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The Future of The Ultimate Fighter

With Roy Nelson being crowned the newest “Ultimate Fighter” at the show’s standard conclusive event last Saturday night you’re likely to hear chatter from fans and media turn to the futures of those involved in Version 10 and how they stack up to previous seasons. Opinions will almost certainly vary in terms of which fighter has the most promise, which coach came out of things looking better/worse, and whether or not Tito Ortiz and Chuck Liddell make good team-heads for the next incarnation of the long-running reality series. It’s a fairly cyclical process and, similar to the actual program being discussed, one that’s become fairly stagnant in nature.

When Forrest Griffin and Stephan Bonnar duked it out in 2005 things were different. The pool of available talent was deeper, as evident by the first few casts’ collective success inside the Octagon, and the concept was fresher. While much has changed on the front end of that equation – after all, barely half of the TUF 10 fighters were even booked for the finale – the opposite can be said where alterations to the format are concerned. The contestants continue to be locked in a house with access to a plethora of alcohol and the inability to watch television, use the internet, or even talk to loved ones at home. They go to the UFC Training Center, fight multiple times in a tournament with brackets influenced by organizational president Dana White, and will occasionally soak up useful information at some point throughout the whirlwind process. It’s become more of a promotional tool for future PPV main event bouts between coaches rather than a medium for discovering talent or conveying the true story of what it means to be a Mixed Martial Artist…err, “Ultimate Fighter”.

The importance of providing original MMA-related programming on an outlet as accessible to the mainstream as Spike TV cannot be underestimated. It carries the power to educate onlookers while eliminating preconceived biases they may have had going into the show by doing so. Athletes are given the chance to brand themselves to the public and potentially make a living doing something they love for the next 10-15 years of their lives. However, while the numbers brought in by Kimbo Slice may look nice in the short term, the future appears bleak for TUF without one or more significant changes to the way it’s produced. This is evident by the difference in viewership of episodes not featuring the bearded brawler from Miami and the continuing decline in ratings the show has seen over the last few seasons. It has already become stale in the eyes of many fans due its repetitive “storylines” and the less-than stellar talent being booked in the house these days. The interest in standard reality television formats like “people locked in a house” is also dipping across the board due to an abundance of similar programs oversaturating the market and the collective A.D.D. of our nation’s inhabitants.

It is time for “The Ultimate Fighter” to evolve in the same way the term’s human counterparts have grown from one-dimensional strikers and grapplers into elite athletes who are highly trained in multiple disciplines. Here are four suggestions on how the UFC can re-inject a little excitement into TUF. All are realistic options…

No More House: The walls of the TUF mansion need to be flattened and not by drunken 22-year olds with anger management issues. Bring in a professional construction crew to rip down the airbrush-adorned structure and let Quinton Jackson clean up any doors left lingering. Moving production around to different locales would immediately add a new dimension to affected seasons. Have the group travel to various notable training camps in North America, even if it means making them live on a tour bus in-between destinations to add tension and increase the likelihood of drama. Give fans a peak at how things run at gyms like American Kickboxing Academy, American Top Team, XTreme Couture, and Greg Jackson’s Submission Fighting. Send the final four men and both coaches to one of the birthplaces of techniques frequently used in MMA to highlight the skill’s history and take advantage of the visuals a foreign landscape provides.

Strip away the Hollywood aspect at some point in the season and have cameras follow TUF participants home so viewers have a better feel for each individual’s circumstances. What better way to invite personal investment in the fighters’ futures than to introduce the audience to ailing mothers, charming wives, or adorable children? Why not allow for potentially polarizing moments to occur whether in relation to a Mixed Martial Artist’s blue collar work ethic or love of strippers and booze? If the UFC wants to truly see what their potential employees are made of it seems allowing them to go about their semi-regular lives is a better means to obtaining that information than sticking them in a million-dollar house and world class facility. See how they approach things when they’re away from the glitz and glamour of the show rather than create an unrealistic situation for them to train in.

Veterans vs. Rookies: The Ultimate Fighter has generally made a name for itself by bringing in fresh talent, but it wasn’t too long ago Matt Serra and Travis Lutter emerged from “The Comeback” to give memorable performances against two of the top pound-for-pound Mixed Martial Artists in the sport. Combine the two and bring the groups together, pitting recognizable older fighters who have already graced the Octagon against those who want nothing more than an opportunity to step into the famous structure just once. Old vs. New is an easy concept to sell to the audience and interactions between the two sets would certainly be interesting. Hell, if the producers want to be downright sadistic, they can even say any fighter who loses his first-round appearance will be ineligible to appear on a UFC card for the next full year if ever at all.

Live Semi-Finals: Few things in MMA are as exciting as the element of unknown a live fight brings to the table. It also eliminates the possibility of spoiler results being leaked or even hinted at. Throwing a “real time” element into the Ultimate Fighter would certainly involve a great deal of planning and hard work on the part of the crew due to the change, but the same can be said for a caterpillar’s transformation into a butterfly so it’s not to say the blood, sweat, and tears wouldn’t be worth it.

The segment of the season where numbers are whittled down to four athletes would proceed as it typically does. Those 8-10 episodes would introduce the fighters and highlight interesting or relevant happenings occurring during the taping period. The semi-finalists’ training would take place during those months with live action scheduled for two weeks after the lone spot has been locked up on television. The brief break would allow for a program recapping the season, as well as an opportunity to create material for rounding out portions of the event not featuring actual action such as fighter interviews and training video.

As a result of the shift in programming the Finale would need to take place 2-4 weeks after the last two men are left standing as opposed to how it is currently set up in order to let them heal/train. The gap could be used to build the public’s interest in the match-up, and while the reduced time for both rest and preparation might affect an individual’s eventual performance, plenty of legitimate MMA tournaments occur where top level athletes fight twice on the same night, let alone twice in the same month. In that regard the concept is not far-fetched nor would it be considered extraordinary by most fans’ standards.

Reinstate Team/Individual Challenges: The past ten offerings from the Ultimate Fighter have been filled with a number of memorable moments and yet how many of them were of a positive nature? When people look back at TUF do more recall the incredible effort and determination shown by Joe Stevenson during the “scarecrow” challenge in Season Two than Junie Browning’s antics or the backyard brawl between Marlon Sims and Noah Thomas? It’s likely the latter stands out in most viewers’ minds, and that’s a shame Zuffa should bow their collective heads in embarrassment about. However, don’t expect such humility to surface at any point in the near future, as “The Most Technical Street Fight Ever” was ranked #5 on UFC’s “Tuffest 25 Moments” with “Scarecrow” ten slots down from it at fifteen.

As is the driving force behind all the suggestions in this column, including this one, it’s time to change the perception of what the Ultimate Fighter is about. Reinstating challenges would provide a positive outlet for unleashing pent up energy or aggression and a means for keeping the athletes mentally and physically sharp. It would also offer something generally entertaining to watch on television. Create an obstacle course relay with the winning team getting an evening out at a Las Vegas sushi spot. Have a puzzle requiring teamwork to solve with the victorious group attending a local MMA event alongside Dana White. Towards the end, implement individual challenges where fighters can earn an opportunity to receive private training from a specialist, spa treatment, top of the line gear including a professionally molded mouthguard, or some alone time with loved ones. Fans witness how hard it is for the fighters to be away from their children and significant others. Imagine when an individual who is perceived to be a killing machine in the cage breaks down in tears because he has a chance to see his family after being away for eight weeks. Or, perhaps in a less emotional moment, think about the comedic potential involved in having the contestants conquer their fears. Those things don’t weaken their profiles. It strengthens them. Because, similar to the first season or two of TUF, they remind viewers that the men in the Octagon aren’t violence-loving thugs but rather real human beings not so different from themselves.

In summary, it is time for those birthed the Ultimate Fighter to start creating original, memorable moments serving the cause of Mixed Martial Arts instead of weakening it. Work with the talent offered by not only fostering their in-ring techniques but their behavior outside of the cage as well. It doesn’t take a room full of blue-chip prospects or outlandish personalities to create an enjoyable product. It takes the abilities to both look inward and think outside the box; to make changes before it’s too late to do so. There is not another Kimbo on the radar to serve as a ratings boost and numbers will be back to the diminishing level they were at prior to his arrival this past season. Not only do fans, fighters, and the sport deserve better, but a franchise seen by most as the catalyst for the UFC’s current success should be treated with more respect than to do nothing while crumbling around its very architects.

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