It just about saved the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) UFC and its president, Dana White, didn't even want to do it.
The Ultimate Fighter (TUF) premiered on Spike TV in Jan. 2005, lighting a fire underneath the keister of mixed martial arts (MMA) in the United States. Thanks to the reality show, MMA went from being on life support to one of the fastest growing sports in the entire world.
After seven years and 14 seasons, TUF bids farewell to the cable network that helped start it all, Spike TV, having signed a landmark television deal with FOX Sports a few months ago, under which all future seasons of a renewed TUF will air on FX.
The Ultimate Fighter (TUF) 14 Finale airs tonight (Dec. 3, 2011) with Michael Bisping and Jason Miller facing off in the final fight on the TUF/Spike era, a bittersweet moment for just about any fan. It's fantastic that the UFC is moving onto bigger and better things, but one also can't forget where you came from.
Going through each season, I listed what I thought were the best and worst moments or aspects along with any lasting effect that was felt.
It's been a crazy ride, hasn't it? Let's take a nostalgic look back at the show that started it all for the UFC on Spike TV:
The Ultimate Fighter 1: Team Liddell vs. Team Couture -- The one that started it all. I can't tell you how excited I was to see MMA on basic cable and now you can barely flip the channel without seeing someone getting knocked out or tapped out. The show ended with the first Forrest Griffin and Stephan Bonnar fight, a 15-minute war that every MMA fan should have seen by now.
Best: Um, everything? It was the snowball that rolled into the avalanche that brought the sport to where it is today.
Worst: It would definitely have to be Bobby Southworth hitting below the belt in a verbal bout with Chris Leben, infamously calling him a "fatherless bastard." Although it did end with the best outcome ever: whenever two people had beef on your basic reality show, they would have a dumb, boring house meeting or something. Leben and Josh Koscheck had beef so they fought to settle it!
Lasting effect: Look around you! You probably wouldn't be reading this without the first season of TUF.
The Ultimate Fighter 2: Team Hughes vs. Team Franklin -- Some intrigue that existed in the first season was taken out since the two coaches weren't slated to fight each other at the end of the season. The UFC wouldn't make that choice again since it removes a lot of the drama.
Best: In the 10th episode, Luke Cummo and Sammy Morgan collided in the semi-finals to determine who would move onto the finals. Cummo delivered a brutal knee that knocked Morgan out cold and I know for a fact the knockout converted at last one lukewarm person into a hardcore fan.
Worst: Before this season, Matt Hughes was seen as an all-American good ole' boy who dominated the 170-pound weight division. Afterward, he became the jerk of the UFC, smug and somewhat of a bully.
Lasting effect: Two words: Rashad Evans. Unlike fellow former champ Forrest Griffin, Evans has stayed near the top of the light heavyweight mountain after losing the title with wins over Quinton Jackson and Tito Ortiz. A bout with Phil Davis will likely determine the next contender.
The Ultimate Fighter 3: Team Ortiz vs. Team Shamrock -- Oh, man, what a change of scenery. As opposed to the previous season where Hughes and Rich Franklin were all chummy since they wouldn't have to fight when filming ending, Ortiz and Ken Shamrock absolutely hated each other. And it made for fun television.
Best: Ortiz's awesome coaching abilities came to light. Well, maybe they just seemed great compared to Shamrock's. "The World's Most Dangerous Man" didn't bring in a Brazilian jiu-jitsu (BJJ) coach, but instead brought on a dietician. Shamrock was also almost always on the verge of completely losing his mind, which was hilarious.
Worst: But, it was also a shame for the guys who were on his team. Those poor guys missed out on some quality training because of Shamrock's shenanigans. And what was up with Noah Inhofer leaving because his girlfriend thought he cheated on her? Look, I love my special lady too, but if I've got a chance to fulfill my biggest dream, she can go ahead and think I strayed. I'll handle that business when filming ends.
Lasting effect: The UFC realized that grudges equal ratings. If the two coaches hate each other or even don't particularly like each other, Dana White won't think twice about booking them on the show.
The Ultimate Fighter 4: The Comeback -- An awesome concept that I wish would come back at least one more time. The UFC brought back fighters that had already fought inside the Octagon before but ended up losing and getting cut. The two winners got a title shot in their respective weight classes.
Best: When Matt Serra and Shonie Carter took each other on at UFC 31, Serra was on his way to winning a decision when a spinning backfist from "Mr. International" ended his night early. Their rematch -- won by Serra -- was long overdue. Another great moment was Edwin DeWees' first bout that saw him getting busted open like a horror movie victim but still coming back to win the fight. And who didn't have their heartstrings pulled when Jorge Rivera got to see footage of his daughter being born?
Worst: Yeah, Travis Lutter? You're going to win a title shot and then come in overweight? Tsk tsk.
Lasting effect: Matt Serra, Houston, UFC 69. The little "Terror" that could ended up beating -- no, SMASHING -- the odds and knocked out Georges St. Pierre and became the welterweight champion. The man Serra beat in the finals -- Chris Lytle -- wouldn't reach the same heights but experienced as fantastic a second wind as any UFC fighter would ever have.
The Ultimate Fighter 5 -- LIGHTWEIGHTS! Enough said.
Best: Did I mention lightweights? Fans also got to see B.J. Penn and Jens Pulver -- the two coaches -- collide in the rematch of their UFC 35 classic for free! And who can forget Karo Parisyan showing up to give some tips to his cousin Manvel Gamburyan and then proceeding to get into a verbal confrontation with Nate Diaz. Oh, those Diaz boys will mouth off to anyone. You know who he is?!?!?
Worst: Gabe Ruediger showing up overweight causing him to come in heavy when he was slated to fight was a complete and utter disgrace. What a slap in the face!
Lasting effect: It formally reintroduced fans to the 155-pound division and kickstarted the Penn era of dominance. I'd say those are some pretty good credentials to hang your hat on.
The Ultimate Fighter 6: Team Hughes vs. Team Serra -- A feud that started on TUF 4, Serra and Hughes were booked as rival coaches after "Terror" won the title from "Rush." And once again, Hughes came off looking kind of like a jerk while Serra endeared himself to fans week in and week out.
Best: This is the season that introduced the MMA world to War Machine! Known as Jon Koppenhaver at the time, the loose cannon ended up getting released from the UFC, starring in porn, going to jail and most recently knocking out Roger Huerta. Also, long-time regional veteran Mac Danzig -- the winner of this season -- finally got his day in the sun.
Worst: Joe Scarola -- one of Serra's main dudes back home -- decided, "WELP! This ain't for me" and deuced out. So not only did he miss out on getting a shot at fighting for the UFC, Serra handed him a pink slip for when he got back to New York.
Lasting effect: Besides Danzig, only George Sotiropoulos remains in the UFC from the TUF 6 cast. After the amazing cast from the previous season, it became obvious that the talent pool was beginning to shrink.
The Ultimate Fighter 7: Team Rampage vs. Team Forrest -- Season seven was the first instance that a TUF original got to coach. Sure, Serra had coached the season prior but he had also already fought in the UFC before while Griffin was an Octagon virgin before TUF 1. He would go on to best "Rampage" over five rounds and became the first TUF winner to hold UFC gold.
Worst: The finals was supposed to be Amir Sadollah taking on Jesse Taylor, but the square-jawed wrestler went on a drunken rampage and was removed from the fight. And while Shamrock takes the award for "Worst TUF Coach Ever," Quinton Jackson takes a close second. Making someone who hates to train the person who is supposed to be in charge of a bunch of other people's training was not the best choice.
Lasting effect: This was the first season that introduced the "fight to get in" concept. Before, the UFC would bring in 16 fighters and let them sort it out over three months. This season, they flew in 32 and made each fighter win a bout to get into the house. Genius!
The Ultimate Fighter 8: Team Nogueira vs. Team Mir -- Heavyweight coaches take the stage for the first time this season. Both were excellent coaches and while many thought the American would be in over his head when he stepped inside the cage against "Big Nog," the former UFC heavyweight champ proved each and every doubter wrong.
Best: Maybe I'm just a Pride Fighting Championships fanboy, but the best part of the season for me was Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira coaching. Too bad he ended up getting stopped by Frank Mir when they stepped inside the Octagon.
Worst: There was a lot of bad going in this season. First off, there was "Leben 2.0" Junie Browning but like all sequels, part two failed to live up to the original. Secondly, Clay Guida's big brother Jason came in overweight just like Ruediger did and was cut before even getting to fight. And finally, there was enough bodily fluid mixed into food items that anyone would be an absolute moron to eat anything that came from the fridge inside that house.
Lasting effect: Aside from Travis Lutter who won "The Comeback" season, TUF 8 lightweight winner Efrain Escudero was the first to be released. Kendall Grove and Joe Stevenson followed but Escudero's firing proved that even TUF golden boys weren't immune from getting the axe.
The Ultimate Fighter 9: United States vs. United Kingdom -- The first and only country based feud that TUF has used. White has gone on record as saying this theme -- also used with UFC 58: "USA vs. Canada" -- isn't a favorite of his so don't expect to see this bad boy again.
Best: Seeing the U.K. team band together and work as a team was awesome. WIth their "all for one and one for all" outlook on training, they ensured that three of the four finalists were Englishmen.
Worst: Where was "The Count?" While it was great to see the U.K. fighters really work together as a team, it was mostly out of necessity because of their coach being missing in action for a majority of the time.
Lasting effect: A foreign country hasn't been the focus of TUF since this season but that may change. Word is that TUF 16 will go south of the equator to highlight Brazilian talent. And Bisping getting absolutely murdered at UFC 100 was pretty sweetl
The Ultimate Fighter 10: Heavyweights -- Rashad Evans and Quinton Jackson didn't like each other. If it wasn't for them jawing back and forth, this season would have been just about unwatchable because of the poor conditioning of the fighters.
Best: Anyone who thinks the trash talk about Evans and Jackson wasn't the best part of this season is wrong, just flat out wrong.
Worst: Cardio. Or rather, the lack of it.
Lasting legacy: This will forever be known as the "Kimbo Slice season," by countless casual fans.
The Ultimate Fighter 11: Team Liddell vs. Team Ortiz/Franklin -- The biggest rivalry in UFC history took center stage as "The Iceman" squared off against "The Huntington Beach Bad Boy." What started so promisingly ended with a whimper rather than a bang. Ortiz dropped out due to injury and Liddell would end up retiring after suffering a loss to replacement coach Rich Franklin.
Best: Call me a dork but my favorite moment of the season was when Liddell -- who was on Dancing with the Stars at the time of filming -- came waltzing into the UFC training facility much to the delight of everyone there. Who would have thought Liddell would be light on his toes?
Worst: Bait and switch numero uno as I call it. Ortiz had to bow out near the end of the season due to a back injury so he was replaced -- on the show and in the traditional coach fight as well -- by Rich Franklin.
Lasting effect: This was the first season to introduce the wild card system. Two fighters that were eliminated in the first round were given the chance to continue if they were deemed worthy by both coaches and Dana White. The wild card stuck around for a few years after but isn't featured in the current season. It remains to be seen if this option will make the transition to FX.
The Ultimate Fighter 12: Team GSP vs. Team Koscheck -- The second biggest UFC draw finally gets the chance to coach TUF. He was opposite TUF 1 alumni Koscheck who may have been the most railed against coach since Shamrock.
Best: Holy crap, did "GSP" bring in awesome training partners for his team. From Gia Sissaouri to Mike Tyson, being a part of the welterweight champ's squad definitely has its perks.
Worst: Koscheck came off looking like an absolute tool through the 12 week season. From making fun of "murses" to getting physical with members of St. Pierre's camp, the fuzzy-haired loudmouth did nothing to win over any fans that had already written him off as a jerk.
Lasting effect: It is still too early to tell but finalists Jonathan Brookins -- who won -- and Michael Johnson are both excellent prospects with tons of potential. Regional veteran Nam Phan is a good grab, as well as Alex Caceres, who looked fantastic in his last bout.
The Ultimate Fighter 13: Team Lesnar vs. Team Dos Santos -- With "GSP" down, the UFC needed only Brock Lesnar to coach a season of TUF to perfectly marry the show with pay-per-view (PPV) buyrates. Unfortunately, the best laid plans of mice and men go often awry.
Best: We got to see more of current heavyweight champion Junior Dos Santos. While before he was a Brazilian wrecking machine who spent more time in the bathroom after lunch at Chipotle than he did inside the Octagon knocking his opponents out, a season of TUF let his personality be known to fans.
Worst: Bait and switch, numero dos. Lesnar nearly retired after a bout with diverticulitis and a second flare up after the season began to air led to the former champ dropping out and Shane Carwin stepping in against dos Santos. I don't blame Lesnar for getting sick -- that'd be dumb -- but the rivalry between him and the Brazilian was rendered moot after he was replaced.
Lasting effect: Without getting too negative, I think this season will be truly remembered as when the format officially jumped the shark. Bantamweights and featherweights would inject one last shot of life into the next season but the announcement that fights would be live going forward with TUF 15 was one that definitely needed to be made.
The Ultimate Fighter 14: Team Bisping vs. Team Miller -- Miller made his return to the UFC and Bisping made his return to the coach's role earning him the honor of being the first TUF alumni to return twice as a coach.
Best: While most coach rivalries were bred from actual dislike -- or in Ortiz and Shamrock's case, flat out hatred -- Bisping and Miller went through the season with a simple, competitive spirit. Neither man likes losing so while there may not be any bad blood there, it was definitely fun to see the two go at it.
Worst: This one may be a bit personal but Johnny Bedford's knockout in the penultimate episode was devastating and a bit scary. He's a hometown boy and I've had the pleasure of interviewing him before. Seeing anyone get put to sleep like that is bad enough but it's worse when it's someone you have history with.
Lasting effect: A formal introduction to the newest and lightest weight classes the UFC employs, TUF presented a fantastic vehicle to get fans more familiar with the little guys inside the Octagon.
Seven years and 14 seasons, Maniacs.
What are your favorite memories from the TUF era on Spike TV?