Six-hundred-and-ninety-eight fighters, and counting, have competed on The Ultimate Fighter since its debut in 2005. The hybrid reality show/athletic competition has produced heroes who have clinched UFC gold and been involved in the most important octagon moments in history. It has also produced villains whose names are reviled in the MMA community and beyond. However, for every fighter who became a recognizable character in combat sports after the cameras stopped rolling on their season of TUF, there is a legion of competitors who faded into obscurity. Life After TUF catches up with individuals who did not find fame and fortune in the UFC after their time on TUF. In the first of this series of posts I tracked down Noah Inhofer from The Ultimate Fighter 3.
In 2006 The Ultimate Fighter was must-see-TV. Feeding off excitement generated by the previous two seasons, and featuring a white-hot rivalry between Ken Shamrock and Tito Ortiz, TUF3 promised fireworks. Though many of the fights were lackluster the season did introduce notable characters who would play substantial roles in the UFC.
One fighter in particular from that season left a sizeable imprint on the minds and memories of viewers, but it was not because of his slick first round submission of a number-one picked opponent. Noah Inhofer, and the storyline he became embroiled in, was arguably season three's biggest talking point and one of the The Ultimate Fighters' most memorable moments ever.
Most fighters who enter The Ultimate Fighter aren't used to the processes involved in television production. However, for Inhofer the unfamiliarity factor ran much deeper than lights and cameras. "I'd never even had a coach before. I went from hitting a heavy bag in my basement, with a six foot square piece of carpet, to the Ultimate Fighter." Far from being overwhelmed, Inhofer was excited. "I was stoked to be there, stoked with Tito, stoked with my first fight. I was pretty happy about all of it." Unfortunately for Inhofer, the highs he felt would be short lived.
Like all Ultimate Fighter contestants Inhofer had his cellphone confiscated and was prohibited from contacting the outside world. When a producer from Pilgrim Films & Television (who continue to produce The Ultimate Fighter) slipped him an envelope, Inhofer was confused. He took the letter to a quiet corner of the Ultimate Fighter house and opened it alone. "I was heartbroken," Inhofer recalls, "just devastated." Prior to taping, the friends and family members of all the fighters competing on the show were asked to write letters to their loved ones. According to Inhofer , these letters were supposed to be given to the fighters after the show had ended. It seems when the producers got wind of what was in Inhofer's letter - from his girlfriend Greta - they couldn't resist giving it to him in the house. "They decided I needed to have it, or they gave it to me because they knew I would freak out." Inhofer wishes to keep the exact contents of the letter from Greta private, though he admits it represented something that, if neglected, could have cost him the relationship.
"Dana came down, yelled at me, told me I was a pussy, I was not a fighter, that I would get so much more pussy and money if I stayed and made it into the UFC, just regular bullshit."
To understand what happened next, one needs to step back to a bar in Yankton, South Dakota seven months before Inhofer got on a plane for Las Vegas. "I was sitting in the bar with my buddy and this girl walked in, I turned to him and told him, 'I'm gonna marry that girl one day.' " What happened that night shocked Inhofer , "I was never someone who believed in 'love at first sight', but it one-hundred-percent happened to me." Inhofer and Greta started talking and before they knew it, it was almost morning. They spent the following day hanging out and were hooked on one another from that moment on.
After Inhofer read Greta's letter he immediately knew what he wanted. "I asked for a phone call. That's all I wanted and they refused." When it became clear Inhofer would not be allowed to call home, his reaction to the situation intensified, "I told them I was gonna hop the wall and buy a ticket home. Dead serious. Nothing would stop me from leaving that house." Producers tried to calm Inhofer down as calls were frantically placed to UFC President Dana White. "I kinda feel like they goaded me into that position, personally," says Inhofer, whose mind was made up well before White arrived to speak to him. "Dana came down, yelled at me, told me I was a pussy, I was not a fighter, that I would get so much more pussy and money if I stayed and made it into the UFC, just regular bullshit." Far from convincing him to stay, White's argument reaffirmed to Inhofer why he wanted to leave. "There was nothing appealing in [White's] 'hurrah speech.' " After confirming his desire to leave the process Inhofer states he felt no support or understanding from those officially affiliated with the UFC. According to Inhofer, the producer who passed him his letter seemed concerned for his situation, but the real support came from his fellow fighters. "Most of the fighters were pretty supportive, everybody had family, some had small children, some had their wives giving birth. Most of them, to my face, were pretty supportive. On camera, maybe some of them were different, but whatever - it is what it is."
A major concern of Inhofer's, which was not featured in the edit of the show, was that he no longer felt mentally prepared to fight and believed he ran the risk of being severely hurt if forced to do so. "My safety was definitely in question," remembers Inhofer who adds, "you can have the best training camp, you can be in the best damn shape, and mentally if you are not there, it can be dangerous."
After leaving the set Inhofer was given a psych. evaluation to make sure he was ok, though Inhofer is skeptical of how concerned the production really was. "One-hundred-percent, they were just covering their asses." As soon as he was given the all clear (and his cellphone) he called Greta and told her he was coming home. Inhofer landed in South Dakota after an agonizing flight and was greeted by Greta and her family at the airport. Greta had mixed feelings over Inhofer's return. She was delighted to see him, but also sad that he had left the show. "It was not her intention to make me come home, remember, she thought I would only get to read that letter after the show was done!"
Back in each other's arms Inhofer and Greta began repairing what needed to be repaired and Inhofer's Ultimate Fighter experience faded from memory. When Season Three came around to air, Inhofer didn't hide from it. "I watched two episodes of the show, it was friggin' hilarious. For the first episode my buddy had a big party for me. They had a party for the next episode too, which had me leaving. It was pretty funny, everyone was making fun of me. It was funny, the whole thing." Inhofer didn't watch any more of the season, or any other season after that.
Despite walking away from The Ultimate Fighter Inhofer was still passionate about mixed-martial-arts. What drew him to the sport was a desire to experience hand-to-hand combat and to use that to "uncover and discover," things about himself. Inhofer didn't feel that the UFC was the only place he could explore this side of his being and it didn't take long for a new opportunity to present itself. "I got a phone call from the Miletich Elite School, I tried out, they beat the shit of me, and I kept going back. A week after getting home from that trip they called me back and asked me to be a part of the team." Inhofer thrived under the school's tutelage. "I became an extremely skilled fighter. Super good ground game, great striking, everything got better." Although, with Inhofer feeling better than ever about his skill-set chances to exhibit his abilities became harder to come by. "People didn't want to fight me, as stupid as it sounds. So many times people would back out. Because I was on TV and because I had some exposure and because I was training at the best school, it made for a bad cocktail for trying to get me fights." With a shallow pool of opponents available to him, Inhofer began to lose interest in the sport. "Fighting a can is not very exciting. Fighting someone who is good, having a challenge, is what gives a fight meaning." Throughout his experience with the Miletich fight team Inhofer maintains that his goal was never to get back into the UFC. "I just wanted to travel and fight."
If fighting wasn't satisfying Inhofer, his relationship with Greta certainly was. In 2008, during a missionary trip to Costa Rica, where the pair worked with refugees, Inhofer decided to pop the question. "I'm a hopeless romantic. At the end of the mission trip we stayed in a resort for an extra two days. I got one of my friends to learn her favourite Jack Johnson song on guitar and there was this garden that looked like the Garden of Eden that was under an active volcano. So I have my friend playing the song, I come around the corner and propose to her. She had no idea it was coming." Two years later the pair would be married.
The happiness in Inhofer's personal life did not spread to fighting and as the years in Iowa droned on Inhofer and Greta felt pulled in a different direction. "We got to a certain point where we wanted a change from the Midwest and we wanted to go somewhere it didn't snow, and somewhere I could be outside every day." Inhofer and Greta considered many Southern states and Caribbean isles to start the next chapter in their lives, but Inhofer's sister - a professional roller derby coach and MMA fighter, who was in New Zealand at the time - suggested Hawaii. Greta shocked Inhofer with how seriously she took the recommendation. "I was playing PlayStation when Greta came in and told me she had bought two tickets to Hawaii." Inhofer and Greta quickly went about selling everything they owned and flew across the Pacific with only two duffel bags to their names. Within twenty-four hours of landing Inhofer knew he'd made one of the best decisions of his life. "As soon as I got off the plane it was dark. I remember getting up the next morning, a block and a half away from the ocean. I walked down to the beach, sat there, had a little self-reflection, and basked in the sunlight and the saltwater. It was a great feeling."
In Honolulu, Inhofer and Greta established CrossFit Kuleana, a gym billed as, "a community of happy and supportive people working together to better ourselves spiritually, mentally, and physically." Inhofer and Greta are both hands-on trainers. It's here that Inhofer discovered what he's truly passionate about. "Being able to witness people changing and improving their lives is better than the experience of winning a fight."
Even though his appearance on The Ultimate Fighter was almost a decade ago, every so often Inhofer is pestered because of it. "I still get hate mail to this day. People will see a re-run and get on Facebook and tell me I ruined my life." Inhofer doesn't take the comments personally though, nor feel angry over them, "I feel compassion towards [the commenters], but I really don't care about them judging me."
When asked if he ever thinks about losing out on potentially the biggest opportunity of his life, Inhofer is adamant that no such thing happened. "I capitalized on the largest opportunity I've been given, in marrying my wife. It's the single best choice I have ever made in my entire life, to separate myself from that situation and do what my heart was telling me. Greta is an amazing person, the most loving person I've had the pleasure of meeting. She challenges me every day to be a better husband, to be a better person, and I can't think of any other way I wanted my life to go."
Today, Inhofer scoffs at the rant Dana White subjected him to while on The Ultimate Fighter. White assured Inhofer, the other fighters, and the viewing audience, that Inhofer was being presented with a once in the lifetime opportunity and that he had made an incredible mistake in turning it down. Inhofer never believed the happiness he could attain in life was tied purely to one chance presented to him on a reality TV show. Instead, Inhofer believes opportunities in life are not as finite as Dana White would have you believe, so long as you try. "You move, adapt, keep positive, and work your ass off." Along with stick-to-itiveness Inhofer believes one other thing has guided him throughout his journey into and out of mixed-martial-arts. "I live with a faith that, no matter what, I'm gonna be ok. I had faith going into [The Ultimate Fighter], I had it moving [to Hawaii]. Being a faithful person gives me the courage to move and think in unconventional ways."
Asked to describe his life today, Inhofer's answer is enviable. "It's fantastic, plain and simple. I can't tell you how blessed I am. [This weekend] I hiked to the top of a mountain, I surfed, I went out in the ocean on a huge yacht for a friend's birthday party and then I came back in on Monday and got to help people be healthy." When asked what the future holds, Inhofer's not willing to pin himself down. "You can never tell with me," he's sure of one thing though, "I plan on helping people."
Before speaking with Inhofer I was convinced that he was a man with the misfortune of having to make one of the toughest decisions of his life on television, and that this was manipulated in way to construct a certain narrative as to how important the path through The Ultimate Fighter was for a fighter becoming a success. What I take from Inhofer's story is proof that a single decision, regardless what it is, does not have to determine how happy and successful one can ever be. Opportunities come and go and what seems like the biggest chance you'll ever have at happiness could very well be dwarfed by something else the future throws at you. Although, I must admit, I was dead wrong about one thing and Inhofer was glad to tell me. Leaving TUF was not the toughest decision of his life, it wasn't tough period. Given what he knew then; it was "a piece of cake" and today Inhofer remembers walking away from that show as, "the best thing that ever happened".