Jeremy Lambert: When The Ultimate Fighter launched in 2005, it was a fresh and exciting new reality show that put MMA on weekly television for the first time ever. Paired with WWE Raw, The Ultimate Fighter exposed combat sports and entertainment fans to a new audience and helped the UFC grow into what it’s become today.
Seven years and 15 seasons later, the show has undergone a number of changes, but the premise has always remained the same: UFC coaches field a team of fighters, who compete in a tournament where the winner earns a six-figure UFC contract or, in the case of season four, a UFC title shot. The most recent “big” change to the format was making the fights live and using weekly footage for the reality portion, instead of months of footage that could be carefully edited together. The result was absolutely no in-house drama, some of the worst pranks between the coaches, and the lowest ratings in show history.
While Dana White isn’t concerned with the way things are trending, many are begging for the show to be scrapped or significantly overhauled.
Samer Kadi: With each passing year, the Ultimate Fighter becomes more and more stale. The magic of the first season is long gone, Griffin’s battle with Bonnar is but a distant – albeit significant – memory, and the days of each season producing a string of highly talented fighters are all but over. The vast majority of the past few seasons have lacked quality fighters, and perhaps more importantly as far as ratings are concerned, memorable characters. The “Junie Browning” act has gotten old, and simply finding someone obnoxious enough to get on everyone’s nerves is no longer enough to get people talking. The audience is seemingly struggling to find reasons to care, and the ratings are suffering as a result.
In many ways, “The Ultimate Fighter” has become outdated. No longer do prospects feel the need to through TUF and get some exposure when they can sign directly with the UFC. Prelim fights are now broadcasted, which means that a promising mixed martial artist would be much better served to make a name for himself on the undercard of a PPV, rather than get stuck in the TUF house for six weeks.
Season 13, which saw the company’s biggest star, Brock Lesnar, get paired up with now heavyweight champion Junior Dos Santos is perhaps the biggest indicator that TUF has run its course. The first two seasons aside, the success or failure of the show was always hinging on the coaches. What ultimately sparked people’s interest is the dynamic between the coaches, as well as their star power. When a PPV machine like Brock Lesnar fails to draw some eyeballs on free television, you know you have a problem. The live format was promising, but ultimately failed to have any serious positive effect, once again suggesting that TUF is at a stage where it is beyond repair.
Jeremy Lambert: I’m going to type something that a lot of Americans may not want to read: winning a competition reality show means nothing.
American Idol has been around for years now, and the only two winners that have found success are Kelly Clarkson and Carrie Underwood. Then there’s The X Factor, The Voice, America’s Got Talent, So You Think You Can Dance, and 500 other reality talent/competition shows on network TV where someone wins and then is never heard from again. Even the Bachelor and Bachelorette never last with the person they end up giving the final rose to. The Ultimate Fighter is the same way. The only difference is that 20 million people watch those shows, and will continue to watch them, while TUF can’t even crack 1 million viewers nowadays.
Not counting The Comeback season, there have been 19 Ultimate Fighter winners. Seven of those fighters are actually relevant (although the jury is still out on John Dodson) and only two of those seven have come after season five. Winning The Ultimate Fighter nowadays means about as being cast in a holiday movie directed by Garry Marshall.
Samer Kadi: Indeed, the show is further devalued by the fact that in many ways, the eventual winner makes no difference. In fact, even hardcore MMA fans will struggle to some of the more recent TUF winners off of the top of their heads. The audience invests very little in these personalities, which means that ultimately, the winner doesn’t matter. Furthermore, the fact that most TUF winners don’t end up having much impact on their respective divisions only aggravates matters.
Forrest Griffin’s light heavyweight title win gave the show huge legitimacy. People watched Griffin develop from goofy TUF winner to (still goofy) light heavyweight champion. His title bout with Rashad Evans is a huge testament to the early success of “The Ultimate Fighter,” but it also highlights just how much the once hit reality series has fallen.
Jeremy Lambert: A long time ago, right here in this galaxy, I wrote a column that suggested different ways to fix the series. At this point though, I don’t think there’s any saving the show.
TUF succeeded in the early days because it was really the first time that MMA was given a chance on television on a consistent basis. It continued to succeed because fans thought they were going to see the next big superstar or see two well-known coaches build up their upcoming fight. Nowadays we know that the next big superstar isn’t coming from a reality show and, unless there’s a built in history and you get the right coach dynamic, even they’ve become stale. Furthermore, thanks to the new live format, the coaches now focus their energy on their training for the season-ending fight rather than insults and pranks.
The biggest problem though, and a problem that extends beyond TUF, is that the show simply isn’t the only MMA game in town anymore. Every Friday night, before TUF went on the air, a lot of fans just watched more relevant fights in Bellator. The UFC also seems to run an event every two weeks or so nowadays and there’s a million local shows that people have access to as well. In 2005, if you wanted to see weekly MMA fights, TUF was your only choice. Nowadays though it’s bigger news if there isn’t a weekly MMA show either on television or available online.
Samer Kadi: In fairness to the UFC, there was a time when fans constantly expressed their discontent with the excessive focus on in-house drama. “We just want to see fights” they said. Now that they’ve gotten their wish, they remain displeased. That is not to suggest that their dissatisfaction is misplaced, as the show has been falling flat, and everything about the current season – including its live format – has been underwhelming. However, it remains an important point to bring up, as it shows that Zuffa has tried to rectify the situation, but perhaps more importantly, it indicates that TUF is at a stage where it cannot be salvaged.
And yet, despite the disappointing ratings and the alarmingly decreasing interest, its presence remains important. “The Ultimate Fighter” was first created to get the UFC on television in order to gain some much needed exposure, and originally, it served its purpose. The UFC is undoubtedly a far more established commodity these days, but its presence on television is vital for its continued growth. Any successful PPV model uses free television to hype up, and ultimately sell PPV’s. It is a fairly simple concept to understand, but absolutely difficult to master.
In that regard, TUF was instrumental in the UFC’s success, and despite the show – and its importance – not being what it once was, scrapping it completely (which is not going to happen) would not be a great business decision.
Jeremy Lambert: The people who were begging for just fights and no in-house drama were obviously hardcore MMA fans that were going to watch regardless and know nothing about reality television. “Just fights” don’t bring in ratings, as evident by this season. In-house drama, whether people like it or not, is what reality TV survives on. Look at all the different Sports Wives or Real Housewives shows. Those shows are nothing without drama and people continue to tune in every week to see how the drama plays out. Was masturbating in fruit salad or blowing air horns when people are tying to sleep immature humor? Of course it was. But was it vital for establishing characters, thus getting people to actually care when these guys fought, and drawing in fans of reality TV and not just fight fans? You’re naive if you think otherwise.
The live format really turned out to be a double edged sword because, while it did make the format and fights feel slightly different, it also took the “reality” part out of the reality show, and just turned things into a watered down UFC event with an extended (and repetitive as the season went along) backstory on every fighter before the fight.
I don’t understand why scrapping the show would be such a bad move at this point. Is TUF really helping to sell PPVs, and if the UFC is relying on TUF to sell PPVs, what does that say about the state of the company? They have the time on FX and FuelTV, why do they need to fill it with a reality show? How about they improve their Countdown and Primetime shows or, if they really want live fights every week for a 13 week stretch, why not just take the Bellator approach and hold small events featuring local/up-and-coming talent in a tournament format?
Samer Kadi: While in-house antics have definitely helped the careers of some fighters (see Leben, Chris), my esteemed colleague is overstating their importance. What became of Jamie Yager? And did masturbating in somebody’s sushi really help Kyle Kingsbury’s fights gather more interest? In any case, we’ve moved past the point where these details can actually help the show turn things around. Next season’s TUF could feature some of the most outrageous pranks in the history of the series, and the ratings are unlikely to improve; at least not significantly.
Nevertheless, it remains important for the UFC to have a semi-regular show on television like TUF. No, they aren’t relying on “The Ultimate Fighter” to sell PPV’s, but each episode will keep the UFC fresh in the minds of those whoa re tuning in. In some ways, TUF provides the UFC with an added bit relevance. Countdown and Primetime shows are rare, in the grand scheme of things, as they only feature on the weeks leading up to a UFC PPV. And while TUF’s purpose isn’t oriented towards selling a PPV (with the exception of the event in which the coaches will eventually face off), keeping it on television is an indirect promotional tool, and one that the UFC is familiar with. Meanwhile, a Bellator-style tournament like the one my colleague suggests requires booking arenas, selling tickets, utilizing extra employees, marketing the event – in other words, it costs more money and requires more preparation.
The Ultimate Fighter is far from perfect, and the interest level is justifiably at an all-time low, but its benefits, however minor they might appear, remain vital.
Jeremy Lambert: At least Samer remembers Jamie Yager and that Kyle Kingsbury was the one who defiled sushi. Who has really stuck out these past few seasons? And like it or not, antics like the ones Yager and Junie Browning pulled got them on the main card of the Finale over the more well behaved and more talented fighters.
Keeping around TUF and not trying something new, even if it ends up failing, shows a lack of creativity on the part of the UFC brass. We’ve moved past the point where a reality competition show is needed to keep the UFC relevant, because right now the show itself isn’t even relevant. Also, while TUF might be used to promote PPVs and TV events that matter, it would help if the UFC actually used TUF to promote those events. Not once did they mention one of the two FuelTV events during this season of The Ultimate Fighter and they even failed to push UFC on FOX 3 during the reality show.
The shows importance over the years can’t be understated, but the show isn’t vital to the UFC’s success anymore. The coaches role has been significantly downgraded under the live format, they’re scraping the bottom the barrel when it comes to the talent on the show, winning the show means less and less every time a winner ends up losing his first post-TUF fight in the company, and fans continue to tune out every week.
The Ultimate Fighter doesn’t need to go away forever, but it could really benefit from an extended break.