The Ultimate Fighter: 5 Ways to Finally Fix the UFC's Reality Show
Conor McGregor has had himself a year. UFC featherweight champion. International MMA superstar. Nattily dressed Las Vegan.
But it took until September to add his largest crown jewel: person who finally got The Ultimate Fighter back over 600,000 viewers.
The September 10 debut of the venerable reality show's 22nd season drew 622,000 sets of eyes—not too shabby for cable TV, unless you factor in that it is, really, pretty shabby.
Other shows that notched a higher number that night in the same 10 p.m. Eastern time slot included MTV's Catfish: The TV Show, something called The Carbonaro Effect and Food Network blockbuster Carnival Cravings. (To be fair, that Carnival Cravings episode could have been the one about the fried Kool-Aid. No one is flipping away from that.)
We can argue about Carnival Cravings till the carnies come home, but it won't change the fact that TUF's ratings are not good. The September 10 number—maxed out by McGregor's introduction as a coach and antagonist working opposite the UFC's longtime golden boy and short-time drama magnet Urijah Faber—marked the show's highest-rated debut in two years.
You get it. Even at its best, TUF is in a rut. It's been that way for quite some time. Stephan Bonnar and Forrest Griffin are not walking through the door.
Potential explanations for the flat line are almost as numerous as the show's seasons: shopworn formatting at every turn, depleted talent pools from which to draw contestants, diminished stakes for winners and losers, tiresome antics inside "the house" and suboptimal conditions for the fights and fighters.
But enough about the problems. How about some solutions?
That's where we can help. A team of Bleacher Report MMA writers—Jonathan Snowden, Sydnie Jones, Steven Rondina and yours truly—have a few friendly suggestions. Some are serious. Others, less so. A few are somewhere in between. But that's not important. What's important is that we're right, dammit. Thoroughly and objectively.
So sit back, relax and bask in the rightness. We're all TUF fans at heart, so here's to better days ahead. This is the blueprint.
Better People, Better Product
TUF showed a skeptical public that the men who stepped into the cage (mostly) weren't broken sociopaths or bar brawlers. They were college graduates. Accountants. Goofballs. New-age weirdos. People, just like you and me.
This humanizing effect meant a lot, and it proved powerful at the box office. The early years of TUF provided a recognizable "middle card" for the promotion, giving fans a collection of fighters they could follow and care about.
That worked because the fighters pushed through the show were good enough to impact the sport once they arrived in the UFC. It wouldn't have mattered how compelling Chris Leben or Josh Koscheck were as personalities if they couldn't hold their own in a competitive fight with top stars. Forrest Griffin worked because he was a lovable dork and a championship-level fighter.
The power of reality television, in other words, had a multiplying effect on a fighter's potential. But 10 times zero is still zero. And that's the problem with today's TUF.
The basic formula can still work. It's the fighters who need fixing.
The audience has to be re-trained to value the TUF athletes. The UFC has to prove, year after year, that it's worth investing our time and energy to meet the latest crop of young fighters.
TUF can matter again if the fighters matter. Why not put a collection of eight active UFC fighters, folks in the bottom half of the top 15, into a competition that would be almost guaranteed to produce a contender? Fans could tune in knowing the athletes they were meeting were going to stick around awhile.
When the UFC was at its height, we felt a deep connection to most of the fighters on any given main card. It would be nice to feel like I knew some of the UFC's current rising stars too. Right now they are mostly anonymous—great fighters who are basically interchangeable.
The UFC has the medicine to cure that disease. It's called TUF. Here's hoping the company starts to use it correctly.
Hire an in-House Psychiatrist
This idea started mostly as a joke, but now I am certain it's vital to the success of The Ultimate Fighter.
Let's face it: One of TUF's problems is that it is, frequently, boring. But why? Fighters are fascinating; most people do not choose beating up other people as their career.
What sorts of machinations are going on in a fighter's head? Is there some thought process or worldview most or all of them share that predisposes them to having an interest in fighting for a living?
Maybe a psychologist could provide some insight. Fighters would each have a weekly session with the psychologist, portions of which we would get to witness, maybe on episodes where they fight. Eloquence is a quality not native to many fighters, and it would be interesting to have their actions, feelings and words interpreted by a trained professional.
TUF is already an anthropological study of these outliers; most people's exposure to fighters is largely limited to watching them work in the cage. So, really, this is a missed opportunity for TUF producers. Watching the fighters respond to having their defenses and territorial peacocking identified and deconstructed would add a facet never before seen on the show. A psychologist living with the fighters, observing and analyzing their mental and emotional well-being would be utterly compelling.
Fighters are, for many, a difficult breed to understand. TUF has added little clarity. If one of the main objectives of TUF is to draw in new fans, helping illuminate how fighters think is a solid step toward doing so.
Make the Competition Real Again
The six-figure contract, represented by that coveted crystal plaque that has "Employee of the Month" scratched out on its other side, used to be the be-all and end-all for every TUF contestant.
It's not anymore. But it should be again.
To illustrate: Take the TUF 19 finale held in July 2014. Eddie Gordon and Corey Anderson were crowned the season's two winners and are in the UFC. Great. But so are (or were) Cathal Pendred, Roger Zapata, Mike King, Patrick Walsh, Matt Van Buren, Hector Urbina and Dhiego Lima.
That's right: Of the 16 contestants who reached the TUF house, nine received fights in the UFC after the TUF 19 finale show.
So what am I watching this show for, then?
Hey, I understand if someone gets a special shot after an injury or personal crisis or blatant judging robbery or what not. But don't just hand out fights like the competition that unfolds during the show is merely one factor in a nebulous formula for UFC tenure.
I'm not even saying that only the winners can make it to the UFC. But at least make the non-main-event finale card a win-or-go-home situation for the competitors (and don't put more or less every contestant on the card). That ups the stakes of not only the show but the finale.
That lifts all boats. Doing anything less is to make a mockery of that majestic piece of crystal.
— Scott Harris
Make It More Famouser
The UFC's signing of CM Punk in 2014 sent the MMA world into a tizzy. The unrepentant nature of this ratings play—the nakedness of this cash grab—had hardcore fans squirming in their seats and MMA's naysayers laughing at the absurdity of a 30-something-year-old with no sports experience of any kind getting a shot at the big time.
That said, what is the UFC going to do? While the CM Punk news alienated MMA's purist base, there's no ignoring the huge amount of attention the promotion got from mainstream media outlets. Still, the UFC can't take on too many of those sorts of pure spectacle fights without damaging its reputation.
If only it had some sort of brand separate from, but related to, the UFC. Something that nobody really takes seriously right out of hand like...I don't know...a reality TV series. A UFC-related reality series...Oh wait!
The possibilities are endless with a celebrity-driven version of The Ultimate Fighter. Yeah, sure. This would represent the lowest point for the UFC as an actual mainstream sport since Keith Hackney vs. Joe Son at UFC 4, but you know what? Tell me you wouldn't tune in to watch Jason David Frank, also known as Tommy the Green Power Ranger, fight Jose Canseco. Or how about Chad Johnson vs. Donald Brashear?
That on its own makes this a better idea than whatever the UFC is planning on doing after this McGregor vs. Faber nonsense.
Set the House on Fire
The TUF house jumped the shark for good and all after the sushi incident, which, I don't know, Google it if you need to. Linking to it might render me unclean.
Maybe getting rid of that snake den, which has spawned so much good old reality TV schadenfreude, would hurt in the short term. But in the long term, think of the bandwidth freed up.
What could producers do with all the time reclaimed by not having to air smoothie arguments and medium-grade-bourbon-fueled hot-tub confession sessions?
It could mean following and exploring fighters and their lives in new and creative ways.
Maybe it means more focus on training, home and other aspects of a fighter's "normal" life.
Maybe it means fewer fighters during the season (which might also address the issues of depleted talent).
Maybe it means fewer fights, which could bring the show closer to a model like HBO's 24/7 episodic boxing documentary or the UFC's hit Web series Embedded.
Plenty of options here, and the domino effect is tantalizing. All I know is, the show as it stands is too formulaic, and little tweaks such as live broadcasts or training camp teams aren't breaking up the logjam. No, you need to grab this thing by the roots, and the taproot is this infernal house. Get it gone.