Friday September 12th, 2014

The Ultimate Fighter saved the UFC. If you’ve watched even a lick of mixed martial arts in the nine years since the reality television show first aired on Spike, you’ve heard the fateful story, which Dana White retells with gushing gusto every time the company president and minority owner is called upon to sort out rags from riches.

Maybe you even were among those tuned in for the momentous Season 1 finale on a Saturday night in April 2005 -- tuned in unexpectedly, most likely, as you’d been surfing with the clicker and happened upon the glorious sight of two living, breathing Rock ’Em Sock ’Em Robots. They were in a cage shaped like a stop sign, but the brawl between Forrest Griffin and Stephan Bonnar was nonstop.

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You might even be a living, breathing part of the UFC president’s jubilant narrative. According to Zuffa-fueled legend, legions of drawn-in cable viewers put down their remotes and picked up their phones to call their friends and insist, “You’ve got to check this out!”

And that, in an eight-sided nutshell, is how a fight promotion that was $44 million in debt began its metamorphosis into the $3.5 billion sports industry standard bearer we have today. (Both monetary figures are White’s, from interviews with different media outlets.)

So, yes, The Ultimate Fighter heroically saved the UFC from a fade to black.

Yet, The Ultimate Fighter has barely managed to save itself from the same dark fate. The reality show has withered before our eyes -- before a steadily declining number of eyes, that is. And it’s not just ratings that have gone downhill, it’s relevance, too. That first season produced a future UFC champion, Griffin, and so did Seasons 2 (Rashad Evans) and 4 (Matt Serra), which played out later in 2005 and in ’06. Since then, the 15 subsequent domestic seasons and seven held abroad have been all but barren. Only recently crowned bantamweight T.J. Dillashaw, runner-up on 2011’s Season 14, has gone on to seize the golden ring.

And without the ultimate prize anywhere in sight, The Ultimate Fighter has had little to hold fans’ attention. Other than on the one season presented live, the series has squeezed all the juice out of a tired format that’s relied upon the dubious hope that viewers would become attached to unknown fighters who were going nowhere, all the while perpetrating juvenile hijinks that called into question why these guys had moved into the camera-in-every-room house anyway. Like much of reality television, this promotional vehicle has befallen a sad, stale reality.

That’s in the process of changing, if only temporarily. In a few months, The Ultimate Fighter will produce another champion. It’s guaranteed. Season 20, which kicked off Wednesday night on Fox Sports 1, features the collective UFC debuts of 16 women who make up the promotion’s brand new strawweight division. They’re competing in a tournament to determine who’ll be the inaugural UFC 115-pound belt holder.

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It’s amazing how the addition of high stakes can breathe life into a threadbare formula. This season’s show is unfolding much like those of the past -- the fighters are on teams, competing in an elimination tournament (which finished taping before the first week’s airing), with the two survivors facing off for the shiny new belt in a Dec. 12 finale in Las Vegas. It’s the same old same old, really, yet this time it feels fresh. Why is that? Because these are high-level fighters, and their fights mean something.

One thing every season has had is heartrending stories, and there are plenty of those this time, too. Angela Magana was born to a heroin-addicted mother prone to forgetting to take care of her children, and the 30-year-old is now a single mother herself. Justine Kish, 26, spent the first five years of her life in a Russian orphanage; the first three things she learned in English, directed to her adoptive parents upon arrival in the United States, were “Mama,” “Papa,” and “I love you.” Other women’s bios told of bullying and similar struggles of youth. Every fighter has a story, and more often than not, it’s a painful one.

What sets this season apart is that a significant portion of the cast has not only a past but also a future. The carrot dangling in front of these women isn’t a single UFC contract; all of them are on the promotion’s roster already. And unlike the casts from past seasons, which could be considered moderately successful merely by introducing the fanbase to a single fighter who makes it into the rankings, this group is going to make up the vast majority of the promotion’s media-voted Top 15. There are exceptions, such as Cláudia Gadelha, a highly regarded Brazilian 115-pounder who debuted on a Fight Night card in Atlantic City, N.J., in July. She and a couple others aren’t on the show because they don’t speak English. But for the most part, this season’s cast represents the crème de la crème of UFC-signed strawweights. For the first time in a long time, The Ultimate Fighter is must-see TV for serious MMA fans.

Everything’s not a bed of roses, of course. The marketing has pushed beauty over beastliness, shining a spotlight on the women’s looks as much as -- and in some cases more than -- their fighting acumen. It’s not surprising that Fox would go this route, but disappointing that women athletes continue to be evaluated in that context.

Beyond that, it would have been great if, considering the stakes, this season were playing out live. Presenting it on tape is like telling NFL fans to DVR the entire pro football season, try to steer clear of spoilers for months, and watch all the games just prior to the Super Bowl. That this is for a championship belt makes it a real sports event, not just a reality show. (And are the UFC and Fox being naïve to believe that the results of a competition for a championship belt will remain under wraps for months?)

We also cannot lose sight of the fact that even though a champion will be crowned in December, the woman who gets her arm raised will not definitively be the alpha female among 115-pounders. The winner of this tournament merely will be the woman who best navigates her way through the distractions of living in a house with her fellow competitors for several weeks, through a rigorous schedule that will include fights fairly close together, and through fight camps conducted not by her usual coaches and training partners. Now that everyone is out of the house, the jostling for position in the strawweight pecking order is beginning anew, secretively, while we watch the show unfold on TV.

These are nitpicks. This season of The Ultimate Fighter is a giant leap forward from what we’ve seen -- or not bothered to watch -- in recent years. This time the competitors are not an afterthought in what had increasingly drifted toward becoming nothing but a promotional vehicle for a clash of coaches at season’s end. This season’s fighters were coached by UFC lightweight champion Anthony Pettis and the man who’ll challenge him on Dec. 6, former Strikeforce champ Gilbert Melendez. But their fight will not be the end of the story. A week later, another championship will be awarded. For the first time.

And then we’ll be left with the real question: What can Season 21 do for an encore? 


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