A two-hour retrospective of the show’s first 24 seasons, then a two-hour season premiere of The Ultimate Fighter’s big 25th? Who has time to watch all this?
Hey, didn’t you spend the afternoon trying to reason with women’s soccer fans tossing accusations at you like spaghetti being flung at a wall?
Right. Four hours of TUF it is.
And the first two weren’t bad. Having spent a lot of my career at USA TODAY, I know what it’s like to aim something at a general audience while trying to throw in a few tidbits that might surprise the hard-cores. They struck a pretty good balance.
And they even went into TUF pre-history. The first sound after the intro was the wonderfully cheesy guitar theme for UFC 1, followed by Dana White’s abridged take on UFC history. Dana said he and the Fertitta brothers thought the UFC would be OK once they got back to normal pay-per-view distribution (out of the Dark Ages). But they weren’t. So they needed another TV vehicle.
Dana said he didn’t like reality TV. It always seemed scripted to him. Leave it to the ever-pragmatic Lorenzo Fertitta to deliver the best line: They were so desperate to be on TV, he said, that if the Food Network had called, they would’ve figured out a way to cook between rounds.
“Back then, you know, I was a dick,” Leben said as he explained why he spritzed on Jason Thacker’s bed.
Of course Forrest Griffin is around, talking about getting so bored that he would literally climb the rafters? “Were you drunk?” “No, dead sober. Just bored.”
And they have to get into the “Do you wanna be a (bleep) fighter?” speech. Technically, it probably should’ve been “Do you mind if we don’t pay you for this? We’ll totally make it up to you.” But it worked.
Last but not least in Season 1, it’s the Griffin-Bonnar Fight That Saved The UFC And By Extension Western Civilization. The ever-witty Bonnar recalls everyone, including Dana, being nervous beforehand. “I went to shake (Dana’s) hand, his hand was shaking!”
We get a cursory glance at the next three seasons, ending with a look at Matt Serra’s stunner over Georges St-Pierre. The “Can you believe this?” look on Serra’s face as he points to the belt never gets old.
Next up is a series of “Best Of” segments. “Best” is relative. The first “Best Moment” is Gabe Ruediger’s ill-fated weight cut.
Some TUF alumni on camera seem to have mellowed with age. Rashad Evans pays sincere tribute to Rampage Jackson’s trash-talking prowess, admitting Rampage often got the better of him. Urijah Faber says he enjoyed coaching against a certain brash Irishman. “I was there to hang, banter and personality-wise, with one of the best in the game, Conor McGregor.”
“Best personalities” turns into a plug for the “Redemption” season. Jesse Taylor gets a lot of screen time, saying everything happens for a reason, and he has become a better person since being kicked off the TUF finale for his drunken rampage through Vegas. Julian Lane also is there, offering no rationale for “Let me bang, bro!” “It’s like, whatever, you know what I mean?” No. I really don’t.
Sadly, Junie Browning isn’t there to talk about his colorful TUF tenure.
And we wrap the retrospective with a look at the show’s impact. Executive producer Craig Piligian is pretty proud. The show had drama, it had fun (curiously, they cut to the Noah Inhofer incident, which didn’t seem to be fun by any stretch of the imagination). “Hollywood and Vegas met, and it worked,” Piligian says.
Rashad Evans says every season brings you something new in the cast of characters.
“It gave people a chance to connect with us,” says Kenny Florian.
Dana White returns to point out that each of the first four seasons produced a UFC champion. And it’s gone global, so Brazilians can see what happens when Wanderlei Silva and Chael Sonnen get completely sick of each other.
“Just when you think it’s over, the guys come up with another concept,” Fertitta says.
“NOW … get ready for the 25th season. Fourteen warriors from past seasons return.”
So that’s two hours down, two to go.
We start with a thoughtful Joe Stevenson. “Sometimes, your biggest enemy is yourself. I ended up finding a friend in the bottle.”
“Every one of them has a story,” the narrator intones. “Now a select few get a second chance at glory.” And $250,000.
“It’s not about the money to me,” Stevenson says. “It’s about …
He pauses. What do you think he’s going to say?
It’s cliche, sure, but it works.
We check in with a couple of fighters. Jesse Taylor says he’s been fighting an uphill battle to get back in the UFC for 10 years. We get flashbacks with a slight sepia tint.
James Krause never actually got in the house, losing his prelim to Justin Lawrence. (Not current castmate Justin Edwards.) Then a big win streak got him back in the UFC, where he’s posted a respectable record and is the only guy in the house currently in the promotion. Why is he here? “I have unfinished business with this show.”
Julian Lane appears on screen. Again. My wife kicks me out of the room, and I have to move to the basement.
Dana hypes up the season with a $250,000 prize. Then, in a twist that probably made the first season’s cast scream, the fighters will get $10,000 per fight. Ramsey Nijem pipes up to negotiate a finishing bonus. Dana makes that an extra $5,000. Didn’t they cut the budget for this show?
The next segment is devoted to the B plot of this show, the Team Alpha Male soap opera. T.J. Dillashaw left Alpha Male to work with Duane Ludwig. Guess who’s his assistant coach? Cody Garbrandt is still with Alpha Male and its fearless leader, TUF coaching veteran Urijah Faber. Guess who’s his assistant coach.
Dana explains the season format. No “hammer” this season. Teams alternate fight picks.
All these guys have easily accessible fight records. But we’re still going to have “tryouts.” Garbrandt wants to interview fighters, which proves interesting when Gilbert Smith gets emotional, saying he’s one of the older guys and surely on his last chance.
Dillashaw wins the coin flip and opts to pick first. No surprise: Krause.
Garbrandt picks Seth Baczynski. That surprises Dillashaw, who points out Baczynski lost his last fight to ... Jesse Taylor, whom Dillashaw immediately picks.
The rest of the draft:
Cody: Mehdi Baghdad (TUF 22, beat upcoming main-eventer Artem Lobov)
TJ: Ramsey Nijem (TUF 13 runner-up)
Cody: Eddie Gordon (TUF 19 champion)
TJ: Dhiego Lima (TUF 19 runner-up)
Cody: Hector Urbina (TUF 19)
TJ: Joe Stevenson (yes, THAT one: TUF 2 champion)
Cody: Hayder Hassan (TUF 21 runner-up)
TJ: Tom Gallicchio (TUF 22)
Cody: Julian Lane (TUF 16 viral video sensation)
TJ: Gilbert Smith (TUF 17)
Cody: Justin Edwards (TUF 13)
Garbrandt sets the first fight, putting his top pick against Dillashaw’s last. That’s Baczynski-Smith. Geez, Cody — this guy pours his heart out to you, and you decide he’s the weakest link and needs to get put out right away? Harsh.
Dillashaw immediately picks the second fight, scheduled for the same day. He also selects his top pick, Krause, but he sends him out against Hector Urbina. Why? Because Urbina turned up weighing 196 pounds. Uh oh.
I’ll have to confess here -- I’m going to be rooting for the old guys with glasses. I can’t identify with the Cody Garbrandts of the world, with no discernible line between facial hair and body art. Gilbert Smith? He looks like he works with me on the PTA.
The show’s pacing hits a major lull. Hayder Hassan gets a random bit of screen time to give one of the most cliched confessionals since this show was old enough to have cliches.
But they return to rev up the Alpha Male drama. Garbrandt says he never liked T.J. At first, Cody figured it was just competitive friction. But now he just thinks Dillashaw’s a dickhead.
Cue the flashback to Conor McGregor baiting Faber, calling Dillashaw a little snake. Then back to Dillashaw, saying Team Alpha Male is like an ex-girlfriend. He still looks and sounds too young to have a girlfriend, but maybe I just watch too much Tommy Toe Hold.
But I think we have a TUF first: The first guy to get screen time talking about how much he enjoys listening to everyone else. Congratulations, Gilbert Smith. A flashback establishes context: In Smith’s TUF stint, Jon Jones picked him to fight first ahead of several teammates who may have had better arguments. Smith lost. “I felt like I was fighting my own teammates.”
Then another unusual thing for TUF: Home video of Gilbert at home. His ex-wife keeps him grounded. His youngest son is 14. That’s older than my oldest son. This guy seems tired.
Back to Garbrandt training, where Cody says they’re correcting some basic stuff with Seth. That’s not a great thing to say about your first pick.
Flashback to Season 11, where Seth was thrilled to be with Chuck Liddell and Tito Ortiz. He lost his fight to get in the house vs. eventual champion Court McGee, but an injury gave him a second chance. He beat Joe Henle, then lost on an illegal soccer kick DQ to Brad Tavares. “A devastating experience,” he says. Seth then went 4-1 in the UFC and was looking like a contender for the title, Dana says. He lost three in a row. Dana says it turns out he was dealing with some personal problems, but now he’s ready to go.
Then we get Baczynski’s horrifying family story. His younger sister was shot and killed. She had two kids. He’s raising one; his brother has the other. On a happier note, he has a farm in Arizona, where he has five kids and a goat who seems confused about whether he’s a goat or a dog.
And he’s thrilled to be back. “They dug me out of the grave.”
So that’s one fight adequately hyped. How about the second?
Well ... Urbina’s extra pounds aren’t coming off easily. The team is frustrated. He finally tells the coaches he has withdrawn.
Here comes Dana. Ominous music. Speech time? Well, it’s a mild one. Dana tells Urbina it was dangerous to try to cut that much weight, and you took the opportunity away from someone else. “Maybe next time,” Dana says with a hint of sympathy.
Advantage Dillashaw? No. Garbrandt gets to pick a replacement, and he calls in Johnny Nuñez. This is the second time Nuñez has been a replacement fighter for Alpha Male coaches — he lost his preliminary fight in TUF 22, but Faber brought him back.
Dana says Nuñez will simply replace Urbina, but he’ll get time to adjust to the house and gym, so the fight with James Krause will be pushed back. Dillashaw argues that his team has effectively lost a fight pick, and Krause is being unfairly punished by having to interrupt a weight cut and fight prep. Dana is unmoved.
Speaking of weight cuts, Gilbert’s effort apparently affects his mood. In his underwear, he struts up to some Team Garbrandt guys playing pool and says the coaches make a mistake in picking him first. They’re amused.
Smith keeps talking in the Dillashaw dressing room. “I beat guys that beat Seth.”
Don’t these guys know the dressing room wall is thin? They’ve been on this show before, right? Of course Baczynski heard him. No more Mr. Nice Guy.
So that’s prelude to a rather ludicrous confrontation. The teams are kept in the hall for some reason. Baczynski refuses to accept Smith’s semi-apology. Everyone grumbles. Garbrandt confronts Dillashaw and wham ... gets him with what would probably be an illegal trachea grab if this were an actual fight. Dillashaw is amused. Garbrandt is unreasonably impressed with himself.
After all that, Dillashaw’s last pick handily dominates Garbrandt’s top pick. Smith gets Baczynski down in each round and pounds him efficiently, taking his back and ending the first round chasing a rear naked choke. Baczynski has a shot at saving the fight with a guillotine, but he manages nothing else against Smith. Baczynski makes no excuses afterwards — he’s not hurt, nothing was unfair, he simply didn’t execute.
We have just enough time for Garbrandt to set the next fight, according to the new “alternating fight” format.
“From the snake’s team, Tom Gallicchio,” Garbrandt says. “Real original,” Dillashaw scoffs. Garbrandt takes offense and gets in Dillashaw’s face again. The camera cuts over to the rest of the cast, and Urijah Faber looks like he’s had enough of this nonsense.
Finally, Garbrandt completes the fight pick. Gallicchio will face Eddie Gordon.
Dana hypes Gallicchio. Sort of. It seems Tom has been hurt and has only fought once since TUF. He’s a massive underdog.
But Tom brings some needed levity at the staredown, asking Gordon, “You come here often?”
So here’s a suggestion in case there’s time to re-edit future episodes: Can we focus on the fighters? Or are we doomed to watch Garbrandt step toward Dillashaw like Nuke Laloosh calling out Crash Davis for the next 10 weeks?
The TUF Talk show that followed the premiere points to the latter. Not a word about Urbina’s shocking weight problem or Smith’s big win.
It’s a season with a lot of potential. The fighters have a lot of stories to tell.