From Griffin-Bonnar to mismatches set up by teams with the “hammer,” the reality show’s fights take place in an unreal environment. Beau Dure talked with a TV exec and several fighters about how it all went down.
A Survivor must survive tough conditions. A Top Chef has to cook something.
And so The Ultimate Fighter must fight. One fight in particular stands out, and no UFC fan — even a casual one — needs to be reminded which one it is.
It’s easy to take live MMA on free (at least, non-pay-per-view) television for granted these days, and many people do. Today, we wonder if Fox is showing too much MMA. But in 2005, The Ultimate Fighter’s first-season finale was mixed martial arts’ version of a debutante ball. And even as MMA sold itself as the real-fighting alternative to pro wrestling, the UFC couldn’t have scripted it any better, with witty pals Forrest Griffin and Stephan Bonnar throwing bombs at each other for 15 solid minutes.
Spike’s Brian Diamond saw the fight’s impact right away:
I was there that night sitting at the producers’ table next to Joe Rogan and Mike Goldberg. The room was truly electric. You just knew, within the first two minutes of the first round, this is going to be interesting. This was going to be a stand-up war. What was so fascinating about it was to look at these guys and think they just lived in a house together five or six weeks, and they formed a bond and a friendship, which Stephan and Forrest still have to this day. And you look at it and go, “Wow, those two guys were friends! ARE friends! And they’re going in there and they’re doing that. For them, it was like, ‘Let’s just let it all hang out. This is going to be fun. Let’s do this.’ And they did. Literally, I thought the place was going to come down. People were banging on the bleachers and yelling and screaming.
It was an incredibly emotional moment when (the decision) was announced. Stephan actually fell to his knees. And then moments later, Dana announced he giving both of them contracts. We all knew there was something going here that was pretty magical.
I looked at (Lorenzo Fertitta). I caught his glance, and I said something like, “You going to give them both a contract?” He just looked at me with a pencil-thin smile. He didn’t nod, he didn’t say anything. His look spoke volumes.
Though Diamond wasn’t getting real-time ratings info or anything that specific, he knew something big was happening. “I had spoken to Dana a couple of times, and he was saying texts were going wild. Afterwards, we had an indication of how well it did, ratings-wise. During the course of the fight, I was so engaged in what was going on – I was looking at my colleagues who were sitting with me at the table. Between rounds, we’re looking at each other like, this is unbelievable. After the first round, it was like, is this going to continue in the second round? After the second round, it was like, this really can’t carry on through the third round. These guys have gotta be gassed by now. And they just kept going until the final horn in the third round. I was engaged in the fight. I really didn’t know what was going on (with ratings) until much later on.”
Griffin and Bonnar weren’t the most dominant personalities on the show. Though Bonnar had a brief feud with Diego Sanchez when the middleweight contender kept taking the best parts of the house’s asparagus, both fighters had steered clear of controversy. They weren’t big trash-talkers. They were better than that — funny, self-deprecating guys who saw fighting as fun. The UFC couldn’t have asked for better ambassadors for the sport as they took their big bow on basic cable.
The producers built on their images with short features showing what each guy had been doing since leaving the TUF house. Bonnar, shown cycling through snow in Chicago and earning a living as a trainer, joked that his girlfriend never liked fighting until it was on a reality show, and now she suddenly comprehends it. The cameras also followed Griffin to Athens, Ga., opening with a backdrop that looked like an R.E.M. album cover, and Griffin delivered the comedy, saying he had been drinking and watching “quality television” until he remembered that he had a fight coming up and went back to Athens to train with coaches Adam and Rory Singer.
So I’d like to thank them. Because without them, I probably would’ve actually gone to law school. You know — be a police lieutenant or something somewhere. Have a beautiful wife, kid, white picket fence. But thanks to Adam and Rory, I live in Rory’s living room on just a mattress. And I don’t have medical insurance and I get beat up for a living.
It wasn’t the most technically proficient fight in UFC history. But most of the punches, kicks and knees were thrown with power. The momentum went back and forth. Both fighters got exhausted, caught their breath and kept going. Exclaimed Joe Rogan after Round 1: “That’s the most exciting round I think I’ve ever seen. That was the Hagler-Hearns first round of Ultimate Fighting Championship history.”
With one key difference: These guys seemed to be enjoying themselves. They clearly liked each other. And yet they also loved their sport so much that they pushed themselves past their endurance limits and kept attacking each other.
In one fight, Griffin and Bonnar captured the essence of MMA — free-spirited personalities with an interest in and aptitude for punching, kicking and grappling. Of course the UFC gave each fighter a contract.
But that was the finale. On the show itself, the fights can be hit or miss.
One issue: Weight. Outside TUF, most fighters walk around considerably heavier than their fight weight, then spend weeks carefully cutting down to make weight the day before a fight. Fighting two, three or five times in a few weeks makes that cycle impossible to repeat. The smart strategy: Audition at a higher weight class to minimize weight-cutting.
In Season 1, the producers wound up with a couple of groups that had already stumbled upon this strategy. At the finale, six fighters dropped one weight class — “middleweights” Alex Karalexis and Josh Rafferty dropped down to fight each other at welterweight, “light heavyweights” Mike Swick (who weighed in at 192 for his bout on the show) and Alex Schoenauer fought each other at middleweight, Lodune Sincaid dropped from 205 to fight Nate Quarry at 185, and Jason Thacker made the same cut to face nemesis Chris Leben.
Middleweight finalist Kenny Florian went even farther. He eventually fought for the UFC title at lightweight (155) and featherweight (145).
“I really wasn’t a true middleweight,” Florian says. “I walked around at 176, 178 pounds. It was a matter of ignorance in some ways. I just didn’t know any better. I’d competed in grappling tournaments against different guys — why not try that in MMA? It was still early on in the sport, so I just went for it. Most guys are dropping down from 205-plus to get to 185, and I was the opposite.”
That was certainly easier than what Bobby Southworth endured. Not knowing what to expect, he came in well over 205 pounds, and his brutal weight cut provided some of the show’s early drama. Today, fighters know it’s easier to fight up one weight class than it is to condense their usual cycle of cutting and regaining weight through several fights over a six-week span.
Yet bulking up carries its own risks. Tom Murphy, a heavyweight on the second season, found out the hard way.
“I ended up tearing my MCL a week and a half into the show. I had surgery two days after my fight with Rashad (Evans). I don’t blame it on that, but I probably made a mistake. I should’ve just gone in at my natural weight — 218-220. … They didn’t bring in many big, big guys like they do today. I think over half the guys cut down to 205 after that.”
Evans was one of those who dropped down, eventually taking the UFC belt at light heavyweight.
“Mine was more necessity than anything else. I didn’t know if they were going to get another season after that. I thought I’d strike while the iron was hot and take any opportunity I had to be on. If it had been middleweight, I probably would’ve made middleweight. I just wanted to be part of the show so bad.”
Another factor for Evans and Murphy: The fighters were being worked into the ground. Little wonder no one was pleased with their fight on the show, in which Evans circled, clinched and preened his way to a decision.
I was just clowning around because I didn’t really want to whip his ass. I was just trying to go in there and get the win. I had a little bit of ring rust – it was my first time fighting in two years — I just wanted to get this one out of the way. Matt Hughes is like, “Oh, you’re a showboat.” …
All I wanted to do was just have fun. That’s how I competed. I had a normal job – this was not a career path for me, it was just a hobby that I was doing on weekends to show my friends. I didn’t think I was going to be a true professional like the guys I watched on TV. If you see my fights in Gladiator Challenge, I was jumping on one foot, jumping around, acting like an idiot – it was fun! I got to express another side of me. I’m kind of shy sometimes and withdrawn in certain situations, but when I got to go out there and fight, I got to take on a whole new personality and act a different way. Some people get drunk, and their exaggerated sides come out. That was my drug – that’s where it comes out.
So I was clowning around, and they didn’t laugh too much.
Matt Hughes didn’t like Evans’ antics or Murphy’s lack of action. On the latter, he simply didn’t realize the extent of Murphy’s injury.
“Conditioning was never a factor for me, but Matt (Hughes) worked us so hard, 6-8 hours a day between two sessions. It was ridiculous. Probably that’s why I got hurt. That’s when injuries happen. It was beyond ridiculous. If I had been more mature and didn’t want to look like a crybaby … After I hurt my knee, I remember Dan Christison, who also hurt himself and tried to pull himself back a bit saying, ‘Tom, why are you doing this to yourself? Why don’t you just go tell them you’re hurt?’”
The training is just one of the aspects of TUF fights that aren’t quite the same as fights outside the show. The team format adds another level of un-reality. At its heart, mixed martial arts isn’t a team sport. Coaches and cornermen are valuable, but when the cage door closes, MMA is the very essence of a 1-on-1 activity. Attempts to put MMA in a team format, such as the International Fight League and M-1 Challenge, have been unconvincing.
TUF sometimes stirs up conflicts between its teams. But being picked by Coach X as opposed to Coach Y for a short-term deal isn’t a big factor in creating rivalries or friendships. As the sport gets more established, fighters often know each other before turning up for the show, anyway. The bonds of training together or scrapping on the same regional fight cards often override the bonds of the two teams on the show. In the house, fighters may gravitate toward those with similar interests — TUF 14 broke up into a Bible study group, card-playing group and prank-playing group.
TUF 9 upped the ante with the geographical teams: Americans vs. the British. U.S. fighter Jason Dent was ready to rise to the challenge: “They’re gonna want to put the UK on the map.” (Geography quizzes are not part of the TUF audition process.)
But without the patriotic ties, it’s no surprise that some teams forced together by the draft (or, in Season 4, a random draw) don’t really bond. Some fighters form ad-hoc coalitions across teams, starting with TUF 3’s “Team Dagger” — Kendall Grove and Solomon Hutcherson. TUF 11’s “Team Minority Report” was essentially designed to stir things up in the house — Jamie Yager was the ringleader, with Kris McCray, Brad Tavares and Kyle Noke involved to varying degrees.
And issues within a team can be just as intense as any conflicts between teams. Fighters might not like their coach — Brock Lesnar alienated or befuddled a few of his fighters with his lectures and “chicken salad from chicken shit” analogies.
Other teams resent teammates seen as the “teacher’s pet.” The coach and fighter may have a real-world relationship that carries over — Matt Hughes and Mike Whitehead in TUF 2, Vitor Belfort and Cezar “Mutante” Ferreira in TUF Brazil. Or a coach may be accused of taking a special interest in one fighter, such as Tito Ortiz with Matt Hamill in TUF 3.
Sometimes, it’s a question of coaching philosophy. Ken Shamrock found many of his fighters questioned his methods: “The way I train — you get in the ring and you fight. That’s the way I train. A lot of guys didn’t like the way I would train. I wanted them to get in there, I wanted them to spar, I wanted them to grapple, I wanted them to get in there and get it. It was hard to get across — that’s just how I train. I like to get in there and get the real experience. To get the guys to focus and come around to that thought process when they’re completely used to doing things differently is a tough task.”
And when the teams are uneven, the losing side is no place to be. Nam Phan was happy with Josh Koscheck and the assistant coaches, but his teammates were a pain. “The one guy on my team that was great was Andy Main. He was always very honest. When we first got to the house, people talked so much crap about the red team, ‘Oh, they’re all about themselves.’ Toward the end of the season, it was the total opposite. I became more close and sociable with the red team. … Misery loves company. (My team) all lost! The one guy who’s still in — they all gang up on me.”
Not that things were good before the team dwindled down to one fighter, Phan says:
“The problem on my team: Everyone’s a master! Every guy knows everything! Koscheck had perfect game plans. Andy Main — he had better striking than Kyle Watson. If he’d kept it standing, he would’ve won. He would’ve knocked him out. Marc Stevens against Cody McKenzie — all he had to do was stand up and knock Cody out. He would’ve won! But no, he went for a double-leg. He got choked out. He didn’t listen to the game plan. Mr. Know It All. Then when they lose, ‘Oh, it’s Koscheck’s fault. It’s all Koscheck’s fault.’ Dude, you know what? Man up! It’s you! If you win, OK, cool. If you lose, that’s all you as well. You lost. … It ain’t football. You can’t blame it on the quarterback for throwing the ball all crappy. You lost! If you needed help with something, you could ask. It wasn’t a big deal.”
Producers needed the team concept in the first couple of seasons, when teams faced off in “challenges” that would determine which team controlled the matchups. Winning coaches had to send fighters to the other team so it would have enough players to carry a log or mud-wrestle or whatever the challenge required in a given week.
When the “challenges” went away, the “hammer” format skewed fight selection. A few seasons have used predetermined NCAA Tournament-style brackets, but in most cases, the team that wins a fight gets to pick the next fight (the “hammer” in question). One team can easily get on a roll, picking several favorable matchups in a row. Teams might send their best fighters against the other team’s weak links or send an expert grappler to take advantage of a kickboxer’s undeveloped ground game. Winning teams also could settle on a matchup and prepare in advance, while losing teams had to prepare for any possibility and keep fighters at a manageable weight in case they would have to cut.
Teams can also take individual preferences into account. Matt Mitrione likes the idea of getting the first fight out of the way early and then healing. Ed Herman prefers the way it worked out for him, fighting later in the season: “I could’ve came in better shape. I didn’t fight until the end of the season, but at the same time, it gives guys a good scare. They don’t know what to expect.”
But coaches don’t always know the fighters. That’s apparent in the drafts, which have seen some howlers over the years:
- TUF 1: Forrest Griffin, who had already beaten Jeff Monson and Chael Sonnen, was picked ninth.
- TUF 2: Future light heavyweight champion Rashad Evans, picked ninth, behind Dan Christison.
- TUF 10: Roy Nelson also ninth. Kimbo Slice was second. Matt Mitrione was a seventh-round pick (13th overall), behind several fighters who barely seemed capable of going two rounds.
For TUF 11, returning coach Chuck Liddell had a novel idea. He checked the fighters’ records. Dana White questioned his picks based on what he had seen in the prelim fights, but Liddell backed up his draft with cold hard facts. And the ensuing fights proved him right.
Without such data, evaluating fighters can be difficult. Ken Shamrock, whose Lions Den was known for a terrifying tryout process designed to see how fighters perform after they’ve reached the point of exhaustion, was out of his element, both in terms of evaluating quickly and then building a relationship in a short time.
“The one thing you learn when you’re coaching is that you have to build a trust with the guys you’re working with,” Shamrock said. “First, they’ve got to earn a right to be there. Second, there has to be a trust between you and them when it comes to training. I really didn’t have an opportunity to do that. I really didn’t have an opportunity to see what the guys’ skills were. So I basically threw in some strength and conditioning stuff, some skill stuff, and I tried to pick the best guys I could. But again, you really don’t test who they are and their will to win.”
The show will test all of that. But it also tests fighters’ political skills in navigating uneasy alliances with teammates and coaches, all while looking for the best opportunity to showcase their skill.
Which, we’d have to concede, is not bad preparation for the fight game as a whole.
A quick note on quotes: When quotes are taken from TUF broadcasts, books or other sources, they are attributed as such. Unattributed quotes are taken from first-hand interviews for the book Inside The Ultimate Fighter, which was never published. See the intro to this series to see what happened to that book.
Next week: The show evolves.