Mixed martial arts organization UFC will step into the reality competition octagon for a 25th season on April 19, with its competition series The Ultimate Fighter looking to deliver another knockout season of fisticuffs to fight-starved FS1 viewers.
The series, in which up-and-coming MMA competitors live together under one roof while vying against each other in a series of elimination fights — with the winner earning a coveted UFC contract — is credited with exposing the once-fringe Ultimate Fighting Championship to a mainstream audience.
“The show has been instrumental in the success of the UFC and getting us on television,” UFC president Dana White, who also serves as executive producer of The Ultimate Fighter, told Multichannel News. “It’s also created a ton of talent — not only great fighters that have fought in the UFC, but great champions.”
REACHED HEIGHTS FOR FS1
Launched in 2005 on Spike TV and now airing on FS1, The Ultimate Fighter has produced two seasons each year, providing an entry point both for fans curious about the emerging sport and for athletes vying to become household names on the UFC circuit. The series is the most-watched original series in FS1’s history and has spawned an aftershow, TUF Talk, which recaps each installment.
“Not only are viewers tuning into FS1 to follow the series, but their appetite to go even deeper into the fighters and the storylines has been insatiable,” David Nathanson, head of business operations for Fox Sports, said.
But the show wasn’t always a knockout success. In fact, the first season of the series almost never got off the ground. When UFC pitched the concept of The Ultimate Fighter to networks in 2005, UFC was still in its development stages and perceived as a violent, no-holds-barred entity. The only TV exposure for the sport was though its various pay-per-view events. Cable networks weren’t jumping at the chance to put MMA on the air.
“When we first thought about doing The Ultimate Fighter, the first season was really rough to even launch,” Craig Piligian, CEO of TV production company Pilgrim Media Group and executive producer of The Ultimate Fighter, said. “The perception back then of the UFC was that two men enter the ring and only one man leaves: They thought it was a blood sport and that people really died fighting. We really wanted the show to blow away those misconceptions.”
Finally Viacom’s Spike TV, then a men’s-targeted network, decided to offer the UFC a time buy on the channel. Piligian would forfeit his production fees and the UFC ponied up the cash to launch the first season of the show in 2005. “Dana and I flew around the country looking for sponsors for the show and we couldn’t find one — it was a real nightmare,” Piligian recounted. “I never thought it would go more than one season because you just didn’t know if anyone would support it.”
At the time, though, White and Piligian vowed to create an honest reality show that stayed true to the actions of the fighters both inside and outside the octagon.
“We were sort of winging it, but the thing that has kept The Ultimate Fighter so strong is that nothing in it is fake,” White told MCN. “The most contrived part of the show is when I’m standing there and say, ‘Gentlemen, welcome to The Ultimate Fighter.’ Then it’s game on. Everything that happens is spontaneous and real — it is real reality television. There’s nothing scripted on The Ultimate Fighter.”
Added Piligian: “We didn’t Hollywood it — we gave people a brawl, regardless of whether it was a great brawl or a bad brawl.”
The final bout of the first season pitted then-unknowns Stephan Bonnar and Forrest Griffin in an action-packed fight that many observers described as the fight that officially launched the UFC into the mainstream.
“The first season killed it and the rest is history,” said White. “We literally went into the alley behind the arena after the fight and made the deal for the second season of TUF and the UFC.”
Griffin would win the bout and go on to become the UFC’s light heavyweight world champion, one of six fighters from The Ultimate Fighter to eventually wear a championship belt. “The pinnacle moment for me was in 2005 when I won The Ultimate Fighter because I knew at that moment that my life had changed forever,” recalled Griffin, who now serves as vice president of athlete development for the company. “To me, at its heart the show is about finding the best talents that have the potential to be in the UFC and put them under a microscope and see how they deal with the pressure.”
Added White: “TUF, literally, it is our rookie camp. I really get to see who’s who and what’s what — it couldn’t be any more perfect for me to scout talent.”
The Ultimate Fighter would air on Spike TV for six years before moving to FX as part of the groundbreaking, seven-year TV deal UFC reached with Fox Sports in 2011.
In 2013, the show would move to then newly launched national sports network FS1. That move bolstered UFC’s status as a legitimate sport, White said, putting it on the same platform as high-profile, mainstream properties such as Major League Baseball, NASCAR and major college football and basketball games.
“The Ultimate Fighter has been one of the crown jewels of the UFC portfolio, and since we’ve launched Fox Sports 1, it’s been the No. 1 original series on the FS1 network,” Fox’s Nathanson said.
Added White: “The love that Fox has put behind the show in helping us promote it every season has really helped the show’s success. They’ve done a fantastic job.”
During its run, UFC has tinkered with the The Ultimate Fighter’s format to keep the show fresh and entertaining for viewers. The upcoming season, dubbed “Redemption,” will feature fighters who have competed in previous seasons once again vying for a UFC contract. Previous seasons have included casts of all-women fighters, with Ronda Rousey as a coach, as well as the launch of a new weight division, complete with its first champion, UFC executive vice president of operations Craig Borsari said.
“It’s challenging to try to figure out that right balance between changing up the format slightly and finding the right characters to bring to the house while not alienating the viewers that got us here,” Borsari said. “There are times where we’ve pushed the envelope, but for the most part, we’ve figured out how to keep the core format in place with minor tweaks on the fringes, which has helped this show maintain the longevity that it’s had.”
STORYLINES ‘NEVER DISAPPOINT’
Regardless of the format changes, FS1’s Nathanson added, The Ultimate Fighter consistently delivers a power punch for viewers looking for quality, action-packed fights.
“The Ultimate Fighter never disappoints … eventually what gets you every single season is the actual athletes and the storylines that emerge from them,” he said. “Not only are they incredibly compelling fighters, but they are compelling athletes, and the storylines are able to give people a reason to follow them well after the series, particularly if they’re lucky enough to make it into the UFC.”
As for the future, White said he can see the show continuing to thrive and build its next generation of champions as the UFC continues to grow as a sport. “If the sport continues to grow and more fans make their way toward the UFC, I think the TUF will always be relevant.”
Added Piligian: “Never before has a reality unscripted TV show built a sport, and that’s what this one did and will continue to do.”
SIDEBAR: FROM ‘ULTIMATE’ TO PINNACLE
Six UFC athletes who debuted onThe Ultimate Fighterwent on to become UFC champions:
FORREST GRIFFIN, Former UFC light heavyweight champion and UFC Hall of Famer (won Season 1).
RASHAD EVANS, former UFC light heavyweight champion (won Season 2 as a heavyweight): Evans defeated Forrest Griffin at UFC 92 to capture the UFC light heavyweight championship.
MICHAEL BISPING, current UFC middleweight champion (won Season 3): Bisping, who entered UFC competition in 2006, captured the UFC middleweight title at UFC 199 in June 2016.
MATT SERRA, former UFC welterweight champion (won Season 4): Serra defeated Georges St-Pierre at UFC 69 to capture the welterweight title in what has been described as the greatest upset in UFC history.
T.J. DILLASHAW, former UFC bantamweight champion (appeared on Season 14): Dillashaw, the only fighter on this list who did not win the season in which he competed on the show, lost in the finale to John Dodson, but rebounded to become bantamweight champion at UFC 173.
CARLA ESPARZA, former UFC strawweight champion (won Season 20): In winning the show, Esparza became the global brand’s firstever champion in the newly established weight class.
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