The Ultimate Fighter is now 25 seasons deep. The simmering rivalry between Garbrandt and Dillashaw will produce great TV—but are there better ways to promote a fight between the two?
The growing feud between newly-crowned UFC bantamweight king Cody Garbrandt and former UFC bantamweight champion, and ex-Team Alpha Male gym mate, TJ Dillashaw will unfold in front of our eyes in the latest season of The Ultimate Fighter (TUF) as announced during UFC Fight Night: Rodriguez vs. Penn.
The pair will be coaching their respective teams on 25th iteration of the show, which is titled "The Ultimate Fighter: Redemption." The redemption theme sees an all-star cast of former TUF contestants—now competing at welterweight—vie for a lucrative UFC contract. Names rumoured for the series include the likes of Joe Stevenson, Eddie Gordon, Gerald Harris, Ramsey Nijem, Seth Baczynski and former TUF wind-up merchants Junie Browning, Julian Lane and Jamie Yager.
Garbrandt shocked the world by handily defeating Dominick Cruz at UFC 207 in a dominant unanimous decision performance as 2016 came to a close. Meanwhile, Dillashaw earned his chance to win back his championship after avenging a loss against wily Brazilian Rafael Assuncao at UFC 100 and comfortably beating John Lineker in one of his most impressive performances to date in the fight before Garbrandt's championship-winning effort at UFC 207.
The announcement of this season four-style angle, a season which saw former UFC fighters compete from the TUF house to earn a title shot in the promotion, certainly injects some life into a show which has endured dwindling viewing figures—an inevitability, given the natural shelf life of any TV show which runs twice a year and follows a similar format each time.
2016 was a bad year for the UFC's flagship reality show. The last series of TUF, which saw Joe Benavidez and Henry Cejudo coach flyweight champions from other promotions to earn a shot at facing UFC champion Demetrious Johnson, pulled just 370,000 viewers on its season premiere. Season 23, the series preceding that one, attracted just 479,000 for its season premiere—a previous low for TUF.
There have certainly been suggestions the UFC should put TUF out to pasture. But, TUF remains a good scouting ground for new talent to invigorate the UFC roster despite the show's formula being played out at this point.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xlNqEzkBORg (sorry, I can't seem to embed videos on a Fanpost!)
Over a decade since TUF was incepted in 2005, much of the interest garnered for the show is now heavily-reliant on the coaches and their rivalries or respective personalities rather than the competitors themselves—a successful formula discovered following the gold produced by season three, featuring Tito Ortiz and a disheveled Ken Shamrock—a far cry from the talent-packed inaugural season of TUF. Season three produced a UFC champion in present middleweight champion Michael Bisping, but it is likely best remembered for a series of on-set bust-ups between Ortiz and Shamrock—shoving matches punctuated by Shamrock's fun and quotable insults such as "bitch monkey."
The competition TUF was originally based around has now become secondary—the show is now seen as a vehicle to promote the season's two head coaches and a fight between the pair.
The inclusion of Garbrandt and Dillashaw as coaches will surely attract plenty of eyeballs given the well-publicised rift between Team Alpha Male and Dillashaw and his coach Duane Ludwig. But, is it enough to stop the slide in TUF's TV viewing figures and, more importantly, will their stint as coaches promote their eventual title fight strongly enough?
The date for the fight between this season's coaches has not yet been announced, nor has there been any mention whether this will be a fight featured on a pay-per-view (PPV) or not.
On average, UFC PPV events featuring headline bouts between TUF coaches average 548,000 buys (average consisting of UFC 52, UFC 86, UFC 114, UFC 115, UFC 124 and UFC 159). That's a respectable figure to be garnered by a contest between two lower-weight fighters in Garbrandt and Dillashaw. But, it's also rather unrealistic—among those coaches include the bigger and well-established names of Chuck Liddell, Randy Couture, Quentin "Rampage" Jackson, Georges St-Pierre, Rashad Evans, Jon Jones, Chael Sonnen and more.
UFC 159, featuring TUF coaches Jon Jones and Chael Sonnen fighting for the UFC light heavyweight championship, drew 530,000 PPV buys. Again, that's a respectable number. But, it's not overly impressive given Chael Sonnen averaged 685,000 PPV buys during his UFC run as a headliner, while Jones' average is just shy of 500,000 buys. This isn't a foolproof measurement, but it does indicate the three months of weekly promotion throughout The Ultimate Fighter 17 simply didn't work and wasn't worth keeping the coaches sidelined for as long as they were.
With the season premiere of TUF 25 not arriving until April 19th, there will be an awfully long wait to see Garbrandt and Dillashaw square off inside the Octagon. TUF coaches do not typically fight until the final of their series has concluded as a minimum—a two/three month-long wait which won't see the bantamweight title defended until either July or August at the very earliest. Considering their last fight was in December, that is a considerable amount of time to be out of action while free of injury.
An eight-month wait for a title defence? Someone call Dana White—we need an interim champion ASAP.
Garbrandt and Dillashaw, as well as the beef they share, are white hot right now and it's concerning how the labouring process of The Ultimate Fighter could see that momentum negatively affected. I'm sure the pair will produce some great television together as rival coaches—but that's proven to not necessarily correlate with eyeballs once it's time for them to fight, rather than coach.
It's time the UFC uses TUF to promote middling fighters or the sport's elder statesmen and women as coaches to keep those at the top of their game active in doing what they do best—fight.