Right or wrong, warranted or unwarranted, debate over The Ultimate Fighter's place in the sport and the discussion over what direction the show gets taken in season over season is something that will never end. Last night, amid the FX portion of the UFC 158 card, Dana White made a fairly big announcement about the UFC's reality show and fighting tournament hybrid.
While most would expect the biggest news that could come out over a season of TUF would be the coaches, that wasn't close to being the case here. He announced the coaches, sure. Ronda Rousey will star opposite the winner of Cat Zingano vs. Miesha Tate (their fight is slated for the TUF17 finale on April 13).
That in and of itself is big. Rousey is an MMA A-lister these days, and having her on the show will likely meet or increase the ratings that have been driven up by the current coaching duo of Jon Jones and Chael Sonnen after the TUF16 flop.
The biggest news, though, was the announcement that the house would be stocked with bantamweight men...and bantamweight women.
The reactions were immediate, swift and ranged from negative to cryptic.
Purely from a talent perspective, this is a wonderful move for the UFC. The Ultimate Fighter rarely ventures outside the lightweight, welterweight or middleweight divisions. This has driven down the overall quality of the fighters appearing on the show and has netted the promotion very few high-impact additions to their roster over the last few years.
The 135-pound women's division is the newest addition to the UFC, and the most in need of talent. Meanwhile, the men's bantamweight crop is downright aching for new blood, with very few legitimate contenders outside the division's top five and a downright refusal by the promotional brass to pursue top free-agent fighters like Tyson Nam and Bibiano Fernandes. It would also likely add a solid flyweight or two to the UFC's smallest division (fighters like Mike Ricci, John Dodson, Jonathan Brookins and many more have competed above their natural weight class to ensure a spot on the show).
What has people reacting is the co-ed nature of the show and the assumption that it will ultimately become like every other reality show there is on television—melodramatic and rife with alcohol-fueled promiscuity. Worse yet, many are predicting that the show could stir up lots of controversy if one of the men jabs one of the women in the nose while sparring.
Worst yet, what if it happens outside sparring?
It's a valid concern. After all, how many times have we seen guys like Julian Lane and Junie Browning become violent with little provocation?
That said, keep in mind that the UFC often chooses fighters to enter the season for that specific purpose. That in mind, it's very easy for the UFC to simply avoid adding that sort of element to a season.
The show's current crop of fighters does not seem to have “that guy.” It is almost like the FX producers opted to do what the show is actually designed for (that is, seek out and groom budding talent for the purpose of adding fighters to the UFC), rather than going down the TUF16 route of picking opposing personalities and locking them in the same building. There is still conflict, as will be the case whenever you have more than one person in the world, but it's substantially more relatable than everyone hoping for a problem child to get his comeuppance.
Many, though, are suggesting the show will end up more Jersey Shore and will end up focusing on what the fighters do out of the cage (and in the bedroom). Anybody who claims that thought didn't cross their mind is probably lying.
That said, the UFC is probably going to be more choosey about the TUF18 cast than ever before. I'd be willing to bet we'll see 16 strictly-business fighters. That's assuming the execs don't just outright tell them to keep any physical contact on the mats on the threat of being blacklisted by the world's largest MMA promotion.
So while this season will, indeed, be groundbreaking, don't expect The Ultimate Fighter to go completely into “trash TV” territory. Having men and women together in the house will be unique, and it will probably result in the show going into new territory.
Contrary to what reality shows typically suggest, however, one thing doesn't always lead to another in real life.