It's been six years and 12 seasons since The Ultimate Fighter (TUF) hesitantly made its way into our homes via Spike TV. No one knew what to expect when 16 of the best talent regional MMA had to offer were thrown into a house together with no supervision other than Jack Daniels, Jim Beam, and a dozen Uatu-like cameramen.
Chuck Liddell and Randy Couture -- along with indispensable host Willa Ford -- were headed towards a title fight rematch and were selected to coach, train, and mold each of these men in hopes of one day producing a champion.
Out of the five fighters from that first season who have received UFC title shots, only one made good on the opportunity and went home with the belt. Coincidentally, it was the same belt that Liddell and Couture were set to do battle over: the light heavyweight championship of the world.
Forrest Griffin became the first Ultimate Fighter and in doing so, helped saved a company that was treading water. They managed to score big, in relative terms, with UFC 40 and the Tito Ortiz vs. Ken Shamrock fight that garnered them 150,000 pay-per-view buys, chump change by today's standards. But, as the UFC limped into 2005, that had been three years ago.
They needed something and they needed it sooner rather than later.
Before you tune into The Ultimate Fighter: "Team Lesnar vs. Team Dos Santos" tonight (March 30), we'll take a look at the revolutionary first season of the series and Griffin's fight at the Finale against Stephan Bonnar that catapulted the UFC into public consciousness.
Many proponents of Dana White point to The Ultimate Fighter as a main reason for their support of the UFC boss. Just as many detractors are quick to point out that White didn't even want to do a mixed martial arts reality show.
They're both right.
While White may not have been keen to a "Real World"-style show with trained MMA fighters instead of hot headed, loudmouth co-eds, there is no way the show would have existed without his approval.
And to be honest, the abstract idea of a show where 16 young men, who have decided to punch and be punched for a living, all living in the same house for six weeks while fighting each other does sound like a train wreck waiting to happen. Ah, the beauty of reality TV.
It WAS a trainwreck. When Bobby Southworth called Chris Leben a "fatherless bastard," we felt bad for the down on his luck Oregon kid and his rough upbringing. And then when Southworth and Josh Koscheck poured water over Leben's head as we slept, we knew heads would roll.
It didn't help the public perception that MMA fighters were roided up meatheads when "The Crippler" smashed through doors, shattered glasses, and sliced his hand open trying to exact revenge but it made for damn compelling television. And when White made the decision that Koscheck and Leben, who were in the same weight class, should fight their differences out, the true beauty of the show came to the forefront.
You definitely weren't going to see two guys on the Real World strap on four ounce gloves and pound each other out.
When Koscheck won the fight and eliminated Leben, our hearts broke. Especially my girlfriend at the time who couldn't believe that the "bad guy" had won. It was drama, it was compelling but more importantly, a girl who had asked me countless times if I was "watching that fighting stuff" was stuck to the couch every Monday as the season unfolded.
The successful ratings The Ultimate Fighter received were in part due to its WWE RAW lead-in. Much like myself almost 10 years prior, it seemed like there was quite a few people ready to graduate from the scripted drama of professional wrestling to the unpredictability of the eight-sided cage.
Spike TV's new relationship with the UFC also was seen as a slap in the face by Vince McMahon, World Wrestling Entertainment head honcho. Two months after The Ultimate Fighter premiered, the WWE announced a return to the USA Network. It seemed there was only enough room from one brand on Spike.
It was a gamble by the network, letting an established name like the WWE slip away and attaching their horse to the unproven and polarizing UFC cart. But that gamble paid off in a big -- no, big is an understatement -- monumental way when Forrest Griffin and Stephan Bonnar slugged it out for three rounds.
Let's begin, shall we?
The two meet in the center of cage with Griffin trying to find his range early. Bonnar is more hesitant, though. A minute in an exchange finds Griffin landing an overhand and an uppercut that forces "The American Psycho" back. But he immediately steps back towards his opponent.
Griffin has taken the center of the Octagon and is easily getting the better of the exchanges when Bonnar busts out a spinning heel kick that is inches away from shutting down Griffin's liver. He follows it up with a head kick and begins to swing wildly at the Team Liddell light heavyweight. Griffin returns the volley with a few punches of his own.
They clinch up twice and Griffin immediately begins to throw knees. Bonnar presses forward and gets tagged, forcing him to retreat with the Ohio native in close pursuit. The Carlson Gracie-trained Bonnar survives and is able to land on top of Griffin when the fight hits the mat.
Back on their feet, the two decide that each punch should have deadly intentions. No punch is used to set anything up, each punch aims for a knockout. They exchange and exchange until Griffin lands a takedown. He slides onto Bonnar's back and is attempting to pop an elbow out of socket when the round ends.
One minute and three exchanges into the second and Griffin has once again taken Bonnar down. "The American Psycho" manages to kick Griffin off and a timeout is called to inspect a nasty cut on Griffin's nose.
There will be no doctor stoppage tonight.
They immediately begin exchanging upon the restart. They stand there, toe-to-toe, punch for punch and the crowd is absolutely going nuts. Griffin presses his opponent against the cage and employs a Thai clinch to land some knees. When they separate, a visibly tried Griffin looks up at the time and is set with a Thai knee from Bonnar than snaps his head back.
Another knee to the body and Griffin is forced to once again press Bonnar up against the cage. Blood has stained their skin and their gloves as they separate and immediately exchange again. As exhausted as both of these men are, they aren't giving up an inch. This is how two men fight when their dream is at stake, I suppose.
The crowd is so loud that the clapper to signify 10 seconds remaining in the round is inaudible. Everybody is on their feet at the end of the second round. Both men look completely destroyed and zapped of energy. They also look eager to start the third round.
The Team Liddell light heavyweight lands a couple of leg kicks to start the final round and latches onto a Thai clinch, landing several knees. Griffin lands several punches but Bonnar answers back with several of his own. Halfway through the last round and the two fighters are as they were at the beginning of the fight: standing and exchanging in the center of the cage.
One minute left and the crowd erupts again, cheering on the two fatigued fighters. Bonnar somehow manages to muster up the energy to throw a wheel kick. It misses wildly but it's an impressive feat for how exhausted he must be. They exchange and exchange and it's only fitting that as the final horn sounds, Griffin and Bonnar are in the middle of the cage punching each other.
The final bell sounds and the crowd, on their feet, is deafening. The two combatants hug, still friends after battering each other for fifteen minutes. It's actually a very endearing moment in a sport that has seen broken limbs, flying spitting and post-fight brawls.
No one is sure which fighter did enough to sway the judges' opinions and when Bruce Buffer announces Griffin as the winner, the fighter looks surprised -- and elated. Bonnar falls to the mat in disappointment, using his reputation as a jokester to mask the fact that he is utterly crushed. White then awards Griffin with a plaque, keys to a new car, a watch that costs more than my current net worth, and of course, a six-figure UFC contract.
But wait, there's more.
"Frank, Lorenzo, and I haven gotten together and we've decided there is no loser in this fight and we're going to offer Stephan Bonnar a six-figure contract with the UFC," White exclaims to the delight of the crowd. Even Buffer is cheering like a kid at an amusement park. Hell, everyone in the cage, everyone in the arena is.
The rest, as they say, is history. Spike renewed The Ultimate Fighter for another season and then another and another until here we are, at season 13 with Brock Lesnar and Junior dos Santos facing off for a chance to fight Cain Velasquez.
Forrest Griffin and Stephan Bonnar's fight at the first Ultimate Fighter Finale put the UFC on the map. It wasn't the best mixed martial arts fight ever but it certainly was mixed martial arts at its best.