Ben Fowlkes
Thursday May 1st, 2008

Mac Danzig has a problem. As far problems go, it's one of the better ones to have, but it's also not as simple as it seems. Almost out of nowhere, Danzig has become famous. He has a big-money contract with the Ultimate Fighting Championship. He has strangers coming up to him in the street. He has, all at once, the things that have eluded him for the past six years. It doesn't sound so bad, really.

But the problem isn't what Danzig has gained, but more so what he's gone through to get it.

Danzig is the season six winner of The Ultimate Fighter, the mixed martial arts reality show on Spike TV that helped launched the sport into mainstream back in 2005. While Danzig's life has been changed for the better by his victory on the show, the nature of the competition still raises some difficult questions about the line between legitimate sports and reality TV-style entertainment.

"There were definitely times when I wondered, 'What am I doing here?'" Danzig said of his time on the show. "I'm a pretty private person, but I did this for my career. It was a step in the right direction. I'm glad I did it, but I'm not the kind of person who indulges in the type of attention that comes with this."

For those that haven't seen the show, the premise is fairly simple: take 16 up-and-coming MMA fighters and let them battle it out to see who deserves a lucrative UFC contract. Of course, along the way they have to live in a house together (without any connection to the outside world) because nothing says "reality" like 16 men crammed into a house with no TV.

When Danzig joined the cast, he was already a well-respected fighter in the MMA scene. He had more than 20 pro fights against some tough opponents. But the pool of fighters he faced in T.U.F weren't always as accomplished. Some were clearly chosen more for personality than potential; some had little to no experience as a pro fighter. A little like awarding a spot on an NFL roster to the winner of Pros vs. Joes? Maybe.

The goal of T.U.F is supposedly to determine who's deserving of a professional contract but when the pool of competitors includes the likes of Danzig, who came in at 16-4-1, and Blake Bowman, who was a "flawless" 0-0 when the show began, it's not hard to figure out that some guys are there to win and others are there to lose. And it makes for some clever quips for the camera.

Lovable losers make for great entertainment. But as a sporting competition, it makes the accomplishment seem like more show than substance, more about clashing characters than clashing fighters. The UFC couldn't possibly believe that a guy like Bowman had a good chance of winning the show. He was there to play the role of the Washington Generals opposite Danzig's Globetrotters.

Therein lies Danzig's dilemma: the dominating reality-star is trying to take on real reality. Real fights, not personality set-ups. Real people, not camera-friendly characters with enough athleticism to cut it.

It seems like a strange, though inevitable cultural intersection. It's where pro sports meet the irresistible zeitgeist of reality TV. It leaves us wondering whether we can really believe what we've seen. Do T.U.F winners, like Danzig, deserve what their counterparts struggle for years to attain?

For Danzig, that's a definitive yes. He struggled to attain his fighting goal, just like the others. But his victories prior to the show never landed him a professional contract. He may have taken a different route, but the destination was the same all along. But while he opted for the mainstream path, he's having to prove himself all over again.

Just a couple of weeks ago at UFC 83, Danzig had his first bout since the show, where he faced unheralded Canadian grappler Mark Bocek, With pressure from his critics, who wondered how much of Danzig's success was genuine, and how much was a product of the UFC's powerful hype machine, Danzig could have easily been fighting the entire arena.

"I felt like maybe people weren't taking me seriously," he said. "Most guys who come off The Ultimate Fighter get an easy fight their first fight back -- [Bocek] ... was a tough guy and at the same time he didn't have a big name, so most people wrote him off. I'm just happy to be doing regular fights like a regular fighter and be done with The Ultimate Fighter stigma as much as I can."

Whether you believe a fighter like Danzig has earned the accolades that T.U.F has brought him, he still has to keep fighting the fights, and he still has to keep winning. When the bell rings it's always going to be sink or swim, and thankfully no amount of clever editing can change that part.

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