The Ultimate Fighter: A 5-Step Guide to Saving the Show
The Ultimate Fighter debuted to a resounding thud, posting its lowest premiere ratings ever in the series' long-running history.
What's most worrisome about these ratings is that there isn't much saving grace on the horizon. Sure, there are a couple of likable and interesting fighters, but are they likable and interesting enough that you're going to sit through 45 minutes of manufactured drama and general reality tv jackassery (it's a word, I promise) just to see one fight between two mediocre fighters who realistically won't ever co-main event a pay-per-view card in their careers?
That might have cut it back in 2005, when MMA was a limited commodity, but between the onslaught of UFC events across multiple channels and competing products like Bellator and the upcoming World Series of Fighting, chances are that there is always a good fight to watch.
The fact is that The Ultimate Fighter has become predictable, and there's little reason to stick with it if you've seen the last few years, outside of staying educated on who will be filling out the UFC's roster in a couple of months. There's a guy with dyed hair who might have some emotional issues, you say?
Riveting...let me know which episode is the one in which he gets drunk and tries to pick fights with his housemates.
There's a prank that the prankee doesn't react well to?
No kidding...haven't seen that before.
It's time for a serious overhaul of the whole product. They tried last season with a switch to a live fight format, but that failed to move the needle. Being the positive and proactive person that I am, I'm introducing a step-by-step guide to save The Ultimate Fighter and inject new life into a tired format.
Please forward to the UFC's creative department.
Step 1: Improve the Talent Pool
We are past the days of pretending that the next Anderson Silva or Jon Jones is going to walk out of The Ultimate Fighter and one day fight for a title.
If you're a fighter with serious superstar potential, odds are that Joe Silva and the UFC scouts have already seen you, and you're getting signed to a contract directly. It's good for those fighters, but it also leaves us with a shallow talent pool left over for the show.
It doesn't have to be that way.
Do you know what Chris Weidman, Rory MacDonald and Michael McDonald all have in common? In addition to being some of the fastest-rising stars in the UFC, they also made their promotional debuts buried on the undercard of their respective first events. Weidman can't get a title shot because he's not a household name yet—how much do you think a two-month showcase on TUF would have done to change that?
Rather than building these uber-prospects and hoping that fans will notice them, spend the valuable TV time to introduce them to the public and to create a following for them earlier into their UFC careers. In Weidman's case, it might have been the difference between seeing him fighting Silva in a few weeks instead of Stephan Bonnar (who, consequently, built his career on his TUF fame).
Step 2: Ditch the House
This is the story of seven strangers picked to live in a house and have their lives taped. Find out what happens when people stop being polite and start getting real.
It's the oldest trope in reality TV, and it has been a gold mine.
Throw X amount of people into a space, add alcohol, and stir in some emotional baggage for flavor. Shake well and let sit for two months, then hope it explodes.
Profit. Rinse. Repeat.
But like I said above, TUF has gotten too predictable. We know what's going to happen every year, just with a different cast and set of coaches. And even with the chance of a spectacular fight at the end, most of us aren't willing to burn our Friday nights sitting through the same old song and dance for 10 minutes of potential payoff at the end.
Have you ever been into a powerhouse MMA gym like Jackson's or American Top Team?
Practices are intense, sparring sessions are lightning fast, and the entire atmosphere is powerful and energetic. Forget watching two coaches try to train a group of fighters who they just met, give me a fighter training with the coach who brought him up from nothing and has shaped and molded his entire career.
One of the most interesting segments in TUF history for me was during the Season 7 finale, where cameras visited finalists Amir Sadollah and CB Dollaway as they prepared for their finals showdown. We met Sadollah's family, watched Dollaway hang out by the pool in Arizona, and learned a little bit more about their histories.
I want more of this, and less beds being thrown into pools.
The new Ultimate Fighter would expand on that philosophy. At the start of each episode, we are introduced to the two fighters who will be fighting at the end of that episode. We are then taken back and forth between their training camps as they prepare for the most important fight of their lives. We meet their coaches, see their game plans coming together, and learn about what motivates them to succeed.
Don't tell me how much a fighter's family means to him while he's sitting in front of a camera in an interview booth.
Show me him playing with his daughters in the backyard, and facing the realities of his dangerous job with his wife.
In short, don't tell me the story. Let me watch the story unfold unhindered by unnecessary distractions and put the focus where it belongs—on the lives and training of the fighters.
Imagine if we had been with Michael Chiesa in his hometown when his father passed away, seen him grieve with his family and the teammates who had known him for years, and then overcome that to win the show.
That is powerful television.
Step 3: Hire Andrew Jenks to Produce It
Admittedly, some of my vision for this new format has been shaped by Jenks' excellent World of Jenks episode on Anthony Pettis.
If we are going in a new direction, I want someone with an eye for compelling storytelling. It doesn't necessarily HAVE to be Jenks himself, but we should demand someone who is cut from his cloth.
Studies have shown that reality TV cast members will often be pigeonholed into and adopt certain archetypes. There's the drunken, angry, Chris Leben archetype, the cocky Rashad Evans archetype, and the aloof Forrest Griffin archetype, to name a few.
The problem with these archetypes is that, while they can usually be depended on to deliver their typical forms of drama, they also become very predictable and ultimately boring.
With a shift to narrative storytelling, we eliminate annoying archetypes and get a better feel for who each fighter actually is. I for one pay a little more attention every time Pettis fights, because I feel like I know who he is more than I do with a lot of other fighters.
During a shoot that I was on, I spoke to a TUF alum who had been painted in a negative light on the show. He told me that he realized early on that he was going to be "that guy" after he had an argument with another castmate, so he decided that he might as well have some fun with it along the way.
This new format spares fighters of having to play a role, and lets us see who they really are as people.
Step 4: Embrace the Bracket, Involve the Fans
The UFC has already brought fan interaction into the TUF universe by letting us vote for the best knockout and submission of the season, but we can take it further.
America loves brackets.
Not only do they let us see the whole field, but they let us fantasize about matchups that could happen two or three rounds into the tournament. The Ultimate Fighter is essentially a single-elimination tournament, and should be embraced and marketed as such.
After the first round of fights, fans should be given the option to vote on the seeding of the remaining fighters.
That seeding would then determine the matchups in the quarterfinals and build the bracket, with No. 1 fighting No. 8, No. 2 fighting No. 7, etc.
While you might think it's unfair to give the No. 1 seed the easier fight, keep in mind that the coaches in the current format already protect their top picks by pairing them against the weakest competition available.
Imagine the buzz around the first Ultimate Fighter Tournament. Sure, the ultimate path that a fighter would take to win the six-figure contract is the same as it's always been, but it's a new and exciting spin on the concept of the show, and we could use more tournaments in MMA.
Step 5: Raise the Stakes
Forrest Griffin vs. Stephan Bonnar is the golden standard for The Ultimate Fighter, and my favorite part of that fight is when, after it's over and Griffin has been declared the winner, Dana White announces that they're going to give Bonnar a contract too.
I love that moment because, up until then, you felt TERRIBLE for Bonnar.
This guy had just fought his guts out and put on a show for the ages, and he was going to walk away with nothing. After all, the point of the show is to win a contract, so if you don't win the show you obviously don't get a contract, right?
As we know by now, that's not the case. After every season, almost the entire cast fights on the finale card, and most of the winners stick on the roster.
Sure, winning the show buys you a little more job security, but as Efrain Escudero or Joe Stevenson can attest to, winning TUF doesn't make you immune from the chopping block.
It made sense to keep the Josh Koscheck's and Kenny Florian's of the early seasons, while the UFC roster was still lacking depth. Today, their roster is overflowing, with some fighters being cut after one or two losses because there are five more waiting in the wings for their shot.
We don't need filler in the UFC; they're already bringing in the best fighters from all over the world.
In our new show, it really is win or go home.
If you don't earn that contract, you're not earning a spot on the roster until you go back to the regional scene and win a couple more fights. Think about how much more invested you would be in your favorite TUF cast member if you know that if they didn't pull it out a win, you weren't going to see them again for some time.
The risk, of course, is that the UFC spends time and money introducing a fighter to the world, only to see some other organization swoop in and capitalize on their exposure. T
Here's a simple solution to this, though—Strikeforce.
The fighters who don't win the show can be signed by Strikeforce with the promise that they can earn their way onto the big show with a few impressive wins.
Strikeforce suddenly serves a purpose as the UFC's minor league, and the fighters get to build their brand while still under the Zuffa banner.
Are these changes radical?
Is there risk?
Switching the formula requires the UFC to invest a lot more time and money into the product.
But is it necessary?
I think so.
The UFC continues to expand. We continue to see mainstream exposure like never before. Selfishly, I want The Ultimate Fighter to be something that I can show someone who has never seen MMA before and say, "This is what my sport is all about."
Show us the hard work and passion that goes into every training session. Show us that these fighters are more than just stereotypes. Show us the effect that this sport has on the people that love and support their husbands, siblings and sons.
Most importantly, don't show us the idiocy that so often dominates the product right now.
We are past the point of trying to reel in the casual fan with cheap reality TV gimmicks. The UFC is a global superpower—give us a show that's worthy of that name.
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