Don’t be fooled by the fact that it continues to stagger aimlessly through the barren fields of cable television—The Ultimate Fighter has been dead for years.
Once the primary vehicle of the UFC’s drive toward the mainstream, the reality show has become something less than itself during its last handful of seasons. These days, it’s merely a zombie, shuffling awkwardly in pursuit of its goals but without the brains or the soul to carry them out.
Limping along only because no one has had the good sense to put it out of its misery.
This week, however, we got a glimmer of hope for a cure. With the UFC’s announcement on Wednesday that it’ll use TUF’s upcoming 20th season to introduce strawweights to the Octagon, there’s a sudden and unexpected note of optimism surrounding the flagging series.
Perhaps—just for a little while—the sport’s smallest fighters can bring The Ultimate Fighter back to life.
TUF began as a way for the UFC to forge new stars, but more recently it’s succeeded only in producing stagnant ratings, largely middling talent and decidedly unflattering portraits of some of the promotion’s biggest draws (Brock Lesnar, Ronda Rousey).
Casting strawweights for TUF 20 immediately remedies several of the show’s biggest ills, raising the stakes while simultaneously guaranteeing an overall higher level of competition.
For the first time in the show’s history, an honest-to-goodness UFC title will be on the line, as the winner will reportedly emerge as the organization’s inaugural women's strawweight champion. These fighters won’t simply be competing for a glass trophy and a nebulous “six-figure contract,” but for actual, recognizable hardware that won’t cease to be meaningful as soon as the season finale wraps.
Since producers are essentially buying out Invicta FC’s 115-pound division to cast the show, Season 20 may also be the most talent rich and competitive to date. After all, this marks the first time most of the top 10 fighters in a single weight class will live in the TUF McMansion and compete in its wacky two-round exhibition bouts.
While TUF 20 may not completely redress the show’s single greatest flaw—overall staleness—this season will be the first to feature an all-female cast, so it can’t exactly be considered more of the same, either. For Season 18, the UFC hedged its bets in casting both male and female fighters and obviously came away from the experience more invested and confident in women’s MMA in general.
To that end, Season 20 doesn’t figure to hurt for marketable personalities. Of the 11 names released so far, several—including but not limited to Felice Herrig, Bec Hyatt, Carla Esparza, Rose Namajunas and Tecia Torres—seem like natural fits for reality TV.
And with that uneven number of contestants on the docket so far, it’s not totally out of the question that there could be a few more surprise entrants before filming begins in May.
Likewise, coaches have not yet been announced, but they seem borderline irrelevant to this scenario. One of the particularly grating parts of TUF’s endless parade of past seasons was the insistence that fans treat every announced coaching combo like big, exciting news, when really it’s not. Not when we’ve seen it 19 times before.
For now, this story should be all about the strawweights.
Is this just a temporary fix? Sure. You can’t create a new division and have a tournament for the UFC title every time you need to cast a new season of TUF. After Season 20, perhaps the show will revert to the mindless, relentless plodding of the undead.
In the short term though, we’ll take it, as under the circumstances it seems like the best possible move.
To make TUF relevant again, even for just a season?
That seems like a miracle.