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Forget Brock Lesnar, “UFC Primetime” is the next big thing

As The Ultimate Fighter’s ratings continue a precipitous decline, now down 36 percent from their Tito Ortiz and Ken Shamrock fueled heights, Zuffa has quietly been searching for replacement programming to take over as their flagship show on Spike TV.

Despite the success of live fight specials, that couldn’t be the answer long term. The shows are simply too draining on the entire staff, not to mention a fight roster and audience already worn thin by an increasing barrage of MMA on television and pay per view. At a certain point, panic began to set in. “We really don’t know what we’re going to do when The Ultimate Fighter runs its course,” one UFC insider told me backstage at UFC 91. Now they know. Forget Brock Lesnar. UFC: Primetime is the next big thing.

Last night, Dana White and company went a long way towards ensuring their next contract with Spike TV and even further towards making the Georges St. Pierre-B.J. Penn fight a mega success on pay-per-view. It was a show obviously inspired by HBO’s groundbreaking 24/7 and their seminal NFL training camp show, Hard Knocks. What separates UFC: Primetime from these other excellent programs are the UFC fighters. As always, I’m impressed by the personalities. Both B.J. Penn and St.Pierre came across as great ambassadors for the sport. The audience saw, perhaps for the first time, what makes a fighter tick. And, despite eight seasons of TUF, many saw for the first time just how hard it is to be a professional fighter. These aren’t just born warriors, stepping out of the bar and into the cage. It takes work to be GSP. Maybe a little less to be B.J. Penn, and that was the story of this show, the first of three broadcasts leading up to UFC 94.

The story they are telling here is simple but effective. B.J. Penn is the rich kid, growing up in paradise and fighting because he can. He’s good at it and success comes easily for him. Georges St. Pierre’s is a more typical story, at least for a fighter. He grew up poor and struggled to make it to where he is, even quitting school for a time to work as a garbage man. He’s seen poverty and despair and this drives him, keeps him going back to the gym when others might be taking it easy, terrified to go back to his old life.

Penn’s is a more comfortable lifestyle. He’s on the beach, taking it easy with his boys and laughing about the dumb Canadian plunging through the snow in Quebec. The editing of the show clearly indicates the producers value making Penn appear as if he is not training hard, using footage of a routine break in training to push the idea. But those close to Penn say he is more dedicated than ever to ensuring his legacy in this sport and is training like never before. Even the noted training fanatic Frank Shamrock took a week off during his preparation for the Tito Ortiz fight in 1999 to make sure he was hitting all cylinders in the cage, not in the training room before the fight.

Manufacturing this conflict is understandable. It allows an opportunity for Dana White to make an appearance (always a good thing) and helps the audience decide between two popular fan favorites. Programs like this need some conflict, and while the specifics of this particular issue were contrived, Penn’s dedication to training is always ripe for speculation. One could expect in coming episodes that Penn will be shown making a concerted effort to train like a demon and this will simply be a narrative device to tell the story of his renewed commitment to greatness.

Despite some minor quibbles, like Penn providing stock material for the sport’s critics by threatening to kill GSP and vowing to die in the cage, this was a triumph. This show is masterfully produced, by far the best work we’ve ever seen on a UFC program. I can’t wait to see what comes next and I think many fans will feel the same way.

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