"How the hell is the UFC going to get 16 fights into less than three hours?"
That was the main question most people were asking going into Friday's The Ultimate Fighter premiere on FX, answered quickly within minutes of the show opening up: one five minute round per fight.
Yes, you read that correctly. A sport that is already a max of 15 minutes for the vast majority of non-title fights was cut down to just five minutes...and it worked.
On Friday, the UFC did what so many promoters around the world wish they could do: promote a two-and-a-half hour amateur MMA show on a major ad-supported cable network.
Here's five quick-hit thoughts that stood out to me:
1) The format worked
What felt like a Friday night high school sporting event was a hell of a lot of fun. Shot in the same venue that the UFC has run TUF fights in for years, it was exactly what we were promised: a live TUF show. Jon Anik was the host, Dana White, Dominick Cruz and Urijah Faber provided sparse commentary and 16 fights took place in front of less than a hundred people.
When the UFC signed with Fox, we heard how TUF was going to be different. While it's probably foolhardy to expect sweeping change with the hourly episodes every week, the relationship got off to a fresh and fun start Friday and will likely be a constant in future seasons moving forward.
2) Finishes galore
Whether it was the shortened fights or the nature of the TUF fight-in beast, there was a glut of bouts that ended in finishes that ranged from eight second KOs to plain ol' rear naked chokes. Considering the relative unknown nature of those that competed, it made for a fast paced night that left impressions on some potential top-level competitors on this season.
The first four fights wrapped in just over 30 minutes and out of 16 fights, half needed the full five minutes. The sense of urgency was there, a reason the single round was a great idea. $40,000 worth of bonuses ($5k per finish) were given out. Again, it worked.
3) Faber and Cruz more friendly than enemies
For two guys that were have been painted, promoted and portrayed as bitter rivals, both Faber and Cruz were downright civil throughout the broadcast. They interacted like two scouts would at a football game without any unpleasantries being exchanged. With 13 weeks, there will be plenty of time for the two to build toward July's climax in their trilogy. Friday wasn't about them at all and I'm not sure if that's a good thing or not.
4) Who stood out?
With the way that MMA is today, the talent level on these shows is always tough to judge early on. However, there was a few fighters that caught my eye. Sam Sicilia stands all of 5'7" but knocked out Erin Beach in just eight seconds. Vinc Pichel opened up Cody Pfister with a nasty elbow, resulting in a big gash and bloodiest fight on the show. Daron Cruickshank was my favorite fighter of the night with his Stephen Thompson approach to the game. Michael Chiesa could be a fun character to watch, as is the 21-year-old Justin Lawrence.
White wasn't shy in calling out favorite target Steve Mazzagatti ("They call him 45-minute Mazzagatti" after a slow stoppage) and ripping on Chase Hackett for not doing anything against a seemingly gassed Chris Saunders. As the show went on, you heard more from White, Cruz and Faber but it was subdued and welcome. The three seemed more natural than any of the banter on Spike's MMA Uncensored Live.
And for all that was made of poor Dakota Cochrane's past this week, he lost in a rather boring fashion and won't be on the show. What a waste of time that turned out to be.
5) A few production notes
I don't think they ever said what weight class the guys were fighting at. I assumed 170, but when a guy that writes about MMA isn't sure, that's a sign they need to not assume everyone knows this. Apparently, they were lightweights and if so, there were massive 155ers...Phil Davis and Ross Pearson were among those helping out in the back and at cageside. But they weren't mentioned by name at all, which felt odd to me...White's dialogue with Faber and Cruz about the lack of clocks in the corners was pretty funny...I can't wait to see the ratings as FX did a ton of advertising leading up to Friday in every medium possible.