The UFC has gone from "as real as it gets" to "as gimmicky as it gets" with The Ultimate Fighter 18.
Ronda Rousey is coaching the show's 18th incarnation against the winner of Miesha Tate vs. Cat Zingano. That's a major step forwards for women's MMA. Unfortunately, the rest of the season's premise isn't as positive.
Season 18 will be the first to feature female fighters prominently, but the season will also have male fighters...male fighters who will be living in the same house as the females.
UFC lightweight Yves Edwards took to twitter to make a joke at the expense of season 18's premise:
I wonder how many 125ers & 145ers are going to bump weight a class to make 135 hoping to get in on the #TUFOrgy next season.— Yves Edwards (@thugjitsumaster) March 17, 2013
Edwards may have been kidding, but his words ring true. Season 18 isn't going to be about the struggles of women in MMA nor is it going to be about the fervent determination that female fighters are noted for displaying.
It's going to be about sex and drama.
"Well of course! Sex and drama are just good TV; sex sells," you say?
Sex does sell and drama is a requirement on television shows, or else nobody would tune in. However, the UFC wants to consider themselves among the elite sports organizations in the world. The Ultimate Fighter 18 proves that they aren't.
The NFL doesn't need a worse version of The Real World with fights to get people to watch their programming. Meanwhile, the UFC has increasingly had to resort to gimmicks to get people to watch their "sport."
First off, they gave Chael Sonnen a title shot against UFC light heavyweight champ Jon Jones.
Sonnen's trash-talking shtick is notorious. It doesn't just step over the "pro-wrestling" line, it long-jumps over it. In fact, Sonnen even used/stole a wrestling promo from the legendary superstar Billy Graham.
What's worse about giving him a title shot is that he's coming off a loss in a different weight class. A guy who just lost to Anderson Silva was deemed good enough to go up a weight class and fight for the title.
Admittedly, the UFC was in a bit of a pinch match-making wise. Jones' original opponent, Dan Henderson, got injured and, according to Dana White, no other contenders were willing to fight Jones. Sonnen stepped up, but Jones refused to fight him on such short notice. The event was subsequently canceled.
Had the UFC only booked Sonnen-Jones because of the tricky circumstances, it would've been acceptable. However, after Jones defeated Vitor Belfort at UFC 152, the UFC announced that they were putting Jones opposite Chael Sonnen on The Ultimate Fighter and giving him a title shot at the end of the season.
Dana White's rationale on the decision wasn't particularly endearing. Sonnen was given the shot because he was the only fighter willing to fight Jones after Henderson pulled out of UFC 151.
"Every one of these guys that are bitching about a title shot now, we’re offered a fight and turned it down," he told MMAWeekly. "They refused to fight Jon Jones. Now, they’re bummed out because Chael stepped up on eight-days notice and he’s gonna coach The Ultimate Fighter and fight him."
A light heavyweight title shot was given to a man who hadn't fought at light heavyweight since 2005 because of a non-existent code of honor—and the hope that Sonnen's trash talking would reinvigorate the show's ratings.
This fight just started the trend.
Former lightweight champ Frankie Edgar lost two fights in a row and then dropped to featherweight and received an immediate title shot versus Jose Aldo, which Edgar lost. It was a shameless attempt at a cash-grab, the match being billed as a "super-fight."
Edgar was the only other contender at featherweight that the fans remotely cared about after Urijah Faber dropped to bantamweight (and Edgar has never been a great draw, so that says a lot about the other featherweight fighters), so they booked him in a fight with Aldo.
But the handing out of title shots to undeserving fighters gets worse.
Nick Diaz was given a title shot at welterweight champ Georges St-Pierre despite losing his last fight and coming of a year-long suspension. Why let a loss and a suspension get in the way of a good feud and a big payday? It's not like Johny Hendricks was the rightful claimant to the No.1 contender spot, right?
That's three nonsensical title shots.
Returning to the NFL comparison, the NFL didn't bypass the victorious playoff teams and put the Jets and the Patriots in the Super Bowl this past February because they thought the prominent rivalry between the two teams would garner better ratings.
That's because the National Football League is peddling the sport of football. Sure, the media and even the league itself will promote "storylines" each week. Ultimately, there's an architecture that makes sure the two best teams always compete in the Super Bowl.
The UFC has attempted to create the guise of such a structure with their official rankings, but it's a hollow gesture. The promotion is no longer pushing the sport of mixed martial arts. As of late MMA in the UFC has morphed into a nebulous sport/sports-entertainment hybrid.
Three fighters who were coming off losses got title shots, two of those title shots were given to fighters who were entering weight classes where they either hadn't fought (Edgar) or hadn't done anything significant in nearly a decade (Sonnen).
The chicanery is continuing with TUF 18.
Making the TUF house co-ed is bringing the show to a new low. TUF was always about entertainment, but now the sport-side will be a tacked on addendum. "Watch the sex and drama this week on TUF—and yeah there's a fight in the last few minutes but that's not important!"
Furthermore, when you look at TUF 18 in the context of the history of the show, it's increasingly obvious that the UFC has had to resort to gimmicks to keep the decrepit show going.
Ratings have been anemic since the The Ultimate Fighter moved to FX. "TUF: LIVE" failed to captivate the audience, so the UFC resorted to throwing trash-talker Chael Sonnen in against the future-of-the-sport Jon Jones. The ratings were better, but still not near what the show was doing on Spike TV.
The co-ed TUF house is just another cheap stunt to try and get another year of life out of a failing show that's badly in need of retooling or outright execution.
This is unfortunate.
Women in MMA are finally getting their big break, only for their TUF season to not be their TUF season. The season is being shared with men and will almost definitely be sexualized to capture a bigger audience.
Ronda Rousey and Miesha Tate/Cat Zingano deserve more. Female fighters deserve more. The sport deserves more. And even the UFC deserves more, for the longer they claim to be in the same league as the NFL and its ilk while emphasizing entertainment over sport, the more ridiculous they'll continue to look.
There's nothing wrong with sports entertainment. One could argue that Pride—a now-defunct promotion that rivaled the UFC—was on the sports entertainment side of the line with their elaborate entrances and freakshow fights.
It's just that the time has come for the UFC to pick a side and stay on that side. They can't hire James Toney, give title shots to fighters coming off loses, and make "Real World: The Octagon" while still proclaiming they're bigger than the NFL and just as legitimate.