Chasing Down a Strawweight Dream

Jeremy Botter@jeremybotterMMA Senior WriterApril 29, 2014

Jeremy Botter

LAS VEGAS — "When we call your name, come out to the center of the mat. If you catch a submission, let go. You know you got it, they know you got it, we know you got it. So just let it go and move on.”

Dana White, president of the Ultimate Fighting Championship, stands in front of a group of tiny women. He is clad in a black T-shirt, a baseball cap adorned with the UFC logo and a few days' worth of gray and black stubble on his chin. They are unanimously dressed in spandex of all types: short and black, long and colorful.

White is laying down the ground rules. He wants to see aggression. He does not want to see stupidity.

"Please do not try to hurt anybody. We just want to see you roll. Don't go crazy. You women are so f*****g aggressive all the time,” White says. “Just relax. Relax. It's all good. We know your record. We know who you are. Just get in here and roll.

"Don't try to rip people's f*****g arms and heads off. Don't grab legs. No heel hooks. No leglocks. If you get a submission, you know you got it. Just let it go. Relax.

They have traveled, some a very long way, to Las Vegas for the opportunity of a lifetime. And they are nervous. The Ultimate Fighter is a reality show that has grown long in the tooth since its birth in 2005. The early tournaments featured future world champions like Forrest Griffin and Rashad Evans and other talent that would go on to have long and fruitful mixed martial arts careers. Their characters and personalities endeared them to audiences in such a way that even long and ugly losing streaks were overlooked.

But these days, it is difficult to tell one Ultimate Fighter veteran from another. There have been 19 seasons in the United States. Localized versions of the show air in Brazil, Canada, Australia and China. Tuesday, White and the UFC will announce the first season targeted at Mexico. It will feature heavyweight champion Cain Velasquez and challenger Fabricio Werdum, and will be filmed in Las Vegas.

It has been a long time since an Ultimate Fighter veteran resonated with the audience the way Griffin and his like did. But it has also been a long time since any sort of importance was attached to The Ultimate Fighter brand name. There are no real consequences or benefits outside of a UFC contract, and fans long ago realized that all the good fighters from the show would get their chance to fight in the Octagon, anyway, regardless of what happens during the season.

But this season is different. It is the birth of a brand-new division in the UFC, filled with 115-pound women. Sixteen fighters will move into a Vegas house in the first week of July. One of them will be crowned the first UFC strawweight champion in December.

It is a very big deal. And you can see it on their faces. They are focused. There is no laughter. Some gaze at a spot on the floor. Some stare off in the distance at nothing at all.

“There's definitely a lot of energy in the room. A little bit of tension,” says Miesha Tate, one of the UFC’s top female stars. “But mostly, these girls just seem really happy to be here.”

White concludes his speech.

"Don't get f*****g crazy, ladies,” he says. “Just have fun.”

Photo by Jeremy Botter

Three hours earlier, they lined up at the door of the Grand Ballroom at the Palace Station Hotel & Casino. UFC officials expected between 40 and 70 applicants; there are 36 in total.

Before they could show Sean Shelby, Joe Silva and White what they had to offer in the mixed martial arts department, they had to fill out paperwork, because there is always paperwork. There are legal forms letting each of them know that, once they accept an offer to appear on the show, their lives are not their own. The production company and the UFC retain full editing rights. Which means they can portray you in whichever manner they damn well want, and there is nothing you can do about it.

Once the forms are signed, they step on a scale to show production staff members that they can, in fact, make 115 pounds. It is not a requirement today, but they must be close enough to make a safe cut several times during the filming of the show. After that, they take turns standing in front of a white screen. A close-up photograph of their face is taken. The photos are printed instantly and attached to their tryout packet, which is then handed to Shelby.

Photo by Jeremy Botter

After completing the paperwork, they assemble around circular tables in the large ballroom. They do not mingle, electing instead to stick with their trainers and friends and family members. Roxanne Modafferi, a member of the first Ultimate Fighter cast to feature female fighters, is here to support teammate Heather Jo Clark. The room is filled with notable names: Aisling Daly. Jessica Penne. The Lybarger twins, Jocelyn and Jillian.

Julie Kedzie arrives. Kedzie, recently retired from in-cage competition, is now the matchmaker for Invicta Fighting Championships, an all-female promotion. It is Invicta that supplied eight of the fighters who will be participating in the strawweight season of The Ultimate Fighter, including former Invicta champion Carla Esparza and fan favorites Tecia Torres and Rose Namajunas. The tryouts will determine the other eight participants.

“This is a huge moment. It's a game changer. It's an entirely new weight class in the UFC, but they're also fighting for a title. That makes The Ultimate Fighter mean something again,” Kedzie says. “It always means something for those participating, but for those of us watching, sometimes the stakes don't seem as special. But now, fighting for an actual title? That's a really brilliant move on their part.”

Kedzie is also in Las Vegas as a talent scout. The UFC signed nearly the entirety of Invicta’s strawweight division, and Kedzie is on a mission to replenish it with new talent.

“There are going to be a ton of high-level women picked up for the show, but they only have eight spots. I want to see who gets picked up and then see who else is out there,” she says. “I hope the best get on the show, but the best are the ones I have my eyes on. We have actually done a pretty good job of replenishing our strawweight division, but that doesn't mean I don't want to keep my eyes open.”

Photo by Jeremy Botter

Half of the applicants have been ushered into the tryout room. There is a large black mat on the floor, freshly sprayed with a chemical compound designed to discourage the spread of staph or MRSA. On the opposite side of the mat is a long black table adorned with the Ultimate Fighter logo. White, Shelby and Joe Silva sit here after White concludes his speech about not trying to hurt the opponents.

The fighter hopefuls warm up. Clark shares a moment of prayer, kneeling with her father in the center of the mat.

The first two names called are Jocelyn Lybarger and Chelsea Bailey. They grapple for the allotted two minutes, with neither scoring a submission. This becomes a familiar trend through the first three or four pairs of grapplers; they are playing it safe, mostly, and not displaying the kind of killer instinct White likes to see, so he makes an announcement.

“I will give you $100 for every submission,” White says. “But now that I’ve said that, don’t kill each other.”

The mood in the room instantly changes. The next two grapplers are Penne and Maria Andaverde. Penne methodically moves from Andaverde’s side into the mount, then wraps Andaverde’s head in a mounted triangle. She rolls over to her back and finishes the submission. She is $100 richer.

Photo by Jeremy Botter

When the grappling session ends, White instructs the fighters to put on their hand wraps and prepare to show what they’ve got in the striking department. They will be hitting mitts with their coaches or trainers, not each other, and he again tells them not to go crazy. They’re looking mostly for form.

“We want to see some kicks,” Shelby says.

After seeing all the striking they need, White, Shelby and Silva confer for a moment with Craig Piligian, the producer of The Ultimate Fighter. Moments later, White stands in front of the group and reads off a list of names. These are the ones who will go through to the interview process with Piligian.

The interview is the most difficult part of the day. Good television is about personalities, and Piligian wants to see personality in spades. For 20 minutes or more, he will grill each fighter in an attempt to see what makes them tick. To see if there is anything useful for him, anything that might be interesting to the viewer at home. It’s all well and good to be a merciless killer in the cage; it is another thing entirely to have a connection with viewers.

Photo by Jeremy Botter

The fighters who didn’t make the cut are crushed, but Silva has a message for them.

“How many of you have heard of Frankie Edgar? Benson Henderson? Or Clay Guida?” Silva says.

Hands go up around the room.

“All three of those guys went out for The Ultimate Fighter, and they didn’t make it. All three of them are now famous UFC stars,” Silva says. “So don’t get discouraged. Keep working hard.”

Tryouts are over. Many of the applicants congregate around White, asking for photos with the famous promoter. He obliges each of them, telling them personally to keep their chins up and to keep trying because they’re building out a division from scratch. It is clear the tireless promoter still enjoys the portion of his job that focuses on actual combat.

“This is still fun for me. People keep asking me if there are too many fights. When you're a real fight fan, you can't get enough of this stuff,” White says. “Just watching the girls grappling today, I had fun. They're just hitting pads, not even training, and I still love watching it.”

The fighters who made the interview process line up to go in front of the camera for the first time; the rest of them go home. The public will see the result of the tryouts in September, when the show begins airing on Fox Sports 1. The final fight, to crown the first strawweight champion, likely will not take place until December, though White admits he has no idea when it will actually happen.

But it is, finally, a season of The Ultimate Fighter with importance. There is a reason to watch: a new division being formed from nothing. A new champion crowned.

“It's a really cool season,” White says. “These girls are going to be so fired up.”