LAS VEGAS -- It was billed as one of the deepest and most anticipated fight cards that the UFC had staged in its 15-year history. With two title fights, a third grudge match amongst MMA legends and a bevy of up-and-coming stars littered throughout the under card, Saturday's UFC 92 pay-per-view not only showed the depth of the company's talent pool but highlighted the impact that The Ultimate Fighter reality television show has had on the sports' growth since TUF premiered four years ago next month.
If you mapped out the growth of UFC's popularity on a chart along with the rise in popularity of reality television they would no doubt overlap each other on an upward slop. No one has embraced reality TV and its power to draw in viewers and potential fans more than UFC president Dana White. Yet not even White could have anticipated how big TUF would be to a company which was losing millions and unable to secure a television deal before the landmark show debuted on Jan. 18, 2005.
"The first thing I wanted to do was just get this thing [UFC] on TV," said White. "In a million years I would never have dreamed it would turn out to be the training ground that it's been. It's the most relevant reality show on television."
The high-water mark moment of the show and really the night when the tide turned for the once struggling UFC was the show's Season 1 finale, where Forrest Griffin and Stephan Bonnar faced off for a contract with the UFC. It was the first-ever live UFC broadcast on non-pay-per-view television, and it drew a very impressive 1.9 overall rating. As luck would have it the fight, won by Griffin, would play out as one of the most exciting and memorable bouts in UFC history. White has often called it the most important fight in UFC history and the one that brought UFC into mainstream.
"Forrest Griffin-Stephan Bonner was it, that was the fight that changed it all," said White, who has carried his love of reality TV to his personal life with an all-access video blog where fans can watch him, for example, conduct business meetings with 50 Cent at his home or talk to UFC heavyweight champion Brock Lesnar on his cell phone while driving down Las Vegas Blvd. "There has never been a more important fight in the history of mixed martial arts than that fight. We had no TV deal going into the fight that night and six minutes into the fight the ratings got up to over 10 million viewers, which is people calling their friends asking if they're watching this fight and people tuning in.
"That night, we literally walked out in the alley and signed the deal with Spike TV. So Forrest and Stephan are my kids, man, they'll be with me until the day I die. For me to put into words and try to explain tell you how crucial that fight was for us, you have no idea. It was, hands down, the most important fight ever in mixed martial arts."
The following year, Rashad Evans won a UFC contract on TUF with that show's season finale drawing a 2.0 overall rating, setting an all-time ratings record for the UFC. The show was officially a hit and single-handedly changed the fortune of not only the UFC but MMA as a sport. None of the sport's current success would have been possible had it not been for the buzz generated from the show initially airing Monday nights on Spike after WWE Raw, which put a stranglehold on its current 18-34 core demographic.
Fast forward three years after the airing of the first two seasons and Griffin and Evans, the original TUF winners, headlined one of the most anticipated pay-per-views in the company's history last weekend. They closed out a fight card featuring a heavyweight championship fight between Frank Mir and Antônio Rodrigo Nogueira and a grudge match between Quentin "Rampage" Jackson and Wanderlei Silva. All four were champions and established stars in the sport before TUF first aired (Mir, Nogueira and Jackson have served as coaches on the show) and now they are essentially taking a backseat to the winners and rightfully so. The fight between Griffin and Evans, which saw the undefeated Evans beat Griffin for the UFC light heavyweight championship, was named the fight of the night.
"The show has been like American Idol," said White. "Most reality shows you watch, they do their 13 episodes and they disappear and you never see them again unless they get arrested or something. This show you can follow these people for 13 weeks and then see them fight on live or on pay-per-views. You can continue following their careers."
If TUF can be considered UFC's version of American Idol, Saturday's fight between Griffin and Evans would be like Kelly Clarkson and Carrie Underwood facing off in the Octagon. While the show has launched the careers of a bevy of UFC stars, none currently shine brighter than Griffin and Evans, which is saying something considering both have cut their teeth in the star-studded light heavyweight division. They both entered the fight coming off career defining victories. Griffin beating Jackson for the light heavyweight championship after both served as coaches on season seven of TUF, while Evans knocked out Chuck Liddell, arguably the biggest star in UFC history. Considering that Jackson and Liddell headlined UFC 71 last year, which was the beginning of mainstream sports media outlets such as ESPN and SI covering UFC regularly, even the most novice fan knew Griffin and Evans were more than reality show stars after those wins.
Although both of their careers in the UFC began in TUF, the contrast in their styles was as striking as their respective entrances into the MGM Grand Garden Arena hours before their fight on Saturday. Griffin rolled in through the arena's loading dock wearing winter gloves, a beanie and had a duffel bag draped over his shoulder as he sipped on a cup of coffee. Evans sauntered in through the casino wearing a three-piece suit while an associate carried his belongings behind him. Griffin walked to the Octagon with the blaring bagpipes of Dropkick Murphy's"Shipping Off To Boston" behind him, while Evans danced his way to the hypnotic sound of KRS-One's"Step Into The World."
The fight provided similarly striking mood swings with both landing their fair share of hits (at one point Evans put his hands down and told Griffin to "bring it") before Evans put Griffin on the ground in the third round and broke through Griffin's guard with elbows and punches unit the fight was finally called. Evans was in tears after becoming the third fighter in the past two years to win TUF and go on to capture a UFC championship.
"There were times when we were in [the Octagon] fighting and just smiling at each other and having a great time because we got to this point basically the same way," said Evans, wearing dark glasses and a suit after the fight before checking in on Griffin, who was taken to the hospital with a broken hand. "He was the first champion and I was the second and to see how far we've gotten, it's like a movie."
The fight certainly had the feel of a modern day version of Rocky and Apollo Creed. UFC fans can only hope that the fight that reaffirmed TUF's place as the most influential reality show in sports history will offer a similarly exciting rematch in the future.