5 best seasons in the history of The Ultimate Fighter
Ever since its inaugural season way back in early 2005, The Ultimate Fighter has been a key part of the UFC’s programming. Largely responsible for saving the company and starting the US MMA boom with its first season, since then TUF has gone through various format changes, it’s expanded its horizons to different countries, and countless numbers of talented fighters have been produced by it.
This weekend marks the Finale of the 28th season of TUF – in the US, at least, as there have been numerous seasons outside the States – and with ratings hitting low numbers these days and the UFC’s new television deal with ESPN on the horizon, who knows how many more seasons we might see?
Some fans probably won’t miss the reality show if it does go the way of the dodo, but there’s no denying that it’s been hugely influential and quite often massively entertaining. So here’s a look at the 5 best seasons of The Ultimate Fighter.
#5 Season 17: Team Jones vs. Team Sonnen
The 16th season of TUF – the second one to air on FX – was an unmitigated disaster, as it featured a cast of largely sub-par fighters, a non-existent coaching rivalry between Shane Carwin and Roy Nelson, and one of the all-time most embarrassing scenes from the series in Julian Lane’s infamous “let me bang, bro!” rant. It was clear that the UFC needed to freshen things up somehow.
Thankfully they did with the 17th season, making some subtle tweaks that helped to revive the whole format, at least for a few more years. The fighters were portrayed as being far more professional – and more importantly, were of a higher quality than the previous season – and that allowed the fans to instantly build a connection with them. The likes of Uriah Hall, Kelvin Gastelum and Josh Samman thus entered the UFC with much more fanfare than the previous crop of TUF contestants had.
The coaches – Jon Jones and Chael Sonnen – were expected to have a keen rivalry to build their Light-Heavyweight title fight, but instead, the two men showed a healthy respect for one another and came across as genuinely excellent teachers who were looking to help their fighters improve. Sonnen, in particular, showed a side to him that we hadn’t seen before – a smart, inspiring figure as opposed to the braggadocios villain we’d become used to.
And the Middleweight tournament on offer lived up to the high expectations, with some truly dramatic action inside the Octagon. Overall, it was a season of great fights, great finishes – remember Hall’s legendary spinning kick knockout of Adam Cella? – and while we didn’t get much reality hijinks from the cast, after TUF 16 that felt like a breath of fresh air. In terms of the latter-day seasons, this was the best by a mile.
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#4 Season 3: Team Ortiz vs. Team Shamrock
The dynamic between the coaches on TUF is often key to the success of a season; a weak coaching rivalry can easily break a season while a strong one can make it. In the case of 2006’s TUF 3, the coaching rivalry on offer between bitter enemies Tito Ortiz and Ken Shamrock was jaw-dropping at times, but it only complimented what was truly a fantastic reality show.
Sure, the cast wasn’t all that strong – only Michael Bisping, Matt Hamill and Ed Herman really made any waves in the UFC proper – but they all had loud personalities – from the brash Brit in Bisping to the hyperactive Solomon Hutcherson and the clean freak Rory Singer. And the fights were pretty good too, the standout being the Middleweight semi-final between Kalib Starnes and Kendall Grove.
There was also a piece of classic reality TV idiocy on offer as Team Ortiz’s Noah Inhofer decided to abandon the competition despite making the semi-finals because he received a letter from his girlfriend suggesting he might’ve been cheating on her. With who is anyone’s guess – Bisping? – but the reaction to this was hilarious, to say the least. Apparently, he went on to marry her though, so maybe he made the right decision.
At the end of the day, TUF 3 simply had the perfect mix of reality show drama and in-cage action needed to make a great season for the viewers. Who could ever forget the famous scene that saw Shamrock promise to “smash Tito’s little head”? This was fantastic entertainment.
#3 Season 1: Team Couture vs. Team Liddell
If you rewatch the inaugural season of TUF today, you’d see a show that largely looks like the product of its time – this was of course prior to the UFC taking off as a mainstream entertainment entity, and so a lot of the season was dedicated to showing exactly how much hard work the fighters had to put in to even make it to the pre-UFC level. But somehow, the cast had enough personality – and forged enough rivalries – to make the whole thing as watchable as any other reality show.
There were storylines all over the place – the bullying of the hapless Jason Thacker, who suffered the indignity of having Chris Leben “spritz” his bed; the weight cutting struggles of Bobby Southworth; the ankle injury suffered by the cast’s surrogate father figure Nate Quarry; and the sheer eccentricity of eventual Middleweight winner Diego Sanchez.
And of course, that’s not even mentioning the rivalry that grew between Leben and the partnership of Southworth and Josh Koscheck. The now-legendary incident that saw Leben punch his way through a door to attempt to confront them led to one of the biggest ratings draws in the show’s history when he faced Koscheck in the following episode – and while the fight turned into a damp squib, anyone who was watching by that point was hooked.
We’ve all heard the stories of how the fight at the finale between Stephan Bonnar and Forrest Griffin saved the UFC, but equal credit could easily be given to all of the fighters on the cast of this season, as it was them who hooked everyone in, to begin with. The fact that 8 of the 16 cast members went onto genuine success in the Octagon for years later says it all. This wasn’t just a great season of TUF, it was a great reality show, period.
#2 Season 14: Team Bisping vs. Team Mayhem
By 2011 and the 14th season of TUF, the blueprint for making a season watchable had been written. Essentially, you needed a strong coaching rivalry, a bunch of charismatic but skilled fighters, and a couple of psychopaths thrown in for good measure. TUF 14 – the first season to feature the newly introduced Featherweight and Bantamweight classes – had all that and then some.
As soon as Michael Bisping and Jason ‘Mayhem’ Miller were confirmed as the coaches, it was clear that something special was probably ahead. And sure enough, despite having no previous rivalry, within a few episodes, it was clear that the two men shared a healthy dislike – a dislike that came to a head in a shoving match halfway through the season. And their rivalry instantly boiled over into their teams, too.
There was the post-weigh-in brawl between Dustin Neace and Akira Corrassani – a brawl which somehow went completely unpunished by the usually strict Dana White, accusations towards Mayhem’s John Dodson of acting as a mole for Bisping, and wild Brazilian Diego Brandao almost breaking his hand after punching a wall due to some wind-up tactics from Mayhem.
The best thing on show here, though? Undoubtedly the fights. The cast was perfectly matched and made for some incredibly exciting fights and savage finishes and produced a bunch of high-level future UFC stars including contenders like Dodson, Brandao and Dennis Bermudez – and even a champion in TJ Dillashaw.
Overall, TUF 14 revived a flagging show which had been struggling after a handful of weaker seasons. It was simply great entertainment from start to finish.
#1 Season 5: Team Penn vs. Team Pulver
After 4 up-and-down seasons previously, everything fell perfectly for 2007’s TUF 5. The show was built around the recently re-introduced UFC Lightweight division, and featured 16 fighters – a mix of genuine talent and reality show fodder – competing in the biggest tournament to that point. The coaches had a heated rivalry, too – BJ Penn and Jens Pulver had fought 5 years earlier with Pulver winning, and Penn was gunning for revenge.
So much drama happened in this season that it’s almost difficult to put it in words. Do you start with the infamous backyard brawl between Marlon Sims and Noah Thomas – refereed by Allen Berubie – that led to all three men being booted from the house? Or Gabe Ruediger’s ludicrous weight-cutting exploits that saw him use a colonic before failing to make weight while begging Penn to put him back into the sauna? How about Andy Wang sobbing in disbelief after losing his lone fight in miserable fashion, and Penn then kicking him off his team?
All of this would’ve been for naught, of course, had the fights been bad, but they were simply incredible – the likes of eventual winner Nate Diaz and future UFC stars Joe Lauzon, Gray Maynard, Matt Wiman, Cole Miller and Manny Gamburyan put on the best set of brawls on TUF to that point.
Every single episode of this season seemed to have some kind of crazy reality show drama going on – and every single episode seemed to feature an amazing fight, too. And with Penn and Pulver’s rivalry providing a great backdrop – and Dana White perfectly cast as the incredulous guy in the background – TUF simply didn’t get any better than this, even after another 21 seasons.