The Ultimate Fighter: Help or Hindrance?

In January 2001 The Ultimate Fighting Championship was purchased by Lorenzo and Frank Fertitta. Headed by then boxing promoter Dana White and parent company Zuffa, which is Italian for “fight”, the UFC had turned the page and entered a new era of MMA.

The road was long. By 2004, even with sporadic PPV success, the UFC had lost approximately 34 million since the purchase of the brand.

White and the Fertitta brothers came up with a plan. In hind sight it could be considered absolute marketing genius. It became apparent to them that reality TV was quite successful and may prove a useful vehicle to market their product and brand The UFC. Enter The Ultimate Fighter series.

Zuffa partnered with Spike TV to provide the public with The Ultimate Fighter, or the TUF series. This created great exposure for the UFC and its events. It could be said, the partnership between Zuffa and Spike is the very reason that MMA is as popular as it is today.

The UFC would hand pick competitors to participate on the show. Notable UFC veterans were chosen to lead one of two teams. The teams would live in the same house, and share training facilities. All the while training for a tournament style competition. Victory garaunteed a six figure multi fight contract in the UFC.

Some of the alumni of the TUF show include, current LHW champion Rasahad Evans, previous LHW champ Forrest Griffin, no. 1 LW contender Kenny Florian, Diego Sanchez, Josh Koscheck, the list goes on. Some of the greatest wars ever seen were fought by TUF competitors, skyrocketing popularity of the fighters, the show, and the UFC.

This show was the boost the UFC needed to gain mainstream acceptance. This show brought a lesser known sport to the light and offered an open look into the inner workings of not only the sport itself but the lives of the competitors and UFC veterans like Tito Ortiz, Randy Couture, Ken Shamrock, and many others.

This mainstream acceptance and visibility immediately boosted revenue streams for Zuffa. The first PPV following the close of the inaugural season of the TUF show reflected double the PPV buys of their highest mark to date. The UFC is up and running at this point, sprinting is more accurate.

There are some drawbacks to the TUF show though.

The primary problem would be the structure of choosing coaches for the shows. Initially, they were utilized for leadership and guidance. The coaches also provided a familiar face for fans to relate with, while watching the progression of the fighters. They were recognizable, and marketable. They are also pivotal figures in the grand scheme of championships, and contenders though.

More recently the coaches have become more about marketing than leadership or guidance. The coaches themselves and their differences have become the attraction. This was extremely prevalent during TUF season 6 featuring Tito Ortiz and Ken Shamrock. This season was a great success, with a lot of focus being given to the rivalry between the two coaches, in addition to the show itself. Another example of bad blood driving ratings would be Penn-Pulver. Smart marketing but difficult when scheduling fights.

The rivalries between certain coaches spiced up the show and made the road to the finales more interesting. Over time, the realization that the bad blood was reeling in more viewers led Zuffa and the UFC matchmakers to bank more on that aspect than the point of the show itself. This was very tactical on the part of Zuffa. A great idea.

Over time it was and now is an extended fight promotion for the coaches who are destined to meet at the end of the season. The problem lies in the choice of coaches themselves, sometimes title holders.

More than once it could be said that entire divisions were either put on hold, or worse yet completely re-shaped while a title holder is tied up coaching on the show.

The prime example would be when Couture left UFC and his HW title due to contract disputes. In his absence, the UFC allowed former UFC HW champion Tim Sylvia to challenge former pride HW champion Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira for the interim HW title.

Nog beat Sylvia, won the interim belt, and was asked to coach against Frank Mir on TUF season 8. The two were to fight for what was to be the legitimate HW title at the end of the show, assuming Couture would not return in a timely fashion to challenge for it.

Couture returned sooner than expected to the UFC with his HW title intact. Nog was tied up filming the TUF series, so Randy instead fought Brock Lesnar for the title. Nog wound up losing to Mir in their match, and now is reduced to contender never having challenged the true champion. Under the original agreement Mir would be the champ, but now he is still an interim belt holder. A strange set of circumstances.

A different example of a problem created by champions coaching on the show would be the example of Matt Serra. He unexpectedly won the WW title from GSP and then was immediately made coach of TUF season 6 against Matt Hughes. After the filming of the show, when Serra was set to fight Hughes for his title, Serra was injured and could not compete. This caused a champion to lay off for over a year between earning the title and his first and only defense of it. Not timely by any means.

Another example would be Quinton Jackson. Shortly after beating Chuck Lidell for the LHW title, Rampage was to coach against Forrest Griffin on TUF season 7. Rampage was vocally disappointed in the long layoff that totaled approximately 10 months out of the Octagon. No healthy champion should go 10 months without defending his title. There are always contenders, and fans who want to see them defend the title, otherwise what is the point?

Next we have the fighters themselves. There has always been a sense of random irresponsibility and recklessness on the show. Sadly, the attraction of the fighters anymore is how much destruction they can cause to both the house and themselves. They are worth more to the series if they are more hoodlums than disciplined fighters. This boosts ratings of course, as the general public loves a train wreck. Still it tarnishes a sport that really is struggling for legitimacy, and acceptance.

Consider the difference in Mac Danzig and Junie Browning for example. One is a well spoken, respectful, responsible, calm, and extremely talented individual. The other is a mouthy, rambunctious, reckless, alcoholic, and generally talented individual. Which one got more exposure on their respective shows? Who won their show? Get the picture? This is an apparent flaw.

If one were aware of such blemishes as Sean Sherk’s alleged steroid usage, then Quinton Jackson’s legal troubles they would note some troubles with recklessness, and irresponsibility. Now there is Chris Lebin’s alleged steroid usage, a recent possible tragic murder suicide associated with a UFC fighter, and any number of questionable issues within the realm of UFC news. One might think the UFC would want to minimize the negative undertones found and encouraged on one of their most popular outlets to the world of viewers.

At the end of the day, the TUF series is a great thing, not only for the UFC but for up and coming athletes interested in making their way as fighters. It provides a great opportunity for the UFC to scout new talent, and it opens a door for that talent to be noticed. On the other hand you have a set of issues that go along with the positives.

The log jams created by coaches being obligated for so long while either holding titles, or being high in contention for titles is a detriment to the forward movement of both the sport and the athletes competing in those divisions. The coaches should be marketable fighters, with a popular public interest. One thing they should not be at the very least is a belt holder. A number one and two contender is understandable, but I would still prefer just top ten fighters minus the top three.

Why not make a list of four top ten fighters within a division eligible to coach, and hold a public poll, not unlike the polls done for main events, or even what is done on shows like American Idol? Let the public pick the coaches, and consequently pick the fights they want to see at the end of the series. Not bad for three minutes of brainstorming, surely the UFC can do better.

Coaches should be fighters who have the talent to teach, but not so much on their plate that they can’t focus in one single area due to focusing in too many other areas. A belt holder or number one contender should have one thing on their mind. UFC gold, not a handful of kids barely making their way into the game. Not television ratings, or misbehavior, not disciplining and guiding reckless kids who don’t even realize what they have been handed. Most succesful fighters have gyms at home for training and leadership. It should be training, training, watching tape, training, promoting, and more training for these elite contenders and champions.

The acceptance and encouragement of childish, asinine, destructive behavior on the show is hands down a blemish on the sport itself. While it is phenomenal for viewer ratings, it is counter productive for the acceptance of the sport within the main stream.

TUF show is not conducive to legitimizing the sport beyond a human cock fight by neanderthal knuckle dragging bar room brawlers. I assure you that is the general perception out there, by those who choose not to educate themselves with the necessary knowledge to understand the sport. They see the tip of the iceberg; they acknowledge what is available to them. Right now, that is the TUF series on Spike TV. It does not portray the best image of the sport or the organization if you think about it. Quite to the contrary.

The point here is to notate what I view as flaws to a successful venture. Success is one thing, progressing forward from that success with the original success intact is quite another. I fear the UFC is overlooking some important issues in the interest of simple ratings, and shock value. Very important issues to an entertainment based company. Both hold value in marketing and brand recognition, just ask Howard Stern. It is not everything though.

That being said, it is short sighted to bank on today, when no one knows what tomorrow holds. I suggest a more level approach, not the lopsided, short sighted, shoot from the hip approach being employed today. Hopefully the UFC will recognize and address the problems, and move forward with a little more dignity and consistency in the future concerning this series. If TUF is the tip, then the UFC is the unseen iceberg.

They are the industry standard, they set the bar for all of MMA. Of course they realize this, and one would hope they play their hand better moving forward. MMA needs them to set the example, and live by that example, if it is ever to be considered a legitimate sport in the public eye.

This means legitimate opportunities for contenders and belt holders to fight in a timely fashion, health permitting, not smoke and mirrors involved in coaching a show for an extended period of time.

It means elevating the expectation of discipline, and respect of self and opponent, not to mention dojo or gym, from the fighters, both rookies and veterans. If we were to discuss two core values found in almost every form of martial arts, respect and discipline would be paramount in most cases.

In a sport that carries the words martial arts in its very name, one would hope the core values practiced for centuries are upheld, even expected, never overlooked, and absolutely never disregarded.

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