Wednesday, 21 April 2010

The Ultimate Fighter and the Mixed Martial Arts Revolution: Part 1

This article was first published in the April 2010 edition of Fighters Magazine.

This season of The Ultimate Fighter has drawn more ratings than any other in MMA history and, at the time of writing, peaked with viewing figures of 6.1 million. Dana White is never short of praise for what the reality show has done for the sport and how it transformed the fortunes of the failing UFC. It’s hard to think that a medium that Dana White himself was so scornful about could prove to be the saviour of his company and the catalyst for the global explosion in MMA. The format was simple. Get one house, fill it full of fighters and offer them a glittering prize, a UFC contract, and watch the carnage unfold as they fight each week in the octagon to take a step closer to their dreams. The show is currently in its tenth season and we hear the same arguments about reinventing the wheel every time a new season is announced. Having said this, the impact that the show has had and the fighters who have graduated from it can never be overlooked.

Season 1.
Coaches: Randy Couture & Chuck Liddell
Winners: Light Heavyweight – Forrest Griffin
Middleweight – Diego Sanchez
Quote of the Season: Dana White: “Do you want to be a fighter? That is my question.”
Fight of the Season: TUF 1 Finale: Forrest Griffin vs Steffan Bonnar

The first season of TUF was truly a landmark in MMA history. Spike TV began running the television show back in January 2005 and there were so many defining moments in this original series. Dana White once famously said that TUF was a “Trojan horse” to get the sport more mainstream exposure but even he couldn’t have predicted the impact that this show would have had. It is clear to see the fundamentals of this series are fine but there still remained some elements which needed work, such as the bizarre challenges which saw teams disassemble large logs, carry Randy Couture through the sea in an armchair and pulling canoes over a desert. Fighters were sent home without even fighting as a result of losing these challenges which lead to a great deal of controversy.
What surely cannot be debated though is the amount of modern day talent that came through the doors of the house in that season. Future champion Forrest Griffin is probably the pick of the bunch but names like Bonnar, Florian, Leben, Koscheck, Quarry, Swick and Sanchez are living proof of how deep that talent pool would prove to be.
However the defining moment of this season happened in the finale when Forrest Griffin and Steffan Bonnar were involved in, arguably, one of the most important and exciting fights in the history of the sport drawing unheard of viewing figures. The back and forth slugfest, which fans recently voted as the greatest fight in UFC history, propelled the sport into the stratosphere and also effectively doubled the buy rates for the subsequent pay per view. In simple terms the sport would not be at the level of global saturation that it currently is without this season of the show and for this reason alone its importance can never be underestimated.

Season 2.
Coaches: Rich Franklin & Matt Hughes
Winners: Welterweight – Joe Stevenson
Heavyweight – Rashad Evans
Quote of the Season: Rashad Evans:” Thinking about this makes me think what my Uncle Bernie used to say. He d say ‘Son, just be yourself, if people don’t like when you’re being youself... F**K EM!!’ ”
Fight of the Season: TUF 2 Finale: Brad Imes vs Rashad Evans

The UFC had changed a lot in the short time between the first and second seasons of The Ultimate Fighter and Zuffa were quick to change a few elements of the show. The challenges stayed but fighters were no longer eliminated for losing them, the fights changed from two to three rounds and the unlike Chuck and Randy there was to be no scheduled fight between the two coaches. Season two, however, is recognised as having some of the worst fights in the history of The Ultimate Fighter. The combination of the larger fighters coupled with the three round duration of the fights meant that we were forced to endure some painfully slow fights. Future UFC champion Rashad Evans’s first fight on the show against Tom Murphy is largely considered as the one of the worst fights in TUF history.
This season, like the previous one, contained a lot of very talented fighters who would go on to become mainstays in the UFC. Future champion Rashad Evans cut his teeth here and surely this season is a testament to his fighting spirit that he won the heavyweight division despite being the smallest competitor in his bracket. He subsequently cut to light heavyweight following the show and went on to become another TUF graduate champion, taking the title from Forrest Griffin at UFC 92. This season gave the fans their first look at Joe Stevenson, Marcus Davis, Melvin Guillard and Keith Jardine and also showed us the wrath of Dana White at fighters who failed to make the cut as Eli Joslin left because he was bothered by the cameras and Kenny Stevens left as he failed to make weight. It would be nice to say that future competitors learned from this lesson and did nothing to incur the wrath of Dana White but unfortunately that simply isn’t the case.
The TUF 2 finale picked up where TUF 1 had left off and both divisional fights were phenomenally fast paced encounters which drew huge applause from audience and critics alike. This season of The Ultimate Fighter proved that the first season hadn’t just been a fluke, and that the revolution that the Forrest Griffin and Stephan Bonnar had started that night in Las Vegas wasn’t about to go anywhere.

Season 3.
Coaches: Tito Ortiz & Ken Shamrock
Winners: Light Heavyweight – Micheal Bisping
Middleweight – Kendall Grove
Quote of the Season: Micheal Bisping: “What are you going to do if he catches you in a submission Ross?”
Ross Pointon: “Gonna smash his face in man.”
Fight of the Season: TUF 3 Finale: Ed Herman vs Kendall Grove

Season 3 bought us two coaches who, not only would be fighting, but had a long standing personal rivalry. As in the first season, the two coaches would collide after the show and the tension between Tito Ortiz and Ken Shamrock was obvious from the outset. This season finally saw the end of the challenge system and every fighter was required to win a fight to advance to the semi finals. This was to stop what had happened previously where certain fighters had avoided fighting and some had to fight multiple times. TUF 3 was also the first time we were shown European fighters in the house as Ross Pointon and Micheal Bisping were granted shots at the contract.
Season 3 was also the first time that the coaching offered was called into question. Tito Ortiz, despite his bad boy reputation, proved to be one of the best coaches in TUF history. His fighters undoubtedly grew in stature, confidence and ability in stark contrast to the way that Ken’s fighters did not. Ken often did not show up for training and legendarily on one training session instructed his team to watch some UFC fight tapes. It’s a real shame that watching fights doesn’t constitute training MMA these days as I would fancy a shot at Brock Lesnar If it did. The growing rivalry between the two teams was only exacerbated by Tito’s winning streak and when the finale happened, Tito had three fighters represented to Ken’s one. The inclusion of Ross Pointon and Micheal Bisping gave the UFC some much needed variation and both fighters proved to be both favourites in and out of the cage with Bisping going on to win the show and later to become the first Englishman to fight in a UFC main event.
The TUF 3 finale was another memorable encounter with lanky Hawaiian Kendal Grove squeezing a narrow decision over Team Quest’s Ed Herman at middleweight. The other final saw Clithero’s own Micheal Bisping bring the pain to another Team Quest fighter, Josh Haynes. Haynes battled bravely but was obviously outclassed and was saved by the referee in the second round when he could not defend himself. Another season of TUF, another host of new talent for the UFC and another ratings winner for Dana White proved once again that the mixed martial arts revolution had arrived and was here to stay.

Season 4.
Winners: Welterweight – Matt Serra
Middleweight – Travis Lutter
Quote of the Season: Matt Serra: “When you get the belt do you get a license to become a penis? Go back to the farm and do your bench pressing.”
Fight of the Season: TUF 4 Finale: Pete Sell vs Scott Smith

A lot of people look at TUF 4 as the difficult second album of the franchise. The season was titled “The Comeback” and it took sixteen veteran fighters from the UFC and rounded them up for another shot at glory. The winners of each weight category would get the usual contract, sponsorship with Xyience and all the other good things that come from the winning the show. More incentive however, was offered by granting the winner of the each weight class a title shot at the current champion. This season was very oddly structured in that there were no real team coaches, although there were special guest coaches from time, and the fighters training schedules were equally as sporadic.
TUF 4 had some of the worst viewing figures of any of the franchise but still created some of the most memorable moments in the history of the series. From Matt Serra’s Goodfellas style war of words with Mark Laimon and Matt Hughes to Jeremy Jackson’s ejection from the house for vaulting the fence to be with a lifeguard he’d met that day, TUF 4 certainly had its share of drama. By stark contrast the finale was more of a disappointing affair. Matt Serra managed to scrape out a unanimous decision win over Chris Lytle in a very uninspiring contest and Travis Lutter quickly submitted Patrick Cote inside the first round.
Fight of the night, and indeed of the season, had to go to Pete Sell vs Scott Smith. The fighters sat in the pocket and exchanged ferocious strikes and constantly high fived as they connected. In the second round Sell hit Smith with a rib cracking body shot that doubled his opponent over in agony. Sell rushed in on his hurt foe to finish what he had started but in doing so left his chin high and his hands low and with his last breath Smith hit Sell with a beautiful straight right and was forced the referee to stop the fight. Both fighters lay on the mat for a long time afterwards in a scene that resembled a car accident more than an MMA fight.
The two fighters who won their respective divisions, however, would make very different use of their title shots. Matt Serra was an 8/1 underdog going into his fight with George St-Pierre at UFC 69 but, in the biggest upset in MMA history, went on to stop the talented champion with a barrage of strikes from the mount position after rattling him with several power punches on the feet. Serra was the first champion to come through the doors of TUF and it served as great vindication to those who doubted the validity of the show.
Travis Lutter however was not so wise. He failed to make weight in his title shot against Anderson Silva at UFC 67 and as a result the fight was declared a non title bout. Lutter looked extremely fatigued and although he gained a few takedowns on Anderson Silva he eventually lost by triangle choke in the second round. To this day Lutter is the only fighter who has won The Ultimate Fighter and then gone on to be released by the company.

Next month I’ll look at season five all the way to season nine and hope to explain why it’s not a good idea to eat ice cream and try and make 155lbs and also try and recount the most brutal knockout in the history of the show.

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