Make TUF Great Again! : Can a New Approach Rejuvenate The Ultimate Fighter?

It was the first season of The Ultimate Fighter (TUF) in 2005 that saved the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) from coming to an end. The reality show was a last ditch effort to gain mainstream exposure for the sport of Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) in America and it worked remarkably as the historic finale contest between Forrest Griffin and Stephan Bonnar received millions of viewers and launched the UFC into a much larger audience. The UFC is now the world’s premier MMA organization and has recently put on record breaking events, but unfortunately The Ultimate Fighter reality show has not followed that success. With everything the reality tv series has accomplished for the UFC It is easy to understand why the company doesn’t just ditch the project, but with declining numbers and uninterested fans what can the UFC do to make TUF great again?

A great deal of Mixed Martial Arts fans have lost interest in the show that put the sport on track to major mainstream success and getting the fans interested again will be a difficult task to overcome, but the answer starts with change. A significant issue fans have had with TUF is the massive drop in talent produced as the show went on. In the beginning top talent showed up with hopes to realize their dream of being a UFC fighter, but now the top prospects have realized it’s easier to earn a contract without going on The Ultimate Fighter. Because of this fact there has been a big drop in talent and fans have noticed, growing tired of the lower level talent just looking to get a UFC contract or their 15 minutes of fame on a reality television show.

So how do you convince the top talent of the sport that being stuck in a house with an abundance of other fighters and no tv or contact with their family for six weeks is worth it? Well, for The Ultimate Fighter 24 the UFC brass decided to put a title shot on the line. The winner of TUF 24 will get a shot at dominant UFC flyweight champion Demetrious Johnson. Under this system the UFC was able to go out and find highly touted regional flyweight world champions and set up a ranked tournament between the 16 contestants, and thus far the results have been outstanding. So far every fight has delivered thrilling results and showed a high talent level in both the winners and losers. A few episodes in and TUF 24 has been nothing short of incredible and this change is a good start to rejuvenating the once great reality show.

The UFC used a similar format when airing The Ultimate Fighter 20 as they introduced the women’s strawweight division by taking the best ranked strawweight competitors from Invicta FC and putting them in a ranked tournament with the winner becoming the first UFC women’s strawweight champion. It was also a big success as the show more than doubled the viewers of the previous TUF 19. What this shows is fans have a general interest in the show when it features top talent and significance. Keeping The Ultimate Fighter on more consistent terms with that core concept has already proven to draw more viewers, but there is more to be done if the show will truly emerge from the ashes and reach greatness again.

“my god… it’s full of belts…”

Bringing significance to TUF is a must if you want people to tune in. Putting a title shot on the line is one way to do it but obviously it isn’t a notion that will work for a division stacked with contenders. There are other ways to add significance to the show without handing the victor a title shot on a silver platter. The winner could perhaps receive a title eliminator against a top five ranked opponent in a main event spot on FOX. It is that kind of stipulation that keeps fans interested. They want to know the fighter who is about to be fighting for the championship or fighting a contender in a title eliminator and the only way to find out who that guy might be is to watch The Ultimate Fighter and tune in to the show’s finale once all has concluded.

Assuring highly regarded talent should be a top priority as viewers want to trust they are watching possible future champions and contenders. Adding significance will already give top talent the desire to join the show but scouting the talent before securing them is key as well. The idea of going out and finding the best regional champions from around the world is a concept that should remain on The Ultimate Fighter. Each individual is confident, talented, and proven in their ability adding a new intense dynamic between the fighters and cutting out the drunken fights and ridiculous pranks that fans have grown weary of over the years. Bringing in the top talent also assures that the show will produce a much greater amount of UFC champions, contenders, and mainstays.

Selecting which division and what coaches to put on the show is a small but important detail. Sometimes the show only features one division and other times the show will feature two divisions. If the UFC decides to continue adding the significance of a title shot or title eliminator to The Ultimate Fighter then making the show focus purely on one division makes far more sense. There are many divisions that could use a multitude of new talent and typically those divisions are the ones to feature on TUF. Divisions stuck with a triangle of the same contenders like Light Heavyweight give a plausible cause for awarding the winner with a title shot while featuring deeper divisions such as welterweight would call for a title eliminator beforehand. The process for picking coaches is simple enough. Usually two rivals coach separate teams picking their fighters and training them for their upcoming fights. Typically the coaches are of a different weight class than the one features featured on The Ultimate Fighter but there have been same division coaches over the shows 24 seasons.

It’s not going to be a walk in the park to get fans engaged again but the UFC brass seems determined to keep The Ultimate Fighter around and with change it can be great again. They have already implemented some of the ideas above for The Ultimate Fighter 24 and it has turned out well thus far although we sit early into the season. Perhaps the restoration of The Ultimate Fighter reality series is already on track as they put regional champions against each other for a chance at the UFC’s dominating flyweight champion Demetrious Johnson. Maybe the resurgence of significance to TUF is riding on the success of this season. Either way the show is long overdue for a change in format and it is possible we are on the cusp of seeing that now.