It was late on a Friday evening back in May, the end of a long work day at the end of a long work week. Except it wasn't the end for everyone. Most of the fighters and UFC and FX production personnel had already vacated the Las Vegas gym that serves as the soundstage for the television drama known as The Ultimate Fighter, but a few crew members were still breaking down equipment. There was work to be done.
Dana White wasn't quite ready to quit for the day, either. The UFC president had just overseen the final episode of the reality show's 15th season, its first since moving from Spike and its first to be produced live. He still had details to take care of for the next night's heavyweight championship bout and also for the fight card a week away. But he took a few minutes to go off to his small office with a trio of media folks, and after motioning for us to take the three seats in the room, he stood near the wall sipping from a water bottle, looking about as refreshed as one of his fighters might after going a hard three rounds.
As his never-idle hands twisted the bottle's plastic cap off and on, off and on, White confessed that the six weeks of TV production had been "a nightmare." But he said this without even a hint of the affect of someone who'd just been jolted out of a tranquil slumber. He appeared to be a man at peace. That's because the same thing that had made the first season on FX so nightmarish for White also was what had made it a dream come true.
"Doing the show live is not easy, but it's the real deal. I love it," he said, a smile spreading across his face. "This is the most engaged I've been in a season of The Ultimate Fighter in a long time. I've been at every fight except one. It's awesome. I love the live aspect of it."
That's a perfectly understandable perspective for someone who prides himself as an old-school fight fan. You just know that even if White were not the boss of the UFC, he'd still have eaten up the show. If he didn't have responsibilities both behind the scenes and on camera, he'd have been sitting in front of his television every week, following the fisticuffs live. Or almost live. He might very well have done what other no-nonsense fight fans likely did: record the show on the DVR in order to view it commercial-free while also fast-forwarding through back-story scenes from the house where the fighters were sequestered and from gym training sessions, and getting right to the weekly fights. After all, reality TV might offer melodrama aplenty, but there's nothing like the gritty spectacle of watching two fighters enter the cage.
So here we are on the verge of another new season, with 32 unsigned welterweights vying for a UFC contract. And when The Ultimate Fighter premieres with a special two-hour episode Friday at 8 p.m. ET on FX, there will be one big change from last season: The show is no longer live.
"Yeah, the live aspect was fun for me," White acknowledged last week after being reminded of how he'd sung the praises of that format after last season. "But what we found out is that fans loved the reality, and that was missing last season. There actually was a ton of great reality in the house that we didn't see. You couldn't shoot it, because you had to tell the story of that week's fight -- why these guys are fighting -- and then you had the live fight."
That would be entertainment enough for a core crowd of serious fight fans. But with reality TV -- and its penchant for unscripted but nonetheless predictably crude amusement -- being so pervasive an art form on the boob tube these days, that's apparently what you have to dish out if you wish to reach a broad audience. Dana the Fight Fan might be mostly interested in watching what goes on in the octagon, but many in the UFC's young viewership demographic are no less interested in seeing what's happening inside the house. They'll be thrilled if they get to see the next Forrest Griffin show his stuff in the cage this season, but they'll gleefully settle for bearing witness to the next Chris Leben wreaking havoc in the liquor cabinet at the show's Animal House for Alpha Dogs.
Viewers who go for the crazy stuff will see plenty of it this season. A promotional teaser for the show depicts a house in disharmony -- broken glass, furnishings going into the pool, fighters getting into each other's faces, fighters being held back from each other. "The one thing I've learned in all of the seasons of doing this: Reality is better than any script you could ever write," said White. "I mean, you know some of these kids have seen crazy stuff from past seasons and show up telling themselves, 'I'm not going to act like that.' And then they come on the show, and it's such a pressure cooker that things just happen."
That pressure cooker actually serves the UFC well. Aside from fostering a bump in TV ratings from casual viewers tuning in to watch a weekly train wreck, the nerve-wracking ambiance is a barometer that allows the fight promotion to separate those who can handle the demands of the game's elite level from those who would get weighed down. "We're looking for guys who have what it takes -- mentally, physically and emotionally -- to make it through The Ultimate Fighter, get into the UFC and potentially be world champion someday," said White. "First and foremost, that's what we want."
To that end, White recruits fighters from the top end of his roster to serve as coaches. That allows The Ultimate Fighter to do double duty: The young athletes get to work with an established UFC fighter and whatever coaches he brings in from his camp, and the veteran of the sport gets six weeks of TV exposure and a main event slot on the show's live finale. That mid-career boost couldn't have come at a better time for one of this season's coaches, Shane Carwin.
The former NCAA Division II wrestling champion and football All-American began his MMA career with nine straight victories, all first-round finishes. His knockout of Frank Mir in March 2010, only his second fight to last beyond two minutes, earned him the interim heavyweight title. But it was his last victory. Since then he's lost two fights -- to then-champion Brock Lesnar and a pre-championship Junior dos Santos -- but has undergone neck and back surgeries and hasn't been in the octagon since June 2011. This reality TV appearance is aimed at putting Carwin back on the map.
"That's part of it, sure," White acknowledged. "But Shane Carwin has been in this business forever, comes out of a good camp and is a former world champion. I always look for guys who have experience and knowledge to pass on to the young guys."
That description surely would also apply to the show's other coach, who has been in with Mir, Dos Santos and other top guys during his stint in the UFC, and who had a long career in smaller fight organizations before that. He's also living proof for the reality show contestants that what they're aiming for is within reach: Roy Nelson earned his way into the UFC via The Ultimate Fighter. "Roy has been the Ultimate Fighter and he's shown what he can do, and there's animosity between him and Shane, so that will make their fight on the December finale all the more interesting," said White. "So it makes sense for Roy to be on the show. But ..."
The UFC president's voice trails off, but if you've paid even a little bit of attention to the fight game these past few years, you don't need White to finish his sentence for you to know the rest of the story. Suffice to say that Dana and Roy are not BFFs. "We have a symbiotic relationship," is the way Nelson explained his bumpy ride with White. "If it wasn't for me and the other fighters, Dana wouldn't have what's in front of him. And if it wasn't for him and the Fertittas, we fighters wouldn't be where we're at. So we coexist. If one of us dies, we all die together."
White is less poetic in his take on the situation. Asked if what the UFC derives from the reality show's 16th season might make it worthwhile to hang out with Nelson for six weeks, White drew out his answer for emphasis: "Abso. Lutely. Not."
Not even with the promise of a Dec. 15 heavyweight clash between Carwin and Nelson? "I'll tell you what," said White. "At the end of the season you're supposed to want to see the coaches fight each other. Well, people are going to want to see me and Roy fight each other."
Now there's a reality that surely would entice viewers.