Back when the UFC was hemorrhaging money and teetering on the brink of being put out of business by Pride FC (who, up to then, basically stole every champion the UFC ever had), ZUFFA did the smartest thing is has ever done in its history; it bought time on fledgling, recently converted Spike.
They aired their attempt to lay a pipeline for discovering talent, TUF, as it would affectionately be known, was that attempt.
Many were skeptical. The UFC seemed to be making a bold play to casual fans in the 18-34 demo to tell them their brand existed (the average PPV buy total was in the 20-30k range).
Many felt this show was designed to give the average viewer a free taste MMA in the candy-coated shell of reality television, and to create superstars to grow their brand, without having to dedicate under-card space to discovering talent.
The Ultimate Fighter hit air waves shortly before UFC 46, and the ratings were strong. It averaged a 1.6, and a 2.2 rating among the target 18-34 male demographic, which pre-The Closer was a solid cable number.
Then, The Ultimate Fighter live finale hit like a sonic boom. Stephen Bonnar and Forrest Griffin battled for three gruelling round in just about the best bar room brawl you'll likely ever see in the octagon.
Like a proud father, UFC President Dana White still calls it the fight that saved the sport.
“It’s amazing to think,” he said, softly, “how close we came to not being here today. If it weren’t for what these guys did, I don’t know if there would even be a UFC. I’ll never forget these guys. Ever.”
While many argue the actual truth of that statement, one thing is clear: it was the sign the fans needed to prove that the product was worth a buy. Pay-per-view numbers shot up 20 times the previous average, and the gates have been overflowing for just about every event since.
That trot through history is an important one, mostly because of the separation anxiety that will be caused by what I'm about to write.
For many, TUF was the indoctrination to the sport, and we all remember our firsts (mine, I'm embarrassed to admit, was Chuck vs Rampage One on Fox Sports Net, a re-air).
However, the necessity of the show has long since passed. Its charms have faded into cliche, and, most importantly, the fighters are not of the quality to be paid more than all but the elite of the UFC any longer.
ZUFFA has now taken steps to put a true pipeline in place. On Dec. 11, 2006 ZUFFA Enterprises was born. They made two purchases: the first was a buy to finally get Quentin "Rampage" Jackson (they did this by purchasing the World Fighting Alliance and quickly liquidating it).
Next was an under-the-radar signing, a small time West Coast promotion called World Extreme Cagefighting, which would be run as a separate entity from the UFC.
Lately, the organization, bolstered by an impressive roster of featherweight and bantamweight fighters, has risen to the level necessary to support a full UFC feeder organization.
With the TUF finale mere hours away, and a new season already being shot, now is the best time to announce the series finale of The Ultimate Fighter.
That shouldn't mean the end of the UFC on cable though; actually, it would make more sense to scrap TUF and begin a monthly UFN card to showcase second-tier talent.
The UFC is entering dangerous waters.
It's been typical for its top stars in the past to fight once every two to three months.
The average UFC card features 10-12 bouts, and on average one title defense. This frankly can't happen anymore, as champions fight once every four-to-six months now.
Your stars must be seen more then this. The obvious solution is to trim and maintain an active roster of 120 fighters at the most, and to hold, at minimum, 20 fights a month.
This is essential to keep the UFC's cards from becoming too watered down with weak under cards, and questionable early event fights.
In summation, The Ultimate Fighter is now hurting the UFC more then it's solid ratings and advertising will help it. To continue to hand out long term contracts to fringe fighters would be to condemn the divisions to constant weakening.
I plead for the lunacy to end.