The disproportionately large impact of The Ultimate Fighter on mixed martial arts has been so significant that one could justifiably devote an entire chapter of the sport’s history to the UFC’s occasionally polarizing reality show.
Ask Dana White what he believes is the most important fight in the organisation’s history and, without hesitation, he will tell you that Forrest Griffin’s boorish brawl with Stephan Bonnar on the Season 1 TUF finale permanently occupies his top spot.
The UFC president apparently feels so indebted to the pair that he views them as his adopted children.
While I sometimes think the impact of a single contest on the company’s then-ailing fortunes has been overstated, there is no denying it made a sizeable contribution to the subsequent surge in MMA’s popularity.
Looking back on that debut season, it’s hard not to wonder whether we should credit the UFC with the kind of casting job that would have made Steven Spielberg proud or dismiss it as a product of circumstance and good fortune.
One could make the case that the show never again reached those heights.
Some seasons have offered terrific entertainment, others have boasted great talent, and yet others have provided a solid combination of both. However, none have had the same potent mixture of entertaining personalities and enduring talent that were characteristic of the first season.
Just consider some of the names that emerged from TUF’s debut season: Forrest Griffin, Josh Koscheck, Kenny Florian, Stephan Bonnar, Mike Swick, Chris Leben and Diego Sanchez.
All went on to have varying degrees of success inside the Octagon. Some vied for titles, a few developed into solid mid-card performers and one even claimed a world title.
Given these facts, it’s difficult to understand why subsequent seasons have yielded increasingly diminishing returns.
Sure, there have been success stories since then. The likes of Rashad Evans, Roy Nelson and Michael Bisping are among the biggest stars in the sport. However, they have turned out to be the exception rather than the rule.
In a sense, the show has become a victim of its own success—or perhaps more accurately, the resulting success of the sport.
With the explosion in popularity of MMA, demand for the product has grown exponentially. Therefore, the UFC has been forced to find more and more fighters to help fill up its packed schedule.
What this means is that quality fighters who may have, in the past, tried out for TUF are now being identified by the UFC’s scouting system and given an immediate spot within the organization.
While this has allowed the UFC to increase the size and quality of its roster, it has also had the effect of shrinking the available talent pool for The Ultimate Fighter.
Also worth pointing out is that fighters now have a number of different options outside of the UFC. Though it remains the pinnacle of the sport, it is no longer a case of "UFC or bust" for mixed martial artists seeking gainful employment.
Rather than trying out for TUF, many fighters are now taking their chances with smaller promotions. The likes of Bellator Fighting Championships, Xtreme Fighting Championships and Maximum Fighting Championship are all viable alternatives to the Zuffa-owned promotions.
These factors aside, the folks who cast The Ultimate Fighter also bear some responsibility for the dearth of quality, but the organization has occasionally done so at the expense of potentially world-class fighters.
For example, Benson Henderson was overlooked for Season 9 in favour of the likes of Cameron Dollar and Richie Whitson. Four seasons earlier, Frankie Edgar was rejected and, wait for it, Wayne “The Wayeniac” Weems was instead selected to compete on Season 5.
Fortunately for us fans, both fighters would eventually make their way to the sport’s summit, despite TUF rejection. Obviously we don’t get to see what goes on during casting, but one has to think that certain applicants are chosen for reasons other than their fighting ability.
What can the UFC do to boost the quality of the show’s competitors? In truth, their options are limited, since their quandary is practically zero-sum.
If they consciously cast the most promising fighters on The Ultimate Fighter, they are not doing their best to bolster the existing roster. And if they continue to immediately add the best prospects to their roster, the talent pool for TUF will remain depleted.
The inconvenient truth appears to be that The Ultimate Fighter will continue to promote relative mediocrity unless the expansion of the franchise can successfully mine talent outside of North America.