The Ultimate Fighter was the UFC's Trojan Horse.
Before the show aired, the fledgling sport was only available to hardcore enthusiasts via pay-per-view or home video.
The Ultimate Fighter was, simply put, ingenious.
It was everything the UFC was about disguised as a reality show. It was the perfect way to package its product to the American public. The show found a perfect home in Spike TV: A network catering to guys that was mainstream, but not too mainstream.
The UFC execs couldn't have asked for a better first season.
You had the crazy antics of the cast (I'm looking at you, Chris Leben), as well as one historic fight in the finale, with Forrest Griffin vs. Stephan Bonnar. I didn't watch the fight live at the time, but I remember watching it after everyone had been talking about it, and I was completely amazed by what I saw.
However, that one fight didn't transform me into a fan.
I didn't know much about the UFC before I saw The Ultimate Fighter. I watched NBC's sanitized pugilistic reality show, The Contender, and the first thing I noticed that was different in The Ultimate Fighter was that it was real!
The fights were shown in their entirety, with a live audio feed. I'll always remember how strange it was to hear people shouting in the background. The Contender's fights are edited with an epic soundtrack, and sound effects are added to punches.
My first experience with The Ultimate Fighter actually came in a marathon of season three, which Spike TV was showing as a prelude to season four.
I've got to tell you, It got me hooked.
I'll always remember the rivalry of Ken vs. Tito, as well as all the personalities of the fighters. You had the brash Brit Michael Bisping, as well as the deaf wrestler Matt Hamill, along with a handful of other colorful characters.
The fighters themselves are what make the UFC what it is today.
The Ultimate Fighter introduces a new set of characters to the public every season, and then lets the drama unfold both in and out of the cage. The fights themselves aren't the only reason MMA has become as successful as it is today.
A large component of the show is allowing fans to learn about the different fighters' personalities. This gives them someone to root for, as well as someone to boo against.
I think The Ultimate Fighter was so successful that the producers and UFC brass didn't know what to do with it. They knew it was successful, so the simple solution was to make more.
The upcoming season will be the show's 15th, and it'll be just about seven years since the show debuted. That's about two seasons per year, and I've watched every single one of them.
I immensely enjoyed the first five seasons, but started to notice a gradual decline in the quality of the show.
By that point, most everything had been done already.
We've heard the same music and seen the same shots over and over. The format of the show became extremely predictable. The quality of the fighters started to diminish, and eventually I stopped caring about the fighters or the fights.
The reason the early seasons were so good because they had a certain energy to them.
You really felt the fighters were fighting for their lives. They were fighting just to get into the UFC. Season four even had fighters fighting for a shot at the title.
But, in the later seasons, it didn't really matter who won the whole thing, because you knew a majority of the standouts would end up in the UFC anyway, or a least get a shot in the UFC.
The first few seasons featured many standout fighters, and a few have even gone on to win or fight for championships.
Josh Koscheck, Kenny Florian, Diego Sanchez, Rashad Evans, Keith Jardine, Joe Stevenson, Marcus Davis and Melvin Guillard are all from the first two seasons alone.
Season 14 seems to have been one of the better seasons in recent memory, and I think that's because the show introduced two new weight classes: featherweight and bantamweight. With a fresh talent pool, the fights were much more exciting.
However, that didn't stop the show from being predictable or boring at times.
The biggest change for season 15 will be the addition of live fights. I think this will bring a new dimension to the show, but I don't think it's nearly enough to even come close to the magic of the first few seasons.
Another change is the move from Spike TV to FX. I think the difference is negligible—FX is a more mainstream network, but the show won't gain many more fans for that reason alone.
The rivalry between the coaches has long been a staple of the show, and this season is no different, with Urijah Faber and Dominick Cruz.
I'm not too excited to see them as coaches.
Do you really think these two can talk better smack than Rashad and Rampage? Or that their hatred will be more intense than Koscheck and G.S.P., or Ken and Tito?
The coach-fights themselves haven't even been that interesting.
Tito easily disposed of an aging Ken, BJ did the same to an over-matched Jens Pulver and the Rashad/Rampage fight was delayed due to Rampage's stint in the acting world. Michael Bisping vs. Jason Miller was a joke.
I don't really think Faber stands a chance against Cruz, and really the only coach-fight that is sticking out in my mind right now is Dan Henderson knocking out Michael Bisping.
That was sweet.
Has The Ultimate Fighter jumped the shark?
So, to wrap it all up, I think this season will be better than the last few, but not nearly as good as the first few.
The Ultimate Fighter is still a viable tool for the UFC to build up fighters' name-recognition among fans, but they need to keep thinking of new ways to spice up the show.
They have announced that the next season will take place in Brazil, with the coaches being Wanderlei Silva and Vitor Belfort.
I'm looking forward to that season much more than the current one.
It'll be interesting to see an entirely new batch of fighters, as well as getting to see some of the Brazilian culture. So, The Ultimate Fighter isn't quite dead yet, although it's come close.