The History of The Ultimate Fighter
Nine Seasons, 108 Episodes, Nine Finales, 15 Winners, and even more careers made and improved by the experience of being on the most important and influential television show in mixed martial arts history: UFC and Spike-TV’s The Ultimate Fighter.
In the last 5 years, each of the nine seasons have taken on a life of its own, featuring its own quirks, memorable moments, disappointments, and amazing fights. As TUF enters its 10th round in the Octagon this month, here’s your historical recap of the first nine seasons of the series that revived an industry one hour at a time.
SEASON 1 The Phenom Begins
The inaugural season of TUF kicked off on January 18, 2005, with two UFC legends as coaches — Chuck Liddell and Randy Couture — guiding 16 total fighters competing in both the Light-Heavyweight and Middleweight divisions. In order to set up the fights, both Team Liddell and Team Couture competed in physical challenges with the winning team picking the next fight – a concept that would be dropped after Season 2.
The viewing public was enamored by the fresh concept, bolstered by both the talent of the fighters (eight fighters are still under UFC contract) and the reality show influence of having 16 men live under the same roof with little to no access to the outside world. Chris Leben became an infamous figure, especially for an alcohol-fueled rampage in the house that led to a White-booked fight against Josh Koscheck. Despite losing that match, Leben would eventually get back on the show due to an ankle injury by Nate Quarry, and his talent has been enough to land him a full-time role in the Octagon.
The April 9 live finale was the first non- PPV broadcast for the UFC and drew a 1.9 rating. While Rich Franklin vs. Ken Shamrock was the main event on the show, that has been mostly forgotten over the years due to the legendary light- Heavyweight battle between Forrest Griffin and Stephan Bonnar that led to both men earning UFC contracts. Many have cited the threeround war as the spark that lit the fire of MMA’s popularity boom that is still growing today. All three judges had the fight 29-28 for Griffin (a Team Liddell member), who earned the unanimous decision victory and went on to win the light-Heavyweight title in 2008.
In the lesser-talked-about Middleweight final, Diego Sanchez took it to Kenny Florian, defeating him by TKO in the first round to win the division. The two coaches would eventually fight at UFC 52, a bout Liddell won by firstround KO to become the light-Heavyweight Champion. At the time, the rematch was the highest-grossing live gate the organization ever had and scored 280,000 PPV buys, partially fueled by the promotional buildup that was the first season of TUF.
SEASON 2 The Encore
With a pop-culture hit on their hands, production quickly began for TUF’s second season, which debuted on August 22 – less than 4 months after the Season 1 finale. Then-Middleweight Champion Rich Franklin and then-Welterweight Champion Matt Hughes were selected as coaches for the 19-member class, which focused on the Heavyweight and Welterweight divisions. Couture was brought back as the host for the team challenges, which he also designed.
The class itself produced no less than eight fighters who have spent considerable time in the Octagon, including eventual light-Heavyweight Champion Rashad Evans. The first few episodes featured several fighters having to depart due to a variety of reasons (injury, weight issues, fear of the living situation). One of the replacements – Jason Von Flue – took advantage and advanced as far as the semifinals before losing to eventual divisional champ Joe Stevenson.
Season 2 also debuted both the concept of White working with the coaches to put together the semifinal fights and the no quarter attitude of Hughes, whose stern personality broke through several times, including his displeasure at Evans for what he perceived as showboating during a victory over Tom Murphy. While the two coaches weren’t preparing to fight each other, their differing personalities put fans on both sides of the fence in terms of rooting interest. In the history of the show, Hughes has become an integral and intriguing part, appearing in several seasons in varying capacities.
The live finale earned a then-record 2.0 rating for SpikeTV and featured Evans defeating Brad Imes via split decision to earn the Heavyweight division contract and Stevenson downing the unique Luke Cummo by unanimous decision for the Welterweight contract. TUF Season 1 winner Sanchez returned to main event the November 5 show, earning a unanimous decision over Nick Diaz.
SEASON 3 Ortiz vs. Shamrock
Spike-TV and the UFC didn’t make fans wait long for the third season and put a punctuation mark on it by having long-time rivals Tito Ortiz and Ken Shamrock as opposing coaches. The focus returned to the light-Heavyweight and Middleweight divisions with 16 fighters competing. However, the team challenges concept was eliminated, and instead, a simple coin flip was used to determine the first match with the winning fighter’s team earning the right to pick the next fight.
New twists on the season included having the fighters compete for two rounds with the possibility of a third and final sudden victory round, the inclusion of non-North American competitors (England’s Michael Bisping and Ross Pointon were the trailblazers), and the first Coaches Challenge (the inaugural competition was best two-of-three in pool, which Shamrock won). Coaches were also allowed to bring two assistants as part of their camps instead of UFC-assigned personnel. All of these updates are still active today.
Surprisingly, this season was the first not to produce a large amount of current UFC talent with just Bisping, Matt Hamill, Ed Herman and Kendall Grove still under contract. Hamill became a notable and inspirational story because of his hearing disability, but he was medically eliminated due to an injury suffered in a victory over Mike Nickels – something he didn’t realize until he returned to the training facility later on.
At the June 24 finale, Bisping won the light-Heavyweight division by defeating Josh Haynes via secondround TKO – a weight class he would depart almost two years later. Grove won a close unanimous decision over Herman to win the Middleweight division, but White re-enacted the “everyone wins” clause, and both men earned UFC contracts.
SEASON 4 A Second Chance Is Better Than No Chance
The hit show took another fun turn as it entitled its fourth season “The Comeback,” in which all of the show’s participants were former UFC fighters who had never won a belt in the organization. Then, the winners of the Middleweight and Welterweight competitions would earn UFC title shots, a $100,000 prize, and a $100,000 sports supplement sponsorship. It was also the first and only season not to feature two set coaches but rather a rotation of fighters and trainers to act as advisers at various points throughout. In addition to Georges St. Pierre, former coaches Couture, Liddell, Hughes, and Franklin made appearances while trainers Marc Laimon and Mark DellaGrotte were constants.
The fighters were split up into two random teams, which provided for some interesting dynamics — no more so than between Matt Serra and Shonie Carter. Carter had defeated Serra thanks to a famous spinning back fist at 2001’s UFC 31, yet Serra cornered Carter on the first episode in a unanimous decision win over Rich Clementi. Serra also had some tiffs and shouting matches with Laimon, who acted dismissive toward Royce Gracie during a house viewing of UFC 60.
In general, the experience of the fighters in the highly combustible environment made for a multitude of conflicts: Franklin and the Middleweights (some thought he was spying on his future title challenger, while also acting critical of their training techniques); Hughes and … well … everyone (some trash-talking with GSP while both were helping out was not well-received); and fighter Charles “Captain Miserable” McCarthy, who played the role of malcontent housemate.
On the November 11 finale, Travis Lutter defeated Patrick Cote in the Middleweight final while Serra downed Chris Lytle in the Welterweight final. Lutter’s first-round win over Cote earned him a shot at the Middleweight gold, but it would be Anderson Silva and not Franklin who would be Lutter’s opponent at UFC 67. However, Lutter surprisingly failed to make weight and the belt was removed from the equation, a second-round submission win for Silva. Serra was a bit more professional in preparing for his Welterweight title bout against Georges St. Pierre and pulled off one of the biggest upsets in modern UFC history with his stunning TKO of GSP at UFC 69.
SEASON 5 Penn-t Up Aggression
In April 2007, TUF 5 debuted with another single weight-class-focused season (Lightweights) and featured two old-school rivals in BJ Penn and Jens Pulver as coaches. The two had been publicly feuding for years, fueled by Pulver’s majority decision victory over Penn for the Lightweight title way back at UFC 35. There was no lack of memorable moments during the year, beginning with the team selection when Penn asked the fighters who wanted to be on his team to simply raise their hands.
The selection of coaches was outstanding and brought new fans up to speed on two of the sport’s more polarizing personalities. A recipe for a good season often begins with two coaches who severely dislike each other, and in Penn and Pulver, they found two who despised one another.
Like Hughes in prior seasons, Penn took an aggressive stance toward his team, calling out fighters he didn’t think were trying hard enough and being blatantly honest when one didn’t follow the game plan, like poor Andy Wang. Perhaps the ongoing weight-loss storyline of Gabe Ruediger put Penn in a foul mood as the 20 pounds he needed to lose became a weekly joke that included colonics, a hospital trip due to dehydration, and an eventual expulsion by White.
Ruediger wasn’t the only fighter to be kicked out as White sent Noah Thomas and Marlon Sims packing after the two got in a drunken altercation at the house, partially instigated by Allen Berube, who also was sent home. All three men had lost in their first-round fights, and White admonished them for helping support the mindless fighter stereotype that he had worked so hard to reverse.
But despite the season full of drama, quite a few good fights and real prospects emerged in the process, like Nate Diaz, Joe Lauzon, and Gray Maynard. Diaz defeated Manny Gamburyan in the June Lightweight finale after Gamburyan dislocated his shoulder and was unable to continue. Penn also got his revenge by defeating Pulver via second-round submission on the show, ending their feud.
SEASON 6 Long-Term Rivals, Part II
The rivalry approach had worked so well in the prior season that two more blood rivals were paired for TUF 6 to coach, both with previous TUF experience but albeit in completely different roles. Four seasons after his coaching debut, Matt Hughes returned to lead a team against bitter rival Matt Serra — he of the Welterweight winning effort in Season 4. Serra would begin a trend of former TUF winners returning to coach while Hughes became the first of only two coaches (Quinton “Rampage” Jackson being the other) to lead a team in multiple seasons.
The constant tension between Hughes and Serra provided an electric undercurrent for the sixth campaign — a feud that wouldn’t be resolved until this past May’s UFC 98.
This was another season of interesting personalities with Serra Jiu- Jitsu coach Joe Scarola taking center stage early. After losing his first match, Scarola was torn about staying in the house and eventually left after several episodes, something that didn’t sit well with Serra, who eventually relieved Scarola of his duties at his school. Other notable characters included the laid-back Richie Hightower; the high-strung and SpikeTV crew-threatening Dorian Price; the opinionated and stubborn Mac Danzig; and the man now legally known as War Machine, Jon Koppenhaver.
At the December 2007 finale, Danzig defeated Tommy Speer via first round submission in the Welterweight final — the second straight season to feature just one weight class.
Just three of the 17 fighters from the season are currently employed with the UFC (Danzig, Ben Saunders, and Troy Mandaloniz).
SEASON 7 Rampage vs. Forrest
Two of the sport’s biggest and most popular personalities got their chance on the main stage as then-light- Heavyweight Champion Quinton “Rampage” Jackson and No. 1 contender and TUF 1 winner Forrest Griffin were brought on as coaches. Debuting in April 2008, the third-straight season of a single weight class focused on the Middleweights, but with a major twist. This season 32 fighters would compete in 16 matches to fight their way into the house as a way to combat people showing up out of shape and unprepared.
Griffin’s team took advantage of the reinstated “win and pick the next fight” rule, winning six of the eight quarterfinal bouts and leaving just C.B. Dollaway and Dan Cramer as the only two repping the Rampage name. In all, six of the season’s fighters are still in the UFC: Dollaway, Cramer, Matt Riddle, Tim Credeur, Amir Sadollah, and Matt Brown.
Perhaps the strangest scenario in TUF’s history revolved around Jesse Taylor. Somewhat of a loose cannon throughout the season, Taylor had nonetheless advanced to the finale after a unanimous decision win over Credeur. When the show finished filming, Taylor and several other castmates stayed behind in Las Vegas and went out on the town, getting very drunk. Taylor was out of control, kicking out a limousine window and harassing Palace Station Casino workers, telling everyone he was a “UFC fighter.”
White brought Taylor back and showed him the security footage, admonishing him for his behavior and ultimately dismissing him from the final he had worked so hard to get to.
Dollaway (a semifinalist loser to Sadollah) and Credeur were then given a chance to compete for Taylor’s slot after 3 weeks’ preparation time. Dollaway won a unanimous decision and a rematch with Sadollah at the June 2008 finale. But it wasn’t to be as Sadollah — a man who hadn’t fought professionally prior to being on the show — became arguably the unlikeliest ever TUF champion, defeating Dollaway via first-round armbar submission.
SEASON 8 The Junie Season
Even though the show had the namesakes of then interim Heavyweight Champion Rodrigo Nogueira and No. 1 contender Frank Mir on the bill, TUF 8 will forever be known for a brash blonde from North Carolina who introduced himself warts and all to the fighting public. After nearly getting kicked off the show several times for his behavior, only to get repeated chances to prove himself, Lightweight Junie Browning became the star of the show as his weekly antics irritated both those in the house and nearly everyone watching at home.
TUF 8 brought back two weight classes (light-Heavyweights and Lightweights), and did a fantastic job at selling the title match between Nogueira and Mir as their personalities couldn’t have been more opposite. Nogueira seemed like the patriarch of a tight family (complete with nutty uncle Al “Stankie” Stankiewicz) who cared about one another, while Mir was more abrasive and emitted a “Big Man On Campus” attitude that filtered down to some of his team.
The fighters once again had to earn their way onto the house with a victory, and while some couldn’t even make that initial fight due to being unprepared (Jason Guida, anyone?), three fighters were eliminated after winning due to injuries they received.
While reviewing the immature antics of Browning, Shane Nelson, or the “sushi incident” could take up a good part of this magazine, the season did supply the UFC with a slew talent it is still using, including Nelson, Roli Delgado, Phillipe Nover, Kyle Kingsbury, George Roop, Tom Lawlor, Eliot Marshall, Kryzysztof Soszynski, Browning, and Light-Heavyweight winner Ryan Bader and Lightweight winner Efrain Escudero.
SEASON 9 U.S. vs. UK
The ninth season was the first to feature a country vs. country format, something White openly complained about when first announced. Michael Bisping became the third TUF winner to coach and was a flashpoint for flare-ups, especially with Welterweight finalist DaMarques Johnson. U.S. coach Dan Henderson had his hands full as his American-born squad was marred by constant in-fighting and malcontents (Jason Pierce and Jason Dent became the grumbling outliers), while the UK club was as solid a unit as you could imagine.
TUF 9 continued with the twoweight- class format (Lightweights and Welterweights), but added a stipulation that fighters had to have three pro bouts under their belts in order to qualify for the show. While the UK had no issues filling their squad, the US tryouts foreshadowed how their season would go: people out of shape and ill-prepared. Two additional fighters had to be brought in for qualifiers, including the other Browning brother, Rob. It didn’t take long for him to endear himself to the house, spending the night before his fight irritating nearly everyone with similar antics to his brother a season prior. Thankfully, Dent TKO’d him and saved the viewership from gouging their eyes out with spikes.
One of the more inspirational stories in the series’ history developed with American Welterweight Frank Lester. After having four teeth knocked out in a loss to James Wilks, Lester was offered a second chance when White denied Pierce his fight with Dave Faulkner due to his attitude and physical state. Lester seized the opportunity and won when Faulkner refused to come off the stool after the second round, setting up a rematch with Wilks to get into the finale. Lester would lose that match via third-round TKO but showed tremendous heart and a likable personality that grew on you as the season wore on.
The June finale show featured Ross Pearson defeating Andre Winner via unanimous decision to earn the Lightweight title while Wilks dominated Johnson with a first-round submission to win the Welterweight title. The British invasion has certainly begun as three of the four fighters in the finale were from the UK, and there is speculation a future season will return to the US vs. UK format, giving the Americans a chance to regain their swagger.
SEASON 10 The Kimbo Season?
If TUF 8 was “The Junie Season,” will the landmark TUF 10 be “The Kimbo Season”? Quinton “Rampage” Jackson returns for a second time as a coach opposite former TUF winner and former light-Heavyweight Champion Rashad Evans, picking up where their post-UFC 96 incage confrontation left off.
And while the surprising addition of Kimbo Slice to the 16-fighter all-Heavyweight field has grabbed the biggest headlines, there is plenty of talent in the house, including former IFL veteran Roy Nelson, UFC experienced Wes Sims and Mike Wessel, and a couple of former NFL’ers looking to make the UFC their new field of play, including the massive Marcus Jones.