Ben Fowlkes
Friday June 18th, 2010

There's something about these Ultimate Fighter Finale events that feels like the scene at the middle of a mountain hiking trail. You have people going up, people going down, and people who haven't decided yet whether they have it in them to climb any farther.

OK, so that's not the world's best metaphor, but this isn't the world's best fight card, so maybe it's fitting.

For the young fighters coming off the most recent iteration of the UFC's long-running reality TV show, the world will be full of promise. They're all certain that MMA stardom is right around the corner, and their win on Saturday night will be the first step toward fame and riches.

But they might do well to look around the rest of the fight card for a lesson on how the best-laid plans often fall short.

There's Chris Leben, a Season 1 contestant who's been up, down and everywhere in between during his run with the UFC. There's Keith Jardine, Season 2 semifinalist who's coming off three straight losses, the last two of which were particularly ugly knockouts. There's Matt Hamill, a bright prospect from Season 3 who hasn't managed to win the big fights that might take him to the next level.

And these, it should be noted, are the relative success stories. We don't even want to start talking about all the fighters who appeared on the show and fought on the finale, only to later slip off into MMA anonymity, the answer to some obscure UFC trivia question.

But fighters don't think this way. They can't. If they spent that much time thinking about all the way things could go wrong in this line of work, they'd be constantly mired in despair.

Take, for instance, the two finalists from Season 11 who will square off on Saturday night with a UFC contract and cut-glass trophy on the line. Both Court McGee and Kris McCray tasted defeat during their time on the show. Due to certain peculiarities of the tournament format, they both found their way back into the competition and made the most of it.

For McCray, that included fighting literally once a week at times. It also included being judged by fans for performances that were undoubtedly affected by sore muscles and a constantly swollen face.

In the battle of personal narratives, McGee has already won. A former drug addict who was declared dead after a heroin overdose, he pulled his life together and turned his focus toward his family and his MMA career. It's a story that feels made for uplifting reality TV.

On the flip side, McCray is an eager young fighter, though not necessarily a riveting one to watch. He found success by turning fights into a slow grind, putting opponents on their back and hammering out decision victories.

It's hard to say if it's the fighters and their already-shattered illusions of invincibility that are dampening fan interest in this fight card, or whether it might just be a consequence of the show itself wrapping up its eleventh season. Even The Simpsons got stale eventually.

But for the two guys in the main event, as well as for the other fighters from this season who are getting what amounts to a tryout on the undercard, the stakes are still incredibly high. To them, the future doesn't extend much beyond Saturday night. What happens after that will depend on what they can do in just a few minutes worth of cage time in Las Vegas.

It's this inherent cruelty that keeps the sport interesting. There are no meaningless fights. That's why it makes a bizarre kind of sense to put the bright-eyed young up-and-comers on the same fight card as the guys who once stood in the exact same spot. They might easily look at one another and see some reflection of their future or past selves, if they were inclined to look at all.

If nothing else, TUF finales are always good for that curious intersection. There's also that chance that, like the people who saw Guns N' Roses on the Sunset Strip for the price of a two-drink minimum, you might be witnessing the humble beginnings of something great.

Then again, you might just be seeing a brutal reminder of some of the fight game's harsh truths.

Namely, that no one cares about second place. That potential today doesn't equal success tomorrow. That you could stay in this organization for years, and still end up fighting for your job every time out. It might not be a kind world to exist in, but at least it's an honest one.

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