The Ultimate Fighter 18 made its debut on Fox Sports 1 on Wednesday and for the first time in a long time, there's a lot to like.
The framework is the same: Thirty-two contestants faced off in elimination bouts to gain entry into a lavish house somewhere in the desert just outside Las Vegas; there, the field will continue to be whittled down over 12 episodes leading up to a live finale bout. At stake: a six-figure UFC contract; performance bonuses ($25,000!) for best fight, submission, and knockout of the series; and pride. This year it's the bantamweights, a division in which the UFC could surely use some depth.
Of course, the twist this season (and it's a big one) is the addition of women fighters for the first time, not only as coaches, with arch rivals Ronda Rousey and Miesha Tate, but among the rabnks of hopefuls. Eight women fought their hearts out Wednesday to earn their spots among TUF's first female class and here's hoping they all emerge from the pressure cooker that is The Ultimate Fighter without shedding too many tears. Here are some thoughts on the opening two-hour debut episode, before the show moves to its regular 10 p.m. ET time slot next week:
1. TUF's feminine side looks promising.
For the past two years on SI.com, I've hardly hidden the fact that I'm a big proponent of women's fighting. I write about female fighters every chance I get. Not only do they have intriguing stories; you get the vibe that's there's been just a little bit more adversity to overcome because, well, they're women in one of the manliest of man's worlds.
"If you ask my three-and-a-half-year-old son what his mom does for a living, he's says she fights in a lion's cage," said Peggy Morgan, of Nashua, N.H., who advanced to the house with a first-round TKO.
What I like about women's MMA is that there's still a much smaller pool of talent to work with, which makes it much easier to follow. I'm often surprised and sometimes dismayed when fans show indifference, even disdain for women's fighting. It was inevitable that there would be women who wanted to participate, just as it has been in every other sport on this earth. And the women are quite good at it.
Our dynamic coaches aside (I don't expect Rousey to be as quiet as a church mouse for long), TUF producers found a diverse mix of women to fill the show (A special hat tip to producers for including Tara LaRosa, a true trailblazer for the women's movement). Jessica Rakoczy, the weepy, single mother trying to make a better life for her son. Roxanne Modafferi, the lovable, bespectacled nerd you'd never think could fight, let alone be good at it. Shayna Bazsler, the cocky veteran who thinks the world owes her something. Julianna Peña, the come-out-of-nowhere dark horse with the killer instinct.
Notwithstanding the brash Rousey and the much more playful Tate, what a cast of characters to savor this season! I'm already all in.
Which leads us to ask.....
2. How will the male fighters fit in this season?
UFC head Dana White wasn't kidding when he told the male contestants that they have their work cut out for them this season. The women are the shiny, new toys -- the men will have to go above and beyond to step out from their already imposing shadow. Despite a couple of standouts (striker Christopher Beal looked encouraging, for one), the men didn't leap out in the first episode.
Even coach Tate isn't quite sure how the men will pan out on the series, editing-wise.
"That's the good question," Tate said, "and I don't have the answer."
3. We're not buying that Rousey will hold her tongue for long.
Have you ever seen Ronda Rousey as reserved as she was in this first episode? A wallflower Rousey is not, and that's a big reason why fans like to watch her, aside from her immense talent in the cage.
Luckily, Rousey has an awful poker face. Even as she put her nose to the grindstone while surveying the field of contestants, she couldn't hide her disdain for Tate's presence and the whole situation in general. The rug was definitely pulled out from under Rousey when she discovered that Tate would be replacing her original opposing coach, Cat Zingano, at the last minute.
If Wednesday's teaser showed us anything about how this season will unravel it was that image of Rousey, tears streaming down her face.
"She's going to pay for every smirky smile she gave me today," said Rousey, like the emotional time bomb that she is.
And here's a little more dish on the rest of the season, just because we can:
EXPECT the Rousey-Tate-Caraway "love-hate triangle" to play out in some way....
Tate said she had an ace up her sleeve with her boyfriend, coach and mentor of six years Brian Caraway, also an accomplished pro fighter and UFC veteran, who served as one of her assistant coaches.
"He was instrumental in the whole process because he'd been on the fourteenth season of The Ultimate Fighter," Tate told SI.com this week. He was able to relate to the fighters in a way the rest of the staff just couldn't. We didn't have the experience of being locked up in a house for six weeks like he had."
Of course, Caraway's presence on the set with Rousey will add another juicy subplot. Tate said she feels she kept her cool most of the time, but drew the line when Rousey resorted to trying to pull Caraway into the fray, a tactic she's used in the past. For more on this soap opera, read here.
Caraway's taken a lot of heat for saying early on, under much duress from an obnoxious fan, that he could beat Rousey in a fight. Caraway said he's regretted that ill fated comment ever since and has apologized again and again.
"I don't have any ill thoughts or bad intentions toward Ronda. I don't hate her and I want her to know that," Caraway told SI.com this week. "She's a talented, world-class athlete. I think she's a stud fighter. I just don't agree with the way she approaches things and conducts herself. I don't feel like she's a role model and I think there's a lot better ways to go about it. Her, Miesha and I are just completely different types of people."
Different types of people? In reality TV land, that means "Game on."
EXPECT Tate to give her coaching the lighter touch....
"I didn't want to overstep boundaries," said Tate, who admits she had extremely limited coaching experience prior to the show. "I'm not the type to walk into a gym and try and teach everyone something. A lot of the guys had been fighting as long as I have, but if I saw something I could share I did, but at the same time, I tried not to talk like I was above them."
It will be fascinating to watch the varied (or not) coaching styles of Tate and Rousey.
EXPECT drama, drama, and more drama...
As if I had to tell you. Eight men and eight women cooped up in a house together without TV or any other outside contact. Throw in the hot tub, a steamy night or two in Sin City and a fully stocked bar and we have the makings for some potential "alliances" never seen before. Bring on the hot messes.
Personally, I'm hoping for a love connection, which eventually leads to a wedding in the Octagon. Hey, I met my husband on the job, so why not?