The Ultimate Fighter (TUF) 15 season in review: Live fights freshen up stale reality show

LAS VEGAS, NV - JUNE 01: Michael Chiesa (right) embraces his sister during The Ultimate Fighter Live Finale at the Pearl Theater at the Palms Casino Resort on June 1, 2012 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC/Getty Images via UFC.com)

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times ... but mostly it was an average time.

When Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) decided to end its long and lucrative partnership with Spike TV in favor of another long and lucrative partnership with FOX, it had to figure out a new formula for its flagship weekly reality television show, The Ultimate Fighter (TUF).

The idea, of course, was to entice fight fans and habitual television viewers to make the jump from Spike TV to FX with something different. Something big. Something they wouldn't be able to say no to.

This was a welcome notion to fans. After all, the show had grown stale having used the same tired format for years and years. In the beginning, it was more of a reality based show, with challenges and vote offs and things of that nature. The fights were almost secondary to the shenanigans taking place inside the house contestants were forced to live in with no contact to the outside world. In fact, they weren't even given television sets or radios to help pass the time.

The volatile mixture of testosterone, competition, and angst led to many an interesting moment inside that house.

But as the seasons wore on, the reality based aspect of it was phased out more and more in favor of focusing on the fighting. Unfortunately, the talent base wore thin, with the UFC opting to sign top prospects directly instead of making them work their way through the TUF house in the name of better ratings.

By the time they got to this past season, the 15th installment of the show that's been running since 2005, a major overhaul was necessary. They wouldn't be bringing in top of the line talent but they did find a way to make the fights more appetizing to fans.

They taped in real time and aired the fights live every Friday night.

UFC President Dana White told the media and fans that he hoped putting the fights live would rejuvenate the show. And if it wouldn't, well, they were in trouble because "we're in the business of putting on fights."

The reality of the situation was that it did serve to freshen up the show. There is absolutely a difference between watching a taped fight in which spoilers are available (and they are if you look hard enough) against a live battle between two highly motivated animals hoping to achieve their dream.

This also served to make the countless training montages and time in the gym far more meaningful. Dominick Cruz and Urijah Faber were tapped as coaches on the show and seeing them mold these fighters into machines while developing game plans in a matter of under one week was fascinating.

It also served to make the show somewhat interactive. As in, you got to watch the game plan being developed and then witness whether or not the fighters stuck to the plan. Yelling at the TV for them to do so was strongly encouraged.

There were drawbacks to this formula, though. It meant drastically cutting back on TV time spent inside the house watching this season's contestants interact. That didn't mean there weren't any pranks played that resulted in various issues. Chris Tickle was the main instigator. His hijinks received mixed reactions. Joe Proctor, for instance, had water spilled on his head and simply laughed it off.

His defeating Tickle later in that same episode may have helped.

Daron Cruickshank, on the other hand, responded to getting hit with a bottle of water while sleeping by getting up and throwing punches. He also got a fight against Tickle, this one at the Finale, and he also won.

Cruz and Faber were chosen as coaches in the hopes the rivalry would create fireworks throughout the season, much like Rashad Evans and Quinton Jackson from TUF 10. Unfortunately, Cruz is a quiet killer while Faber is a California surfer type, mostly harmless until he's inside the Octagon.

The injury bug also infiltrated the TUF gym, claiming Cruz as a victim deep into the season. A knee injury put him on the shelf and cancelled the fight against Faber at UFC 148 on July 7 in Las Vegas, forcing the powers that be to bring in Renan Barao to replace him.

That announcement was used as a push to garner ratings, though it didn't work.

Ultimately, though, the story of the season was Michael Chiesa and his journey from the regional scene to the TUF house and, finally, the live Finale in "Sin City" where he realized his dream.

Chiesa wasn't the most talented fighter in the house, there's no questioning that. He was just a hard worker who simply would not be denied. What made it so impressive, however, was that he was emotionally wrecked all throughout the process.

Indeed, just after Michael made his way into the house, he was informed that his father had passed away. And while dear old dad had witnessed his son realize his first dream of making it into the TUF house, he wouldn't be around to find out if he could take it the whole way.

But that's exactly what he did.

Though Chiesa found trouble at various spots in the season, he dug deep into his reserves, found the inspiration necessary and advanced all the way to the final. It was there that he choked Al Iaquinta unconscious in the very first round to win the six-figure contract with the UFC and the big glass trophy he always envisioned himself holding up.

And he credited his father with instilling in him the work ethic he used to get there. That moment when he hugged his family inside the cage after realizing his dream was probably the most memorable in years.

In the end, the stories told were fulfilling, the fights mostly entertaining, and the season mostly a success, though the show steadily lost viewers all throughout its 12 episode run.

Just think ... in a few months, season 16 will come beaming into your home.

Joy.

For any and all information on TUF 15, including a live blog of each and every episode, along with a full recap, click here.

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