The 28th, and perhaps final, season of the Ultimate Fighter just ended. There was a time when the show was the UFC’s crown jewel, their lone TV product and their biggest promotional tool. The first season of the Ultimate Fighter is almost solely responsible for how big the UFC has become. It boosted PPV numbers for events featuring coaches, it led to Spike TV pulling the trigger on a series of live fight cards, it gave a platform to a group of fighter that became consistent ratings draws on Spike TV. Over time, due entirely on the success of the show, those live fight cards gave fighters a bigger and more immediate platform. Eventually they ended up on network TV in an unprecedented number of TV households. With a growing audience and big ratings in key demographics, real news outlets, not niche MMA only websites, places like ESPN started featuring Dana White and his unique brand of promotion. Sometimes even UFC fighters would show up on TV, and thus, TUF became less and less of a going concern. While it wasn’t the UFC’s main concern, it still acted as a way to bring talent into the UFC. Using TUF, the UFC could bring in a handful of fighters, get a first-hand look at them, and decide who they wanted to sign and who they wanted to condemn to the regional scene for life. Now, it doesn’t even serve that purpose, but it has kept plodding on.
Over the last couple years, the UFC has ramped up the number of fights they produce each year and by virtue of that increase in production have started signing a truly unprecedented number of fighters. With so many fighters under contract and more always being signed as late replacements or card fillers, not to mention the Contender Series, the talent level of fighter available for the cast of the Ultimate Fighter has never been lower, and neither has interest. It used to be that a spot of the Ultimate Fighter was a coveted spot, it meant that you were probably going to end up in the UFC on the main card of some Fight Night. Now it means so much less, being on TUF is the UFC’s version of the kid’s table. Its being on UFC probation, except no one is monitoring your activity, at least not anymore.
A little over one hundred thousand people watched the last episode of TUF, no episode got more than 200,000 viewers, and no one who watched it seemed to care all that much. There was a time when the show was watched by a good portion of MMA fans, the antics in the house, as stupid as they may have been, were discussed in the same was as the fights were. Then people just started watching the fights, the reality show aspect grew old but the fighters were still good and there were fights worth watching. Now, no one watches at all. Sure, there is an occasional good fight and every once in a while a fighter of some skill will come out of the show, but what is the point. The fighters who succeed on the show, they would have ended up in the UFC anyway, name one fighter toiling on the regional scene? They don’t exist anymore. TUF isn’t a gateway to the UFC anymore, its a checkpoint. Given the ratings of the show, it isn’t a platform either. More people will see a gif of an exciting LFA finish then they would an episode of TUF. Anyone on TUF would have gotten more exposure on the prelims of an FS1 card, maybe even of Fight Pass. The Ultimate Fighter has outlived its usefulness, but the UFC kept it alive, because, despite not showing this quality in another aspect of their business, they have some loyalty to it.
MMA is a hard business, if you expect dignity, loyalty, honesty, or virtue, look elsewhere. The UFC, under Zuffa, had a little bit of it, but not much. They gave meaningless desk jobs to the likes of Chuck Liddell and Matt Hughes, but we saw last weekend how those things ended up. No one comes out of this for the better, even the biggest stars of the salad days of the UFC ended up stumbling into the cage for a percentage of 30,000 buys. But, because TUF was so important to the success of the UFC, more so than any fighter during that period, because it actually worked, because Forrest Griffin and Stephan Bonnar went out and had the fight they did, because the show made people want to go see Chuck Liddell and Randy Couture fight for a third time at UFC 57, they kept it around. I don’t know if they thought it would work again, I don’t think so, but it worked when they needed it to and people were still paying for them to produce the show, so they did. They just couldn’t stand to kill it, even in its moribund state.
Even if nothing of consequence came out of it, even the champions who came out of the show with titles quickly dropped them, the UFC kept putting on TUF, even as less and less people watched. They thought live fights might save the show, it didn’t. They thought titles might make people watch, it didn’t. They tried repatriating the show with UFC veterans, the people said no. This year they tried to build the show around knockouts, it failed. But they kept trying, because they had to try. Because you always have to dance with who brung ya, because it was their flagship show, even after it had been eclipsed several times over. Except now, ESPN has entered the picture, and as much as they have “Embraced Debate,” I don’t think they’re ready for the Junie Brownings or the Chris Lebens of the world, and so without a home, TUF may finally die, long after its expiration date. The UFC couldn’t kill TUF, they didn’t have the heart, but ESPN doesn’t want the show and the UFC wants ESPN, so Dana White and company looked the other way while ESPN killed The Ultimate Fighter.
The UFC kept TUF on life support for a decade, as long as they realistically could have, but it looks like The Ultimate Fighter might finally be dead. It gave us the like of Forrest Griffin, Rashad Evans, and Michael Bisping. Then it gave us Matt Serra’s improbable UFC Title win, since then results have been mixed, for every Nate Diaz we got a Colton Smith, for every Amir Sodallah we got a TJ Dillashaw. We got Diego Sanchez not knowing what asparagus even is and we got Jeremy Jackson jumping the wall to go mack on a lifeguard. But more than that, it gave us the UFC on TV, live MMA fights on cable television. That is TUF’s lasting legacy, more than any fight or fighter, that live finale, even without the extraordinary main event, the sheer appearance of MMA fights, live, on free television. TUF gave us that, everything else was gravy, even if it was of the Kyle Kingsbury variety.