Despite the change to the live format have made TUF a much better product than ever before, this season has seen record low ratings, even dipping below 1 million viewers for the first time. Part of the problem stems from the change in networks. Another reason is that it is now on Friday nights, traditionally a terrible night for ratings. But in my opinion the real reason that ratings are at their lowest levels ever is that UFC has trained people that TUF equal mediocrity. Many of the fighters winning TUF since the end of season 5 are at best middle of the road fighters.
Kendall Grove (3), Mac Danzig (6), Amir Sadollah (7), Efrain Escudero, (8), James Wilks (9), Ross Pearson(9) and Court McGee (11) are all TUF Champions that have not panned out to be even top 10 fighters.
Pearson, Jonathon Brookings (12), and Tony Fergusen (13) may have a chance to make the top 10 at their current weight classes but I honestly don't see that happening. Meanwhile, over the years UFC rejected Eddie Alvarez (Season 2), Frank Edgar (Season 5), Tyron Woodley and Ben Henderson (Season 9) when they tried out for TUF. Who knows if these current MMA stars would have won their season, but I still think their careers would have taken off just the same in UFC, and given more credibility to TUF as a producer of great talent.
Throughout the years UFC gravitated more towards the personalities, and farther away from gathering the best fighters for TUF. As more MMA programing became available (Bellator, HDnet shows, YouTube channels, and more UFC shows) the MMA fan has had to make harder choices as to who is going to get their time and attention. UFC trained us as fans that it is OK to miss TUF because the reality is that these guys will never be relevant fighters. UFC was turned down by Brandon Vera (for either season 1 or 2), and Jake Rosholt for season 8. This should have been a clue to the brass that they needed to sweeten the pot to get the better talent and prospects in there. Instead they went against the aggressive nature that has defined the UFC under Zuffa's leadership, and settled for the status quo. I can only speak for myself when I say that I'd never miss an episode of TUF if I really thought that 2-3 guys from each season were top 10 guys down the road. Instead a lot of times the TUF roster was full of guys who just are not good enough, and only looking for their 15 minutes of fame.
Here are a few examples where I think UFC really blew it by not focusing on the talent that was available to build a season of TUF.
- Fall 2008 - Heavyweights - This has a realtively successful season of Light-Heavyweights, so naturally it made sense to pair the LHWs with Light-weights. Ryan Bader, Kyle Kingsbury, Krzysztof Soszynski, Eliot Marshall, and Tom Lawlor are some of the guys who were able to stick in UFC coming off the show. Of the lightweights on season 8, only Efrain Escudero, and George Roop remain in UFC, and they are both barely holding on at this point. The choice to pick Lightweights to go with the LHWs makes even less sense when you look at the rush of young Heavyweight talent that came into UFC, or was on the market in late 2008.
o Feb 2008 - Brock Lesnar makes UFC Debut
o April 2008 - Cain Velasquez makes UFC Debut (2-0) record
o May 2008 - Shane Carwin makes UFC Debut
o October 2008 - Junior Dos Santos makes UFC Debut
o December 2008 - Pat Barry makes UFC Debut
o Early 2009 - Stefan Struve makes UFC Debut
- I'm not saying UFC could have convinced all of these fighters to go live in the TUF house. Lesnar due to his popularity and price tag would have been unlikely. Carwin was working a full time job, and convincing him to leave that and his family would also have been a hard sell. I think that UFC with a little influence ($), and maybe some foresight could easily have landed Velasquez, Dos Santos, Barry, and Struve in a TUF house for a big shot at UFC. Now two of these fighters have been UFC Champs, Struve is an established fighter, who wins more than he loses, Barry is exciting with a great personality and Herman at the time was showing some impressive flashes that would have helped add credibility to the show. This would only have been about 1 year prior to TUF 10, so some of the same names we saw on that version of the TUF could have filled out the roster here.
- I know some people will say that JDS, and Struve would make terrible choices due to the language barrier, but this is reality TV... you can't tell me that their an angle where they bring in an English teacher, or a sponsorship deal with Rosetta Stone would not work. It would also be gold to let these guys learn English from the guys in the house over the course of 8 weeks.
(Realistic potential roster - Cain, JDS, Barry, Struve)
o Mo Lawal, and Phil Davis were both 4-0 prospects that spring and hadn't signed with a major organization yet.
o Mark Munoz - Last WEC Fight December 2008
o Steve Cantwell - Last WEC fight August 2008 - WEC LHW Champ
o Brian Stann - Last WEC Fight August 2008
- Both Lawal and Davis were pegged as future stars from the moment they stepped into a MMA gym. Lawal a decorated international wrestler who turned to MMA right after being upset in the 2008 Olympic trials, and Davis was a 2008 NCAA D1 Champion. Lawal also has one of the bigger personalities in the sport from his first fight and would have been great on the show. He was making good money though, so it would have taken a little bit of a signing bonus to get him on the show, but it would have been well worth it. Now 3 years later, Mo and Phil are in the top 10 of the world, and would have helped to show that TUF was a must see for every MMA fan.
- Jones showed the talent to get signed by UFC after training MMA for less than a year, and only 6 pro fights. His first win in UFC should have convinced Joe Silva, and Dana White that they had a legit prospect on their hands. Sliding him into a season of TUF would have elevated his star and helped the show maintain it's legitimacy as the top producer of top 10 talent.
- Cantwell was the last WEC LHW champ, so it would have been a little messed up to ask him to be on TUF. Not to mention, at the time he was considered one of the top young fighters in the sport... oops.
- Stann, and Munoz are now top MW contenders, but at the time they were LHWs, and would have added some more quality depth to this show.
Realistic Potential roster (Mo, Davis, Jones, Munoz, Stann)
o Johny Hendricks - 2-0 in WEC - UFC Debut Mar 2009
o Rick Story - UFC Debut Jun 2009
o John Hathaway - UFC Debut Jan 2009
o Jake Ellenberger - UFC Debut Sep 2009
o Mike Pierce - UFC Debut Sep 2009
o Rory MacDonald - UFC Debut Jan 2010
o John Howard - UFC Debut Jun 2009
o Tarec Saffiedine - Dream Debut Oct 2009
o Tyron Woodley - SF Debut Jun 2009
o Ben Askren - Aug 2009 - 3-0; Bellator Debut Apr 2010
o Lyman Good - Bellator debut Apr 2009
- This timeframe and weight class had the potential to be the best TUF roster ever. I know none of these guys have fought for the title yet, but I honestly think that at least 3 of them will (Hendricks, Ellenberger, MacDonald), and Story has already been in and out of the top 10. Once again it comes down to the UFC's commitment to making TUF a true platform for superstars, or just reality TV non-sense. UFC thought enough of both Ellenberger, and MacDonald that they were put in with Carlos Condit in their first UFC fights, and both came very close to winning. Hendricks smoked TUF 7 winner Amir Sadollah in his debut
- I know that Hendrick's management team, Team Takedown was reluctant to put Jake Rosholt on TUF 8, but once again it comes down to UFC making it worth their while.
Realistic Potential Roster (Hendricks, Story, Hathaway, Ellenberger, Pierce, MacDonald, Howard, Woodley, Askren, Good)
It is easy to look back and say how UFC could have made TUF better, but it might not be as easy to look forward.
What weight classes should UFC focus on moving forward to get the maximum impact out of their TUF fighters, and prove to fans that the show is stacked with legitimate prospects that are worth watching? I'm really curious if Leland Roling has an opinion to what weight class could produce the best TUF class?
- Flyweight - This is the obvious choice. The division is not very deep, and is completely untapped by UFC to this point. Bringing 16 of the best flyweight prospects, and fighters into the fold would certainly produce numerous top 10 fighers, and a couple of title challengers 2-4 years down the road. Sergio Pettis, Sean Santella, Hector Sandoval, Henry Cejudo, and Ulysses Gomez would be some good names to lead the group.
- The next weight class that I would focus on may surprise some people. Light-Heavyweight. Think about what this division will look like 2-3 years from now. Rampage, Tito, Forrest, Hendo, Matyushenko, Perosh, Diabate, and Vera will most likely be retired. Shogun, Machida, Bonnar, Nogueria, Thiago Silva, and even Rashad Evans will be on the downside where skills really start to erode. Jon Jones will likely be at Heavyweight, or seriously considering it. That will leave the division to Bader, Gustafsson, Davis, Mousasi, Te Huna and Feijao, a solid group, but one that leaves room for up and coming prospects to burst in. UFC should start to take a serious look at gathering the best LHW talent out there for a TUF season next spring.
Two weight classes that I would stay away from having a TUF season for over the next few years are Middleweight, and Welterweight.
- Anderson Silva, Chael Sonnen, and Vitor Belfort will move on in the next few years, but MW has a bunch of young studs in waiting. Munoz, Boetsch, Bisping, Palhares, Weidman, Stann, Belcher, Rockhold, Kennedy, Souza, Markes, and Philippou are all tough fighters that will be hanging around the top of this division for a while. It would take a special group of prospects to crack into this group and establish themselves as top 10 fighters.
- At Welterweight there is just so much depth, and more appearing by the show. GSP, Condit, and Diaz are great talents that will remain near the top for the next few years. There is already elite young talent like MacDonald, Hendricks, Ellenberger, and Erick Silva in line to be top 10 talents for the next 4-5 years.
The reality is that UFC can't force a group of prospects on TUF, they need to identify a group of talent that is coming together at the right time and then make it worth their while to make the sacrifices that TUF.
Now that UFC is on FX, and the live format leaves less time for the non-sense in the house, and more focus on the fighters I think UFC is headed in the right direction. This season I feel that the fighters actually have a chance to make a major impact in the UFC. The fighters that made the house for Season 15 have a combined record of 120-20-1 prior to entering the house. The guys they beat in the round of 32 to get into the house had a slightly less impressive over all record of 121-32-1. I know that records can be inflated around the regional scene, but just the eyeball test for me tells me that this season's group seems a little better. When I look at the top 4-6 guys on this show, I can see them in UFC and lasting to make an impression. Hopefully UFC will keep stacking that TUF house with great talent, and not take their fans time, and viewing for granted.