The UFC's landmark reality TV show The Ultimate Fighter (TUF) is all set to return in the early part of 2021. Season 29 of TUF is scheduled to air on the ESPN + streaming service in March. And while we don't know many details yet - the coaches' identity remains a mystery, for instance - the UFC is ready to ramp up the hype for the return of TUF after a three-year absence.
Ahead of the season's premiere, the UFC has released a TUF-themed video on YouTube titled The Ultimate Fighter: Through the Years, and this hour-long documentary is a fascinating watch.
Hosted by Forrest Griffin – the second graduate of TUF to claim a UFC title, beating 'Rampage' Jackson for the UFC light heavyweight title in 2008 – the show looks back at 28 seasons of TUF and gives some insight into the ups and downs of the reality show.
TUF: The early years
Naturally, the first part of the show details the early years of TUF and delves into how the reality show mainly saved the UFC as we know it today. The story is a well-known one now, but in late 2004, the UFC was bleeding money, and so the launch of TUF on Spike TV was essentially the final attempt to save the promotion from potential bankruptcy.
Of course, TUF ended up being a major hit on cable TV – largely due to the antics of larger-than-life characters like Chris Leben and Josh Koscheck – but according to this documentary, the future of the UFC and of TUF was still on unsteady ground as the first season headed towards its finale.
Fascinatingly, Dana White describes Diego Sanchez’s one-sided beating of Kenny Florian in the middleweight finals “a nightmare”, before detailing exactly what everyone now knows – that the light heavyweight final between Forrest Griffin and Stephan Bonnar went viral and ended up kickstarting the boom that led to the UFC’s current dominance across the MMA landscape.
Something that is noteworthy watching a documentary like this? While 2005 doesn’t seem that long ago in the bigger picture, the clips from the early seasons of TUF – from Dana White’s famous “do you wanna be a fighter?” speech in the first season to a clash between coaches Tito Ortiz and Ken Shamrock in the third season – now look dated.
It’s a mix of a lack of HD footage and the much bigger budget that TUF would eventually receive, but it’s still fascinating and serves as a reminder of how fast time moves in the world of the UFC.
‘Unforgettable moments’ misses out on plenty of TUF classics
TUF: Through the Years features clips from most of the 28 seasons of the reality show, but there’s still plenty missing from the documentary.
While the ‘Unforgettable Moments’ segment details classic incidents like TUF 4 winner Matt Serra’s upset of UFC welterweight champ Georges St. Pierre, internet sensation Kimbo Slice’s appearance on TUF 10, and the infamous backyard brawl between Marlon Sims and Noah Thomas, the UFC could easily have chosen to showcase other moments too.
What about TUF 14’s weigh-in brawl between Akira Corrassani and Dustin Neace, for example? Or the notorious ‘upper decker’ incident from TUF 6? And considering he’s now one of the UFC’s biggest stars, the exclusion of Tony Ferguson’s drunken rampage during the tapings of TUF 13 is also strange.
A look at the various coaching rivalries over the years of TUF meanwhile omits arguably the greatest coaching rivalry of all time – the bad blood between lightweight rivals BJ Penn and Jens Pulver, who coached TUF 5.
There’s surprisingly no mention of the international TUF seasons
While there have been 28 seasons of the US-based version of TUF, the documentary also mentions how the reality show helped the UFC expand into the international juggernaut it is today. Strangely, there is no mention of the international seasons of TUF that helped establish the UFC in countries such as Brazil, Mexico, Australia and the UK.
Between 2012 and 2016, the UFC produced a total of ten international seasons of TUF. While some went largely ignored – TUF: China, for instance – others remain among the most entertaining seasons of the reality show, point blank.
For instance, TUF Brazil 3 featured arguably the most heated coaching rivalry in TUF history, between bitter rivals Chael Sonnen and Wanderlei Silva. The two men remain the only TUF coaches to get into a full-scale fight during the show's taping, although the fact that their eventual battle took place in Bellator MMA may explain their absence from this documentary.
Stranger though is the lack of mention for 2012’s TUF: The Smashes. Not only did the UK vs Australia-themed show unearth a future UFC champion in the form of Robert Whittaker, but it also featured one of the craziest TUF moments of all time when members of the UK team smuggled a mobile phone into the TUF house to leak out results.
So can TUF 29 recapture the magic?
One notable thing about TUF: Through the Years, it quickly becomes clear that the more recent seasons of the reality show were infinitely more forgettable than the earlier ones.
While the show features clips of the coaching rivalry between Cody Garbrandt and TJ Dillashaw (TUF 25) and pays tribute to a fight between Jay Cucciniello and Tyler Diamond (TUF 27), such standout moments in TUF’s latter years are few and far between.
Even the two seasons that featured tournaments for UFC titles – TUF 20 and TUF 26 – feel massively different in the recap. TUF 20 was an infinitely more entertaining season despite only three years separating the two.
All of this bodes the question: can TUF 29 recapture the magic of the reality show’s early years? It’s honestly hard to say.
On the one hand, absence makes the heart grow fonder, and the three years fans have had without TUF should mean that its return is a welcome one. On the other hand, though, the reality show format now feels almost outdated – particularly in comparison to Dana White’s Contender Series. Surely, all of the reality show hijinx are now played out.
Of course, only time will tell but TUF: Through the Years shows the importance of the reality show to the modern-day UFC, and it’s worth a watch for any UFC fan, particularly those who missed out on the earlier seasons of TUF the first time around.Published 30 Dec 2020, 00:35 IST