(Matthew Polly is the author of American Shaolin and the freshly-released-in-paperback Tapped Out, his journey through the world of mixed martial arts. He’s also written for Slate and Playboy, but I think his work here at Fightlinker will be what he’s remembered for. Now he returns to the warm jackal’s bosom as our guest blogger for October.)
I’ve grown to hate TUF. Actually, it’s worse than that. I don’t hate TUF: it bores me. Apparently, I’m not alone. TUF’s ratings have dropped to a dismal 600k viewers. In comparison, the premiere of Brand X with Russell Brand had 1.1 million. If the TUF numbers fall any further, Fox may be compelled to move it from FX to Fuel.
We all know the backstory. The Ultimate Fighter reality show saved The Ultimate Fighting Championship promotion from bankruptcy and thus saved the entire sport of MMA. Having bought the company for $2 million in 2001, the Fertitta brothers burned through $50 million in four years and were on the verge of off-loading it at a fire sale when they decided to double down on a show they had to fund themselves and give to SpikeTV for free. The first season was a surprise smash hit and the rest is history. The $2 million company was now valued at $2 billion, and MMA became the hottest new sport in the country.
Most of the credit is given, and deservedly so, to the final smash-mouth brawl between Forrest Griffin and Stephan Bonnar. But no one would have ever seen that fight if the entire season hadn’t been brilliant reality TV. I still vividly remember the part of Episode 5 that started with Bobby Southworth calling Chris Leben a “fatherless bastard” and ended with Leben punching down doors like an alcoholic Superman. That crazy shit was emotionally gripping, like an episode of Intervention.
TUF doesn’t need to reinvent the wheel. It just needs to go back to what worked at the beginning. Here are my suggestions.
Bring Back Contests: Reality shows work because of their unreality. Sixteen strangers on an island, celebrities in a dance contest, bachelors in a dating contest. The best part of TUF 1 & 2 were the stupid contests—team tug of war—because the very stupidity took the fighters out of their comfort zones. Based on personal experience I can tell you that an aspiring fighter’s life is pretty monotonous. It consists of eating six times a day, training twice a day, sparring hard once a week, and talking shit with your fighter roommates all the time. TUF isn’t a reality show; it’s a documentary we’ve already seen sixteen times.
Coaches’ Fight Should Matter: Season 1 had Liddell and Couture, the two biggest names in the sport. Season 3 had Tito and Shamrock, the two biggest rivals in the sport. Jones versus Sonnen is like a fake version of GSP versus Koscheck: Jones is a fake good guy, and Sonnen a fake heel. The only truth is that we already know who is going to win. That’s not a sport; that’s the WWE.
Pick A New Location: Survivor survives because it didn’t stay on the same fucking island for seven years. Jersey Shore dropped Jersey for Miami after one season. Las Vegas was fresh once or twice, not sixteen times. I get that Vegas is convenient for Dana, but it is played out. And there are so many more interesting places to go: Beijing, Tokyo, Bangkok, Moscow, Dubai, Sydney, etc. If those are too far, try New York City for starters, where the sport is still illegal but the nation’s media resides.
Elite Contestants: Here is a partial list of the TUF 1 contestants: Forrest Griffin, Stephan Bonnar, Mike Swick, Josh Koscheck, Kenny Florian, Chris Leben. Here are the three most successful graduates from TUF 12 (GSP vs Koscheck): Michael Johnson, Cody McKenzie, and Nam Phan. See the difference? You won’t see talent like Erick Silva or Glover Teixieira on TUF, because no elite prospect wants to participate. It’s a shitty experience with a shitty reward, and therefore it attracts shitty fighters, who will never be Top 10 contenders. If I wanted to watch a bunch of second-rate scrubs compete in a tournament structure every week, I’d watch Bellator.
Better Prizes: A six-figure contract seemed great in 2005, until everyone figured out it was three years of indentured service at a rate far below what the UFC pays top prospects from the regional promotions. Worse, many of the contestants who lost also got UFC contracts. So what was the point of winning? Make the prize life transforming, like $500k, a Ferrari, and a date with Arianny Celeste. Now that’s something I’d watch.