I’ve seen a lot of responses to the return of TUF. Some have been enthusiastic about the return of the reality show that launched the UFC onto its course of becoming as mainstream as it is today. Most have been less than enthusiastic. Rather than run with my initial feelings about the return of the show – I hate the idea of it coming back – I thought I’d give myself a bit more time to digest the news. Perhaps some news would come out indicating some changes to the format. Maybe ESPN wants imprint their own brand onto the franchise. Unfortunately, I’ve heard nothing to indicate there will be any changes, and it’s been roughly a month since the announcement it was coming back. We’re still about three months away from the return, so there could still very well be changes to the format that became exceedingly boring, but I’ll assume those aren’t going to happen at this point.
Without going into too much detail, the reason why TUF was created in the first place was to find a way to connect the regular sports fan with the MMA fighter. It was 2005 and reality TV was still in its initial boon. Most people’s primary exposure to the sport was John McCain’s referral to it as “human cockfighting” or Campbell McLaren infamously declaring one of the ways to end a contest was through death. There was a disconnect of what type of people participated in the sport and what the general public thought of it. The first season provided soft-spoken coaches in Randy Couture and Chuck Liddell and a diverse cast of characters viewers could connect to and dispel the idea that the only participants of the sport were of the criminal element.
Since that time, the disconnect between audiences and the sport of MMA has largely been erased and there is no doubt TUF played a major part in that. For many people it was their first exposure to the sport. Up to the airing of the program on Spike TV, it was either exclusively on PPV, video purchases or rentals, and one fleeting showing on Fox Sports in 2002. In the present day, MMA is everywhere. ESPN has shown at least portions of a UFC event every weekend. The portions they don’t show? Available on PPV… which is through ESPN+. Plus, they also showed 10 episodes of DWCS since the summer and there’s countless other smaller promotions that frequently air. Bellator, LFA, Invicta, Rizin, KSW… that doesn’t even begin to cover all of the available MMA out there.
Speaking of DWCS, it covers the other major part that TUF did for years: introduce new talent to the UFC audience. For a long time, TUF was frequently the first exposure to audiences of up-and-coming talent. However, even though it still isn’t the ideal format, DWCS is far superior to TUF at showcasing what the young talent is capable of. In TUF, you’re sequestered for months in a house, largely just focusing on the tournament. Sure, you’ve got a mansion with things like a pool, billiards, and ridiculous amounts of alcohol to distract you. But does that outweigh friends, family, and coaches familiar with you to help you through the tough time? Not only do you have those things with you – remember that fighters don’t get to choose their coaches on TUF – you don’t have to cut weight multiple times in the span of six weeks. Cutting weight is no easy chore. Doing so too many times in a short period of time can have adverse long-term effects. I’ve never understood those who cheer for the return of the show but also claim to care about fighter safety….
On DWCS, fighters get to use their own coaches in their corner. They usually have more time to prepare for their weight cuts. I’m not saying the quality of the matchups on DWCS is top-notch – they’ve set up several combatants against less than stellar competition – but the matches tend to be more competitive than what TUF offers. Plus, DWCS offers a quick bit of the fighters personal lives and personalities before every fight. If you want to get to know the fighters further, there are many social media outlets fighters tend to frequent. Facebook. Twitter. Instagram. Many, such as Derrick Lewis, have used those outlets to great effect to build up their fanbase. Social media was in its infancy in 2005, MySpace being the only major outlet I can think of that was available at that time, and even that was still relatively new. Fighters no longer need TUF to get their faces out to the public.
Let’s talk about the health challenges TUF presents. The unique setup of the series – having everything occur within six weeks – creates a completely different sport. To earn a spot in the finals, fighters have had to fight as much four times within those six weeks in the past. That isn’t just four fights; that’s four weight cuts. Hell, CB Dollaway and Tim Credeur had a fifth fight just weeks after filming wrapped due to Jesse Taylor’s less than reputable behavior following the filming, adding another weight cut as well. I understand if the fighters are willing to do so and it’s their choice. But I also thought the job of a state athletic commission was to protect fighters from themselves when they could. Just sayin’….
Soon, the novelty of the new sport to the general audiences wore off and the show grew stale. The fights were rarely very good – fighters conserving energy for future weight cuts and protecting themselves from taking too much damage, the win being more important than how they won – and the antics grew to be obnoxious as opposed to entertaining. If I want to see a bunch of grown men jerk off into a fruit bowl, I’m not tuning into what is supposed to be a show about MMA. Jackass and all of it’s subsequent knock-offs can cover that. If I want drunken ramblings, I’ll tune into The Real World and all of it’s subsequent knock-offs. I realize I’m showing my age, but those shows are more or less of the same generation of TUF. The desire for audiences to watch those shows faded. The same thing happened with TUF. If it wasn’t true, why didn’t ESPN rush to have TUF brought over right away when they won the television rights to the UFC? They realized the audience didn’t care.
I don’t know for a fact that it was Uncle Dana’s constant badgering with ESPN executives that led to the show being brought back. But there is enough evidence out there for me to believe that was the case. During the COVID-19 pandemic, the UFC has been one of ESPN’s most reliable entities and I’m of the belief it allowed Uncle Dana to leverage the comeback of the show. He has an admitted soft spot for the show due to it likely saving the UFC. Completely understandable. Having a soft spot for a program isn’t enough of a reason to bring it back.
To close, I want to address the only argument I’ve seen coming from TUF’s defenders. It hasn’t been that the show is introducing young fighters; they know DWCS does that. It hasn’t been the in-house antics; I don’t know anyone who enjoys that at this point. It’s the historical nature of the show. Just because something is “historic” doesn’t mean it should be brought back. Horse and buggies were a historically popular mode of transportation. That doesn’t mean we’re bringing it back. There have been atrocities committed by mankind that were historical. Doesn’t mean we’re rushing to go back and repeat those actions.
All things have an expiration date. Think of your favorite entrée. Maybe it’s steak. Perhaps sushi. Fettucine alfredo. Whatever it is, when it’s fresh, it tastes fantastic. Some of them age quicker than other dishes, but they all reach an expiration point when it’s no longer good. At this point, TUF is expired. Let’s leave it in the past, where it belongs.