If you were an MMA fan in January 2005, chances are you remember where you were when the first season of “The Ultimate Fighter” premiered.
That’s not just because of what the show eventually became or even because of what it meant for the growth and possible salvation of the UFC, but also because of what it was like to be an MMA fan in North America at the time.
Think of it this way: In 2004, the year before “TUF 1” debuted, the UFC put on just five events. They were all pay-per-view offerings, since there was no such thing as a UFC Fight Night event back then, or even a UFC TV deal.
Which is not to say the UFC never appeared on basic cable. There were sporadic appearances on FOX Sports Net a couple years earlier, plus the occasional TV news show piece about the new sport of MMA, which may have been either barbaric bloodsport or ascendant cultural phenomenon, depending on the timing and the source.
But other than that? MMA was something you saw on VHS tapes and DVDs that you traded with friends. It was something you hunted down on the still somewhat primordial Internet. When the year’s few events rolled around, you pitched in on a pay-per-view or went in search of some bar with a Tito Ortiz poster hastily taped to the wall.
It existed on the margins. You got excited if you met someone else with an interest in it.
So when a relatively new cable network called Spike TV – billed as “the first network for men,” and anchored by pro wrestling and various iterations of “Star Trek” – starting running ads promising a weekly MMA show, it was something special.
Here was this fringe sport being wrapped up in the warm embrace of reality TV, which at the time was an immediately recognizable form that still felt like it hadn’t yet been done to death. Here, it seemed, was the introduction MMA had been waiting for. A martial arts tournament disguised as a game show, with plenty of the strangers-in-a-house drama that was a staple of the form.
Even the cast of the first season fit perfectly into the reality TV show mold. You had the seasoned coaches, Randy Couture and Chuck Liddell, who each offered different but still compelling versions of what an MMA fighter could look and be like.
As for the contestants, you had serious, college-educated types like Kenny Florian, who could also help dispel the notion that all cage fighters were tattooed skinhead bar bouncers. You had kooky ones like Diego Sanchez, who at one point ran out into a downpour in order to “harness the power” of the storm.
It was a volatile mix clearly designed to produce typical reality-show antics, and it worked. To help things along, producers made sure that this group of professional athletes had plenty of free booze on hand, because what athletic competition is complete without a little tequila?
But there were other reality TV features that clearly didn’t fit what the show wanted and needed to be, such as the “challenges” that took place in nearly every episode, or the practice of sending fighters “home” once they’d been eliminated from the competition.
The result of the latter was a dwindling cast both in the house and in the gym, which made for fewer and fewer antics and training partners – both problems, but for different reasons.
There was also a near-mutiny when fighters balked at being asked to cut weight and fight for free, which is what precipitated UFC President Dana White’s now famous “do you want to be a f*cking fighter” speech.
For longtime fans of the sport, the true appeal was that almost every episode ended with an actual MMA fight. That’s not so special now – there have been roughly 10,000 seasons of “TUF” since then, or so it seems, and that’s in addition to the almost weekly UFC events of varying caliber.
But in early 2005, that world was a distant dream. Those of us who obsessed over this fringe sport often held our fandom close, like a semi-shameful secret, but we also stubbornly believed that other people might like this stuff if they gave it a chance.
The UFC, in fact, was betting on it. White loves to tell the story of how that first season came to be, how it was the final all-in bet from the Zuffa parent company and the Fertitta brothers who’d been losing money on it. How, even as they were filming what was essentially a weekly ad buy for Spike TV, the network itself was in a state of upheaval.
To hear White tell it, it wasn’t until the wildly successful finale, helped along greatly by the epic battle between light heavyweight finalists Forrest Griffin and Stephan Bonnar, that UFC executives even felt confident of the company’s survival.
All that still felt miles away to the average viewer tuning in on that January night in 2005. Back then, most of us were just happy to see the sport we loved on TV. We longed for more of it. We hoped it wouldn’t go away. We thought it might even thrive if only people would sit down to watch.
And if it was the trappings of reality TV that would serve as the bait to lure them in, sure, we could sit through a challenge or two. In a way, the fact that the show has now fallen into a pattern of low ratings and diminished importance in the world of MMA only proves how well it worked. It did its job so well that it eventually became obsolete.
Not bad for a formulaic reality show operating out of a Las Vegas strip mall.
For more on the UFC’s upcoming schedule, check out the UFC Rumors section of the site.
“Today in MMA History” is an MMAjunkie series created in association with MMA History Today, the social media outlet dedicated to reliving “a daily journey through our sport’s history.”
Source: MMA Junkie