Both seasons of this fall’s “The Ultimate Fighter” have come and gone as Colton Smith, Robert Whittaker and Norman Parke all were crowned winners of “The Ultimate Fighter” Season 16 and “The Smashes” have concluded. TUF 17 is currently wrapping up as Jon Jones vs. Chael Sonnen are set to mark the show’s move to Tuesdays and share FX’s calendar alongside “Justified.” But the one thing that marked both TUF 17 and “The Smashes” was that neither show was an interesting (or as watched) as previous editions of the series. And it’s for a variety of reasons, too, and it’s not just because this year’s talent pool(s) weren’t quite as good as years past as well.
But it isn’t as if TUF isn’t salvageable, either.
There are any number of things you can do to bring out the best in “The Ultimate Fighter.” There isn’t a magic bullet you can use to make it as good as the first five seasons, of course, but there are a couple things you can do differently that the UFC hasn’t been doing lately to tweak TUF up several degrees as well. Three big changes can make the show significantly more exciting and interesting.
1. Only the finalists get on the TUF Finale
The one thing you don’t see as much anymore is a sense of urgency from fighters on the show because if you can make it to the final 16 you get at least one fight in the big show. Losing on the show isn’t a big deal for some fighters because they’re seemingly guaranteed to make it into the UFC where anything can happen. A win on the finale and 2-3 more fights in the UFC are a near certainty.
For many fighters who don’t think they’ll be a world champion that’s enough. To say you fought in the UFC is a goal many fighters will take when they realize that they will never be an elite fighter. It’s why so many fighters walk away from the sport after TUF and a fight or two in the UFC.
Plenty of fighters on this season’s show didn’t fight with any sense of urgency, much to Dana White’s chagrin, because there was always the implication that being cast on the show was an indication you were a UFC quality fighter. It was almost a tacit implication of being in the final 16 that you’d get to have one moment of glory in the UFC on the final card. By explicitly stating that just because you got on the show doesn’t mean you get a fight unless you make it to the finals makes it that much more important to win. Guys who are down on the scorecards at the end of a 2nd or 3rd round are going to do something desperate to try and win.
Eliminating near automatic slots on the finale makes the championship fight on the show that much more important. If you know that you won’t get a slot in the UFC, if only for one night, you’ll be pressing as hard as possible to win the show. Exciting fights happen when you raise the stakes for fighters with nothing to lose. Fighters discuss this being their shot to get into the UFC but have a good feeling that they’re going to be asked onto the finale unless they do something disastrous in the house to ruin it. If they know the stakes are going to be high they won’t be quitting until the final bell.
2. Better talent
You know the difference between the first season and this one? That first season had the best prospects in North America, by far, all waiting to get into the UFC. Most of the fighters on this season would make up the undercard on a promotion not big enough to make it onto AXS TV. If you want TUF to be the breeding ground for world champions you need to throw on the best prospects you have, including some who may have already had a fight or two in the UFC, into the fray. Jon Jones could’ve been a potentially much bigger star at this point in his career if he had three months on the show followed by a season title to his name. He would’ve come into the UFC properly with much more of the Zuffa marketing machine behind him, especially with a handful of devastating wins to his credit. Right now he’s a big star and the next big thing but it was almost by accident. Bringing him onto the show and letting him develop on the show, running through a handful of burgeoning fighters, would’ve raised his profile earlier than big wins over established stars would eventually accomplish.
3. Coaches from established, high level camps only
If you want to really make a difference in developing fighters making the coaches have established staffs and camps makes all the difference. The best coaches on the show come from places where they know how to peak at the right times, et al, whereas the worst don’t have that.