Tomorrow evening at 9 p.m. Eastern Time on Spike TV, the 13th season of the “Ultimate Fighter” will debut with fourteen welterweight fighters competing to earn a six-figure UFC contract. The two featured coaches this season will be former UFC Heavyweight Champion Brock Lesnar and his upcoming opponent at UFC 131 in June, Junior “Cigano” Dos Santos.
Without question, it was the inaugural season of the “Ultimate Fighter” that sparked the imagination of the public and began the UFC’s movement to make mixed martial arts the most popular combat sport in the entire world.
In honor of the premiere episode of the 13th season I explore the following question: What if there was no “Ultimate Fighter”?
In the spring of 2005, around the same time that NBC aired “The Contender”, Spike TV, in partnership with the UFC, created a reality competition in which sixteen fighters competed for two six-figured contracts in the UFC. Similar to “The Contender” the fighters were separated in to two teams and led by two of the premiere fighters in the UFC: then light-heavyweight champion Randy Couture and Chuck Liddell.
In addition to the contestants competing for their respective contracts, the two coaches additionally signed on to compete for the light-heavyweight championship at a pay-per-view event scheduled to take place a week after the television show’s live season finale.
During the spring of 2005, I was finishing up my junior year at Rutgers-Camden. In the midst of what was a fairly rigorous and challenging semester, I remember one evening flipping through the channels and landing on Spike TV where I saw a “Team Liddell” training session. Up until that time, my interest in MMA was practically non-existent. Being a fan of professional wrestling, I had been somewhat knowledgeable of some of the bigger-named fighters in the sport, as many of the wrestling sites would report on the more notable fights that took place in the UFC. However, like many others, I was under the impression that the sport of MMA was simply a glorified version of bar-room brawling. However, as I tuned into the program, I was amazed to see the amount of technique that went into each and every aspect of the fight. Even after the first episode my initial impressions of the sport were quickly changed and I was thoroughly intrigued.
As the season progressed, my friends and I grew increasingly interested in both the show and the sport in general. By the time of the finale, we were anxiously awaiting which fighters would win the contracts. While Diego Sanchez was able to quickly dispatch the noticeably smaller Kenny Florian for the first contract, Forrest Griffin and Stephan Bonnar then delivered perhaps what was the most important performance in the history of the UFC. Waging an all-out war against each other, Griffin and Bonnar went toe to toe as if they were channeling their inner Rocky Balboas and Apollo Creeds. Throwing caution and exhaustion to the side, both competitors, bloodied and swollen due to the enormous punishment they received, continued to press forward in the hopes of winning the contract. Though Griffin went on to win the bout, the UFC offered both fighters a contract. However, though Sanchez, Griffin and Bonnar were considered the winners that evening, the true winner of the evening was the UFC.
The ratings for the evening’s live finale were impressive. During the Griffin/Bonnar fight, more than 11 million people tuned in to watch these two young fighters battle. Several days later, the UFC capitalized on the tremendous momentum generated from the live finale, enjoying one of their finest pay-per-view events in the promotion’s history as Chuck Liddell defeated Randy Couture to become the new light-heavyweight champion. With that win, the UFC had their new machine (The Ultimate Fighter) and their #1 attraction (Chuck Liddell).
In the years to come, the UFC would continue to grow and be viewed as a legitimate sport in the eyes of main stream culture. Now featured on ESPN and major cable channels, MMA and its identifiable culture is celebrated by millions and millions of fans worldwide. With its ever-increasing popularity, the UFC has managed to position itself as the premiere promotion of the sport, outlasting its competition both foreign and domestic.
What would have happened if there was no “Ultimate Fighter”?
(1) The sport of MMA would still be viewed as a fringe sport.
Though the UFC had enjoyed a few minor successes in the pay-per-view market with “mega-fights” such as the match between Tito Oritz and Ken Shamrock, the UFC and the sport of MMA was still relatively unknown in the spring of 2005. The only way in which someone would have an opportunity to watch the sport would be to fork over $40 to watch a pay-per-view event featuring fairly unknown fighters compete against one another.
The Ultimate Fighter proved to be an invaluable vehicle by which the UFC could introduce the fascinating and wonderful sport of MMA to the broader public. Now, armed with identifiable figures, casual fans were drawn into the sport and began to follow the younger fighters. As they began to follow these younger fighters that were featured in the show, many of these same casual fans (myself included) were additionally captivated by the sports more-established and skilled veterans.
Without the exposure provided by the Ultimate Fighter, the sport’s growth, if there would have been any, would have been drastically reduced. Instead of surpassing the 1 million buy-rate for pay-per-views, the UFC would still be hovering around the 200,000 buyrate range. Furthermore, instead of offering at least one pay-per-view show a month, selling out arenas worldwide, the UFC would still be forced to hold 4-6 shows a year, unable to fill up the larger arenas in the nation (forget about international exposure) and settling for significantly smaller gates.
Additionally, there would be an absence in mainstream culture of any mixed martial artists. Georges St. Pierre would not be sponsored by Under Armour or appear in Gatorade commercials. Chuck Liddell would not have been featuring an episode of “Entourage” or starred in “Dancing With the Stars”, while Tito Ortiz would not have made it to the board room in the “Celebrity Apprentice.”
(2) MMA would be regulated in far fewer states
Though less heralded than some of their other business decisions, one of the most important decisions made by Dana White and the UFC was to acquire Marc Ratner, the former Commission of the Nevada State Athletics Commission, to head the efforts of educating the various state athletic commissions that had yet to regulate the sport of MMA.
Under the prior ownership, the UFC, and MMA in general, was marketed as a savage, blood-filled sport that only appealed to the fringe elements in society. It was this marketing campaign that sparked Senator McCain’s comments that MMA was “human cockfighting,” and led to the UFC being banned on pay-per-view for quite some time.
In order to move past this barbaric stereotype, an essential element in MMA’s growth has been an effort to educate state legislators in demonstrating that MMA is not simply barbarism, but rather is a combat sport much in the same manner as boxing. Without acceptance from the state athletic agencies, the MMA would always lack credibility with sports media outlets and fans alike. This educational effort was made possible by the UFC and their ability to devote great sums of money to aid Marc Ratner’s efforts. It was due to their success with the Ultimate Fighter that they were able to compile this profit in order to successfully fund Ratner’s campaign.
(3) There would be many viable regional promotions that featured top fighters
With the unparalleled success and growth the UFC has enjoyed, the promotion has expanded, practically buying out all of its significant competition. As a result, the UFC’s roster features more weight-classes and more fighters than it ever has.
Around the time that the “Ultimate Fighter” premiered, while the UFC was still the preeminent promotion, there were still many viable regional promotions that featured top fighters. Whether it was Rumble on the Rock, ICON or Superbrawl out in Hawaii, or the WEC in California, many of these smaller promotions featured some of the top fighters in the sport who were simply unable to crack the UFC roster or were unwilling to travel across the pacific to fight in Japan.
If the UFC had not enjoyed the success it has, mainly in part due to the “Ultimate Fighter” many of these promotions would still be in existence.
(4) Japanese MMA would be far more relevant
While the leading promotion within the United States, when the first “Ultimate Fighter” season premiered, the UFC was still considered the #2 promotion worldwide. Pride Fighting Championships, a Japanese-based organization, was considered the top MMA promotion and would consistently draw anywhere from 30 to 40,000 spectators for a given event. In addition to their superior drawing power, the Pride roster was viewed as the far superior boasting the top talent in the world.
In the years leading up to the premiere of the “Ultimate Fighter” the UFC had sent over several of their former champions and title contenders to compete against Pride’s best. On each occasion, the UFC fighters failed to make much headway in the Japanese organization, essentially cementing the notion that Pride was the superior organization.
As the UFC began its meteoric rise in popularity, they began to slowly pick away at Pride’s standing in the MMA world. In late 2006, early 2007, the UFC was able to acquire Mirko “Cro Cop” Filipovic who had recently won the coveted Pride Open Weight Grand Prix Championship. Then, amidst numerous rumors that the Pride front office was intimately involved in illegal Yakuza (Japanese mob) affairs, Pride was purchased by Zuffa, LLC, the operating company of the UFC.
Though Pride may have faltered by virtue of their rumored illicit activities, I believe that had the UFC not enjoyed its meteoric rise, a Japanese-based promotion would have been able to acquire the Pride roster, as the UFC would not have had the funds necessary to sign many of the then top-ranked fighters. By keeping the former Pride fighters in Japanese-based promotions, the television contracts previously enjoyed by Pride would have found their way to these other promotions. As a result, there would still remain the question of which promotion is truly the best. Instead, the UFC, similar to the NFL or NBA, towers over the competition and is firmly entrenched as the sport’s top organization.
(5) Boxing would be the undisputed champion of combat sports
The sport of boxing will perhaps forever be engrained in the fabric of mainstream culture. It was boxing that brought to the world Jack Dempsey, Joe Louis, Rocky Marciano, Muhammad Ali and Mike Tyson. It was boxing that provided epic battles such as “Louis-Schmelling”, “The Rumble in the Jungle” and the “Thrilla in Manilla.” However, with a dearth of exciting fighters and a fragmented ranking and championship system, I believe MMA, largely in part due to the UFC’s tremendous success, has overtaken boxing as the #1 combat sport.
Several years ago in the highly anticipated bout between Oscar de la Hoya and Floyd Mayweather, Jr., much of the broadcast by the HBO crew was devoted to demonstrating that boxing, and not MMA, was still the most viable and attractive combat sport. After the fight, Jim Lampley, instead of pondering the legacy of these two great fighters, discussed whether boxing is dead and if MMA has surpassed boxing.
The fact that the sport of MMA was even discussed during such an important evening demonstrates that MMA is now as mainstream as boxing. Save for fights featuring Manny Pacquiao or Floyd Mayweather Jr., MMA events consistently outdraw and outsell those of boxing.
If the “Ultimate fighter” was never created, boxing would still be the undisputed champion of combat sports.
(6) Professional wrestling would be far more popular and profitable
During my high school and early college years the undisputed champion of the coveted 18-34 male demographic was professional wrestling. Though there were several organizations competing against one another, it was ultimately Vince McMahon and the World Wrestling Entertainment that emerged as the leading promotion. During this time, professional wrestling was incredibly lucrative, as the weekly Monday Night Raw program drew incredible ratings, and the top stars were household names.
As a result of the growth of the UFC by virtue of the “Ultimate Fighter” the same 18-34 year old males who used to follow the Rock, “Stone Cold” Steve Austin, and Degeneration X now have become followers of MMA. WWE pay-per-view buyrates have steadily declined and television ratings for “Raw” are significantly down from 5-10 years ago.
Recognizing the shift in the market, McMahon has strategically retooled the WWE in order to become more attractive to a younger audience. This move has helped steady the WWE, and though they do not pull in the same business they once did, they are once again developing a burgeoning fan base in the same manner they once did with youngsters like myself in the late 80s/early 90s with “Hulkamania”.
However, if the UFC had not experienced this growth, McMahon would additionally have at his disposal the 18-34 male demographic, which would significantly alter the manner in which he has chosen to run the WWE. More importantly, the television ratings and pay-per-view buyrates would have increased significantly, as many of the UFC fans would instead elect to invest the $40/month for a WWE pay-per-view offering rather than a UFC event.