by FIGHT! contributor Josh Nason
The importance of The Ultimate Fighter in the development of American mixed martial arts can’t be overstated. The show exposed the sport, its rules, and its competitors to an ever-growing mainstream fanbase, transcending the medium of reality TV to become a nearly year-round infomercial for the Ultimate Fighting Championship.
Here’s a look at how the show has evolved from the viewpoints of three distinct and important figures in TUF history: Spike TV Senior Vice President Brian Diamond, former UFC Welterweight Champion, TUF 4 winner and TUF 6 coach Matt Serra and TUF 7 winner Amir Sadollah.
In 1981, a young producer named Brian Diamond helped launch of an upstart network called MTV. Twenty-four years later, Diamond, then the senior vice president for sports and specials at Spike TV, would become part of television history again when his network aired the first season of The Ultimate Fighter.
In 2004, Diamond was looking for a combat sports partner for the network. He kicked the tires on Japan’s K-1 and Pride promotions but was conflicted about airing fights without educating fans about fight sports and the fighters themselves. Then the UFC came calling with an idea for a new show.
“They said it would give insight into who these guys were as characters, as fighters and as athletes and that (the show) would help those that didn’t know much about the sport to embrace it in some shape or form,” Diamond said. “They presented us with the reality show concept and it made sense on a lot of different levels. The rest is history.”
Diamond was impressed by his first live event experience at UFC 48, by how diverse and knowledgeable the fan base was, and by the level of celebrity in the crowd. The network made the call to go into production (with the UFC’s parent company Zuffa footing the bill) and The Ultimate Fighter debuted on January 18, 2005. UFC icons Randy Couture and Chuck Liddell served as coaches to two eight-man teams representing two weight classes.
The concept was simple: the teams would compete in physical challenges with the winning coach getting to pick an elimination fight. The four semifinalists in the two weight classes would then square off on a live Spike special, one that would exceed expectations thanks to two gutsy light heavyweights who were gunning for a life-changing opportunity.
The April 9 broadcast was the first-ever live non-PPV event in UFC history and the Forrest Griffin/Stephan Bonnar war has been cited as the fight that put MMA on the mainstream sports fan’s map. Other cast members were eventually signed to contracts, helping bolster the UFC’s roster with faces and personalities those new fans had learned to love or hate during the season’s 12-episode run.
“At the end of the day, TUF is a television show but is also a training ground for (the UFC) to find the next generation of great fighters,” Diamond explains. “If people don’t watch the show, then the fact we’re finding great fighters is moot. And if we’re not finding great fighters, I’m sure the UFC will find fighters elsewhere but it’s an active venue for them to find a lot of fighters very quickly that have had exposure to the rest of the viewing universe.”
With nine seasons in five years, TUF falls outside the traditional TV format and requires all parties to always be thinking about the franchise and the relationship in general. Diamond estimates that with all departments considered, there is daily conversation between the two organizations and that especially with TUF, the bar is always set high to do better than the season before.
“Sometimes, it’s an idea that emanates from the UFC, sometimes it’s from production and sometimes, it comes out of a jam,” Diamond explained, adding that while casting several years ago, White approached him with the idea of Matt Serra and Matt Hughes as coaches which he called a ‘no brainer’ – even adjusting the production schedule to accommodate for Serra’s wedding.
The Winner-Turned-Champion-Turned Coach
Despite being an established six-year veteran with a 7-4 record, Matt Serra didn’t feel slighted in the least when he was asked to be part of TUF 4: The Comeback. The fourth season of the show was devoted to giving UFC also-rans another shot in the big show; the winners in each weight class would be awarded immediate title shots.
“It was a golden opportunity and something I seized. I couldn’t let that pass me by and it so was huge for me on so many different levels: professionally, financially, for my martial arts schools,” Serra explained. “It did wonders for me.”
The fiery East Meadow, NY, native has been a major player in the show’s history – having won the welterweight division of the fourth season in addition to returning to coach against heated rival Matt Hughes during the sixth season – the first of four fighters to do so after winning.
“They gave me the call, but you still have to go to an audition. They want guys with personalities and if you’re a stick in the mud, I think that affects you getting on the show,” Serra said. “So I went out there to do the interview and I slayed it. I had seen the buzz and the exposure around it and said that I wasn’t going to pass that up.”
Serra joined a cast that included Rich Clementi, Pete Spratt, Serra student Pete “Drago” Sell, Edwin DeWees, Din Thomas and others looking to experience a major jumpstart in their MMA careers. It would be expected if some of the fighters had bad attitudes or a sense of entitlement considering the stages most were at in their careers. But Serra took a positive attitude into his house and said he saw the same from a lot of his Team Mojo teammates.
“I tried not to put too much pressure on myself going in and looked at it like a six-week training camp. I came out a better fighter and it got me to the title and I seized that opportunity as well,” Serra said. “I have nothing but good things to say about the experience.”
Part of that experience was crossing paths with Shonie Carter, the man who put Serra on the UFC highlight reel with a spinning back fist knockout at UFC 31. But instead of holding a grudge against the eccentric Carter, Serra actually cornered him for his first fight on the show, a unanimous decision win over Clementi.
The relationship between the two made for great TV, especially when they re-matched in the semi-finals which Serra won by unanimous decision. It was a cathartic process that brought the two closer together.
“When I saw him on there, he was a guy that needed help at the time, but it wasn’t only me behind him but the whole team,” Serra said. “I think me and Shonie got a good relationship. We see each other and pick up where we left off. I fought that guy twice and they were both fun fights and whenever you go through that with somebody, you tend to have a mutual respect amongst each other. I like Shonie a lot.”
Serra would go on to defeat Chris Lytle via unanimous decision in the welterweight finale to earn a title shot at Georges St. Pierre. Like when he got the invite to be on TUF 4, Serra took advantage of the opportunity, stunning everyone with a TKO win over GSP at UFC 69 to win the title. Almost two years after the Parisyan loss and at a career crossroads, Serra was a champion and on top of the world thanks to being on the show.
That wouldn’t be his last experience with TUF as he was asked to coach opposite rival Matt Hughes for the series’ seventh season, eventually leading to a match between the two that was delayed for years due to injuries. While their patent dislike for each other dominated the season’s storylines, Serra realized he had a job to do and young men to teach.
“It was a different responsibility because it’s no longer for yourself and you have to train these guys,” Serra said. “It was definitely interesting because it’s not your ass you have to watch out for, but you got to try to take care of these guys and you want what’s best for them as their coach.”
Unlike the fighters, the coaches for the show aren’t required to live in the quiet isolation of a home with no TV, newspapers or music. Serra and assistants Ray Longo and TUF 4 teammate Sell were set up in apartments near the Hard Rock Casino in Las Vegas with no restrictions, allowing the head coach to have dinner with his wife (who stayed with him), go to the movies or just hang out.
The coaches are also compensated for their time but Serra presses that the exposure you get on the show as a fighter or a coach is much more important.
“You can’t buy that kind of exposure. Even if you’re not getting paid crazy (to be on the show), there’s still appearances and seminars and that 13 weeks on the air just raises your whole stock,” Serra explained. “Then you get guys like myself, Hughes and (Michael) Bisping that have been on more than once, that’s 26 weeks of air time being on a reality show. It’s great for you.”
But with the positives come negatives and for the 35-year-old Serra, dealing with the attitude of now-former Serra Jiu-Jitsu coach and TUF 6 cast member Joe Scarola was a major frustration. After losing via first-round triangle choke to eventual champion Mac Danzig on the first episode, Scarola became disenchanted with the house and kept threatening to leave.
From the show’s presentation, Scarola seems to be tormented about the decision even after repeated talks with teammates, Serra and even White. In the third episode, Scarola left and Serra would later relieve him of his duties at his schools back in New York.
“I felt it was unfair to me and the team, because even though he lost, I thought he could have been a benefit to the team,” Serra said. “I know it could be not fun in (the house), but if you’re not made for that, it’s going to come out. I don’t think Joey is a bad guy at all, but it was a guy going on for the wrong reasons and the show highlighted his worst attributes. If you give it to (the producers), they’ll use it.”
As someone that has seen the experience from both sides of the cage, Serra can’t say enough positives about the experience but cautions future participants as to what approach to take if they are thinking about taking their shot.
“You can talk it, you can walk it and put on the pads and do some armlocks. But if you’re not cut out to be a fighter, there’s no disguising that or working around it or talking your way through it,” Serra said. “Once that cage door shuts, it’s as real as it gets. If you go on there for the wrong reasons and just to sign some autographs, you’ll be exposed.”
The Unexpected Champion
Amir Sadollah didn’t have a single professional fight when he attended a New Jersey casting call for the seventh season of TUF. Months later, his hand was raised in victory as the TUF 7 champion following an impressive submission win over C.B. Dollaway at the finale.
“I look at it like an educational experience. If you relate it to a fighter’s version of college, I think it was like grad school for me,” Sadollah said.
As a 4-0 amateur fighter, the one-time International Fight Leauge draft choice attended the open tryout at a friend’s prompting. He impressed the personnel there after demonstrating his grappling and pad striking ability, which was followed by on-screen interviews. After being invited to do a second round of interviews in Las Vegas, Sadollah would get the call that he made the show and filming would begin in two weeks – a voicemail he keeps on his phone to this day.
“It was such a mix of emotions because I was so happy and so excited, but I couldn’t tell anyone. They do a good job of scaring you and you know it’s a stupid reason to not get on the show because you ran your mouth,” Sadollah said.
Other than close relatives and those who are on a need-to-know basis that are asked to sign a confidentiality waiver, fighters are not allowed to tell other people they are competing on TUF. Sadollah only told his mother, girlfriend and boss, explaining to training partners that he was going back to Holland for additional training.
“I got back and I was all tan and they said, “You went to Holland, huh?” and I was like, “Yeahhh,” Sadollah joked.
Once in the house, the environment changes completely to one solely focused on fighting with no outside influences – something that can either break someone down or embolden them to carry on. As a fan of the show, Sadollah had seen the televised effects of what the TUF experience was like but had an open mindset going in.
“The biggest thing you can do is tell yourself that it is going to be hard, stressful and a pressure-cooker and that everything past that is experience that ultimately serves to make you a better fighter,” Sadollah explained. “It’s all about outlook. You can go crazy and flip out and leave or change your mindset and make the most of it.”
“I have a liberal outlook in general and now that I’ve been on the show in that situation, I find a lot more behavior excusable just because of the pressure. About two weeks in, you’re pretty crazy. Lock yourself in your house with 15 guys you played high school sports with and don’t let yourself out or talk to anyone. You’ll be right on your way,” he said.
Following the six weeks of filming, Sadollah went home to Virginia and relaxed for a few weeks (“I didn’t realize how much I missed TV”) before returning to Las Vegas to train for several months for the finale, still having to keep quiet because the show was airing during the time. He wasn’t sure what to expect watching the show, but doesn’t have the complaints that others do about being portrayed in a bad light.
“Editing doesn’t change things drastically, but it puts emphasis on things. If they want to hype up drama or something that happened, that’s pretty easy to do,” Sadollah explained. “It wasn’t like I thought they would do with completely making stuff up or taking something you say completely out of context. It’s pretty interesting to see how all that reality show nonsense works.”
As a member of the seventh season, the 29-year-old had the advantage of seeing how those on the six seasons before him acted and carried themselves. With some fighters still surprisingly arriving out of shape or seemingly clueless to what the process is about, Sadollah has some sage advice for future participants.
“You got to take it very seriously. It’ll be as good to you as you are to it. A lot of guys that didn’t win the show are still doing fine and sometimes even better,” he said. “The show is a tool for your career and it’ll give you back what you put in…like most things in life.”