While the question of “does The Ultimate Fighter matter anymore?” has been lingering for a long while now, it has taken on new life in recent weeks. This, of course, is because of the current season's record-low ratings combined with the straight-up publicity stunt that is Jon Jones coaching opposite Chael Sonnen.
TUF has been a divisive topic among fans and fighters alike since it first started eight years ago. The criticisms have always been numerous and have covered many topics from the fighters to the role of TV producers to how they choose the coaches to where they scout fighters. The show's format has remained largely the same, but for the most part, the ratings and talent produced have both been on a steady decline. With this, it seems TUF's time may be nearing its end.
The Ultimate Fighter's core has been, and will always be, two things. First, the grooming of young fighters whose foremost goal is to join the UFC. Secondly, growing and displaying the rivalry between coaches.
The second part is easy. After all, there has never been a shortage of vitriol between fighters. This often translates into great exposure for the bouts, which generates strong revenue in turn. Seasons featuring Georges St-Pierre vs. Josh Koscheck and Quinton Jackson vs. Rashad Evans, for example, resulted in milestone buys for each fighter. While putting together these fights has historically been difficult (basically, half the originally planned coaches' fights never came about or were delayed for a variety of reasons), the results have typically been positive.
The discovery and development of young fighters is where TUF has struggled of late. There is simply no getting around that fact. The first season of The Ultimate Fighter gave the promotion Kenny Florian, Forrest Griffin, Stephan Bonnar, Josh Koscheck, Chris Leben, Mike Swick, Nate Quarry and Diego Sanchez.
That, by far, was the best crop of fighters ever added to the show. While no other single season would add that much talent, seasons two, three and five all added at least one top-10 fighter that remains in the UFC today. For whatever reason, though, once TUF6 came around, the show simply stopped producing especially great talent.
With the exception of Roy Nelson, Ryan Bader and John Dodson, winners have had mixed levels of success, but have generally failed to achieve anything especially great. Mac Danzig, Efrain Escudero and Jonathan Brookins are all horribly close to pink slips. Ross Pearson and Amir Sadollah seem firmly embedded in the middle of their divisions' pack with little hope of rising further. The jury is still out on winners from the more recent seasons such as Court McGee, Tony Ferguson and Diego Brandao, but they have all suffered losses to less-than-stellar opponents in 2012.
Outside the winners, there have been very few noteworthy “also-ran” alumni. Kris McCray, Tommy Speer, DaMarques Johnson, Phillipe Nover, Vinny Magalhaes and Andre Winner are almost all the runners-up from seasons 6-11. All of them have been cut. Brendan Schaub, TUF 10's runner-up, may be joining them if he loses to Lavar Johnson in December.
Outside the winner, the UFC rarely gets more than two or three fighters that end up surviving in the promotion for more than a couple fights. Season 8 gave us Tom Lawlor and Krzysztof Soszynski. Season 11 gave us Kyle Noke, Chris Camozzi and Brad Tavares.
On top of not producing any hotshots anymore, none of the UFC's modern stars actually came from TUF. Jon Jones, Cain Velasquez, Junior dos Santos, Alexander Gustafsson, Shane Carwin, Renan Barao, Phil Davis, Jake Ellenberger and so on caught the UFC's eye by fighting in smaller promotions and working their way up from there.
The bottom line from all this is that if the UFC needs great fighters, they are not going to get them through TUF.
So how did TUF go from single-handedly building divisions to, at best, offering up a couple preliminary card fighters? There are many reasons for this.
First and foremost, fighters are simply not as excited about having a shot at fighting for the UFC anymore. While a common theme among TUF cast members is the idea of quitting their job and leaving everything behind for a chance to join the UFC, fewer established fighters have been doing so.
Fighter pay is a frequent point of discussion, and former TUF participants Chris Leben and Tom Lawlor have recently discussed how they are flat broke. While MMA has grown, fighter pay has remained largely the same, while the price of admission to top-level gyms has rocketed up.
If a TUF winner remains injury-free and fights three times a year and wins all of them, he would receive $120,000 (not including things like sponsorships, taxes or medical expenses). While $120,000 is good money for an accountant or sales manager, few people are willing to drop everything for a one-in-16 shot at $75,000 after taxes.
On top of that, the number of promotions capable of giving decent sums of money to fighters has risen.
A successful fighter can easily make comparable money in the BAMMA, Titan FC, CES MMA or Extreme Fight Night promotions, who have all brought aboard relatively high-profile fighters in the last year. They also don't force a fighter to drop everything to be locked in a house for two months.
Finally, there simply is not much talent out there for the UFC to pick through anymore, primarily because TUF has almost exclusively been perusing American lightweights and welterweights. Since 2007, the lightweight division has been featured five times and the welterweight division four times. There have been over 50 fighters in these two divisions featured on The Ultimate Fighter in the last five years. It is no surprise that there is little meat to be found on bones that have been so thoroughly picked at.
All that said, The Ultimate Fighter is still a very important tool for the UFC. Why?
Internationally, TUF is by far the best way to establish a personalized television presence in new markets. TUF: Brazil was an enormous success, with its debut episode drawing over 12 million viewers and its finale, UFC 147, racking up over 20 million.
The UFC is expanding into a totally new market in India, kicking things off with TUF: India. You can expect them to do the same when it starts putting more focus on expanding in Korea, China and Europe.
While Americans may have lost interest in the format, it is still a winning formula for anyone that hasn't seen it 16 times already. Even though FX would probably be content with just getting back to one million viewers tuning in, international editions of TUF can still become huge hits.
Moreover, TUF is still a great tool for finding new talent, just not in the lightweight and welterweight divisions in the United States. 155 lbs and 170 lbs are undoubtedly the most talent-rich, accessible divisions in MMA, but America alone does not have the depth to offer the 16 talented fighters a year the UFC has been demanding of it.
As stated, TUF: Brazil was a gargantuan hit. Not only did it have excellent ratings, but they pulled together a very strong group of fighters. In all likelihood, countries like India, Korea and Mexico have a great deal of untapped potential. As much as Brazil? probably not, but definitely enough to put together a strong group.
That is not to say there is no hope for the established TUF we have here in America.
TUF14, which featured bantamweights and featherweights, has already been paying dividends for the UFC. John Dodson and Louis Gaudinot, a pair of top-10 flyweights, came from the season. TJ Dillashaw is a rising bantamweight. Diego Brandao is brimming with potential. Marcus Brimage is already 3-0 in the UFC. Dennis Bermudez has won twice since the TUF 14 finale.
Heavyweights have not been featured in TUF since 2009. Light heavyweights have not been featured since 2008. While Dana White's typical stance on those divisions is “if we can find 16 heavyweights, we need them in the UFC, not The Ultimate Fighter," if they improve their scouting efforts, they can almost certainly find 14 quality fighters over 200 lbs.
Taking all that into account, The Ultimate Fighter really does still have a place in the UFC. Is it as big as it was in 2006? No. Though it is still capable of offering some good injections of talent, this is not what Zuffa needs TUF to be anymore.
The UFC just needs The Ultimate Fighter to offer a steady TV presence for new or casual fans and a boost in buys for its established fighters. While its role has diminished in recent years, it is still capable of offering that. Getting a few fighters out of it is just a bonus.