Calling The Ultimate Fighter training center a television show set is an injustice, even though that’s precisely what it is. But look past the lighting equipment, television cameras, boom mics and frenzied production crew. All of that is merely smoke and mirrors; this is a bona fi de gladiator academy
An explosion of MMA memorabilia covers the walls. Enormous tapestry-style images of Tito Ortiz, Rich Franklin, BJ Penn, Quinton Jackson, and Forrest Griffi n dominate the scene. Framed photos of previous seasons’ teams pay tribute to all whom have left their sweat, blood, and tears behind. Signed jerseys worn by the coaches hint at the knowledge that’s been shared. More photos, of some of the UFC’s biggest stars, suggest what is possible. And one of Royce’s original fi ghtworn gis is proof that mortal men can indeed become gods. Yet despite the serious and oftentimes harsh nature of what takes place within these walls, the decorative colors – an amalgamation of yellows and blues – are bright, almost festive.
A majority of the fl oor space is dedicated to training, enabling new champions to fulfi ll their destinies. Thick fl oor matting and padded walls encompass a variety of weightlifting apparatuses, cardiovascular machines, dumbbells, heavy bags, speed bags, and medicine balls. Tucked in the corner is the gladiatorial arena itself – the Octagon. Clean and unmarred, it is ready and waiting, boldly emblazoned with new sponsor logos and this season’s combatants: Team Rampage vs. Team Forrest. And high on the wall above the cage, looking down upon all who enter, are photos of Georges St. Pierre, Quinton Jackson, Forrest Griffi n, and Rashad Evans – a fi nal declaration to this year’s crop of MMA hopefuls that dedication, sacrifi ce, courage, skill, and heart can result in their wildest dreams coming true.
As the fi ghters start to come in, there’s a palpable energy, building with each new arrival. Soon, a total of 32 unknown middleweights are assembled. Many are bristling with confi dence, while some are concealing their fears. All are sizing up the competition, unsure of what’s about to take place. You see, in prior seasons, getting a bed in the TUF house came down to impressing the producers with a resume and a live audition. But all that’s changed. However, before we go forward, we need to go back…
The year is 2001. The popularity of mixed martial arts in America is growing at a whirlwind pace, yet the mother of all MMA spectacles – the Ultimate Fighting Championship – is on the verge of tapping out. At the time, the UFC was owned by pay-per-view programming pioneer Robert Meyrowitz’s Semaphore Entertainment Group (SEG). But despite buying out his former partners, Southern California ad exec/entrepreneur Art Davie and Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu master Rorion Gracie, Meyrowitz and SEG were fl irting with bankruptcy. Although there was no shortage of would-be viewers, getting the no-holds-barred events to fans proved nearly impossible. 36 states had banned it, and major pay-per-view distributors refused to carry the bouts, thus relegating the UFC to vastly smaller markets such as Mississippi, Alabama, and Wyoming.
One of the main reasons the high-octane sport had trouble fi nding suitable venues was current GOP presidential nominee John McCain, an Arizona senator. By far the most outspoken of all the UFC’s critics, McCain made it his personal mission to have the sport completely banned from American soil. Over the years, the “bought by boxing” politician made numerous disparaging remarks about the UFC and its kick-ass content, calling it a “barbaric blood sport,” dubbing it “human cockfi ghting,” and declaring that it “appealed to the lowest common denominator.” His rampant letter-writing campaign and numerous televised interviews besmirching the UFC almost succeeded in choking it out for good.
Enter boxing promoter Dana White and his close friends, Frank and Lorenzo Fertitta, owners of the hugely successful Station Casinos properties. Under the banner Zuffa, LLC – zuffa is Italian for “brawl” or “fi ght without rules” – they swooped in and saved the UFC from extinction for a bargain basement $2 million. Numerous improvements were made immediately. Among the implemented changes: weight classes, a ten-point must system, and new rules that outlawed head-butting, hair-pulling, small digit attacks, and groin strikes, among others. Add in Lorenzo Fertitta’s connection to the Nevada State Athletic Commission (he was a former board member), and the events were sanctioned in Las Vegas.
But despite cleaning up the sport, gaining acceptance from major pay-per-view carriers, and introducing MMA to larger markets, by 2004, Zuffa was hemorrhaging cash to the tune of $34 million! However, White and the Fertittas refused to throw in the towel. While there are numerous explanations behind Zuffa’s reluctance to cut their losses and move on, UFC color commentator, martial arts practitioner, and ardent MMA fan Joe Rogan says it best: “With great risk comes great reward, and the Fertittas have huge balls.”
So they decided to roll the dice – a fi tting descriptor for men made a fortune in the casino gaming industry. Using knowledge gleaned from the reality television series American Casino, which featured the daily events at their upscale Green Valley Ranch casino resort in Henderson, Nevada, the Fertittas conceptualized The Ultimate Fighter. Essentially it was Big Brother meets Survivor for mixed martial artists. Unfortunately, every network passed on the pitch. So the Fertittas offered to pay the entire $10 million production cost out of their own pockets. SpikeTV swallowed the bait, and the reality show was born.
The show portrayed fi ghters in an honest light, dispelling the myth that MMA practitioners were merely muscle-bound, heavily tattooed goons constantly looking for a brawl. Endless hardcore training, constant sacrifi ce, and the mounting pressure felt by sixteen professional fi ghters coexisting under the same roof for twelve straight weeks with hardly any outside contact – such was the drama of The Ultimate Fighter.
Debuting on January 18, 2005, the show was an instant hit, averaging an impressive 1.6 overall rating throughout the twelve episode series, roughly translating to approximately 4.13 million viewers per episode. But it was the show’s grand fi nale on April 9th – featuring an undercard with a litany of great fi ghts, capped by the nowlegendary fi rst bout between Forrest Griffi n and Stephan Bonnar for the TUF light heavyweight championship and the allimportant guaranteed six-fi gure UFC contract – that would cement the show’s place on American airwaves.
According to Joe Rogan, “People were calling their friends, telling them to hurry up and turn on channel [whatever]; it’s sick, these two guys are going to war!” Considered by many to be one of the greatest fi ghts in UFC history, it is rumored that a long-term deal to keep The Ultimate Fighter on SpikeTV for years to come was struck in a limousine immediately following the bout.
As each season came and went, new storylines unfolded, new stars were created, and new fans tuned in. But resting on your laurels in the realm of television – especially reality television – will bite you on the ass. SpikeTV’s brain trust was fully cognizant of this and acted accordingly.
“We’re six seasons in. Every time we do a season, we’re always happy with what we’ve done,” says SpikeTV Senior VP Brian Diamond. “But we’re always trying to challenge ourselves, trying to fi gure out what the next step is. So this year, the idea was make the guys fi ght their way into the house.”
Understand, this is a show about fi ghters and fi ghting, not drama queens and drama. For season seven, they were making absolutel
y certain every prospective cast member knew that. “In seasons past, there have been complaints about people only being in the house because they are funny or weird or whatever,” says Spike TV publicist Salil Gulati. “This season, no one can complain. Everyone had a shot to make it. No free passes.”
And that’s what it all boils down to: 32 fi ghters, 16 fi ghts, and 16 winners, each with a chance to compete for this season’s title of The Ultimate Fighter. Like the trademarked quote inside the training center proclaims, this is “As real as it gets.”