The Ultimate Fighter reality series on Spike TV takes a lot of heat from MMA fans. Some of it is deserved, but most of it isn’t. People say the format is stale, the fights are often mismatches or generally lacking in energy. But I think these people are focusing on the wrong things, and in the process they’re missing everything that’s really great about TUF (yeah, I’m abbreviating now, so deal with it). There is a lot of what is good about reality TV in general in this show, and surprisingly little of what is bad.
For example: my girlfriend loves Top Chef on Bravo. I’m pretty sure it’s the most boring thing I’ve ever seen on TV, including test patterns. This is a source of conflict for us, but we live with it. However, whenever I find myself watching even a few minutes of TC (that’s right), I start wishing that they would end each show with some kind of final showdown, preferrably a fight of some kind where there could be a clear winner.
‘Man,’ I think to myself. ‘Wouldn’t it be great if there were a show like that?’
This is when I remember that TUF gives us what we’ve always wanted from reality TV: conflicts of personality and desire that turn into actual, sanctioned fights. Maybe we’ve started taking it for granted after so many seasons. I don’t know.
I’ve watched every season of TUF. I watched it back when it first came on and I didn’t have cable and had to go to a friend’s house every week, even when he might not have wanted me there, because I didn’t want to miss any of it.
Since then the show has improved dramatically. They got rid of the challenges and the concept of a host (though why is Dana White an official cast member when he seems to only show up every now and then?). But what I’ve really come to love about the show is how much we learn about the veteran fighters who serve as coaches.
Take Matt Hughes. I used to be a huge Matt Hughes fan. He seemed like a great fighter and a great guy. But after two seasons as a coach on TUF, I was forced to reevaluate that stance. Not only does he seem to be a real ball-buster (which I could forgive, though it’s annoying), he also seems incredibly egotistical and a little petty.
Remember when he encouraged one of his fighters to fight injured, which only further injured him? Remember when he seemed happy that this weak link was off his team?
That makes me think that Hughes didn’t understand how the show worked. If you’re a coach on TUF, it’s not about you. It’s about your fighters. Your job is to make them into the best they can be. You don’t get an extra prize if one of your fighters wins. Your guys will probably have to face each other in the tournament at some point. You’re there to help them improve, not to play head games and steal the spotlight.
You’re also not there to lead Bible study and ask your fighters to decide which character in the Book of Esther most closely represents you, because that’s just weird.
Conversely, look at Tito Ortiz. I never really liked Ortiz all that much before his stint on TUF. He always came off as a grandstanding jerk. But on the show he seemed like a natural coach, one committed to doing whatever was necessary to help his guys. He seemed compassionate and sincere and had a really great work ethic.
I’m still not a huge Ortiz fan, but I really respect him and want to see good things happen to him (good things like success and happiness, not good things like Jenna Jameson, who might turn out to be the opposite of a good thing once those test results come back).
And what about Matt Serra? I was mostly indifferent towards him before his two stints on TUF — first as contestant and now coach — but I’ve really come to like him. Nothing makes me sympathize with a guy like watching him struggle with Joe Scarola and his inexplicably bad choices.
This is the greatest value of TUF for me. We learn a lot about the contestants, sure, but there are so many of them who we’ll never see again that it’s hard to know who to care about right off. The coaches are already somebody important. How they respond to challenges and successes and failures while they’re not in the cage can tell us a lot about their personalities.
This is why I really keep watching the show. The fights are fun to watch, but they don’t usually get interesting until the semifinals. Seeing guys go stir crazy in the house got old for me in season one. But watching true character revealed never gets old.
So maybe we should ease up on the criticism for TUF. The fact is, it’s still better than similar shows where there are no fights (looking at you, Top Chef, although America’s Next Top Model gets a pass), and it’s also better than most of what’s on TV. I know that’s not exactly a major accomplishment, but it’s enough. At least for now.