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Inside The Ultimate Fighter: Talent, check. Alcohol, check. Food ...?

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Kenny Florian, Rashad Evans, Tom Murphy, Mike Swick, Luke Cummo and Ken Shamrock talk about drinking and auditioning — not necessarily in that order — in Part 2 of Beau Dure’s unreleased book.

MMA: UFC Fight Night-Teixeira vs Evans
Rashad Evans’ toughest opponent: the TUF interview.
Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports

Day 1, Season 1. The fighters check out the gym. They’re impressed. They check out the house. They’re even more impressed.

And the place is well-stocked with alcohol. The producers thought of everything.

Almost.

“They didn’t realize how much food 16 fighters can put down,” Kenny Florian said. “I think they ran out of food the first day. They didn’t realize how big of an order we needed as far as food, supplements and all that stuff.”

And the cast had little idea what was to come. They reveled to all hours of the night, then got a 5 a.m. wakeup from coaches Chuck Liddell and Randy Couture.

What that brutal wakeup call made clear was that the reality of The Ultimate Fighter wasn’t just about the house. The antics of confined men alone wouldn’t distinguish the show from The Real World, Big Brother or other reality-show knockoffs. The TUF reality is the collision of an unsupervised house with the disciplined atmosphere at the gym.

The tone was set right away in TUF 1 with a brutal test of endurance in the training center. Liddell admonished fighters not to beat each other up too much, but they would’ve been too exhausted from the cardio workouts to inflict too much damage on each other, anyway.

Dana White, not yet burdened by the murderous travel schedule he would keep when the UFC rapidly expanded, was in the gym and on camera for the early workouts, pushing the fighters through tough exercises and occasionally giving confessionals to reiterate how difficult everything is, selling the sport to a new audience.

“Nobody trains as hard as these guys do,” White insisted on the broadcast. “That’s a fact.”

For all the grappling and striking exercises, a treadmill test was the biggest obstacle. Fighters started running for five minutes at 5 miles per hour. Then five more at 6 mph. Then 7. Faster and faster for 30 minutes. Oddly enough, the fighter shown successfully completing the workout was Chris Leben, who spent the previous night getting wasted.

The producers followed the groggy, bewildered fighters as they recovered. Bobby Southworth said it was the hardest workout he’s been through. Jason Thacker laughed as a leg cramp kept him from getting out of the van. Then the fighters took turns in an ice bath — a recovery trick that in itself might be enough to dissuade people from pursuing careers in sports.

But the producers were hoping early on for a “work hard, play hard” environment.

"You'd think they'd learn,” TUF 1 champion Forrest Griffin said on the UFC’s Aftermath program during TUF 13. “You'd think they'd maybe seen Season, I don't know, 1 through 12. This happens every year, always toward the end. Someone just gets drunk and makes a complete ass of themselves."

The tone was set right away in TUF 1.

“I was kind of shocked that they provided us with alcohol,” fighter Chris Sanford said on camera less than 10 minutes into the series debut. “A full bar.”

Leben had already found that bar and started serving. Sanford offered a gentlemanly toast. Leben got hammered. By the time he turned in for a couple of hours of sleep, he had also stolen pillows from neighbors’ beds and “spritzed” on Thacker’s bed.

Alcohol fueled a lot of the TUF 1 drama, including a blowout between Leben, Southworth and Josh Koscheck. And even in a calm cast like the TUF 13 crew, the merry drinking could quickly turn to angry drinking, with Tony Ferguson quickly alienating himself from the rest of the house.

UFC 181 - Ferguson v Trujillo
Tony Ferguson has needed to do some damage control after crossing a line or two in the TUF house.
Photo by Alex Trautwig/Getty Images

TUF 2’s Rashad Evans: “On the show, they kind of want the antics and craziness to happen. So drinking is not shunned upon at all. I won’t say it’s encouraged, but let’s just say if you drink, it’s good TV. They didn’t want guys sitting around to play cards all day. They want guys who drink in the rec room with each other. That’s when all the shit happens.”

Yet TUF 2 was more cautious. On the first night in the house, the cast looked warily at the bar. And fighter Tom Murphy saw cautious producers as well:

“They brought in serious athletes for our show. I think that’s what they wanted. But I think what they found was the demographic of 18 to 25-year-olds that are watching the show wants to see people having ridiculous behavior. I remember Melvin (Guillard) threw a pillow in the pool one day, a couch pillow — and they turned off the cameras, the producer called us in and said we’re going to cancel the show if you guys don’t stop getting out of control. A couch pillow in the pool. So all of our guys were pretty serious athletes… I think it was more of an idle threat to say, ‘Guys, knock it off.’ But like I said, it was a couch cushion.”

Aside from the caution, TUF 2 dealt with a group of fighters too worn out to party.

Evans: “On our season, they trained us way, way, way too hard during the day. So when it came down to it, that’s the last thing you want to do is drink. Because tomorrow, I know I’m going to get my ass kicked in practice. I don’t want to wake up hung over and have to do two hours of practice and get my ass kicked and have to do this twice a day. The next few seasons, it wasn’t that hard. They didn’t have a hell day like they had the first two seasons.”

Alcohol in the house was a sticking point for UFC pioneer Ken Shamrock when he agreed to coach on TUF 3. He recalls:

“They asked me to be on the first one, and unfortunately, I was tied up doing other things, so I couldn’t do it. They ended up finding up two other guys. I watched the show, and I was a little bit disappointed. So I went on to the show, I sat down and talked with Dana White. I said, listen, if I’m going to do this, you've got to promise me you're not going to put alcohol in the house. I saw the things that were going on prior to this. I was like you're putting these guys in a real bad situation. If you put alcohol in the cupboards, that's crazy — you know they're going to get bored, you know they're going to get in mischief. I said, listen, I'll do it as long as there isn't alcohol in the house. He said there wouldn't be. I guess we all saw what that was all about.”

The TUF 3 cast seemed to appreciate the alcohol. The first-night toasts turned into a long party and a lost eyebrow for Kendall Grove. (Rule #543 on living in the house: Don’t pass out when someone else has the razor.)

TUF 6’s John Kolosci had one of the most memorable drunken nights after his loss to Mac Danzig — “drinking to me getting my ass kicked,” throwing a foosball table and more stuff into a pool, climbing a cabana, then head-butting a palm tree.

Kolosci’s memorable confessional: “It’s a lesson to all the little kids out there that you should not be drinking alcohol because it’s bad for you.”

Getting a cast with the volatility to provide reality-show entertainment along with the fighting skills to make competitive matchups was a challenge early on.

In most seasons, would-be contestants go through a rigorous tryout and interview process. (More on that to come.) For the first season, the process wasn’t so firmly established. UFC staff had to scour regional cards to find fighters like Florian.

“My audition was actually Dana White showing up at a fight in Boston and watching me fight. He was the one that told me about the show and told me to send in an interview. I still wasn’t that interested, but I just sent in a seminar DVD of me teaching (jiu-jitsu), and I got a call from the producers. For Season 1 and I think even Season 2, there were no tryouts. It was just based on your record and the whole interview process.”

The UFC also got the word out at established fight camps such as American Kickboxing Academy, where they found Koscheck, Southworth and Mike Swick. But Swick says AKA fighters were confused at first.

They were in need of people. They didn’t have enough. None of us from AKA had applied. They kept asking why we hadn’t applied. We didn’t really know the details. We thought it was for UFC fighters. We didn’t know it was for fighters who weren’t in the UFC. They kept coming back. Basically, we sent in videos of our fights. We submitted it, and they called us back.

We didn’t have a fight audition where we had to train or grapple. We just had an interview. They put us in a hotel room and locked the door. We couldn’t leave for three or four days. They weeded us out. They made a final cut right at the end. A few people who thought they were in the show – they got cut. We didn’t really know what to expect. It ended up being three people from my team.

Despite all the questions about the show, TUF 1’s talent was quite strong. Half of the 16 fighters went on to long UFC careers, and that didn’t include Southworth, the most polished fighter at the show’s outset. Plenty of fighters had decent resumes. Griffin had beaten Jeff Monson and Chael Sonnen. Diego Sanchez was 11-0 and a King of the Cage champion. Leben was 14-1 (Sherdog lists four of those bouts as amateur). Only Thacker, who seemed overwhelmed from the outset, was out of his depth.

For TUF 2, with heavyweights and welterweights, the process was still laid-back, with fighters able to get through even if they were a little reluctant. Murphy didn’t watch the first season, and his sister prodded him to apply for the second. He borrowed a video camera and did one take of himself in a kimono describing his training with Carlson Gracie, taking care to drop TUF 1 runner-up Stephan Bonnar’s name as well. Then he went home for the second part of his clip:

“I have a little wrestling room in my garage. My kids were running around. I said these are my toughest opponents – I opened the door and showed my kids. The video took me about 15 minutes. I sent my application in, and the rest just happened.”

Still, producers had felt emboldened by the first season’s success to start challenging prospects such as mild-mannered welterweight Luke Cummo.

“The producer told me he knew there was a New York asshole inside me and he wanted to find out what it would take to come out. During the second interview at the table with several producers, the head told me there were some real animals in the house, and what was I doing there? But I told him that I would fight them. I mean, what's the worst that could happen?”

And they managed to bring in a few eccentrics — some of whom, like Cummo, had considerable talent as well. Cummo pulled his mattress off his bed so his head could face north. When Mike Whitehead asked how he could be sure he was facing north, Cummo said he brought a compass.

They also tested how well fighters dealt with deprivation. Murphy said the prospects in his class were given medicals and then screen tests, then sent back to their rooms.

“At that time, we were locked in your rooms – we couldn’t even go to the stairwell and work out. You weren’t allowed to do anything at that time. Then they call you back up and put you for an interview at a round table.”

Then the interviews were befuddling. Murphy didn’t make a great first impression.

Dana’s like, ‘Look at you. Look at how f’in small you are.’ I was like 230 at the time. His phone rings, he stands up and walks out of the room, and I never saw him again. I’m thinking, ‘Oh my God – that was my interview. Dana White told me how small I was to be on a heavyweight show, and then he walks out of the room.’

We just talked about home-schooling my whole interview. We didn’t talk about anything else. No fighting, nothing. I went home, they called me up. I must have made an impression on somebody.

Evans also heard he was too small. The recent college grad had his nice little job interview routine down pat. Then Dana White quickly shook him out of it. Here’s how Evans recalls it:

White: “You’ve gotta be fucking kidding me.”

Evans: “What?”

I’m fucking bigger than you.”

“OK.”

“What are you, fucking 5-foot fucking 7?”

“No, I’m 5-11.”

“Bro, I just had guys that had to fucking duck down through the door to get inside here. And you fucking come in here, little and small. Listen, here’s what’s going to happen. I’m going to let you come on my show, your fucking little ass is going to get held down for 15 minutes straight. You Cuba Gooding Jr.-looking motherfucker. I’ve got a guy who’s 6-4, 240 pounds, and he can move like a cat – you think you can compete with a guy like that?”

Evans had to regroup quickly.

“I was so taken aback. I didn’t know what to say. I went in there thinking it was going to be a proper interview. I had to think on my feet. So I thought, ‘OK, I’m going to play your game.’”

And so Evans drew upon a boxing analogy, right up the alley for longtime boxing devotee White.

“When heavyweights were heavyweights, it wasn’t about the biggest guy. You see Muhammad Ali, you see Joe Frazier, you see all the guys that were considered the greatest in boxing – they weren’t cumbersome, big guys that you have now. Boxing was funner to watch back then because the guys weren’t so big and cumbersome. Guys were able to move, guys were able to put on more of a show because it wasn’t all about the size. That’s what I am right now for this season… I’m the guy that’s going to go in there and fight hard as hell and be one of the little guys. It’s not going to be boring like you see most of these unathletic heavyweights now.”

The interview ended, and Evans didn’t think he was going to get picked. But he got one show of support.

“One of the producers, Wayne Sampson, was like, ‘I like your interview, I went to bat for you, they might give you a call back. Please do me one favor. If you get on the show, please don’t get your ass kicked the first fight.’”

Evans won the TUF 2 heavyweight division and the UFC light heavyweight belt. Score one for Sampson.

A quick note on quotes: When quotes are taken from TUF broadcasts, books or other sources, they are attributed as such. Unattributed quotes are taken from first-hand interviews for the book Inside The Ultimate Fighter, which was never published. See the intro to this series to see what happened to that book.

Next week: Life and reality in a fishbowl