearly as developed as they used to be. The last guy to fight for a title from a season of TUF was Season five’s Gray Maynard. This is surely a result of nearly every top level prospect jumping directly to the UFC roster rather than taking the “TUF” road.
The last season of guys who were legitimately top prospects was Season 14 (featherweights and bantamweights), which in the long run could be one of the best casts in the show’s history. It was also an anomaly, though, as nearly every other TUF cast isn’t nearly as talented.
It’s not that guys who make their way on TUF can’t be top tier guys, far from it, but in the past couple years it’s been much more about unpolished talent years away from significant fights than it is about top tier prospects primed to make a run. How far along these guys are as fighters will come out quickly.
The average age of the TUF 16 cast skews towards the mid-20s, so for a good chunk of the cast this is a moment in time when their ceiling as a fighter is about to be discovered. Are they a world champion in the making or a journeyman, bound to be not quite good enough to be a regular member of the UFC roster? It’s the difference between a Jonathan Brookins and a John Dodson; one’s a talented fighter who’ll be on the UFC roster for a while but never do much in the top tier. The other is going to contend and maybe hold a UFC title at some point.
3. Who wants it badly?
One of the things that defined the early years of TUF was that there were a handful of fighters who had extensive careers before the show. Bobby Southworth had been around the block and back again by the time he stepped into the TUF training center.
TUF was his last chance at MMA fame eight years ago.
There are a number of veteran talents on this season’s cast, though not nearly as traveled as Southworth famously was when he became a member of the first season. Which fighters know they’re in “do or die,” career wise, comes out early as desperate fighters will fight that way. A young, talented prospect with years ahead of him may not.
4. What’s the future for some fight camps?
Usually there are two types of fighters that come onto the show: the best fighters from a lesser known camp and a lesser known fighter from a big camp. Look at Team Alpha Male in season 14; there were a number of cast members from that camp and the future looks bright for Urijah Faber as a coach. You can tell a lot about a fight camp by the sort of talent they ship to “The Ultimate Fighter.”
This cast is filled with a lot of prospects who will get weeded out in short order during the fight-in rounds. Will this be a season of dominance from big camps or will some guys from lesser known camps sneak in the TUF front door?
The result can shape not only this season of TUF, but also the future of the UFC. Camps can become destination points based on their successful cast members on TUF; Greg Jackson went from another coach to this guru of MMA by having so much talent come through the house in Las Vegas.
We’ll see on Friday if the wells of the big camps are about to run dry. The first sign is having someone join TUF who isn’t quite UFC ready.
5. Will tempers flare early?
Most coaches are professionals early, but eventually, after all the time dealing with one another, one (or both) can snap. We all expected Lesnar to lose it and he didn’t; people thought poorly of Quinton Jackson and Ken Shamrock after stints on the show where they did little but get into confrontations with their opponents.
Carwin and Nelson apparently haven’t gotten along well and it’ll be interesting to see if the normally calm Carwin will lose his temper. Even if that doesn’t happen, you can bank on some golden moment from Nelson. Dana White’s facial expressions in dealing with Nelson may be worth their weight in gold. And we’ll get our first taste when they’re sitting next to each other at the evaluation table.