Season 14 of the "The Ultimate Fighter," the final chapter involving UFC and Spike TV, wraps up Saturday in Las Vegas and marks the close of a seminal chapter in the history of mixed martial arts in America.
The impact of TUF on the growth of the UFC in the U.S. is undeniable. The show served many purposes, perhaps none more important than, as UFC executives framed it at the beginning, a "Trojan Horse" that penetrated MMA into the homes of millions of potential fight fans and pay-per-view buyers.
To that end, TUF is a resounding success. But what of its other mandate, the one that promised a new generation of fighters who would emerge through the show's tournament format to become top fighters and potential champions?
On that front, it's easily argued that TUF fell woefully short and will continue to fall woefully short, even as TUF moves to a new format of live weekly fights on FX as part of UFC's seven-year, $700-million deal with FOX properties. The show's success among young men aged 18-34 was as important to locking down the FOX deal as the potential of live fights such as November's heavyweight championship clash between Cain Velasquez and Junior dos Santos. TUF is a ratings grabber, and as such a valued television property. That's fine. But it's hard to get past the fact that absent TUF's early seasons, as a vehicle for new stars carrying a lasting impact inside the Octagon, the show is as meaningful to the UFC as Golf Channel's "The Big Break" has been to the PGA Tour.
Will the lure of extended seasons and weekly live fights change that dynamic for the better? It’s doubtful. The vast majority of top American and Canadian prospects find their way into the UFC without the need for the pseudo "Real World" thing.
Since Season 2 in 2006, when Rashad Evans won the season’s heavyweight tournament, TUF has not produced a champion-level winner. Evans was the perfect fighter for the show. Unlike Season 1 victors Diego Sanchez and Forrest Griffin, both well-established fighters when they walked into the TUF format, Evans was a MMA neophyte. His talent and drive were harnessed in the format, and he continues to be a force in the UFC today. That’s a rarity. Fighters such as Josh Koscheck, Kenny Florian and Gray Maynard had less than a handful of fights when they stepped on set. They may not have won the show -- in large part because they weren't equipped to do so -- but it served as an important proving ground for their eventual rise to contendership.
Less and less, however, has TUF exhibited the ability to produce these kinds of fighters, in large part because the demand for talent has been fierce, and not just as entry level competitors in the UFC. Other promoters with relationships on various network platforms needed fighters too, and so in time UFC and Spike executives ran into the reality that they weren't picking from a deep enough pool at the start.
TUF winners aren't taken seriously anymore. That will only get worse, at least as far as North America goes. Even in rich divisions like lightweight, suspecting that a Maynard-type fighter will find his way out of the desert runs contrary to the evidence.
There is hope, however, for fight fans. As the UFC continues to expand internationally, the TUF format is poised to morph into a global talent showcase, which is incredibly exciting for people like me who want nothing more from MMA than for it to answer one question: who is the best fighter in the world? TUF has not had a hand in answering that question for some time. UFC president Dana White has promised a global TUF tournament, where winners from different regions come together to fight and prove their ultimate worthiness.
I have high hopes that if a global tournament actually happens, mixed martial artists will arise who are capable of competing at the highest level. They honestly need to -- and soon -- because without that elemental question swirling around TUF's DNA, what purpose does it serve, other than a ratings grabber of young men in a key advertising demographic?
Not that there's anything wrong with that. The long-running program makes money and continues to hook new viewers of the UFC. That's all fine. But unless a Court McGee or Tony Ferguson do something in a real way inside the Octagon, why should anyone truly pay attention?
It's been a long time since I have. It would be nice to have that change.