Does the Ultimate Fighter Reality Series Still Matter?

Posted: April 24, 2011 in Fandom, MMA
Tags: , , , , ,


My friend Erika, one of the organizers of my UFC meetup group (also on Facebook), posed a question on our message board: Does the Ultimate Fighter reality series (“TUF”) still matter? I didn’t respond on the message board because the answer requires more than a quick email. There are two distinct ways to answer that question. Though they are connected, there’s a serious lag time before the first reason is affected by the second reason, so treating them separately is appropriate.

#1: Economically, It’s Probably Still Relevant

This isn’t the way in which Erika wanted this question answered, but it’s the primary factor in how the decision to continue the series will be made. As long as the show — and the fight cards that follow it — are making money for Zuffa and Spike TV, it will remain on the air. The fact that it’s still on the air suggests the money is still rolling in. Of course, because the ratings have dropped, everyone but Dana White believes the show might be on its last leg. However, it will be given a chance to recover before it’s ever cancelled. That means there is time to shake up the format a bit to keep it alive. That last point is one of the issues Erika wanted to discuss, and I will cover that a little later in this post.

#2: You Shouldn’t Set Your Expectations Too High

We shouldn’t expect a tremendous amount of success from any TUF participants, even those that win the show. Any fighter that can immediately vie for a championship belt will, and should, be given a contract and some important fights without having to be on TUF. They’ve already earned it. At this point, TUF is designed to bring in prospects, not proven fighters, and many prospects are bound to fail in any industry. There are exceptions — a recent participant, Roy Nelson, was good enough to be given a contract without being on the show — but for the most part, the UFC powers-that-be know who those guys are, so they don’t waste that talent on exhibition matches. (Dana White simply didn’t give Roy Nelson the credit he deserved until he beat Brendon Schaub in the TUF finale.)

The consequence of this reality is that, in the big picture, most TUF participants will wash out fairly quickly, and this is exactly what’s been happening. Even among TUF finalists, there have been some quick cuts from the roster, and those that remain are middle-tier fighters. Again, there are exceptions; the question is whether they represent a decent percentage of the total. Let’s do some 3rd-grade math and decide.

Some Data

As of this post, there have been 12 season of TUF. Some fighters were dropped from the show and replaced with new fighters, but in the interests of time, I’m going to assume that there were 16 fighters in each season, which means there were 192 fighters total. Of those fighters, I’m going to mention the fighters (by season) that are either 1) still in the UFC/WEC (as far as I know) as of this post, and/or 2) after the TUF season they were in the UFC/WEC for at least 5 fights before being released and had at least a .500 record at the time of their release.

TUF 1 (9 fighters, 1 champ): Forrest Griffin (9-4; became LHW champ), Stephan Bonnar (7-6), Diego Sanchez (12-4), Kenny Florian (11-4), Mike Swick (9-3), Alex Karalexis (5-5), Chris Leben (11-6), Josh Koscheck (13-5), and Nate Quarry (7-3).
TUF 2 (4 fighters, 1 champ): Rashad Evans (10-1-1; became LHW champ), Joe Stevenson (8-7), Josh Burkman (5-5), and Melvin Guillard (10-4)
TUF 3 (5 fighters): Michael Bisping (11-3), Kendall Grove (7-5), Ed Herman (4-5), Matt Hamil (9-2), and Rory Singer (2-2)
TUF 4 (5 fighters): Matt Serra (3-3; became WW champ), Chris Lytle (8-6), Patrick Cote (5-4), Jorge Rivera (5-3), and Din Thomas (3-2).
TUF 5 (7 fighters): Nate Diaz (8-4), Manny Gamburyan (5-4), Cole Miller (6-3), Joe Lauzon (5-3), Gray Maynard (8-0-1-1 NC), Matt Wiman (7-2), and Rob Emerson (3-3-0-1 NC).
TUF 6 (3 fighters): Mac Danzig (4-4), George Sotiropoulos (7-1), and Ben Saunders (4-3).
TUF 7 (5 fighters): Amir Sadollah (5-2), C. B. Dollaway (5-3), Matt Riddle (5-2), Tim Credeur (3-1), and Matt Brown (4-4).
TUF 8 (7 fighters): Efrain Escudero (3-2), Ryan Bader (5-1), Kyle Kingsbury (3-1), George Roop (2-4-1), Tom Lawlor (3-2), Eliot Marshall (3-2), and Krzysztof Soszynski (5-2).
TUF 9 (4 fighters): Ross Pearson (4-1), Andre Winner (2-3), James Wilks (2-2), and DaMarques Johnson (3-3)
TUF 10 (4 fighters): Roy Nelson (2-1), Brendon Schaub (4-1), Matt Mitrione (4-0), and Jon Madsen (4-1).
TUF 11 (4 fighters): Court McGee (2-0), Kyle Noke (3-0), Brad Tavares (2-0), Nick Ring (1-0)
TUF 12 (5 fighters): Jonathan Brookins (1-0), Michael Johnson (0-1), Kyle Watson (1-0), Cody McKenzie (1-1), Nam Phan (0-1)

How Do You Analyze This Data?

The numbers never tell the whole story. It’s not just your win-loss record, but also how many easy fights you’re given (i.e., “strength of schedule”). There may be injuries that ended someone’s career early, as with Corey Hill. Also, others deserve to have some serious asterisks by their name, while the jury is still out on some.

On top of all of this, not only is there a subjective dimension to calling a fighter’s career “good,” but there’s also a subjective dimension to your perspective as to what “relevant” means. Does “relevant” mean “championship material”? Does “relevant” mean “will have a meaningful UFC career”? Does “relevant” mean “entertaining”? Do the antics of Junie Browning qualify as “entertaining” enough to make up for his winless time in the UFC?

Of course, I speak only for myself, so you can reasonably disagree, but my definition of “relevant” is “will have a meaningful UFC career.” So long as they have a future with the promotion, the show matters. In that regard, guys like Cole Miller don’t have to be in the finals for TUF to have been successful, nor does Cole have to earn a championship match. This is how I approach the issue. My two criteria for inclusion in that list should clearly reflect why I consider those fighters, and none others, “relevant.”

If there were 192 fighters in the show so far, then the 62 fighters I’ve listed above represent just over 32% of the number of fighters you’ve seen on the show (again, not including replacement fighters). So, 68% of what you’ve watched is not UFC material, let alone championship material, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t entertaining and meaningful. Overall, if roughly 1/3 of people not good enough to earn an automatic contract still earn their way into the company through TUF (and are thus, “relevant”), then the show itself is “relevant.”

Moreover, although it’s clear that we haven’t seen any champions crowned from any of the seasons after season 2, we see a consistent number of fighters getting contracts and having success. That is, with the exception of a couple of spikes in seasons 5 and 8, the same number of fighters earn a shot with the company in each season (4 or 5, or 25%-31%). The show is maintaining that relevance. It’s still doing its job for the UFC talent pool, and finding the next wave of athletes is important to any sport.

Okay, It’s Relevant. I’m Still Bored.

Yeah, that title says it all. Even though the show still represents a good way to find new talent with at least a small bit of staying power, we’ve seen it all before. It’s still entertaining television, but it’s not riveting television. I don’t look forward to Wednesday nights anymore. It’s lost its charm because the novelty has worn out. To me, instead of a reality TV show, this should just be a training camp the UFC runs behind the scenes. I don’t care if there are cameras there anymore. However, I’m not a regular reality show viewer, so who cares what I think? I may be a loyal fight fan, but this is less about the fights and more about the training and “drama,” both of which bore me, but the fact that I don’t like “drama” places me squarely in the minority in this country.

So What Should They Do?

To be blunt, pee in the fruit salad.

Not being a reality TV viewer at all (other than TUF), I hate that kind of crap — it should actually be prosecuted as battery — but people that watch reality shows do so to see exactly that kind of garbage. Do you really think that the average fight fan has a higher level of sensibility than the average reality show viewer? Hell, that kind of sensationalism and conflict is what makes a political show popular. Even when we’re dealing with important issues with worldwide ramifications, we want to see people bitch-slapping each other across the conference table. As much as it pains me to say so, as people grow more and more tired of seeing middling fighters compete in the Octagon, the only way to keep the show on the air will be to have them spew their manhood in the sushi.


As one person in our Meetup group, Gabe, put it:

Sonnen vs Bisping with Junnie browning and his brother would be best season ever.

Now that’s an inconvenient truth.


Another brief point. Usually, the coaches for the season fight each other at a card aired after the show concludes. This creates another tension. Not too many people want to see Tito Ortiz fight anymore, but he remains one of the best coaches TUF has ever had. Do you pick the best fighter or the best coach? Tough call.

Follow me on Twitter @MMADork
Follow Erika on Twitter @giftofjab
Follow the Ultimate Fighter on Twitter @InsideTUF
Follow Spike TV on Twitter @Spike_TV
Follow the UFC on Twitter @ufc
Follow the Dana White on Twitter @danawhite

  1. kesseljunkie says:

    The show got bumped off the DVR several seasons ago, once I figured out the formula — you could tell who was going to get eliminated by the way they edited the show leading up to the fight…brought to you by Burger King.

    So I started fast forwarding to the actual fighting to maintain the suspense, then realized that there was no point to watching the show like that, especially since there was nothing particularly special about finishing first anymore; everyone got a fight or two after the show at a minimum.

    So if it’s a contest where winning means nothing, I agree — cut the damn drama and just show me the training so I can possibly pick up tips or live vicariously, and learn more about the sport in the process.

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