Happy Birthday to you.
Happy Birthday to you.
Happy Birthday Ultimate Fighter...
Happy Birthday to you.
Five years ago today, 16 relative unknowns walked through the door of what looked like a warehouse and into millions of households. Guiding them on the journey were legends Randy Couture and Chuck Liddell, along with UFC President Dana White.
Over five years and 10 seasons, numerous fighters have gone from relative obscurity to unquestionable star status. The project that originated as a way to expose the behind-the-scenes lives of emerging fighters and help change the view of a sport once labeled "human cockfighting" became a worldwide phenomenon, and serves as the unmistakable moment where mixed martial arts started to become what it is today—say it with me—the fastest growing sport in the world.
Five winners from the first four seasons have competed for championship gold, and a sixth would have if Season Four middleweight winner Travis Lutter could have made weight. Three of those five—Matt Serra, Forrest Griffin, and Rashad Evans—have had the gold draped around their waists.
In addition to creating stars and putting the competitors a step ahead in the all-important task of turning themselves into a recognizable name the fans want to see, the show has advanced the sport a great deal, giving fans and skeptics an opportunity to see the dedication, hard work, and training these athletes go through in pursuit of their dreams.
Instead of making this an extremely long and verbose version of This is Your Life , I thought I would celebrate the birthday of The Ultimate Fighter by handing out some "Best and Worst" awards from over the years, and look ahead to what the future may hold for The Ultimate Fighter.
BEST SEASON: Season One
This is one of those "no questions asked" type answers to me.
While there have certainly been some entertaining seasons and quality fights from the years that followed, Season One is without a doubt the best of the best (love that movie) not only because of the epic finale and numerous fighters the show produced, but also because of the historic implications.
It's like how UFC 100 was unquestionably the best show of 2009; not only were the fights terrific, but it was UFC 100—the centennial show of a company many people never thought would emerge from being forced underground.
WORST SEASON: Season Six
Oh so many reasons to look back at Season Six and cringe. For starters, before the Rampage-Rashad fight was delayed by an attack of the acting bug, the coaching battle between Matt Hughes and Matt Serra was delayed by a back injury...for nearly two years.
While it's certainly not Mac Danzig's fault that he was head-and-shoulders ahead of everyone else on the show, he's often viewed as the least successful winner of The Ultimate Fighter, having compiled a 2-3 record, including his finale win over Tommy Spear.
Additionally, where other seasons delivered a supporting cast of fighters into the UFC, Season Six fell came up short, with just three cast members remaining with the company today.
BEST WINNER (POPULARITY): Forrest Griffin, Season One
Again, kind of a layup, but there is an undeniable charm to Forrest Griffin that resonated with fans from the get-go and continues today.
The "aw-shucks" look combined with the "I'm not that good, but I like to fight" mentality has made Forrest Griffin a household name and major star in the sport.
WORST WINNER (POPULARITY): Michael Bisping, Season Three
In the same way that people just seem to gravitate to Forrest Griffin, people just seem to despise Michael Bisping. I'm not sure whether it's because he's (a) British, (b) kind of cocky, (c) never at a loss for words or (d) some combination of all of these, but the deafening roar that followed Dan Henderson 's monster right hand at UFC 100 cements his standing as the least popular winner in the show's history.
The crazy thing to me is that Bisping is actually one of the better all-around talents to have won a season of The Ultimate Fighter. Sure, he can be annoying, and he may not have beaten Matt Hamill in your eyes, but he's done fairly well for himself to date in the UFC and could continue to be successful in the future. Not sure I could say the same for some of the other winners.
BEST WINNER (SUCCESS): Rashad Evans, Season Two
This is one of those, "Rashad beat Forrest, so Rashad is the more successful" situations. Griffin has done better with the fans and the book-buying public, but Evans holds a head-to-head victory over "The Original Ultimate Fighter" and that gives him the nod here.
On a lesser scale than Bisping, Evans is another of those polarizing fighters people either love or hate; there doesn't seem to be any middle ground. That said, he's had a brief title run, remains in the mix at 205 and comes from a great camp, so continued success is a definite possibility.
WORST WINNER (SUCCESS): Travis Lutter, Season Four
We often ask if Kendall Grove (and occasionally Mac Danzig) will be the first Ultimate Fighter winner to get cut by the company, but the truth is that "The Serial Killer" already holds that distinction. While Matt Serra made the absolute most of his opportunity coming off of the show, Lutter was the Bizarro World version, wasting a golden opportunity and ending up getting the pink slip two fights later.
How do you get a chance to compete for a world title and fail to make weight? What's even crazier is that Lutter won the first round against Anderson Silva, moving to mount and showing the undeniable talent he's always possessed. But, as expected, he gassed, got caught in a triangle, followed it up a year later with a loss to Rich Franklin, and was dropped.
BEST NON-WINNER (SUCCESS): Kenny Florian, Season One
Two title fights at lightweight, 10 wins to go with three losses, a successful and highly-visible position as an analyst on MMA Live, and serving as the stand-in for Joe Rogan on UFC broadcasts. The kid from Massachusetts who lost to Diego Sanchez in the middleweight finale has done pretty good for himself.
Like him or not, Florian has worked hard to transform himself from the inexperienced young fighter challenging himself two weight classes above his comfort zone into one of the top lightweights in the world. Yes, Kenny Florian is one of the top lightweights in the world. Accept it.
WORST NON-WINNER (SUCCESS): War Machine, Season Six
Cementing Season Six's standing as the "Worst. Season. Ever." is the artist formerly known as Jon Koppenhaver, and the unique and troubling ride that has been his career/life since the show.
I'm not going to go into great detail because this isn't about trashing a guy who I think has some serious issues that he needs help with, but to go from showing promise as a fighter and having the opportunity of a lifetime in the best company in the sport to currently have warrants out for your arrest...not so good.
BEST COACH: Rashad Evans, Season 10
Yes, a big part of Rashad's success as a coach had to do with the people he surrounded himself with, from Greg Jackson and Trevor Wittman to the dominant team he assembled. That said, the former winner struck me as the most involved, in-tune and genuinely interested coach the show has had to date.
Undoubtedly, having been a graduate of the show didn't hurt either, as Evans was aware of the difficulties of living in the house, being separated from family and friends, and everything else that could be thrown at his fighters.
I would be remiss if I didn't mention "Minotauro" Nogueira in this section as well. On Season Eight, we saw a coach who made his team into his family, offered unfiltered and unmitigated encouragement and enthusiasm, and earned the respect not only of the fighters on his team, but the admiration of many viewers as well.
WORST COACH: Quinton "Rampage" Jackson, Lifetime Achievement Award
While I understand his thoughts on the matter—"I'm a fighter, not a coach" being the most frequently used retort—the job description says, "Coach," so some level of coaching is kind of expected.
By my calculations, Rampage is 5-16 in two seasons as a coach...yikes.
THE FUTURE OF THE ULTIMATE FIGHTER
Everything from Season 10 worked through Kimbo Slice, and while his bout with Roy Nelson did great in the ratings, the overall assessment of the show was that it was a pretty weak season and a change is necessary.
Season 11 is set to roll out in March, with middleweights taking center stage and Chuck Liddell and Tito Ortiz returning as coaches and eventual opponents, meaning any retooling or new approaches will have to begin in Season 12. Numerous ideas have been thrown around the Internet, and there are two that I like best.
The first is to use the obviously successful and still-watched platform to introduce some of the fighters from the WEC to a larger audience. A merger between the two Zuffa-owned companies has been rumored for some time (and constantly shot down by WEC boss Reed Harris), and regardless of it happening or not, the WEC could certainly benefit from the added exposure offered by the show.
Off the top of my head, a season of featherweights with Urijah Faber and Mike Brown as coaches, or bantamweights with Brian Bowles and Miguel Torres on opposite sides would work. In addition to giving a couple of the company's stars some time in a brighter spotlight, a season on TUF would be an excellent way to add depth to the division and create new stars for fans to follow.
Option two is even more compelling and interesting to me. Why not pit two of the top camps in the sport against each other? Hypothetically speaking, have Ricardo Liborio and the crew from American Top Team coach one side, and Greg Jackson and his group on the other, with fighters getting the opportunity to learn from two of the greatest collections of minds the sport has to offer.