The Ultimate Fighter isn’t the only way into the UFC. Most fighters still ascend through the regional organizations to the big show.
So why does the show draw hundreds of applicants each season? Why have several fighters signed on for another trip to the TUF house in the “Redemption” season that starts airing Wednesday?
“It was kind of frustrating – I’d fought in the UFC several times,” Lytle says. “That was right when the sport was starting to get popular but it wasn’t that popular. You saw all these new guys who hadn’t fought in the UFC before, and a lot of them didn’t have too much fight experience. All of a sudden, they were the big thing. Everybody knew how they were. They were able to get a lot more sponsors and a lot more money than other guys that had been fighting for many years and didn’t have the name recognition. Just the ability to get on there, especially when I heard they were giving a title shot to the winner, was a no-brainer.”
Nam Phan also had plenty of experience before his TUF time: “I had a pretty good career, but I felt no one knew who I was. I figured the best way to get recognition was to fight in the UFC. But I thought if I want to maximize my popularity and get more well-known — and also to represent the Asian community in the limelight — I felt the best way to go about it was to get on The Ultimate Fighter. That way I can hit the mainstream audience and also the hardcore audience.”
In other words, brand-building is a big draw. TUF 12 runner-up Michael Johnson put it succinctly: “I felt the show was the greatest way to get into the UFC and it also provided me a chance to make a name for myself and have the fans know me as a person.”
But it’s not just fame and TV. Lytle relished the opportunity to devote himself to fighting for a few weeks. “Personally, I’d never gotten to train like that. I had a job and a family. To be able to train full-time and have an opportunity like that was a dream come true.”
Kenny Florian saw the show as a chance to explore the sport:
“I just thought it was a real cool opportunity. I really had no idea that I would be a professional fighter. It was something I was trying at the time. I just kind of did MMA more as a test of my Brazilian jiu-jitsu skills than anything else. I never wanted to really learn the wrestling and learn the Muay Thai. I wanted to apply my Brazilian jiu-jitsu skills against another skilled fighter. That’s really what I wanted to do. It was on the show that I saw the beauty of all the other arts of mixed martial arts, and I really wanted to test myself in that realm. Prior to that, it wasn’t something I was that excited about. Being on that show, it started bringing out the competitive side. It showed me: I don’t have a lot of experience, but I can hang with these guys who have more experience than me – let’s give this a shot. Maybe I can be successful at this.”
After the first season aired, aspiring fighters like Rashad Evans saw a path to do what they wanted to do:
“After watching the first season, I was impressed. I was impressed with the way the show went and the amount of exposure that it had. At the same time, I thought I could do better than those guys. I thought, ‘Those guys are pretty tough, but I’m better than those guys.’ So I wanted to on on there and show what I could do a little bit.”
Ed Herman had a chance to bypass the show but passed: “The UFC offered me a contract before I was on the show. They said you have a choice -- you can be on the show, or you can just fight for us now. I went with the show because I thought it’d be good for my career in the long run.”
Still, a few fighters were skeptical. Tom Murphy: “I didn’t really want to do it. I kept saying no – stop, I’m busy. When it happened, you get wrapped up in the excitement of it. I was a bit older than some of the 20-year-old kids that get on the show, but you get wrapped up in the excitement. At that time, it was nothing. To be involved in the inception of it was kind of appealing, kind of sexy. You know you’re going to be on television, and you have no idea what that means. I had a great boss at the time who said he would hold my job. Life is about experiences. If I waste 40 days of my life – it’s like making a business investment. You’ve got to calculate them. If I waste 20 grand, it’s not too early to dig out of that.”
When the show opens up new weight classes, the opportunity to get in on the ground floor is tantalizing. Lightweight Rob Emerson says he was offered a contract with the International Fight League but got a call and found that a TUF producer liked his personality.
“This was the opportunity that presented itself. I just wanted to get in the UFC. At the time there was no 155-pound weight class. I knew I was one of the more talented guys. I thought what better way to get in the show than to start fighting with that weight class.”
And for newbies like Matt Mitrione, switching to MMA after a football career, TUF is a good avenue for those with little time to waste: “I think the biggest reason to be on the show was that it was an interesting way to test myself. It's a fast track. I was older. I didn't have time to waste on the B or C-league shows.”
Coaches also can benefit from the exposure, particularly when they’re scheduled to fight each other.
TUF 1’s Chuck Liddell and Randy Couture may have acted more like camp counselors than rivals, but the show still fueled the hype for their light heavyweight title fight, one of the biggest bouts in UFC history.
TUF 3 set the tone for memorable seasons down the road, putting the spotlight on the long-raging feud between Tito Ortiz and Ken Shamrock. That formula continued in TUF 5 (B.J. Penn vs. Jens Pulver), TUF 6 (Matt Hughes vs. Matt Serra), TUF 9 (Dan Henderson vs. Michael Bisping) and TUF 10 (Rashad Evans vs. Rampage Jackson).
TUF 11 brought Ortiz back for another feud, this time with Chuck Liddell. They traded barbs until an injury forced Ortiz out of their scheduled fight, and Franklin -- who had no beef with Liddell -- came in to finish the season. TUF 12 featured the perpetually angry Josh Koscheck spending most of the season trying to get under Georges St-Pierre’s skin only to find the dignified Canadian was a master of psychological judo, easily deflecting attacks.
TUF 13 is the exception of the last six seasons on Spike. Perhaps Brock Lesnar was expected to bring the feud -- he spent many years in pro wrestling and had been traded nasty insults with Frank Mir before and after their title fight. But Junior Dos Santos, a polite Brazilian who was busy sorting out a problem within his own coaching staff, never riled Lesnar. And Lesnar, still recovering from a health scare, also was busier sorting out conflict within his team.
Leave it to unrepentant trash-talker Bisping to end the Spike years with the show’s funniest feud, as he matched wits with the unique comic stylings of former Bully Beatdown host Jason “Mayhem” Miller. Bisping did his image no favors with some over-the-top bullying in the rare moments in which he had the upper hand in the early rounds, but assistant coach Tiki Ghosn helped him compete very well in an amusing prank war. After the pranks, the Bisping-Miller talk turned less venomous and more entertaining. (Given Miller’s problems in subsequent years, it’s strange to watch this season and see him as the voice of reason.)
In the Fox years, the feud-fueled seasons continue to be more memorable. Urijah Faber provided some promotional boosts in his matchups with Dominick Cruz and Conor McGregor. We may forgive Ronda Rousey and Miesha Tate for their insults, but we’ll never forget. Meanwhile, the Frankie Edgar-B.J. Penn season left little impression.
Some fighters, like Matt Mitrione, knew before they debuted that it was better to be disliked than invisible.
If you’re going to be on that show, just don’t be forgotten about. That’s the worst thing you could do. My ideology about doing a reality TV show really paid off -- win or lose, if you build yourself a name you'll be OK on that show.
How many people remember Demico Rogers or Wes Shivers? As soon as they lost, they were not really seen or heard from again. Darrill Schoonover — people just remember him being named "Titties" because he wasn't as much of a character. You go on there and take advantage of it, turn it into a game show, take care of business and get at least one win in the house, then you can behave any way you want.
Tom Lawlor’s done a great job. I didn’t watch that season, but I’m sure he made a spectacle of himself or wasn’t forgotten about. Tom's a self-marketing genius. And the UFC really is your own business. How much can you build your own brand and everything else? If you can hold your own in front of a microphone, if you can present yourself in a somewhat respectable light, you’ll probably be OK in the UFC if you win more than you lose.
I think I'm pretty likable for the most part. I have douchebag qualities, but I try to keep them to a minimum as much as I can. I feel like people started to see the real me. I was dicking around on the show, but I'm a legitimate worker, I do care about this sport, and I want to be good. I don’t want to be an also-ran. I think people see that and give me some kind of respect for it.
Or maybe most of the audience is douchebags, too. So they just kind of like me because I’m a douchebag.
And still, some fighters and coaches have understood that their representing the sport — in the early days, not just inventing their own brands but re-inventing the UFC’s.
So after Bobby Southworth, Josh Koscheck and Chris Leben had their night of nastiness at the house, Randy Couture set the tone onscreen in TUF 1, taking the cast to task for some in-house shenanigans:
You guys were all brought here to be ambassadors for this sport, to send a message to this entire country about who we are, what we stand for, the kind of people that come into this sport and fight in that cage. You should be able to walk away from this, whether you win or lose, and hold your head up high and say yeah, I did my part, I showed them what MMA was all about. So far, you guys are letting me down and everybody else down that’s worked this far to get this sport where it is. It takes a lot more than fighting in that cage to be a champion. You’ve got to do what it takes outside of the cage. Represent this sport with honor.
After Couture said “letting me down,” the camera cut to Kenny Florian, whose head sunk. Florian, looking back on the show, says Couture’s speech hit home.
“He brought us back to reality. We are being filmed. What we do is going to be broadcast to kids, families, your own families. And it is important that we show the professional side of the sport. We aren’t there to screw around and make asses of ourselves. … The fact that it was Randy Couture saying that – how could you not respect and seek out what a guy like Randy Couture is going to tell you?”
But the fighters already had a sense that they were representing their sport. Early in the season, Southworth told viewers the difference between competing and hurting people: “Nobody’s here trying to hurt anybody. That’s what people don’t understand about mixed martial arts. I’m not here to hurt people. I don’t like fighting, and I don’t like hurting people. I like competing.”
TUF 2 continued to use fighters’ words to reshape the UFC’s image. Jorge Gurgel told viewers, “My main message here, besides me winning the whole show, is to make the general spectator understand that we are professional athletes who deserve the respect of a professional football player or a professional basketball player.”
And so few people have regrets.
Kenny Florian: “I wish I’d performed better. I wish I’d had more experience prior to going on the show, but I’ve learned to not really regret anything in my life. I learned a lot since that experience. If I’d decided not to go on the show, who knows what I’d be doing today? I’ve loved martial arts my whole life. From being around it, I ended up being in the right place at the right time, and I ended up doing some amazing things in my life because of it. So I’m very grateful for it.”
Nam Phan: “You go onto this show, expecting the worst and hoping for the best. I just did my best. Me being a good person trying to represent myself. I could only control what I do to represent myself and my community. All the things that happened, all the bad things and so forth, it was worth it.
Chris Lytle: “I learned a lot. I was ignorant on how other people trained, and I learned a lot of new techniques. I learned how people think. I was glad to get to go there and train like other fighters do. I could see a little more potential in myself that I don’t know if I’d ever gotten to see if I hadn’t gone there and done that for that amount of time. … After I lost my finale fight with Matt Serra, I said I’m just going to go out there and fight. It doesn’t matter any more if I win or lose. Since I’ve changed my attitude like that, they show my fights every time, I win bonuses and people are liking it. I don’t know if it’s the TV show or the way I fight, but something helped me out.”
Matt Mitrione: “I gained a tremendous amount of perspective on a lot -- on fame and notoriety, public opinion, family, social relevance and professional relevance. I learned a tremendous amount. … It was the ‘worst best experience’ of my life.”
Ed Herman: “I would definitely recommend it to a younger fighter. It’s a great way to get your name out there. It’s a great opportunity to get some good coaching you may not be able to get somewhere else.”
Tom Murphy: “Would I do it today in the same position in life? Sure I would.”
Bobby Southworth may have more reason to complain about his depiction on the show than anyone else. He wasn’t expecting to make a quick weight cut. And he had to fight twice before most people had stepped up once. Yet even he views it as a net positive: "People saw both sides of me on national television, and they tend to remember the negative rather than the positive. I did say those things, I tried to apologize for those things, and the guy I said those things to has forgiven me. Even with all the things said and done, I would probably do it again if I could."
Michael Johnson also would do it again, on one condition: “I would only do it again if we could leave the house or get a TV!”
And more recently, Roxanne Modafferi found the show revitalized her career: “The biggest things I gained were about training. I had been training in Japan for eight years and the training methods were so behind. On TUF, I learned how a professional fighter is supposed to train, diet, cut weight, and do strength and conditioning. If I hadn't had that experience, I wouldn't have moved to the USA and joined Syndicate, would have been totally surpassed, retired.”
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. None of that would’ve happened without the show. So I’d have to put my hand out and shake Dana’s and everybody’s hand and just thank them. They gave me something I probably would’ve never had.”
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.”
Kenny Florian: ‘There’s a special bond within the fighting community. You have a lot of respect for each other.”
Even if some people ditch their TVs.
Matt Mitrione: “The Ultimate Fighter really skewed me away from watching reality TV and anything of the sort. I haven’t watched any of The Ultimate Fighter since my episodes. As a matter of fact, I don’t even have cable.”
And yet he’s still drawn to the reality.
“I drove by the house the last couple of times I was in Vegas. I always wanted to go up to the door and say, ‘Hey, I lived here for a while, can I see how it looks normally?’ But I never have. I've been in the driveway, but I’ve never gone up.”
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. Many thanks to Bloody Elbow for giving this work new life.