There was once a time when The Ultimate Fighter was a staple part of my week. I enjoyed getting to know fighters as they aspired to compete on the biggest stage available in the sport. Even the reality show nonsense was "fun" for several seasons as it was offset by casts featuring solid fighters and...well, it was just kind of entertaining.
But the last several seasons have been unwatchable. The quality of the fights has gone significantly downhill and the out-of-cage dramatics have failed to be entertaining in even a "garbage television" kind of way. Instead it has been a repeated cycle of lame prank wars, house trashing and unstable men with emotional problems crying about being alpha males.
So I did not expect much when I tuned in to the season debut of The Ultimate Fighter 17 last night. In fact, I was sure that I would hate it and be unlikely to tune in for episode two.
...I was wrong.
- The addition of friends and family of the fighters at the elimination bouts was fantastic. It provided an immediate method to get the viewer invested in the men involved. Instead of "guy with stupid hair" or "guy with lame tattoos" you had men with wives, men who were leaving their children and guys who weren't just talking about being at the end of their rope financially, but who were able to show it through interactions with loved ones. It also set it up so that you actually cared who won and lost in many of the fights as you weren't just basing investment on a single video of a guy talking to a camera.
- Kito Andrews' story was probably the best highlight of how effective the inclusion of families could be. Watching him hugging his two boys, telling them to work hard at school, stay out of trouble..etc. while discussing that it's hard to leave them but that he thinks it is what is best was such an intense look into his life and the importance of the moment for him. Then watching the decision go against him and his son walk over and say he was still proud of him was one of the single greatest moments in the history of the show.
- The new production style was such a welcome change. It felt more adult and serious. The opening introductory video gave a sense of weight to everything without coming across as overly heavy handed. Sure, there is a lot of hyperbole ("the toughest tournament in all of sports"..etc) but it was very effective. And that didn't really let up as the show continued on.
- Maybe it was just me, but I thought that -- at least through editing -- Jon Jones came across as the "bad guy" more than I expected. When they first arrived Chael Sonnen was pretty conversational but they would cut to a shot of Jones rolling his eyes or giving a "can you believe this guy?" look when Sonnen's back was turned. I mean, I get the idea of "this guy is acting like a bit of a phony" and all, but it just struck me as edited in a way where it seemed like Jones was being a bit of a jerk. They also made sure to get in Dana talking about how Jones turned down the Sonnen fight.
- Jones was a bit of a bore during the fights and, while Sonnen's personality rubs me the wrong way much of the time, at least he made things interesting via some friendly poking at Jon.
- There is a lot of season left to go, and the fighters haven't even been in the house yet. So it's too early to declare the season a success. But if they have managed to refocus the show it could be the much needed breath of life into the stale to the point of death franchise. I just hope that they have tried to discourage the old stand-by stuff like the prank wars. That's just not enough substance to have be as much of a focus in the show as it has been for years now.
But, for one week, the show has done its job. I'm actually excited for next week. I want to see if they can keep it up and develop a good product once again.