The Ultimate Fighter has always been used to promote rivalries and fights. Whether it’s Tito Ortiz and Ken Shamrock, Ortiz and Chuck Liddell, Liddell and Randy Couture or Ronda Rousey and Miesha Tate, coaching rivalries have been the big sells on the show.
The UFC set up this season to feature its newest sensation, interim featherweight champion Conor McGregor, and Urijah Faber. It didn’t take long for the two to start jawing. Actually, it started before the show in the build toward the interim title fight between McGregor and Faber’s stablemate, Chad Mendes. Faber and McGregor got in a little shoving match and, boom, a marketable rivalry was born. McGregor and Faber, arguably the top featherweight and bantamweight sells respectively, had something that could be transformed into a program that could air on television.
The dynamic worked well. Just two episodes in, we’ve already seen the two trade barbs, mostly on the easy-to-pick-on traits. Faber’s chin, age and choice of wardrobe were questioned by the slick-dressed Irishman, while Faber poked fun at McGregor’s big “Irish cantaloupe” head.
It’s a reality show, after all, and people will love the trash talk that comes between the two. People already like McGregor’s charismatic demeanor and his way with words. Now they get him for an hour every week for a few months doing just that.
However, the rivalry doesn’t really work. There’s one thing missing. For there to be a rivalry, there has to be the promise that it culminates in a fight.
“They won’t feed you to me,” McGregor told Faber on TUF.
McGregor’s right. The UFC wouldn’t set a date between the two because McGregor still has some unfinished business with UFC featherweight champion José Aldo. McGregor and Aldo are set to meet in December at UFC 194 to unify their belts.
That isn’t to say that McGregor and Faber couldn’t possibly meet. Faber does fight on the same card that McGregor headlines against Aldo. If Aldo were to get injured again — which isn’t out of the question for the oft-injured champion who has bowed out of five fights in his UFC tenure — the UFC wouldn’t have to scramble and look for a replacement fight. Instead, the company would have a backup plan already brewing and a storyline to be sold.
One can only assume that this was a motivating factor behind the UFC’s coaching choices for this season of TUF. Of course, the UFc included its rising Irish star in order to boost the ratings with the “McGregor touch,” as anything featuring his presence turns into pure ratings gold for the UFC. However, the company’s ulterior motive likely involves the promotion of a fight that might not even happen.
Aldo could possibly pull out of the fight again. Given his injury history, it wouldn’t be out of the question. Ideally, Aldo will remain healthy and we can enjoy the real showdown we have been waiting for. However, if Aldo is sidelined again, Faber is a good slot-in opponent for McGregor at a moment’s notice. They can avoid the talk of a “short camp” that followed the Mendes fight, and they’ve already set up plenty of hype with their verbal exchanges as rival coaches.
Faber is already slated to fight Frankie Saenz on the card. The former WEC champ will be in the shape needed to compete at the highest level. This is unlike the Mendes scenario, where the late-replacement challenger fought after a two-week camp and had cardio issues very early in the fight as a result of some body shots from McGregor.
The potential fight with Faber would also further legitimize McGregor if he could pull out the victory. The UFC could keep the train going, and McGregor’s battle with Aldo would be an even bigger sell when the fight eventually came to fruition.
Most of all, though, it goes back to one point: ratings. It isn’t a big surprise or a huge secret that TUF isn’t really that much of a ratings pull anymore. In fact, the ratings for the first episode of this season of TUF is the highest in the last two years since the UFC’s other biggest star, the aforementioned Rousey, headlined her own season of the show against her rival, Tate.
McGregor’s season is a 27 percent boost from last season’s TUF that saw a format change pit American Top Team against the Blackzilians in a camp-vs.-camp battle. It isn’t a surprise the UFC wants to market its Irish phenom. Good on the promotion for doing so. However, when the show is over, there isn’t a rivalry between the two coaches. Instead, there was a good market pull and a possible setup in case things took another turn in the Aldo and McGregor saga. Is that enough payoff from this rivalry?