It's that time of year again. The kids are filing off to school, the leaves are changing color, and the corn is coming in against the backdrop of an amber sky.
And just as in years gone past, the amateur MMA tournament/reality TV spectacle/television phenomena "The Ultimate Fighter" is set to return to the living rooms of fans across the land.
And there was much rejoicing. Sorta.
It's safe to say that without the ratings boon that is Spike TVs "The Ultimate Fighter", the UFC and the sport of MMA wouldn't be where it is today.
The show fueled Zuffa's initial rise to the top of the MMA mountain, and continues to be their best outlet for reaching casual fans, and helping them connect to fighters, the brand, and the sport of MMA itself.
And for 11 seasons now, they have smoothly moved from one imagined coaching rivalry to another, one group of tense, cooped up alpha males personalities to another, one season of raw fights and ridiculous reality TV antics to another.
Now, with the show set to kick off its remarkable 12th season in a few days, there are signs that the whole machine may be starting to grind to a halt.
After the sky high ratings of the Kimbo Slice, Rampage/Rashad "Black on Black Crime" driven season 10, the somewhat tamer, "Titties"-free Liddell/Ortiz season this past spring delivered some less then stellar Nielsen numbers.
With the sport's most loved fighter set to square off with arguably its most hated, let's break down the good, the bad, and the ugly of this season of The Ultimate Fighter to see if this season represents another storied chapter in the TUF franchise, or the end of the line for the once-mighty reality TV juggernaut.
GSP as Head Coach: With the exception of WWE crossover/man mountain Brock Lesnar, no one draws a crowd like Quebec's own Georges St. Pierre.
Its not just because he has the power to bring a whole nation behind him each time he fights (though being a GSP fan is pretty much written into the Canadian constitution).
His appeal goes beyond simple nationality; Patrick Cote is no less Canadian than GSP, yet he didn't exactly set the box office on fire against Anderson Silva at UFC 90.
Instead, it's his unique ability to crossover into demographics who rarely dabble in MMA: namely, chicks.
Yes, folks, this is the season the ladies come back to TUF. Remember the last time your girlfriend watched The Ultimate Fighter? Remember her running from the room in horror at the sight of Joe Lauzon's giant Dumbo ears and cold, soulless gaze?
Time to welcome her back into the living room. Look at your man, now look at Georges, now back to your man, now back to Georges. Sadly, your man's not Georges; but for one hour each week, ladies can feel free to pretend.
Lightweights on Deck: Having this season feature lightweight competitors is an inspired decision by Zuffa and Spike TV, who no doubt hope to supplant fabricated hijinks and YouTube mini-celebrity with some honest-to-goodness good fights.
On this score, they should more than satisfy. Many of the guys coming into the show have some legit hype behind them, making the season's proceedings more involving than previous years, when one fighter clearly stood head and shoulders above an overmatched herd of competition (see Nelson, Roy and Danzig, Mac).
Throw in the fact that 155 is a class known for its scrappy fighters and balls to the wall action and you have a recipe for sure entertainment; at least in the final 10 minutes of every episode.
At the end of the day, you can always Tivo through the other 40 minutes of in-house/training "drama" on the promise of a good Lightweight scrap, like digging through a boring flan for that creamy nougat.
GSP as Head Coach: Talk about a plot twist. Just as I get through singing the champ's praises, I turn on him. Yes, GSP is a wildly popular fighter who wets panties the world over.
You can't deny, however, that on the microphone he's about as exciting as a fistful of Melatonin at an Enya concert.
Don't get me wrong, most of the time I'm all for this. More then any other fighter, GSP embodies the professional athlete image with its canned, polite answers, its striped suits, its "aw shucks" grin.
And when a microphone is put in his face, he pretty much sticks to the professional sports player script.
Which is great. Bravo, I say. But let's be honest here: are you really down for a whole season of "Give it 110%" and "There's no I in Team" in a Quebecois accent?
This season needs to feature a more genuine, up close look at him that can capture fan interest, as the "Primetime" shows often did. Otherwise, fans simply won't be enticed to watch the same thing over three long months.
His "rivalry" with Kos also might not entice fans simply because GSP isin't very good at trash talking. On the rare times he has, it's usually forced and akward. When the ballsiest thing you've ever told someone is that your "naddim
'pressed" with their performance, well, let's just say he's lucky he has his massive fanbase, good looks, and incredible natural athleticism to fall back on as a professional athlete. Otherwise hed be screwed.
No Kimbo/Junie Browning: Ok, I know TUF doesn't need Mr. Ferguson specifically to draw big - but it certainly wouldn't hurt. Because the truth is that despite this new cast's depth and experience, they're still a pack of groupies without a rock star.
But that's the point, isn't it? Well yes, but previous seasons of the show that have drawn big have featured high-profile names within the cast of fighters themselves.
Watching a cast of unknown fighters try to make it big can be engaging, but there's much more of a hook for casual fans is someone they know and can relate to already is in the mix.
Why else would they go out of their way to feature Rashad Evans' brother, or Clay Guida's brother, or Kimbo freakin' Slice?
Failing that, however, they can always fall back on the tried and tested "make the show about the drunk d-bag" approach that has worked so well in the past.
Hate it all you want, but sad as it is, guys like Chris Leben, Jesse Taylor, and Junie Browning have really come to define the show, and feature strongly in all the "Top Moments" recap shows.
I really hope they don't go that way this season, as it could very well kill the whole show. People are tired of Junie Browning. People sick of Junie Browning. The formula is overplayed, and dead. And people tuning in, not to mention the sport itself, deserves better representation then that.
Josh Koscheck: Some people are hated for what they do in their fights. They cheat, or fake an injury, or disrespect their opponent in some way.
Some people are hated for what they say outside of the cage, for going out of their way to badmouth other fighters, make excuses, or just plain slander someone. Chael Sonnen falls into this category.
And finally, some people are despised by fans just for who they are, the very way they act drawing fan ire. Josh Koscheck falls into all three of the categories comfortably. In fact, he may be the most despised man in the sport today.
The unfortunate thing for Kos (and for this season of TUF) is that its more the third category then the first two, and that doesn't translate well to television ratings.
People were enthralled by Chael Sonnen, the smooth politician and snake oil salesman. They were riled up by the articulate braggadocio of Rashad Evans. They were enraged by the smirking taunts of Tito Ortiz.
But people hate Koscheck for being Koscheck, with no redeeming quality or promotional hook to draw them in regardless.
He is the Andy Dick of MMA. His very personality (at least on TV) is grating and annoying, which combined with his ego and predisposition to adolescent behavior when the cameras are rolling means fans are gonna have to watch 50% of the show or more in spite of themselves.
Counting on a "rivalry" between a vanilla sportsman and an aggressive personality can work (Hendo/Bisping) or it can flop (Mir/Nogieria). It remains to be seen how this seasons version of that matchup will play out.
Less Reality TV Ridiculousness: In the special "Countdown to TUF" short the UFC out out recently, there was a surprising lack of what I call reality TV ridiculousness.
This runs the gamut from canned "beat you into a living death" style trash talk to "let's all get drunk and trash the house like they do every season" moments to ejections of bodily fluid onto food items (ill never look at Sushi the same way again).
Basically, all the crap serious MMA fans can't stand. So this is great, news, right?
Only not. Just because we are happy doesn't mean the average Spike TV watching, TapouT wearing, Burger King eating, Harley Davidson driving TUF fan will be satisfied with just good old fashioned competition.
Where's the drama? Where's the excitement? Where's the immature, grade school pranks and trash talk to keep me interested?
Can this season survive with the more serious, sporting appeal they seem to be going with on the back of GSP vs. Kos alone? We are about to find out.
By Elton Hobson