The Ultimate Disappointment
The Ultimate Fighting Championship owes its rise to prominence to America’s most recent guilty pleasure: reality TV.
As the premier fight organization on the planet, The Ultimate Fighting Championship is the ultimate proving ground for Mixed Martial Artists. The UFC boasts a rotating roster of fighters that dominate nearly every notable top ten ranking system. With notable current and former champions such as Chuck Liddell, Anderson Silva, Georges St-Pierre, and BJ Penn dotting the promotional highlight reels, there is simply no disputing it: the UFC -- and Mixed Martial Arts -- is here to stay.
To what aspect of its business plan, then, does the UFC owe its current mainstream success? While MMA purists, myself included, would like to believe that the inherent blend of beauty, finesse, and martial technique has finally caught on with an audience grown bored of the tedious 12-round affairs and promotional politics of the boxing world, such is not the case. Sure, there is perhaps no other sport on the planet with as many educated, die-hard fans as MMA at present, and, with the UFC’s aforementioned mainstream cable domination, even casual fans continue to expand their knowledge of the intricacies of the sport with each pay-per-view broadcast. But the truth of the matter is that the sport’s largest brand can admittedly (as UFC president Dana White has noted) attribute its 2005 financial resuscitation to America’s most recent guilty pleasure: reality TV.
The Ultimate Fighter series was a last ditch effort by league owners the Fertitta brothers and company to spark widespread fan interest in a dying brand. The setup was simple, and it worked: put 16 hungry up-and-comers with established pro records into a house in Las Vegas and completely cut them off from the rest of the world (no TV, no radio, no phone calls, no Internet). Then, force them into a small replica of the UFC’s own octagon and encourage them to duke it out for bragging rights and a six-figure UFC contract -- all the while painting them as tough-talking amateurs without the skill and training to make it to the big time on their own.
The ensuing and beautiful chaos that followed saw Forrest Griffin take a unanimous decision victory over Stephan Bonnar in a fight that many consider the most important in the sport’s short history. And while there is no denying the truth of that, it was not solely this pitch-perfect, back and forth war between the two Season 1 finalists that caught America’s attention (there are a slew of better fights out there). Rather, what sent the UFC into the stratosphere of MMA promotions was the public’s ability to view the spectacle on free television in the first place.
Luckily for the UFC, their reality TV concept rescued the company from certain demise -- and did so with flying colors. The only thing better than watching a group of young, unrehearsed journeymen jockey for social dominance in a fancy Vegas complex was getting to see their very real rivalries develop and (at least most of the time) get resolved in a very rough and real fight, all in one hour of primetime action.
Still, with that history aside, excuse me if I don’t sound very enthused in my discussion of the most recent season of TUF (the eighth one, for those counting). The Ultimate Fighter: Team Nogueira vs. Team Mir was one of the worst entries in the series to date. The cast was as surprisingly uninteresting, unexciting, and unfulfilling as the majority of the season’s bouts, many of which went to lazy, dry-heaving decisions in which several of the 16 fighters showcased actually seemed genuinely amateurish, not only compared with their UFC idols, but also with casts of past seasons.
Spike TV’s lame attempts at promoting episodes by showcasing now-infamous contestant Junie Browning undergoing yet another one of his Bruce Banner-esque transformations into a drunk, raging punk may have possibly pulled in a solid number of viewers, but it did so for the wrong reasons. Not only does Browning resemble a far less menacing version of TUF 1’s Chris Leben, but he also fails -- unlike “The Crippler” -- to back any of it up during his over-hyped fights. The inexperienced fighter could barely get through a solid training session, never mind a full contact Mixed Martial Arts contest. Here’s to hoping Junie has either turned over a new leaf since his departure from the realm of television and his move to the training team Xtreme Couture, or that he is beaten soundly and suitably tossed from the UFC’s stacked lightweight division in short order.
While I understand and even appreciate the UFC’s desire to separate itself from other well-established sporting venues with the use of reality TV (specifically professional boxing, whose own reality program The Contender has been far less successful), their reality tournaments have devolved into an over-promoted, convoluted, and far too familiar formula of rebellious male testosterone with a rapidly declining collective IQ. Of course, the decision to completely isolate these men from the social groups they have relied on for their entire lives and instead provide them with a highly destructible environment (plus a liquor cabinet that is seemingly replenished by house elves every night) under the pretense of creating a “focused” training environment, doesn’t help.
This is not to say that every fighter in the house this season is an alcoholic eighth grader in a gangly man-fighter’s body; in fact, in my opinion all four men who competed in the finale (Phillipe Nover, Efrain Escudero, Ryan Bader, and Vinicius Magalhaes) are fine representations of the sport and more than capable of holding their own in respectable TUF history. It’s just a shame they were overshadowed and generally mismanaged by the production crew to such a degree that their collective screen time probably stacks up to roughly half of the mindless antics from the likes of Junie Browning.
Of course, TUF’s main job -- aside from juggling entertainment responsibilities with an attempt to convince the viewer that one of the cast members could wind up being the biggest star since the ubiquitous Chuck “The Iceman” Liddell -- is to hype up pay-per-view events between its highly respected UFC veteran-coaches. While devoted fans will have tuned in to the show's final matches on UFC 92 regardless of the hype machine, current coaches Frank Mir and Antonio Rodrigo “Minotauro” Nogueira -- the latter being one of the most respected heavyweights in the sport’s history -- were similarly mishandled and under-represented for the majority of the season.
Mir, a submission specialist and former UFC heavyweight champion with notable wins over former champ Tim Sylvia and current champ Brock Lesnar, was portrayed as somewhat cocky, short-tempered, and generally unresponsive to his team. Nogueira, on the other hand, was presented as a calm, collected, and even nurturing father figure, his presence clearly improving his team’s quality of life while filming the show. Regardless of how the two coaches were portrayed, though, the only hint of a rivalry between them could be summed up by the season’s plain, uninspired logo. As a result, I couldn’t have cared less. Nogueira wanted to beat Mir’s ass for the sake of his team, while the latter’s tone bordered on reverential hero-worship when he spoke of the man he would face on the year’s final card.
The bottom line is that, while The Ultimate Fighter is inarguably responsible for the revival of the UFC into the sports giant it is today, Season Eight simply got something wrong. Maybe it was poor casting choices, maybe the coaches weren’t big enough draws for casual fans, or maybe an over-saturation of recent TUF seasons (eight in three years) has numbed a large section of its target audience. Whatever the problem, Season Nine seems poised to right the ship, as a much more alluring US versus UK theme is already well in the works. Following that, I would suggest a complete formula change for future reality programming (rumors of such have already begun to swirl). The fans deserve better, the fighters deserve better, and, more importantly, the sport deserves better.
For, despite the UFC's burgeoning popularity, MMA is still in its infancy, as is its battle for mainstream acceptance. While the league has garnered a legion of fiercely loyal fans, a middle ground, not between new school and old school, but rather between exciting entertainment and respectable competition, must be sought if the sport is to maintain its honor and integrity.
Contrary to what Spike promotional campaigns might want us to think, a virtual Vegas studio is not an accurate representation of the arts and skill required to win an MMA bout. While I have griped about the deplorable acts witnessed in the infamous TUF “house,” the octagon does succeed in settling all disputes, exposing all pretenders, and molding contenders into champions, without fail. Here’s to seeing more of that, and less contrived "reality," in the future.