Sunday, 6 June 2010

The Ultimate Fighter and the Mixed Martial Arts Revolution Part 2

This article was featured in the June 2010 Issue of Fighters Magazine.

As the current season of The Ultimate Fighter draws closer to its explosive finale, it’s time to continue with the review of seasons past. The world had become much more acclimatized to The Ultimate Fighter in the wake of the explosion of interest in Mixed Martial Arts. The following seasons of the show would prove to be some of the most discussed for the events that took place both in, and outside the cage.

Season 5.
Coaches: BJ Penn & Jens Pulver
Winner: Lightweight – Nate Diaz
Quote of the Season: BJ Penn: “Does anyone see Gabe not giving 100%?”
Alan Berubie: “You just gotta stop giving 100% in the kitchen bro.”
Fight of the Season: Episode 3: Nate Diaz vs Robert Emerson

This season of TUF went out in April 2007 and saw all the participants fighting it out for just one contract. All of the fighters bought into the house were lightweights and the season was originally designed to bring some attention to the recently re-introduced 155lb bracket in the UFC. Who better to coach than two of the founding fathers of the division? Jens Pulver and BJ Penn had battled for the lightweight gold once before and Penn was hungry to avenge the loss and get his shot at Pulver. Also different was the fact that the coaches would fight in the live finale on Spike TV to add some more drawing power. The standard of fights in this series was very high, with the lighter framed fighters being able to push a faster pace in general.

Season 5 also bought together some very talented fighters, a few of whom had already tasted fighting for the UFC. Matt Wiman and Gabe Ruediger had both come up short inside the octagon but it was Joe Lauzon who came into the house with the biggest win. Lauzon had spectacularly upset Jens Pulver in his return to the UFC by knocking him out in just 47 seconds of the first round at UFC 63. Also in the field were Nate Diaz’s brother Nate and Karo Parisyan’s cousin Manvel Gamburyan.

It was clear that the fights inside the cage were going to be top quality but no one could have been prepared for the drama that was going to take place in the house. From the hot headed Gamburyan calling out the entire of BJ Penn’s team in the house, to the patio brawl that saw Alan Berubie, Marlon Sims and Noah Thomas all ejected. The single biggest incident that lives in infamy in the history of the show has to be Gabe Ruediger and his struggle to make weight.

Gabe had come in over twenty pounds too heavy and all his attempts to shift this weight, colonic irrigation and ice cream in bed, had not helped him out. Ruediger was picked to fight and the frantic battle to get him down 18 pounds in a day began. The subsequent montage of Gabe falling out of the sauna, sitting down moaning and passing out naked by the side of the swimming pool will always be linked to his career wherever he chooses to fight. He was ejected from the house by Dana White in customary fashion and will be inevitably remembered as the fat kid who ate too much cake even though it was, by his own admission, “just a small small piece.”
The finale would see Manvel Gamburyan dislocate his shoulder and lose to Nate Diaz and also BJ Penn choke out Jens Pulver in the main event. The UFC had set out to publicise the 155lb weight class with this series and with BJ Penn still sitting atop that mountain, it is clear that they were successful.

Season 6.
Coaches: Matt Hughes and Matt Serra
Winner: Welterweight – Mac Danzig
Quote of the Season: Matt Serra: “He’s trying to turn them all into Christians!!!”
Fight of the Season: TUF 6 Finale: Jared Rollins vs John Koppenhaver

Season 6 saw a return for Matt Hughes and gave TUF4 winner and newly crowned welterweight champion Matt “The Terror” Serra a chance to take the coaching role. Like the previous season, there was one weight category and one contract. The talent was arguably not as deep at the previous season but straight away favourites emerged. Mac Danzig had over twenty fights, was a King of the Cage champion and his last fight was for Pride FC. This experience was a far cry from the records of most TUF rookies. Amongst the rest of the fighters there were several promising contenders but it was clear that the experience and abilities of Danzig would give him a clear edge.

Once again this season pitted two coaches against each other who had a variety of personal issues. Serra laid his cards on the table really early and told Hughes that he had no intentions of being friends with him and that he was here to help the fighters. This was a very refreshing and professional attitude from Serra who, unlike Ken Shamrock had done previously, did not let his personal feelings and emotions get in the way of his responsibility to the fighters.
Outside of the fights there was far less drama this season than the previous offering.

Mac Danzig was perpetually grumpy and seemed to get more and more irritated as each day passed. He would have fought in the house with Team Serra’s Richie Hightower had it not been for the intervention of his team mates. The only real confrontation in the house came when Jared Rollins confronted Jon Koppenhaver over a toilet based prank that got out of hand. It took a swift double leg by Koppenhaver to stop Rollins from taking his head off but the two would have the chance to settle their differences at the end of the season.

The season finale was headlined by Clay Guida and Roger Huerta who put on a fight of the year performance in a phenomenal bout. This contest was far more exciting and unpredictable than the finale itself which saw Mac Danzig submit Tommy Speer in the first round. The Guida vs Huerta encounter proved to be a very good strategy for the UFC as they put a great fight as the headline of a free MMA card which drew them both viewers and new fans alike.

Season 7.
Coaches: Forrest Griffin vs Quinton Jackson
Winner: Middleweight – Amir Sadollah
Quote of the Season: Quinton Jackson “He netted me. I think Forrest found it very funny. Him and his chicken faced assistant coach. His ugly ass needs to be the one that gets netted!”
Fight of the Season: Episode 6. Dan Cramer vs Luke Zachrich

By the time the seventh season came along we all thought it was business as usual when the coaches were announced. Forrest Griffin was coming off his victory over Shogun Rua and the UFC were clearly happy that they had a legitimate title contender from their reality show. Although Matt Serra technically was the first TUF champion; Forrest was the first TUF champion with no prior UFC experience or exposure before he went into the house.

The formula had worked for the past couple of seasons so we were given two coaches who would fight after the finale, one contract at a set division but then came the real twist. 32 fighters showed up to the house that day. Dana White wanted to make sure he wouldn’t have another quitter on his hands so he made all the fighters win one fight before they were admitted. All the fighters looked somewhat taken aback by this, but of all the nervous reactions that were shown, the sharpest intake of breath was taken by Dan Simmler.

Dan Simmler is a nationally ranked grappler and had won several contests upon coming into this season. He unwittingly described his stand up as, “limited at best” during his pre fight interview. In what has easily become the most talked about knockout in TUF history, Simmler was put to sleep in the second round by a savage punch and two vicious hammer fists on the ground from wrestling powerhouse Matthew Riddle. Simmler was clearly unconscious but when he awoke he began wailing like a banshee and shortly afterwards could not remember anything about the incident. As Rampage went on to say he “broke his jaw a little bit” and picked up a serious concussion. This set the bar high for the rest of the season to follow.

One of the more enigmatic characters in the house was Matt Brown. Forrest called him an “unassuming gentleman” but after a ferocious win in his first fight it was clear that Brown meant business. It was Jeremy May, the joker of the season, who proceeded to try to rile Matt Brown by squeezing limes into his tobacco. This tactic worked and Matt Brown duly called out May and went on to knock him out with a first round head kick. In the words of Brown himself, “The only thing I hurt was my foot on his face.”

There were several characters in the house but early favourites CB Dolloway and Jesse Taylor looked set to meet in the final until CB was upset by the never say die attitude of Forrest Griffin-a-like Amir Sadollah. In a season seemingly defined by the twist at the start it was a colossal twist at the end that would have everyone talking. After the taping of the show Jesse Taylor went on a drunken rampage in downtown Vegas and Dana White was duly notified. Jesse was ejected from the show and CB Dolloway and Tim Credeur fought for the chance to meet Amir in the Final. CB was able to edge the fight out and made it to the final for a shot at revenge.

The Finale was another strong card of fights but this year there was not as many spots for the fighters coming out of the house. The battle for the contract saw a repeat of CB Dolloway vs Amir Sadollah and a repeat of the result and method as Sadollah was able to pull an arm bar victory out to win the season and the contract. The rest of the card saw the late Evan Tanner return and drop a decision to Kendall Grove and TUF1 winner Diego Sanchez finishing the always tough Luigi Fioravanti with strikes in the third round. Also worthy of a mention was the match between Josh Burkman vs Dustin Hazelett for one of the greatest submission victories of all time. Hazelett’s gravity defying armbar made it to hundreds of highlight reels around the world and it isn’t hard to see why.

In short TUF7 was all about shocks and, once again, although the depth in talent wasn’t necessarily the best that the show has offered; it was the entertainment value that kept the world watching.

Season 8.
Coaches: Frank Mir & Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira
Winners: Lightweight – Efrain Escudero
Light Heavyweight – Ryan Bader
Quote of the Season: Dana White: “This ain’t Survivor man. There’s no vote em off vote em off here. Vote em off... It’s more like beat em off. That didn’t sound good!”
Fight of the Season: Episode 12: Efrain Escudero vs Junie Browning

Same bat time, same bat channel. TUF 8 picked up just where the last season had left off; the fighters were expecting to have to fight to get into the house this time. Even so it was still a mystery why Jason Guida managed to come in overweight and was unable to make the limit. The prelim fights this season were a brutal affair and left several fighters unable to continue due to injuries.

In the house it was the antics of one particular character that was the focus of most of the attention. Junie Browning seemed to be reading a book written by Chris Leben many seasons back. Browning, however, was much more obnoxious and aggressive towards his fellow housemates and came very close to being ejected. Browning made the understatement of the season when he said, “There’s free alcohol in the house so that can’t be good.” Three times he was nearly thrown off the show for throwing items such as coffee cups and wine glasses at other fighters and jumping into the octagon making threats. Browning won his first fight in the house in unimpressive fashion only to be choked out by Efrain Escudero, who he had been verbally abusing for the whole season. It was just deserts to see Escudero get his revenge on Browning in the best way possible.

TUF 8 went back to having fighters across two weight categories and also clearly scouted around for more talent as we were treated to a much stronger line up. The two coaches, although competitive, seemed to have a good deal of respect for each other and as much as there was tension, it was one of the more professional coaching contests in the show’s history. I do wonder how fair it was, however, to make the coaches challenge a penalty shoot out. Brazil 10-6 USA.

The finale would be another interesting affair with BJJ ace Vinnie Magalhaes coming up short against juggernaut like Ryan Bader. In the lightweight final we saw Escudero continue what he had started against Browning in the house. Escudero out worked favourite Phillipe Nover through three rounds and went on to be crowned the TUF8 lightweight winner. As in previous seasons the card was bolstered by more well known UFC talent and the highlight of that was Anthony Johnson’s spectacular head kick finish of a very game Kevin Burns.

TUF 8 was, interestingly enough, the only season so far not to get a UK DVD release and a lot of critics were quick to point fingers at the UFC endlessly recycling the same television show again and again. What critics could not overlook was that of the depth of talent that came off that season. But what of Junie Browning I hear you ask? Junie won his fight in the finale and then went on to be submitted by Cole Miller at UFC Fight Night: Condit vs Kampmann. His next fight following this was against three nurses in a hospital in Nevada, one of whom was a female. Upon hearing this news Dana White immediately terminated Browning’s UFC contract and the rest of the world wondered how nobody else saw this coming.

Season 9.
Coaches: Michael Bisping & Dan Henderson
Winners: Lightweight – Ross Pearson
Welterweight –James Wilks
Quote of the Season: Michael Bisping: “England 1 USA NONE. Put that in your pipe and smoke it!”
Fight of the Season: Episode 10: Nick Osipczak vs. DeMarques Johnson

Season 9 of the Ultimate Fighter looked to pick up on the boom of MMA over in the UK and pitted Bisping’s Team UK against Dan Henderson’s Team USA. Once again fighters were required to win their way into the house and those preliminary fights told us a very different story to that of a few years ago. The British fighters came in phenomenal shape and were ready to go from the outset. All the UK fighters who made it onto the show put on some phenomenal performances and clearly impressed both the coaches and Dana White.

By contrast the American fighters were portrayed in an altogether different light. There were several fighters who needed replacing due to issues of not making weight and also due to an outbreak of herpes. The fighters who made it to the house were duly told by Dana White the intentions and desire that the UK fighters had shown in an attempt to motivate them.

When the teams were finally assembled, it was unclear who had the advantage in terms of fighters but it was never in doubt who had more team spirit. Bisping’s British bulldogs were a team from start to finish and worked hard to help each other out, irrespective of whether they had fights or not. The fights on the show were some of the more watchable contests in the last few seasons.

Perhaps the greatest irony that TUF has even seen took place in this season. Frank Leicester was picked to fight James Wilks and in typical brash American fashion, Team USA were seen offering Frank the sum of $100 per tooth that he knocked out of his opponent’s head. In a fantastic twist of fate Wilks was able to catch Leicester with a beautifully timed knee that not only knocked Frank’s four front teeth out, lodged them into his gum shield.

The finale was very nearly an all British affair and James Wilks put on a submission clinic to get a first round win over the only American in the final four, DeMarques Johnson. Elsewhere Ross Pearson was able to grind out a tough decision over Andre Winner at lightweight and the card was capped off by yet another Clay Guida fight of the year contender as he lost on points to Diego Sanchez.

With that we arrive at the present day. With the UFC raking in massive ratings with TUF10 it is only a matter of time before we see who the new face of the heavyweight division will be. The Ultimate Fighter was never meant to kick start the explosion we saw in the popularity of the UFC and the sport worldwide.

Dana White had frequently said that he hated reality television but the show had proved to be a master stroke. A new generation of MMA fans were introduced to the sport through the mainstream tool of reality television. The show allowed the fans to connect with the fighters and went a long way to dispel the myths that the general public had about the sport. The importance of The Ultimate Fighter can never be underestimated as it helped the sport expand in ways that were previously unthinkable.

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