Colton Smith. Eddie Gordon. Corey Anderson. Ryan Hall. Tatiana Suarez. What do all of these fighters have in common?
If you guessed that they were all winners on the UFC’s reality series The Ultimate Fighter within the last five years, then reward yourself with a gold star. But you should also probably get a life, frankly. While your commitment to mixed martial arts by watching TUF is admirable, you’re watching a program that has long outlived its usefulness.
The UFC likes to tout that so many of its most recognizable fighters — Forrest Griffin, Stephan Bonnar, Diego Sanchez, Nate Diaz, Michael Bisping, Rashad Evans, just to name a few — got their start on the UFC’s reality-based competition show, which debuted in 2005. This is true, but more than a decade has transpired since some of these household names were first introduced to fans. More to the point, only the most diehard of MMA fans remembers the fight between Griffin and Bonnar at the end of TUF’s first season, which may have saved the UFC as we know it.
However, the last seven to eight years has seen the quality of talent on TUF take a considerable dip. The fighters mentioned at the beginning of this column? They’ve quickly become an afterthought. Smith, the winner on season 16, was released by the UFC after three straight losses, and he was last seen in the World Series of Fighting. Gordon suffered the same fate: three straight losses following his crowning as the winner of the 19th season, a release by the UFC and a trip back to the regional circuit.
In fairness, Anderson has fared OK since being crowned the light heavyweight division winner of the 19th season of TUF. He sports a 4-2 record in the UFC and gave former light heavyweight champion Mauricio “Shogun” Rua all he could handle earlier this year. Hall and Suarez are each scheduled to have their first post-TUF bout in December, so it may not yet be fair to lump them with the recent group of underachieving TUF winners.
But by and large, the group of recent TUF winners pales in comparison to the show’s first several seasons, as has the overall talent pool during these recent seasons. This made the recent scuttlebutt that TUF was possibly on its way out so interesting:
Little late night birdie tells me that WME plans on getting rid of The Ultimate Fighter, possibly after this season.
— Jeremy Botter (@jeremybotter) October 20, 2016
It appears the new owners of the UFC may not be huge fans of TUF. Can you blame them? However, it’s also reported that a new season will begin filming in January, so any reports of the show’s demise may be premature.
The UFC has tried several tricks to boost viewership of TUF, including using some of its biggest stars — Conor McGregor, Ronda Rousey, Urijah Faber and Miesha Tate, among others — as coaches. The company also tries tinkering with the show’s formula, occasionally eschewing the traditional offering of a UFC contract in favor of a competition between gyms for money (TUF 21: American Top Team vs. Blackzilians) and a shot at a UFC title (TUF 20: A Champion Will Be Crowned; the current season of TUF that offers a shot at UFC flyweight champion Demetrious Johnson). The next season of TUF that will allegedly begin filming in the new year may take on an all-star format, which comes across as yet another gimmick by the UFC to make the show relevant again.
While the 20th season of TUF introduced a talented and deep new division to the UFC with the women’s strawweights, and the current season features an impressive list of flyweight champions from promotions all over the world, nothing seems to work in terms of making TUF a ratings bonanza. Don’t believe it? Search Google for “The Ultimate Fighter ratings” and you’ll see plenty of links that show that TUF isn’t what it used to be.
Fighters also have more options now in their quest to make it to the UFC. When TUF first started, regional promotions like the Resurrection Fighting Alliance, Legacy FC, Titan Fighting Championships and Invicta FC didn’t exist. Neither did Bellator MMA or the WSOF. If you were a young fighter and didn’t want to toil on local, unsanctioned shows for pocket change, you basically had to audition in order to sequester yourself in a house with 20 other male or female fighters and have your every move recorded by the UFC for the entertainment of the masses if you wanted to get your shot at the big time. Now, the aforementioned regional promotions give young fighters the opportunity to grow. In some cases, it may offer better pay than what a first-time contract with the UFC offers — and especially now, with the awful Reebok deal still in place.
The definition of insanity is trying the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. Instead of continuously drawing from a diluted talent pool to try to boost an oversaturated market for MMA, the UFC should just be proud of what its trailblazing show accomplished. It’s time to let the series retire with dignity.