Does The Ultimate Fighter want the best fighters or the most interesting personalities?
The problem, though, with competitions that are basically talent searches is that you eventually run out of untapped talent. The first American Idol was Kelly Clarkson, and while you may not like her song choices, you have to respect her voice and charisma. (Naturally, the SNL site doesn’t have the sketch in which she hounds subway passengers for money.) By the end of the show’s run, it wasn’t even the only singing competition on American TV. Did they even have any good gag auditions, or did they figure that was pointless without Simon Cowell around for a few good zingers?
The Ultimate Fighter at least has the advantage of multiple weight classes they can rotate. When the show launched, the UFC only had four operational classes. Now it’s 11.
And still, some seasons give the impression that UFC and Bellator have managed to sign every viable MMA fighter already. But other seasons turn up a few good UFC prospects.
For TUF 3, the show made a second pass through light heavyweight and middleweight in 12 months. But with the show gaining momentum, the talent pool wasn’t bad. The show went international, getting Michael Bisping and Ross Pointon from the UK.
And by the third season, would-be cast members were asked to show their grappling skills in auditions. Noah Inhofer found himself paired up with the one guy he had spotted that he was hoping not to fight: “Huge cauliflower ears, mean-looking dude, didn’t speak hardly any English, straight from Brazil.” But he says he held his own in a “super-awesome grappling match” for about 10 minutes and stuck around to make the cast.
But the producers decided to shake things up for TUF 4. After a couple of seasons of attracting fighters for auditions, the process was reversed. Veteran Chris Lytle said producers contacted him.
“They said they were having a season called ‘The Comeback’. They wanted to know if I’d be interested in doing that. I said absolutely. So they flew me out there to interview me, and they selected me.”
“The Comeback” was unique. The teams were chosen by a random draw, and all fighters worked with the same set of coaches — the ubiquitous Randy Couture, welterweight contender Georges St-Pierre, striking specialist Mark DellaGrotte and grappling guru Marc Laimon.
All of the fighters had UFC experience — some extensive, some as fill-ins. The winner would earn a title shot, and Matt Serra took advantage of his to take the belt from St. Pierre.
Many of the TUF 4 contestants had already fought each other. Matt Serra had lost to Shonie Carter and Din Thomas. Jorge Rivera had beaten Travis Lutter. On paper, Jeremy Jackson had a claim to be the favorite — he had beaten Carter, who beat Lytle, who beat Pete Spratt, who beat Rich Clementi.
So while all the fighters were capable of putting on a competent fight in the Octagon, they were unlikely to uncover any up-and-coming talent. Still, Patrick Cote developed into a title contender, Serra had a good run, and Lytle emerged as one of the most reliable “Fight of the Night” producers under the UFC banner.
The talent pool isn’t the reason “The Comeback” hasn’t been replicated (until TUF 25, at least) or why veterans don’t often make the cut in TUF tryouts. Well-traveled fighter Nick Thompson has a theory explaining why he has been passed up three times: “Apparently, I’m boring.”
But Thompson can see the logic. “The Comeback” needed the eccentric Shonie Carter and quick-witted Serra to provide any sense of drama. Thompson knows most veterans don’t provide that.
“I understand why don’t they don’t use veterans. Frankly, we’re boring. We train, eat and sleep right. We’re not drinking three days before a fight. That makes for boring TV. That’s why you’ll never see a veterans season again.”
Lytle is grateful he was at the right place at the right time.
“Every time I watch it, I’m so thankful I was on there with veterans – a lot of guys were in their 30s and everybody had been around the fight game for a while. We’d been in it before there was much money or notoriety. It wasn’t like you were doing it just to get on TV. You’d been fighting because you enjoyed fighting. You’d studied and trained. I was lucky to be on it when everybody was relatively mature. I watch these other seasons and I’m like, ‘Man, I don’t know how I could handle that. I’d have been upset the whole time.’”
(No, Lytle was not on TUF 25, the “Redemption” season which brought together fighters who’ve already shown a bit of fighting aptitude and a bit of personality on previous seasons.)
So for TUF 5, the show went back to unknowns and barely knowns. But rather than taking a second or third sweep through the top four weight classes, the show delved into the untapped lightweight talent pool. Jens Pulver and BJ Penn, both back in the UFC, would coach against each other and fight afterwards in a bout with immediate title implications. And the show expanded the pool of viable lightweights and brought in eventual UFC stalwarts Nate Diaz, Gray Maynard and Joe Lauzon, along with 5-6 more fighters who had substantial UFC careers.
And fighters had figured out how to stand out at their auditions. Or, at least, Rob Emerson had.
Spike’s Brian Diamond remembers it well: "I will never forget Rob Emerson walking into the room with fuchsia-colored hair, and he was wearing a thong, acting like nothing was wrong. He had his bottle of water in one hand and his phone in the other. He ‘accidentally’ dropped his water and went to pick it up. He turned around and bent over. We got a full view of his buttcheek. He turned around like nothing was wrong, sat in his chair and said, ‘How you guys doing?’ We lost it, and he had complete deadpan. Straight face."
Emerson says he went into that interview knowing a producer already liked his personality, and he had been advised to make sure he stuck out from the crowd.
“To make it better, the guy before me walked in with a suit and tie,” Emerson said.
TUF 5 had a good balance of eccentricity and fighting prowess. TUF 6 did not, and the talent roller-coaster began. (See a previous Bloody Elbow study comparing the seasons.)
The trouble with 16 fighters from the same weight class is depth. Getting 16 quality fighters from one class is a tall order, and TUF 6’s welterweight class wasn’t up to it. Champion Mac Danzig and George Sotiropoulos have had good careers. The next best fighter may have been an alternate named Jon Koppenhaver, who’s now known as War Machine and facing a long prison sentence.
Even after TUF 7 shocked the fighters with the “fights to get in the house,” some of the fighters were shaky. Coach Forrest Griffin lamented real-life teammate Cale Yarbrough’s shortcomings in a candid confessional: “Cale has no idea that MMA involves this ground stuff.” Champion Amir Sadollah wouldn’t have made the cut today. He arrived at tryouts with no pro MMA fights.
TUF 8 went back to having two weight classes. The light heavyweights have done well. The lightweights have been so-so, held back in part by Junie Browning’s personal issues.
For TUF 9, producers shook things up again, going country vs. country. The season proved the UK still had a few decent welterweights and lightweights to offer. The USA did not.
TUF 10 went back to the problematic heavyweight class and loaded it with a mixture of experienced guys (Roy Nelson, Wes Sims) along with some athletes making the transition from other sports. Some of the newbies showed some aptitude, particularly Matt Mitrione, Marcus Jones and Brendan Schaub. Others labored, and the season may be remembered for seeing guys run out of gas in two minutes. This sort of tournament, with several fights in a short period of time, will always be tough on the big guys. And the UFC was really looking for big guys, not moonlighting light heavyweights like TUF 2 champion Rashad Evans, who coached at TUF 10 and has seen the challenge of finding challengers for Junior dos Santos, Cain Velasquez, Brock Lesnar and the new-model heavyweights.
While the heavyweight season provided a few good names for future UFC cards, the next three seasons showed talent pools that had little to offer.
TUF 11 had an inspiring story with former drug addict Court McGee coming back from an early loss to get back in the bracket and win, but none of the fighters has made an impact in the UFC. TUF 12 had a couple of ringers in Nam Phan and Jonathan Brookins, along with some prospects in Michael Johnson and the quirky Alex Caceres, but not much else. TUF 13’s fights looked like The Ultimate Greco-Roman Wrestler or The Ultimate Cage-Leaning Competition.
By this point, some fighters had gone through the process multiple times. Even an eventual champion such as TUF 13’s Tony Ferguson.
“I tried out for The Ultimate Fighter three times. I went to the 185-pound one and made it all the way to the third round. They said, ‘Hey, you’re too small.’ The second time I flew all the way to D.C. and drove all the way to Charlotte. I didn’t make it out of the first round. Shit — pardon my French, but back to the drawing board.”
Ferguson actually got his breakthrough elsewhere, stunning Brock Jardine with a fourth-round KO to win the welterweight belt in California promotion Pure Combat.
“So I what I did was I went to that third tryout, and I brought everything -- all the aggression, everything that I’ve ever had for these years and said, ‘This is what I have.’” I did what my mom told me -- you kill them with stats. Three-time state champ, 152. Two-time All-American, national champion 165. I have a Pure Combat world championship belt. I was intense.”
Meanwhile, the show’s alumni found themselves defending the talent pool.
Amir Sadollah, at a fan event in Las Vegas before the TUF 13 finale: “I wouldn’t describe it as stagnant. What’s great is that it gives guys a platform. You get invested in the athlete. Some guys you like, some guys you don’t. The show does a good job of that.”
Ed Herman, in an interview after the TUF 13 finale: “I think The Ultimate Fighter’s still great. You see a couple of great guys every season. And that’s what you’re looking for. They can’t all be good. You get one or two great guys who can move on and fight in the UFC, that’s awesome.”
But TUF, like Season 11 champion Court McGee, was more than capable of a comeback. And it wasn’t the heavyweights but the little guys who pulled it off. The UFC had fully absorbed corporate sibling WEC, bringing the featherweight and bantamweight classes into the fold, and TUF 14 brought in a strong group of smaller guys.
New weight classes always help. TUF 18, the Ronda Rousey-Miesha Tate season, had some forgettable men’s bantamweights and a good group of women’s bantamweights. TUF 20 crowned a champion of the new women’s strawweight class, bringing in 16 compelling fighters. TUF 24 rounded up the world’s best flyweights in a desperate attempt to find some challengers for Demetrious Johnson, and the jury’s still out on that one.
But the UFC can only add so many new weight classes. Women’s flyweight should work, but that might be the last one.
The key after that is finding the right rotation. The lackluster fights on TUF 19, with the oversaturated middleweight and light heavyweight classes, made Dana White go into full rant mode.
TUF 25, with a bunch of TUF alumni returning, would be compelling as a gimmick. Then with TUF 26, the pressure will be on to find more fighters who can keep things interesting, either with great fighting skills or a clever audition. Preferably both.
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: Inside a TUF tryout.