The Mid-Week Takeaway: Changing Times, Hard Times and One Last Roll of the Dice

By Brad Wharton @MMABrad48

Sometimes something can be so important, so integral to the makeup of a greater whole, that it transcends being simply another cog in the machine. Sometimes that lone cog is so intrinsic, so vital, that it becomes a symbol of success, a poster-child for better times; a talisman. Green Bay kept Brett Favre around as age took it's toll, Paul Scholes and Ryan Giggs still get run outs for Manchester United and movie studios churn out updated version of proven franchises. It's all about the glory days.
The UFC have had a couple of talismans over the years. Ken Shamrock might have been the first; a hark back to the dawn of 'Ultimate Fighting', dragged over from WWF wrestling to get filled in by Tito Ortiz and breathe new life into a then struggling company. Shamrock and contemporaries Tank Abbott, Kimo and Royce Gracie would be wheeled out for nine combined bouts, as the promotion rode their brief wave of nostalgia.

The trouble was, times had changed. Only Kimo and Shamrock won fights during their 'revival', and only then against fellow old men of the Octagon (Ken beat Kimo, who beat Tank). In their other bouts (Shamrock vs Ortiz x3, Shamrock vs Franklin, Abbot vs Mir, Abbott vs Cabbage, Grace vs Hughes) the past masters looked tired and dated. They had a limited capacity to deliver, there were no surprises and everyone knew exactly what to expect.

The key is knowing when to let go. Christopher Nolan could have gone to the well with another Batman film, but he chose not to. His Batman trilogy will be much more fondly remembered than say the Halloween franchise, which trundled on through pointless sequels and hollow reboots until it was a mere shadow of the original horror classic. This is the UFC's problem with it's current talisman; it simply doesn't know how to let go.

The subject of this rambling yarn is, of course, The Ultimate Fighter. It's a generally accepted fact that the Fertittas were about to cut and run on the UFC (which likely would have been the death of the promotion and the sport as we know it in North America) before TUF saved the day. TUF 'made' the UFC; it dragged it kicking and screaming out of the dirt and into the public eye. It birthed a new generation of UFC 'faces' like Bisping, Leben, Evans, Florian, Griffin and Sanchez. It made national celebrities out of Chuck Liddell, Randy Couture and Dana White. It launched an era of non-PPV UFC fight nights that continues to this day. But times change.

TUF has fallen on hard times. There's no disguising the dwindling ratings, currently breaking records for a new low seemingly every week. They've toyed with the format with good (feather and bantamweights) and bad (live Friday night fights) results. Nothing disguises the fact that we've seen it all before. We know all the stories, we've seen all the pranks and we've endured more kicked-in doors than the average drug dealer.

Yet the UFC still goes back to the well. When the Fox deal was signed, a huge part of it was TUF Live, the promotion's attempt to recapture the magic of TUF for a new generation, on a bigger, more legitimate platform. It might work for new territories like Brazil, India and China, but back home where 'reality' is over-saturated, TUF just isn't cutting the mustard.

Yet it seems we have one last roll of the dice to endure. Anthony Pettis and Donald Cerrone, two lightweights on the verge of breaking out into the upper echelon of the UFC, have been pushed out of their heavily rumoured coaching roles on the next TUF. Replacing them are two of the UFC's biggest names; their troubled megastar, Jon Jones, and their greatest salesmen, Chael Sonnen. More often than not, TUF has been used to elevate the coaches into PPV draws, or to sell a certain fight. This time, a fight is being used to sell TUF.

The bout, when viewed as a sporting event, absolutely does not make sense. Sonnen hasn't fought at 205 for years, and is coming off a loss in a lower weight class. It wasn't too long ago that Nick Diaz lost a razor-thin decision to Carlos Condit. Shortly after, UFC President Dana White shot down the idea of Diaz facing Anderson Silva with the phrase "On what fucking planet does that make sense?" I guess 'Planet TUF' is the answer. It's at times like this we remember that the UFC is a business, not a sport, and sometimes business comes first.

Desperate times call for desperate measures, and these are indeed desperate times. Jones has proved to be as unlikeable for his personality as he is admirable for his ability. As for Sonnen, you either love him or you hate him, but you *will* watch him. The UFC are putting their eggs in this basket, hoping that the personality clash will be intense enough to light a new fire under the franchise, or at least keep the embers burning for another few years.

I wonder though, has the damage been done? If Brock Lesnar couldn't 'pop a rating', how much can we expect of Jon Jones? Sonnen's innate ability to create confrontation will help, as will a midweek timeslot... But will any of it mean as much as those first few seasons?

It's not a question of quality; there have undoubtedly been more entertaining seasons of TUF than the inaugural season's ridiculous (awesome?) team challenged-based fair. And the low-brow stuff was there from day one. What TUF needs, what any old talisman needs if it is to remain relevant, is the ability to make an impact, to change things, to leave a lasting mark. TUF 1 changed the game. TUF 2 and 3 produced mainstays like Michael Bisping and Rashad Evans. TUF 4 gave us Serra's Cinderella moment. Since then, the show hasn't churned out a single title challenger or PPV cash cow. I genuinely had to Google the winners and coaches of the last few seasons...and I'm sort of supposed to know this stuff.

I guess for many of you, life without TUF seems shocking because it's all you've ever known. I expect the majority of young people following the sport today do so in part because of TUF or it's legacy, or at least picked up on the UFC while TUF was 'a thing'. Those of us calling for the UFC's reality experiment to be put out of it's misery are often written off as 'haters' or serial complainers who can't, or wont, be happy with anything. In my case at least, that couldn't be further from the truth.
I was here before TUF and I felt the impact it made when it burst onto our screens. I saw the knock-on effect the UFC's resulting success had on an international scale. I witnessed the landscape change and man, did I appreciate it. Then as time passed, I saw Griffin vs Bonar devolve into season after season of cookie-cutter reality TV that now, quite literally, means nothing. Half an hour after looking it up, I've already forgotten the name of the last guy to win TUF and whose team he was on.

So here's my plea - Dana, Lorenzo, let this be the last hurrah. If it doesn't work, make the call. Trade Favre to the Jets, put Scholes in a coaching role, don't reboot Robocop. Replace TUF with a small weekly or bi-weekly, manageable 'Friday Night Fights' style event for up and comers looking to earn a shot in the UFC. Call it The Ultimate Fighter if you want, make it a Bellator-esque season something.

The Ultimate Fighter will always be a part of UFC, nay, MMA history. But with every year that goes by, the impact that it made gets a little duller. Change it up, keep it sharp.

Let us remember it fondly, while we still can.

Published by Boogeyman - Thu, 18 Oct 2012 11:28

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