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Inside The Ultimate Fighter: Fishbowl format distorts reality for reality TV

Fighters get used to the cameras, sort of, but maybe not each other. Several TUF alumni sound off in this excerpt from Beau Dure’s unpublished book about the show.

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“It's rarely the best fighter that wins the show. It's the person that can stay focused the longest. It's easy to get caught up with a whole bunch of dramatics and a whole bunch of non-relevant bullshit in that house. It’s the living embodiment of Lord of the Flies.” -- Matt Mitrione

The Ultimate Fighter house sucked, man. I (bleep) don’t recommend it, to be honest with you.” -- Nate Diaz to Joe Rogan after winning TUF 5 finale

No one wants to watch a TV show in which a bunch of dudes are sitting in front of the TV or reading. That’s why everything about the house on The Ultimate Fighter is designed to promote or even force interaction.

Cast members can play pool, play cards, play chess, cook, swim and otherwise enjoy everything that would’ve seemed like luxury to generations born before the age of electronics. They can even bring all the clothes they like as long as they’re free of logos, which explains why Lodune Sincaid had a gender-bending wardrobe and Shonie Carter had a never-ending supply of flashy suits. Food? Drink? No problem.

So aside from the lack of TV and the Internet, the fighters aren’t really deprived. But they’re in the bewildering predicament of being isolated without having solitude. They have no contact with the outside world but can never really escape each other.

And they can never escape the cameras. Never.

Tom Murphy: “It was a little weird when you woke up at 3 o’clock in the morning to take a leak, and a couple of kids were out there with cameras. You knew none of it was going to be on TV, but they just had to be there. It might have been a little better if the cameras were mounted. Having people there, it seems a little phony.”

“Even after six weeks, you’re not really used to them,” Matt Mitrione said.

That said, only a couple of fighters have snapped under the pressure of the fishbowl. In the second season, Eli Joslin needed only a few claustrophobic hours to realize he couldn’t handle the environment, becoming the first fighter to leave the show without being asked, telling White and the coaches, “It’s (bleep)ing too much like jail.”

And altercations between fighters and crew are rare. The big exception was in TUF 6, in which an ailing and frustrated Dorian Price slapped away a boom mike — a rare off-screen voice was heard saying, “You can’t hit my microphone, man” — and took a few angry steps toward the camera before a teammate hopped in. Price started packing when he got back to the house, figuring he was as good as gone, but Dana White gave the appreciative fighter a reprieve.

Joslin and Price are exceptions. Most fighters learn to live with the surveillance. Brian Diamond, who was with the show through its run on Spike, thinks that’s to be expected for a show that has matured along with the rise of social media. Fighters are active on Twitter, Facebook and YouTube in real life. Being open on a reality show isn’t that much of a stretch.

“Whether they’re fighting or hanging out with their buddies, they’re all shooting movies, shooting pictures, putting it on Facebook,” Diamond said. “I wouldn’t say they’re necessarily playing to the cameras, but they’re comfortable being around them and not as freaked out.”

Even in the first season, fighters knew the deal.

“You’re always going to be somewhat aware of them,” Kenny Florian said. “But it probably took around seven days before we started forgetting there were cameras around all the time. For the most part, we knew what we were getting into. We knew what we signed. We knew there would be cameras around all the time.”

And technology has made things a little easier for producers like Diamond: “Now you can do some more unmanned cameras that you couldn’t do five years ago. It makes it a little bit easier. There’s less for the guys to see in their peripheral vision.”

The guys also can seek out the camera for segments familiar from other reality shows — the confessionals.

Mitrione explains the filming: “It's a room in the basement. They tell you to come on in. They'll come get you. If something dramatic — which I was always in the middle of on my show — went on. They'd come by and grab you — ‘Hey, we’ve gotta talk to you for a little while.’ They’d bring you downstairs and have you talk about whatever. You can indulge, you can not tell them anything, you can play coy, you can do whatever. Talk about whatever, talk about your stresses, whatever you feel like talking about it. Whoever they want to be the focus of the show, they’ll give a lot of camera one-on-one time.”

The cameras are just one factor in the show’s alternate universe. Perhaps a much larger factor: 16 people, all of whom are fighters and many of whom will have to fight each other, are in the same space.

Noah Inhofer: “It wasn’t much about the cameras. The other cast members — it’s kind of an interesting situation to be locked in a house, 24/7, for several weeks with the dudes that you’re going to fight. We were all friendly and cordial with each other. But the underlying tone for the stuff that’s going on in the house is that you don’t know who you’re going to scrap next.”

And they have to divvy up the housework. Producers take care of the runs to the grocery store, but the house still has 16 guys … and one kitchen.

“And nobody does your dishes,” Mitrione says.

Clean-up and cooking provided plenty of conflicts in the early seasons. In TUF 2, a complaint over fighters failing to clean up was illustrated with a camera shot of a creeping cockroach. In TUF 3, Rory Singer flipped out over his castmates’ lax dishwashing efforts, and Matt Hamill annoyed housemates by asking everyone to cook for him. Kitchen conflicts popped up again in “The Smashes,” a 2012 season pitting British fighters vs. Australians.

The good news: aside from the occasional late-night game of pool and the Chris Leben-Josh Koscheck incidents of TUF 1, fighters will generally let each other sleep in peace.

“We trained 2x a day, and there is very little to do as far as entertainment goes in the house,” Tom Lawlor said. “Sleep was one of the most welcome things because that meant you had to spend less time awake in the presence of a bunch of people you didn't know, trying to force conversations they don't necessarily want to have.”

But no one can sleep (or drink) for six weeks. Eventually, fighters get bored and turn to unusual forms of entertainment. The producers are counting on it. Luke Cummo says the TUF 2 cast’s reticence to party hard and attack each other scared the producers a bit: “The producers had a meeting with us later in the season, saying that we weren't making good TV — only training, sleeping and eating. I played a lot of solitaire.”

By TUF 5, chaos was firmly set. Fighters knew what was coming but had little chance to change it. Rob Emerson was warned that fighters would start losing their minds after three days.

“Sure enough, after three days, you're sick of hearing the same guy tell the same story. You got so sick of everybody. You get homesick, you miss your friends. All you do is go back and forth from the gym to the house. … We became good friends with the camera guys. They would turn off the cameras and play music (on the way to the gym) so we could finally listen to some cool music. Just taking that stuff away from you -- you really see how much you appreciate music. They’d play music for us in the cars. You appreciate the little things at that point.”

That’s a good thing, because after the house and the gym, the vans become a third home. The show features a lot of footage of the Strip, and the training center isn’t far from the Palms casino. But is the house close to the scene?

“No, dude, no,” Mitrione says of the house used in TUF 10. “That's probably one of the worst things about the show. You're a legitimate 45 minutes from the Strip. You know the rules — there’s no media of any form allowed on the show. You have a 45-minute van ride with seven other big-ass dudes in a 10-person van. You get no music, to and from, twice a day. So for three hours a day, you just sit in the car, shoulder-to-shoulder with another dude, and you have to make fun of the people driving next to you or make fun of each other. And you do that every day for 45 days.”

In the 14 seasons that aired on Spike, the show could be edited to take almost any chronological form. Yet it’s still obvious when fighters have reached the point of wanting to be elsewhere. Midway through each season, the initial enthusiasm has died down. So have some of the conflicts, with people just preferring to keep their distance from the guys they don’t particularly like.

Rashad Evans: “Maybe two weeks in, you start to realize you’re in a situation that you’re not getting out of any time soon. It starts to really set in — that’s going to be your permanent reality for a while. Then you start get used to the cameras and the situation and get used to the routine. That was hard, once that set in. It kind of sucks. You’re like, ‘I don’t want to be here.’ You miss your autonomy.

“We felt bad complaining — we have anything we want to eat or drink, we could do what we wanted to do, but we felt trapped. Everything got boring. We exhausted all our entertainment pretty early. In the second week, we’re like, this is not going to go away, and the cameras are still here.”

Mitrione also felt the midseason doldrums. “About Week 2 or 3 on the show, you don’t want to be around another damned soul in that place for the rest of your life. And you have at least three more weeks to go. It’s brutal.”

By season’s end, Emerson had resorted to diving across a table loaded with various food and drink. An unnamed castmate encouraged him: “If you don’t survive this, I love you man.” He survived.

Emerson recalls: “Usually you see those movies in which the guy slides across the bar. I've always wanted to do that. I thought, ‘How bad could that hurt?’ You're just bored out of your mind at that point.”

In TUF 4, fighters started to lose respect for the house itself. Under some encouragement from Pete Spratt, Mikey Burnett decided to see whether he can run through one of the walls. He donned swim goggles for eye protection and ran at it. On the first attempt, he knocked a good round dent in the wall. The second time, he hit a stud and bled a little. The third made little impression, but the fourth left another pretty good dent. The next morning, he was a little bruised, and some insulation was showing in the wall. He said he knocked his kidneys loose. He also never fought again, though it’s hard to tell how many of his accumulated injuries were from fighting humans or from fighting the house. (Burnett unsuccessfully sued Zuffa and the show’s producers, though he did reach a settlement with an insurance company.)

The producers’ attitude toward protecting the house grew lax with each passing season. In TUF 1, Bobby Southworth, Leben and Koscheck were in serious trouble for damaging the property. By TUF 7, fighters didn’t seem to face any repercussions for a night of celebrating a go-karting excursion by destroying drywall, artwork, furniture and the occasional railing. Quipped Amir Sadollah on the show: “The house now looks like it’s been remodeled by an angry caveman.”

Little wonder the show started to use different houses.

In TUF 5, the house became a graffiti magnet. Nate Diaz wrote his area code, 209, all over the house. Team Penn then wrote, “Team Penn supports and loves the troops.” Rob Emerson, attacking the messenger but not the message, wrote, “Suck it Team Pulver” in the game room. Diaz was restrained from going after Emerson. Manny Gamburyan needed a bit more effort to restrain. Gray Maynard in confessional: “I knew Manny was nuts, but I didn’t know he was this nuts.” Corey Hill finally calmed him.

Emerson didn’t expect the hostile reaction he received but said, years later, he didn’t really think it through:

“I wrote on the wall just to make my teammates laugh. I didn't think a lot of people would see it. And again, I was just bored. It was out of boredom. You have no TV, no books to read, no phone, no connection to the outside world. They did that on purpose to make you lose your mind. Sure enough, by the third day, people got sick of each other already.”

In Emerson’s case, Diaz was the wrong person to annoy. Like his older brother Nick, Nate is a jiu-jitsu phenom with an unconventional, relentless striking attack. The Diaz brothers typically stalk their opponents and throw punches in bunches, and opponents are often unable to get the fight to the mat — or unwilling, given the brothers’ solid grappling credentials.

So Emerson was paired against Diaz in the cage, facing a devastating fighter who was also mad at him. The fight was an instant classic that won Emerson plenty of respect, but Diaz moved on.

The flip side: Fighters can become friends. What choice do they have?

Rashad Evans: “When you’re in that house, you get to learn people and know people at such a faster rate. In the real world, they have other social outlets to get all the hard days out. If somebody’s had a hard day, they talk to their wife, you talk to their best friend, you don’t necessarily talk to people they just met. But with the reality show, you’ve only got the people that you’re with. So you let down your guard a lot faster. You start to let people in on your emotional days, your sad days, your hard days. You get to know people at a faster rate because there’s no facade.”

Fighters may be sick of each other by the end of filming, but friendships can outlast the show.

Tom Murphy: “The best part of the show was the connections I made … The best thing was the connections I made and the friendships that I have. Rashad and I are still great friends, Keith and I are still great friends. Rich … led me to Jorge, I spend weekends up at his place helping him train.”

Michael Johnson: “I do stay in touch with a decent number of the guys. We all became pretty good friends almost like a temporary family. Regardless of the teams.”

The show even creates a community among those who have been through the unique experience of being in the house.

Ed Herman: “Yeah, I feel a bond with those guys (from other seasons) because we all went through the six weeks of hell.”

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: Beware the edit monster.