The Ultimate Fighter has always been an interesting reflection of the UFC's philosophy towards the sport of mixed martial arts. As in, it's a muddled one. Like a freshman in college philosophy class unsure of what Nietzsche was actually babbling on about, but confident enough in its general meaning to quote him for every occasion, Zuffa marches forward promoting a spectacle as sport, unsure of whether they're promoting a sport as spectacle.
It's this unspoken uncertainty that created the first season of TUF. A chance to say to the public 'hey world...this sport exists and here it is in all of its reality TV glory!" I don't think the UFC actually knew what it had on their hands. They knew they wanted to promote the UFC, but there was no way of knowing how the fighters would promote the UFC. Zuffa was plucking from an unknown garden, willing to grab any apple that could be planted in a cage.
And so season 1 went. For those that remember each and every episode (for better or worse), it was your standard issue Real World schlock, minus the arbitrary lust. In fact, there were probably more fights on an episode of Real World than there was on TUF Season 1. There were only 8 fights through the first 11 episodes, and Diego Sanchez fought in three of them.
Season 1 was a success by almost every measure. It did good ratings, and the Finale culminated in what is often described as the UFC's seminal moment: Forrest Griffin vs. Stephan Bonnar. Whether the fight really single handedly built the UFC and simultaneously fed the homeless is mostly conjecture. But speaking for myself, it was kind of a big deal. The sport needed to perform on the "big stage", and it did. I had several friends in the dorm at the time, none of who were acquainted with MMA, and they were riveted. For all the criticism about their fight from purists who object to the lack of technique, there's room for the barfly pugilism that characterizes a bout between two men who just want victory however they can get it, red in tooth and claw. It's drama...'as real as it gets' to borrow Zuffa's strange catchphrase.
Conventional wisdom says TUF has declined. The fighters have gotten worse, the show has gotten worse, and the format is stale. I'd like to speak to the first point.
After all, the format hadn't been interesting since the inception of mainstream reality TV in 1992. And as for the show itself, I certainly won't defend the recycled drama. There are only so many in-house vendettas that are compelling until one drunken comment creating two guys out for arbitrary revenge against one another begins to look lame. And this is ignoring the Jackass style diversions every now and then, like Kyle Kingsbury using his baby maker to flavor Dave Kaplan's sushi, which may or may not be your cup of Sake.
So, just how good was season 1 as far as the quality of its fighters go? Good. Real good. TUF 1 is rightfully considered the best season the show has ever had. But just how good in contrast to other seasons? I wanted to figure this out through numbers, even though I've long since forgotten my polynomials. To clarify, I'm gonna look at win percentages per season dating back from 2005 until 2012. I'm also ignoring two things: season 4 (fighters already had prior UFC records and the show resulted in two title shots that were completely arbitrary), and 'strikeouts' (fighters who fought only once). In other words, Bobby Southpark and Jason Thacker have not been included.
When you look at the early seasons of TUF, the UFC wasn't producing as many shows, and had a much smaller stable of fighters. A lot of TUF guys got contracts because the UFC needed men. Now Zuffa is much more selective, so I suspect counting anyone and everyone who ever fought in the UFC after competing in TUF would have skewered the numbers. Every number will be related to fighters who were able to extend their contracts and who get a minimum of two fights in the UFC.
So, season 1, as I said was great. Its stable produced 1 UFC world champion (Forrest Griffin), and 4 title challengers (Kenny Florian, Forrest Griffin, Diego Sanchez, and Josh Koscheck). The others didn't fare as well, but let's look at them anyway.
1. TUF 1: Average Win Percentage of 63% 10 Fighters 144 bouts
2. TUF 2: Average Win Percentage 57% 13 Fighters 110 Bouts
3. TUF 3: Average Win Percentage 55% 8 Fighters 76 Bouts
4. TUF 5: Average Win Percentage 59% 9 Fighters 103 Bouts
5. TUF 6: Average Win Percentage 47% 5 Fighters 36 Bouts
6. TUF 7: Average Win Percentage 67% 6 Fighters 61 Bouts
7. TUF 8: Average Win Percentage 50% 12 Fighters 80 Bouts
8. TUF 9 US vs. UK: Average Win Percentage 47% 6 Fighters 38 Bouts
9. TUF 10 Heavyweights: Average Win Percentage 61% 5 Fighters 36 Bouts
Season 1 naturally led to more fights, as the competitors have had longer to compete. However, it's interesting to see how drastically TUF declines from Season 5 to 6. Season 5 provided the UFC with 67 more bouts than TUF 6. Season 7 offered the UFC 25 more bouts than season 6. It was so bad that George Sotiropoulas and Mac Danzig accounted for 68% of the UFC bouts TUF 6 contributed to, and neither are currently active.
A few other interesting notes. There are minor correlations with the number of bouts TUF contributed to the UFC, and the weight divisions featured on the show. TUF 5 and TUF 8 featured divisions less established at the time (in this case, Lightweight), and this was reflected in the amount of bouts they contributed to the UFC (183). The inverse was true in more established divisions such as Welterweight. TUF 6 and TUF 9 both featured welterweights, and both have a UFC success rate of 47%, contributing a total of 74 bouts to the UFC.
Overall, the first 9 seasons of TUF excluding Season Who the Hell Cares had an overall win percentage of 56%. Two men became world champions (Rashad Evans and Forrest Griffin), and seven fighters have been involved in title fights (besides the 4 from Season 1, there is also Nate Diaz, and Gray Maynard).
Now let's look at the next 9 seasons.
1. Team Liddell vs. Ortiz: Average Win Percentage 59% 8 Fighters 58 Bouts
2. Team GSP vs. Team Koscheck: Average Win Percentage 50% 5 Fighters 40 Bouts
3. Team Lesnar vs. Team Dos Santos: Average Win Percentage 59% 7 Fighters 34 Bouts
4. Team Bisping vs. Team Miller: Average Win Percentage 63% 13 Fighters 71 Bouts
5. The Ultimate Fighter Live: Average Win Percentage 48% 11 Fighters 43 Bouts
6. Team Carwin vs. Team Nelson: Average Win Percentage 40% 4 Fighters 15 Bouts
7. Team Jones vs. Team Sonnen: Average Win Percentage 71% 9 Fighters 24 Bouts
8. TUF Brazil 1: Average Win Percentage 53% 11 Fighters 47 Bouts
9. TUF Smashes: Average Win Percentage 38% 7 Fighters 18 Bouts
And here's a handy, overly simplistic graph comparing the win percentages of TUFers who earned a minimum of two bouts from first generation (first nine seasons), and second (next nine seasons).
Not too much changes between the first 9 seasons, and the next 9. The first 9 seasons take a gradual decline, while the next 9 also decline but kind of spike a little more dramatically. The average win percentage for all the combined bouts from the 'next generation' (Generation Zuffa?) stands at 53%, contributing a total of 481 bouts within the UFC. This is compared to the 506 of the 'first generation' (Frat Boomers?).
In addition, some of the same patterns repeat themselves. For those that need a refresh, Team Bisping vs. Team Miller was the season that brought Bantamweights and Featherweights into the fold, similar to how lighter weights did with the first generation of TUF. Their high percentages, in this case Season 5 vs. Bisping/Miller, were only separated by a few percentage points while being well above the mean.
So, is TUF really getting worse? On the surface, the numbers say 'marginal' at best if we're comparing the first and second generation TUFers. But the decline for both has been steady.
I wish I were a math nerd instead of the more useless pop culture knowing kind, so bear with me. One of first questions I was interested in was whether or not the competition had declined between the first and second generations. After all, maybe the 2nd generation was keeping a similar average because the competition has gotten easier?
I took every fighter from the first 18 seasons with 5 or more fights, and looked at the UFC records of their opponents. I avoided including UFC debuts because these bouts often included fellow TUFers. However, I had to include some here and there to include those who earned five fights. Then I looked at the combined winning percentage of their collective opponents. This allowed me to get a glimpse at the percentages of free agents, although only marginally.
The result? The combined winning percentage of the early 1st generation of TUF's opposition : 52%.
The result of the 2nd generation's opposition (I included fighters with less than 5 fights because in some cases, not enough time has passed, so I just ignored any fighter who's been cut)? 53%.
The quality of opposition hasn't changed too much. Although it should be noted that 22% of the bouts fought among the 2nd generation have involved fellow TUFers. This is compared to 17% for the first generation.
Of course, seven years doesn't exactly qualify as a "generation".
To me the biggest takeaway is not that TUF is marginally declining, but that Zuffa still hasn't figured out the sport part. Like many proper sports, hockey has an annual draft. Looking at the years between 1990 and 1999, 494 players ended up playing at least 200 NHL games, and of those players, 160 were selected in the first round, where 63% of them would go on to have legitimate careers and make a reliable wage.
I did something similar, counting the amount of fighters from TUF who have fought at least 5 times in the UFC. The result? 439 fighters have been featured on TUF. 93 of them went on to extend their contracts to at least 5 fights, meaning only 21% of all those who were ever featured on TUF end up having meaningful contracts; which is to say, contracts one could argue allow a livable wage.
Of course, this is a crude comparison, especially in relation to team sports. But I suspect it still speaks to the UFC's inability to groom the future. The thing about structure and hierarchy is that, like math, there's less that is open to interpretation. In major sports, you play high school to see if you're good enough to play in college, which potentially sets your path to pro sports. In MMA, you fight in the parking lot of a strip club to hope that someone films it for youtube and it impresses Dana (not inconceivable; see Gannon, Sean), or you sacrifice months of your life to fight on a show that has a 21% chance of earning you a semblance of discernible income?
The issue of fighter pay is its own problem. UFC contracts don't guarantee a fixed amount of bouts; a single loss can get you cut, which only worsens the quality dilemma. And the quality dilemma isn't aided by the presence of TUF, where the hollow promise of a "six figure contract" isn't even mentioned any longer to Finale winners. This is due, in part, to the fact that there are no contracts to hand out anymore. This begs the question: if TUF is meant to be your pseudo draft, what good is it if you're not signing anyone? Or rather, what good is it if you're not scouting fighters worth signing in the first place? Why not create a real farm system where fighters must have a certain number of bouts, and can only go pro under specific circumstances? Zuffa hasn't created a vehicle for drafting good fighters. They're letting what they think is good television be the vehicle itself, which means drafting good fighters comes second. The numbers confirm as much, even if you didn't need to look at them to know.
MMA fans and observers love to discuss what fighters could sell, and who has the potential to be the "bad guy", and yet these discussions about the future ignore the potential mechanisms that would increase the probability of creating these would-be headliners in the first place. Instead the discussions revolve around what fighters can talk their way into relevance; a byproduct of a shallow talent pool that doesn't let the zygotes of Sonnenian promotion the ability to swim.
People are attracted to sports for two reasons: winners, and stories. It's hard to create winners when the incentives are as well defined as in image behind a fog, and even harder to create stories when the actors don't know what stage they're playing on.