Promoted to the front page from the FanPosts by Luke Thomas.
For those who have not read Danny Acosta’s well researched article on The Ultimate Fighter (TUF), or Cannon Jacques’ follow-up commentary, I highly recommend both. At the heart of Acosta’s thesis lies the question, “Since ‘The Ultimate Fighter’ has entrenched itself as an institution, producers must decide what course it takes. Is it a factory for future champions like (Forrest) Griffin, or is it a haven for the kind of drunken, juvenile behavior (Junie) Browning exhibited?” As TUF’s ongoing trajectory illustrates, TUF producers appear to be searching for the latter.
Much has been written about the availability of alcohol on the show and its contributions to excessively immature behavior. As early as TUF’s first installment, we saw alcohol intensify conflicts between Chris Leben and Josh Koscheck & Bobby Southworth. In additional TUF 1 episodes, other participants were shown getting sloppy drunk and engaging in expectable behaviors. Since the TUF 1 experiment, alcohol’s availability has never appeared to diminish, suggesting that athletic development is not one of TUF’s primary objectives.
An institution trying to prove itself as a legitimate sport and deserving of mainstream sporting status would not normally market itself as one that facilitates its athletes in getting drunk, often times dangerously drunk. Not only is TUF a platform for the UFC used to hype future fight cards, but the UFC also heralds TUF as a building block for its athletic pool. True, other professional sports leagues have problems with athletes and alcohol consumption (among other things), but we do not see other accepted professional sports in our society assisting so overtly in athletes' alcohol consumption over healthy lifestyles.
If in fact the UFC wants MMA to be accepted as sport, it would push its future athletes to behave in ways that build athleticism and create an environment conducive to athletic excellence. Instead, the UFC and TUF producers appear to view juvenile behavior, dangerous behavior, and that behavior’s attendant ratings as paramount over the portrayal of MMA as a legitimate sport.
Furthermore, while alcohol’s accessibility is a central and severe problem with TUF, an attendant problem is the way conflict is formally structured into the reality show. Here I am not necessarily referring to the use of two opposing teams whose individual members compete from episode to episode. Those familiar with MMA training know that reliance on supportive teammates is crucial for serious mixed martial artists. Rather, I am referring to the way rivalries are constructed into seasons and the lack of mentorship/guidelines coaches could provide regarding appropriate behavior for an aspiring professional athlete.
Of the eight seasons aired to date, five have had coaches who were slated to subsequently fight each other. Not surprisingly in some of these seasons, the coaches were bitter rivals (Shamrock-Ortiz; Hughes-Serra; Penn-Pulver), and their coaching animosity was vividly evident in multiple episodes. In fact, the coaching conflicts appear to be a bigger focus of the TUF shows than coaches’ guidance in or out of sport. Moreover, with the exception of TUF 4 (The Comeback), a majority of the contestants are not mature men. They are young men, many of whom clearly need guidance beyond simply learning MMA fighting techniques. In turn, viewers witness the ramifications – a hodgepodge of degenerate actions that resemble anything but sport.
Despite TUF’s controversy being hashed out repeatedly over the blogosphere, one cannot help but wonder what lies ahead. In addition to a poor precedent being set with Junie Browning’s behaviors rewarded, Season 9 will have the winner of Dan Henderson versus Rich Franklin coach a U.S. team against Michael Bisping’s team of fighters from the United Kingdom. Thus, on top of having coaches on board who will fight each other (albeit who hold no known animosity), the opposing teams will represent different countries, thereby constructing a nationally-based rivalry. Clearly, Spike TV’s TUF producers are looking for ways to embed more conflict into the series, which compound with alcohol’s accessibility can only result in MMA being depicted at best as a fringe sport with marginal legitimacy. What alcohol laden conflictual arrangement will they think of next?
In the end, the UFC’s trademark outreach tool may entice certain viewers and build the organization’s popularity among a tremendously narrow demographic. However, TUF’s production strategies are more regressive than progressive when it comes to mainstreaming MMA, legitimizing MMA’s sporting status, and capturing a broader fan base that could help the sport thrive during these ominous economic times.
David Mayeda, PhD, is lead author of Fighting for Acceptance: Mixed Martial Artists and Violence in American Society