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The Ultimate Fighter 21 Postmortem: A Real-Life Version of ‘The Walking Dead’

The finale to the latest season of The Ultimate Fighter occurred on Sunday evening, yet very few MMA fans were discussing anything to do with this edition of the long-running reality series.

No, much of their attention (and rightfully so) was centered around the fallout from UFC 189, as well as with Stephen Thompson’s amazing highlight-reel knockout of Jake Ellenberger in Sunday’s headlining bout. In fact, I’d wager to guess that if you asked a handful of MMA fans who the winner of this season was, very few could answer correctly.

It was an uphill battle from the start. First, the premiere episode drew in 490,000 viewers, down from the 536,000 viewer total of the previous season’s premiere. It’s never a good sign when the debut episode of a season drops from a previous season’s premiere, but the UFC did have an excuse considering the NBA playoffs were on the same night. In fact, on many of the nights that TUF aired, both NBA and NHL playoff games garnered much of the attention in the sports world.


Still, the “something else was on” excuse isn’t enough to save TUF from the criticism of MMA fans. In its earliest seasons, the reality show (particularly the finale) was an overwhelming success for the UFC. One could argue that the first season of The Ultimate Fighter and the battle of attrition in the finale fight between Forrest Griffin and Stephan Bonnar saved the UFC from closing its doors. But much has changed since 2005.

The show was once heralded as the first stop for top prospects of the world to get their foot in the door in the UFC. Now, it’s seemingly a place for those to go to who have no other chance of breaking into the UFC. Very few, if any, of the top prospects go on The Ultimate Fighter these days. It’s simply because they don’t have to. They’re scooped up by the UFC well before appearing on TUF, or they are plucked away by other promotions.

The recently concluded season continued the trend of seasons featuring very few noteworthy fighters. That fact is even more evident by the lack of fighters from this current season appearing on the finale. Outside of the finals bout between Kamaru Usman and Hayder Hassan, only tow other fights — Michael Graves and Vicente Luque — from the season competed on the finale card. Much like many of the fights from TUF 21, the fight dragged on and failed to ignite any form of excitement from MMA fans.

Fans could credit the new rule changes to this season of The Ultimate Fighter as to why few were selected for the finale. Fighters could only compete at the finale if they fought at least twice during the show. Still, did anyone see fighters that belonged on the UFC’s roster during this show? There were very few that would do much more than fill out a Fox Sports 1 card. This rule, like many of the new rules for this season, seemed to work on paper, but ultimately failed in execution.

The two biggest failures in terms of new aspects to TUF were the points system and the fact that the opposing teams did not know who was fighting each other until the day of the weigh-ins.

American Top Team won the competition during the actual show portion, but lost more fights overall. Hassan, the man chosen to represent ATT in the finale, practically carried the team on his back by scoring three of ATT’s five victories. ATT winning the points system is equivalent to a presidential candidate losing the popular vote while still getting elected to office due to electoral votes.

Fighters not knowing who they were fighting also crippled the show during the season. With little to no time to prepare, we saw quite a few fighters play it safe (and that’s putting it nicely) during the season. Due to the nature of the show, it’s understandable that fighters would want to win while taking as little damage as possible. However, the lack of proper planning on the part of the teams meant safer game plans and, ultimately, boring fights.

Lack of excitement, combined with a lack of interest among MMA fans, meant TUF 21 ended with the lowest overall ratings for the franchise. It is indicative of a well-known fact among fans that the TUF reality show is a lost cause. Yet, the UFC refuses to accept this notion and will press on with one of its biggest stars appearing on the next season. Conor McGregor may very well draw in a new batch of viewers, but his impact can only last so long. Add in the fact that any banter we see between McGregor and his opposing coach, Urijah Faber, will be pointless because the two won’t fight each other at the season’s conclusion, and you run into the same problem that was seen with this season as the Blackzilians’ Glenn Robinson and ATT’s Dan Lambert spent weeks arguing with each other even though no physical conclusion would ever come about.

The TUF show is beyond the status of a dead horse. It has already died and then been beaten numerous times. It’s now officially a zombie; a member of the walking dead who just aimlessly wanders the TV universe in search of ever-elusive ratings.