December 01, 2011

The Ultimate Fighter, with its befitting acronym, will forever mark a turning point for mixed martial arts worldwide. The reality TV show's launch on Spike TV in January 2005 sparked an interest in MMA in the U.S, outside of the small but dedicated fanbase that had managed to keep it afloat for 11 years. And it can never be overstated enough that it came in the sport's most desperate hour stateside.

When Zuffa LLC, three-and-a-half years into ownership of the Ultimate Fighting Championship, struck a deal to air the competition series on Spike, the promotion, as well as the sport in America, was on life support. Yet, the right formula, a little luck and a lot of faith turned it all around in 13 episodes.

As the groundbreaking show ends its seven-year run on Spike this Saturday with The Ultimate Fighter 14 Finale, two of the show's architects, Kevin Kay and Andrea Richter, take us back to the beginning for a look into the making of the series that saved a sport from extinction.

Spike TV President Kevin Kay got his first taste of mixed martial arts in 2003, much in the same way the sport managed to stay alive after losing its crucial pay-per-view platform in 1997 -- from the unwavering dedication and word of mouth of its fans.

"We had a production assistant named Gil Ilan who'd come into my office every two weeks and say, 'You've got to look at this. This is what all of my friends are watching,'" Kay said.

Kay, who served as an executive vice-president for Spike's original series' production and development at the time, saw the appeal right away. He just didn't know what to do with it.

Still, when UFC owners Lorenzo Fertitta and Dana White came in to pitch live UFC fights to the recently rebranded men's interest cable network in early 2004, Kay was well past the initial shock others probably had watching it for the first time and his wheels were turning.

"They'd pretty much been everywhere in Hollywood and had been turned down," said Kay, well aware that the sport still carried the stigma it hadn't been able to shake since the late '90s. "They came in and I said, 'No, I don't think we can put these fights on just as fights because I don't think anyone will understand it and advertisers won't go for it.'"

Kay, who was also considering K-1 kickboxing programming at the time, was used to turning down pitches and moving on, but he left the door open for White and Fertitta to come back with something better.

Back in Las Vegas, co-executive producer Andrea Richter was hard at work on the set of American Casino, a Discovery Channel reality TV show revolving around a diverse assortment of employees at the Green Valley Ranch Casino. The Fertitta family owned Green Valley, along with five other local-driven establishments, and its billionaire brothers Lorenzo and Frank would make occasional appearances on the show.

Richter said she'd been brought on to show-run the last six months of American Casino with the understanding that a UFC project had already been in the works between her employer, Pilgrims Films producer Craig Piligian, and Zuffa, the promotion's parent company, for a couple of years. Piligian had gotten Casino onto the air first, she said, when no one would initially touch the UFC or MMA.

"The plan was there was always going to be a UFC show," Richter said. "They just didn't know exactly what it was going to be. When I was first approached about the show, it was more of a documentary following Dana and the life of a promoter, more like American Casino and American Chopper."

A couple months into her Casino run, Richter got word that the show had been re-imagined as a competition-elimination series that would be promptly presented to Spike.

"The third or fourth time [they came in], they brought Craig Piligian with them and they pitched the reality show," Kay said. "Sixteen fighters living in a house trying to win a six-figure UFC contract and I was like, 'There you go. That's the idea.'"

It was a brisk six-month courtship, with an engagement announcement in June 2004 that Spike and Zuffa would partner to air The Ultimate Fighter. White and Fertitta would proudly refer to the series later as their "Trojan Horse," revealing they'd been on the verge of selling the floundering promotion only after the show cemented its success.

From a TV executive perspective, Kay believed the show's premise could serve as both an educational and entertaining platform for a somewhat intricate new sport, hopefully laying the groundwork into an untapped reservoir of fans in the coveted male 18-34 demographic.

"I knew the show would also help us develop the characters and tells the stories of these fighters, eventually getting the audience to the place where we could put on live fights and they would understand what they were watching and care," Kay said. "It wasn't just about two guys getting in a cage and beating the crap out of each other."

It also didn't hurt that Spike TV took very little financial risk in the initial deal. Kay said Zuffa footed all production costs in exchange for the airtime. Commercial time (and its revenue) was split between the two companies to sell accordingly, he said.

"What was the worst thing that was going to happen?" Kay said. "The advertisers would hate it, the audience wouldn't show up and the UFC would be out all their money."

Richter, a five-foot fiery redhead who'd previously steered a handful of competition shows and had a long history working for Piligian, was anointed co-executive producer and showrunner. Richter would stay at the helm for the show's first 10 seasons, becoming a den mother of sorts to the all-male casts.

"The first thing I did was immerse myself with Dana White and have him teach me everything he could about this sport I knew nothing about," Richter said. "Dana and I spent a lot of time driving around Las Vegas and he was so passionate from the start. I remember thinking if there's a guy that believes in the sport this much, then I had to drink the Kool-Aid and follow along."

Together, White and Richter began to put the puzzle pieces in place.

Six-time UFC champion Randy Couture, who'd taken out Chuck Liddell, Tito Ortiz and Vitor Belfort in succession over the previous 14 months to become the UFC light heavyweight champion, said he gladly jumped at the chance to coach on the show opposite Liddell when Zuffa couldn't come to terms with Ken Shamrock and Tito Ortiz, then the promotion's strongest rivalry.

Casting the show with 18 unknown fighters (split between light heavyweight and middleweight candidates) was a greater challenge. For starters, the talent pool was much shallower than in later years.

"In the first season we were scraping to get fighters involved and we barely found enough to make the format," said Richter. "The UFC wasn't big at the time, nobody was making money and a lot of the fighters had day jobs."

Richter, White, Piligian, UFC matchmaker Joe Silva and the various Spike TV reps who attended the first auditions all agreed the show had to stay true to the sport, but there would be inevitable compromise as both sides tried to find just the right balance between legitimate fighting skills and engaging personalities. (In later season castings, tradeoffs were a common practice, Richter said.)

"As you're going through and looking at the different characters and different possibilities, you try to build the best group you can," Richter said. "We knew that Forrest [Griffin] was going to be great, but we kind of didn't know he was going to be as goofy as he was, but still very serious. Stephen [Bonna]) was very educated and well-spoken, but you could see that something might snap and make him angry. You kind of got a little gist of that."

Griffin was one of the fighters selected to attend the final round of casting in Las Vegas, but when Richter's staff went to pick him up at the airport, the Georgia police officer was nowhere to be found.

Richter got on the phone with Griffin and he voiced his second thoughts, fearing he'd lose his day job altogether if he left.

"'Get on the plane,' I told him. 'Take a risk. This is going to change your life,'" Richter told the fighter. "And he did."

In another last-minute casting decision, it was decided that the 18-member cast would be shaved down to 16 fighters. One of the two left behind was Jon Fitch, who'd become a perennial contender in the UFC's welterweight division a few years later.

At its core, The Ultimate Fighter boiled down to candidates vying for a coveted job, so the producers also asked UFC boss White to take a role on the show. White's presence on the set grew as the season progressed.

"I don't think Dana ever saw himself nor wanted to be the star of it and I think that was part of the shock of season one, that as you're shooting it and editing it, he is undeniably the star. He is what you tune in to watch because you never knew what he was going to do next," said Richter. "We had a host [pop starlet Willa Ford] the first season, but she's barely remembered because Dana outshines her completely."

With all the major players locked in, a 50-day schedule was set in Las Vegas for that fall and a warehouse tucked right off the Strip was converted into the now famous Ultimate Training Center. The fighters were moved into a well-furnished two-story house in a nearby, undisclosed location and cut off from the rest of the world. Telephones, television, and newspapers -- anything that connected the contestants to the outside world -- were strictly prohibited.

Three to seven cameras staggered throughout shifts during the 24 hours filmed the fighters continuously, depending on the locale and situation.

"There never was a moment when the cameras weren't there, except for when they slept." Richter said. "We had what we called the night crew, who monitored everyone and waited for about an hour after everyone had gone to sleep. A lot of time, that lapsed into the morning crew as fighters stayed up until 2, 3, or 4 a.m. or early risers got up at 5 and 6 o'clock."

From the start, the show's format was a continuous work in progress. Half the fighters weren't in shape and struggled with Couture and Liddell's initial workouts.

"The original plan, the one we started shooting with, was there would only be four to six fights toward the end [of the season]," Richter said. "It had been decided the fighters wouldn't fight in every episode and they didn't for the first couple because nobody thought they'd be able to go that quickly and not get injured."

But after the fighters competed in a few of team challenges, many concocted from Couture's wrestling days, the coaches and crew decided to give actual fights a go. (The team challenges were gone by the third season and at least one guaranteed fight per episode became the norm.)

As the first season unfolded, the drama in the fighter house began to rival that of the fights in the cage. Alliances were made and broken. Enemies emerged. Feelings were trampled. Beds were peed on and holes were punched through doors and walls.

"Anytime you do a reality show, especially one where people are living together, it becomes a psychological experiment of sorts," Richter said. "There will always be those few that surprise you once they're in the house. They have to give up everything. They can't talk to their family. They can't watch TV. You walk away from your life for a month and a half, which isn't easy and gets old quickly."

The easy availability of alcohol in the house seemed to exacerbate tensions. After Chris Leben took his frustrations out on Griffin's bedroom door, producers decided to make the house dry. Fans debated if the decision to re-stock the house again in the second season was made to keep the outrageous behavior free-flowing.

"They're adults and this was part of the test -- how they conducted themselves in what was essentially a job interview," said Richter. "We put alcohol in the house with the caveat that if it became a problem and they went too far, the booze would be pulled. It was a privilege not to be abused and that was one of the first conversations we would have when they moved into the house."

The show wrapped shooting in November and immediately went into editing.

"As we saw cuts, we started to get excited," Kay said. "We were kind of rushing because we wanted to beat NBC's [boxing reality series] The Contender to the air, so we were pushing everyone to get going quickly to make the January debut, but the fights looked great, the characters were compelling. We hoped for the best and had the WWE as a lead-in, so we were counting on some of the four to five million tuning in there and staying around."

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