Why this season of the Ultimate Fighter finally got it right

The Ultimate Fighter

With Jon Jones and Chael Sonnen as coaches, the UFC has rebooted their flagship reality TV tournament “The Ultimate Fighter” to focus on the fighters – and do away with the drunken stupidity.

I wanted to write this article three weeks ago, right after the premier episode of the latest season of the Ultimate Fighter. But you never want to gush over a show after the first episode, only to watch the whole thing go down in flames (otherwise known as “Twin Peaks Syndrome”).

So I waited.

Then came the second episode, which was equally as strong. And again, I wanted to jump online and get my rant on, except for a line promising the greatest KO in “Ultimate Fighter” history at the end of the second episode. And we all know entire seasons of TUF have been torpedoed by big-time promises that ended up disappointing. I, for one, am still waiting for Philippe Nover to become “the next Anderson Silva”.

So I waited some more.

But with the 3rd episode now behind us and the 4th coming this week, I feel I finally have enough solid grounding to say: this is the best season in the show’s 17-season history.

And it only took 17 seasons for the UFC to finally listen to the complaints of fans when it comes to MMA’s flagship reality TV show. Gone (at least so far) is the alcohol-soaked reality TV shenanigans of seasons past – replaced by a serious, level-headed, surprisingly personal look at the fighters themselves, their stories, and the pressure of fighting for your dream in single elimination tournament in front of millions of people.

I’m guessing (hoping, really) that if you hadn’t bothered to check out this season’s offering, the above paragraph changed your mind.

Because the truth is that after 17 seasons (plus two international seasons, with more planned) the show’s format had seemingly run its course. In days past, the talent field of the Ultimate Fighter was quite impressive, a “Where’s Waldo?” of future top fighters and possible title challengers. The first two seasons of TUF alone gave us Forrest Griffin, Stephan Bonnar, Josh Koscheck, Diego Sanchez, Chris Leben, Mike Swick, Kenny Florian, Rashad Evans, Joe Stevenson, Keith Jardine and Melvin Guillard.

Whoa.

But as the years went by and the sport got more and more popular, there were less undiscovered talents for the show to “discover”. Many times, a whole season seemed designed to allow the one, clearly more talented competitor to cruise to the finish: Mac Danzig (season 6) and Roy Nelson (season 10) come to mind here.

And then there was the UFC’s policy of giving contracts to just about everyone who made it far enough in the tournament, or made a big enough name. Kimbo Slice was eliminated in the very first fight of season 10, but he came back to headline cards. Yes, Kimbo’s a special case, a guy who already made his name before joining TUF. So what about Junie Browning, who got two more fights in the UFC after washing out of the tournament – despite his only “name” value coming from being the drunken buffoon from his season of TUF?

Look, I get it’s hard for the UFC to build new stars with a cynical, ADD-afflicted audience of casual fans. I get that if a guy breaks through on a reality TV show he could theoretically draw viewers (and dollars) down the line – even if he only got his “name” by getting too drunk and acting a fool on national TV.

Which bring us to the one true, honest complaint most MMA fans always had with the Ultimate Fighter: all the reality TV hijinks. The show always seemed less about the grueling life of a professional fighter, the intensity of the fights, or the personal stories of the men involved – and more about putting 16 unbalanced, shirtless dudes together in a house with no TV, no internet, and an endless supply of hard liquor.

That might be the formula for success on Spike TV (former home of the Ultimate Fighter) where “1000 Ways to Die” and “Manswers” are considered thoughtful, top-tier entertainment. But under the bright lights of the FOX network (specifically, FX) that formula quickly seemed dated, and not at all flattering to the sport of MMA. The sport finally had the platform to truly “breakthrough” around the world, and show those still on the fence that MMA is legit – so let’s devote 45 minutes to frat-boy stupidity so mind-numbing you feel like you need a shower at the end of every episode.

Yeah, that ought to work.

Let’s put it another way: if you had a friend you were trying to convince to watch MMA, or you were arguing with a critic of the sport who called it immature and illegitimate – is this the clip you would show them to help change their mind?

No, I didn’t think so.

Luckily, the UFC and FOX has heard the complaints of fans, and this season represents a complete “reboot” from seasons past. Yes, it’s still a show about unknown MMA fighters living in a house together, while they train for (and compete in) a single-elimination tournament for a UFC contract. Yes, there’s still two opposing coaches, giving the show a team mentality. And yes, the two coaches will themselves face off at the show’s end.

And yes, in a room full of UFC world champions, elite-level coaches, and the future stars of the sport – Dana White still somehow finds a way to be the star of the show. That’s all still the same.

But everything else is different. The show has a much more serious atmosphere (think HBO’s 24/7), as we focus on the lives of the fighters competing in the tournament. There’s no more binge-drinking, no more trashing of a house, no more following the antics of a drunken a**hole way past the point of pity – at least, not yet. Instead, the show gives us some surprisingly earnest insights into the kind of people who want to become professional fighters.

The show moves past simplistic depictions of “lovable good guy” and “loathable drunken doof” to give us some fully-formed looks at this season’s contestants. We see their families sitting cageside watching, we see them talk about why they want to win it all, and what they had to sacrifice. If you’re anything like me, you find yourself start to cheer for both men, just so that one won’t have to have his dreams crushed.

And the place where you’d expect to find the most hammy of reality TV entertainment is, like the rest of the show, surprisingly (and happily) lacking. Chael Sonnen and Jon Jones are the two most polarizing guys in all of MMA, and they can’t seem to open their mouths without pissing off some segment of MMA fandom. Yet here, both men come off as thoughtful, intelligent coaches, both equally committed to their team. If you came into this show hating one (or both) of these man, chances are this show could change your mind.

So we’re 3 episodes in, which is more than enough time to allow me to safely enthuse about this season’s TUF. It’s not enough time, however, that a new fan can’t quickly get caught up on who everyone is, and what’s happening.

If you’re an old fan of the show who tuned out over the years (and I can’t blame you) then it’s time to get back into it. And if you’ve never watched a single episode, this is the season to start with. Bring your girlfriend. Bring your wife. Bring your grandparents. Bring your children.

The Ultimate Fighter is back, and it’s never been better. If this is the future of the show, than the future is looking brighter than ever.

Topics: Chael Sonnen, Jon Jones, The Ultimate Fighter, UFC

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