The Ultimate Fighter helped the UFC go from a cult activity to a booming presence on the American sports scene. It combined the reality-show aspects of The Real World, confining a bunch of youngish people in a house until they get on each other’s nerves, with the exciting post-postmodern sport of mixed martial arts. Fighters are all trying to get UFC contracts — the winner is guaranteed a deal, but typically, several other fighters get at least a couple of chances to establish themselves in MMA’s major league.
This year, ratings for The Ultimate Fighter are down. The series debuted on FX with slightly lower ratings than its typical Spike run, then dropped to all-time lows. The finale drew a disappointing 1 million viewers.
As someone who has spent a couple of years writing a book about the show (I’ve been distracted), I find this discouraging. But I can also put all that research to use, revealing the most obvious issue with the show today. It won’t be a popular answer among fans who are busy suggesting that the problem is anything but the obvious.
Here’s the obvious: Viewers like shenanigans. And they didn’t get those this season.
The meltdowns in the house. The confrontations in the kitchen, the laundry room and the backyard. The drunken rampages of Junie Browning, self-satirized so brilliantly here:
You have to understand why this is a controversial notion in the MMA community. MMA has a loyal contingent of “hard-core” fans who, like comic-book and sci-fi fans, always try to one-up each other with random bits of knowledge. They’re disdainful of “casual” fans who didn’t start watching MMA until the first season of The Ultimate Fighter, in which a bunch of guys said and did horrible things to each other — one fighter called a housemate who was trying to reconnect with his father a “fatherless bastard” — while confined in a luxurious but isolated Vegas mansion. That season finished with a spectacular bloody bout between Forrest Griffin and Stephan Bonnar, a fight so legendary that it has its own Wikipedia entry.
So if you hang out on any of the popular MMA discussion sites on the Web — Bloody Elbow is the best, Sherdog has good news coverage but frightening forums, and MixedMartialArts.com (aka “The Underground” or simply “the UG”) gives you an honest glimpse into the minds of dudes using MMA as a social outlet until they learn how to talk to girls — you’ll get the impression that The Ultimate Fighter would be just fine if it did away with the reality-show nonsense of confinement in the house and just focused on the fights.
This season, they did it — half-intentionally. With the move from Spike to FX, the UFC made a radical format change. Instead of having fighters confined for six weeks of filming, then keeping the results secret while editors prepped the show for TV, they kept the fighters in Vegas for three months, with each fight airing live.
The fighters also seemed strangely subdued, as if pacing themselves for 13 weeks. Michael Chiesa’s father died just after the first episode, and we had plenty of opportunities to see the good-hearted, good-humored fighter deal with his grief while going on an improbable run of upsets that continued through the final. The cast had one prankster — the appropriately named Chris Tickle. Englishman Andy Ogle occasionally had some witticisms. That’s about it.
Yet even when something did happen, the format left little time to show it. No one knew in advance whether the week’s fight would take 15 minutes or 10 seconds. They allowed about 20-25 minutes of each hour for the fight, then even more time for fights when they had two quarterfinals or semifinals in the last three episodes. Then add the considerable time to recap the previous events, and editors had little time to fill with whatever the fighters did from week to week.
Near the end of the season, we finally had an actual brouhaha in the house, when Tickle tossed a water bottle at the sleeping Daron Cruickshank and nailed him where guys don’t like to be hit. Cruickshank ran out and attacked Tickle, throwing an awkward punch or kick or two before cooler heads prevailed. Cruickshank immediately worried that he’d be ejected from the show. Next scene: UFC president Dana White congratulating everyone on the season and promising everyone at least one fight in the big show.
For storytelling, that rivals the wannabe filmmaker in Monty Python condensing Rear Window to the following: “There’s the rear window. There’s the man looking out of the window. He sees the murder. The murderer’s come into the room to kill him, but he’s outwitted him and he’s all right. The End. I mean, Alfred Hitchcock, who’s supposed to be so bloody wonderful, padded that out to one and a half hours.”
(Start at the 3:57 mark of this video to see it in all its splendor:)
So hard-core fans might insist that the show’s troubles are a function of the Friday night time slot or even retraining viewers to switch from the show’s longtime home on Spike over to FX. But ratings declined during the season. Viewers simply didn’t have compelling reasons to care whether one guy they hadn’t really met beat another guy they hadn’t really met.
Maybe the house shenanigans are played out. Maybe we’ve seen it all before. Maybe they’ve run out of fighters who can also do and say creative things. (Finalist Al Iaquinta is a solid fighter but would actually be a better interview if he studied with Crash Davis.)
But if that’s true, then we can’t expect the show to return to its past fights unless they bring on “name” fighters again. The biggest episode in TUF history featured the lopsided fight between experienced vet Roy Nelson and former YouTube legend (and CBS headliner) Kimbo Slice.
Hard-core fans might not like to hear this. They might think FX can draw 1.5 million people to see a former UFC champion teach a rising prospect the nuances of the rear naked choke before he faces another rising prospect. That’s not going to happen. Hard-core fans want to see that, but they’ve overestimated their own numbers.
And that’s nothing to be ashamed of. You’re not going to see The Ultimate Baseball Player anytime soon, with major league players teaching minor leaguers how to hit a curveball. The market for minor league baseball is mostly families who want a pleasant night at a ballpark and can’t name a single player. And they get extra bells and whistles — great ballpark food, perhaps some sumo between 8-year-olds in big padded suits, a friendly mascot, etc.
For MMA, those bells and whistles have been oversized personalities stuffed into a house until their egos collide. If those aren’t working any more, it’s time to find something else.