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A Critics/Fans guide to UFCs The Ultimate Fighter (TUF) 7

The Ultimate Fighter 7

With The Ultimate Fighter (TUF) 7 set to premiere on April 2, immediately following UFC Fight Night 13 (which is now rumored to be a three-hour event), it got me thinking about the TUF franchise as a whole and what it has meant to fans and critics alike.

TUF 7 will feature middleweights, but will be coached by light heavyweights Quinton "Rampage" Jackson and Forrest Griffin, who are scheduled to fight for the Jackson's 205-pound title (presumably sometime in July/August) after the completion of the series.

It's also been confirmed that the new season will include a cast of 32 fighters — rather than the traditional 16 — who will have to win a preliminary fight to be invited to stay in the Las Vegas house.

Looks like those first few episodes are going to be chock full of fights.

While the TUF franchise has introduced the sport of MMA to millions of viewers, the series has its share of critics. From my perspective, there seems to be two main bones of contention among them:

  1. The UFC shows unfair favoritism toward its TUF champions; and
  2. The filming of the show ties up the coaches (one of which is usually a titleholder) and delays progress of the division.

[Note: I will avoid discussion of a favorite TUF criticism of some MMA chat rooms and invite you to do the same: Namely, that fans introduced to the sport via TUF are only "newbs" and not real fans of MMA. Critics constantly relying on this sort of one-upsmanship are the MMA-equivalent of indie rock snobs. To me, it doesn't matter how you got here; if you're a fan of the sport, you're okay by me.]

Back to reality ... TV, that is.

Criticism #1: The UFC plays favorites with its TUF champs.

TUF critics almost exclusively point to TUF 3 winner, Michael Bisping, and his fights against Eric Schafer and Elvis Sinosic, as well as his upcoming bout with Charles McCarthy at UFC 83 as evidence of this criticism.

Some critics go further, pointing to Kendall Grove, whose toughest challenge to date has been against TUF 4 runner-up, Patrick Cote (who was just 1-4 in the UFC at the time) — a fight "Da Spyda" lost. To make the case for favoritism even stronger, Grove was given what was largely seen as a rebound opportunity in Jorge Rivera, who surprised many by stopping Grove at via technical knockout at 1:20 of the first round to send the TUF3 winner's stock plummeting.

Still others point to TUF 2's Rashad Evans, who eeked out mostly decision wins over sub-Top 10 fighters (Jason Lambert excluded) before his competition increased with the likes of Tito Ortiz.

Perhaps it is fear of being labeled a favorite son of the UFC by these same critics that has led TUF 5 winner Nate Diaz to publicly ask for tougher competitors than the ones given to him thus far. Regardless, Diaz seems to have gotten what he asked for and is now scheduled to fight Kurt Pellegrino at UFC Fight Night 13.

All this criticism aside, when you consider the careers of TUF winners Forrest Griffin, Diego Sanchez and Joe Stevenson, the favoritism theory starts to lose momentum.

Sanchez, in particular, was thrown almost immediately to the wolves, including bouts with the anti-TUF trash talker Nick Diaz, Karo Parisyan, Joe Riggs, Josh Koscheck and Jon Fitch, the latter two of which are training partners, making the challenge for Sanchez all the more difficult.

Like Sanchez, Joe Stevenson has fought several veterans of the sport, including Josh Neer, Yves Edwards, Melvin Guillard, Kurt Pellegrino and B.J. Penn — opponents who together had a combined 116 fights and 29 years experience between them at the time of their respective fights.

While Forrest Griffin may have been thrown the occasional bone, he's also faced then-top contender Tito Ortiz, a rematch with Stephan Bonnar (a bout that truly displayed just how far Griffin had come since his TUF days), rising talent Keith Jardine (who TKO'd Griffin) and finally Mauricio Rua (at the time considered to be the best light heavyweight in the world).

If anything, one could argue that the match with Rua was a UFC gift to showcase "Shogun," not the other way around. Griffin, of course, surprised many with a third-round submission victory to earn his number one contender status.

Although I agree that the UFC has, at times, demonstrated a desire to protect their investments, TUF alum or otherwise, my argument is simple: Why shouldn't they (to some extent)?

Since the TUF 1 Finale, the franchise has largely been touted as a driving force in bringing the sport of MMA into the mainstream. The series has allowed viewers at home to become familiar with the sport while developing a closer connection to upcoming fighters featured on the reality series.

Why not help ensure that these same fighters will continue to cater to their fan bases while developing into stronger all-around mixed martial artists?

Criticism #2: The reality series prolongs the time in between title shots, thus detracting from what really matters in the sport — who is the best in each division.

One needs only look at the career of Matt Serra to argue this case.

After winning TUF 4: "The Comeback," Serra was given a title shot against Georges St. Pierre, which was supposed to take place at UFC 67 on February 3, 2007 -- the same event that his TUF 4 185-pound counterpart, Travis Lutter, faced UFC Middleweight Champion Anderson Silva.

But an injury to GSP forced that fight to be postponed for two months. Serra was offered another fight, but he smartly opted to wait until GSP had recovered.

On April 7, 2007, Serra beat GSP at UFC 69, winning the belt. The event blew open myriad possibilities for welterweight contenders: Should the title shot go to Matt Hughes? Should GSP get an immediate rematch? What about upcoming contenders like Karo Parisyan, Koscheck, Sanchez or Fitch?

But shortly after winning the title, Serra was named as the coach of TUF 6: "Team Hughes vs. Team Serra," which postponed the next 170-pound title shot to allow time to cast, shoot and air the season. Serra was expected to defend his title against Hughes at the first UFC pay-per-view (PPV) event following the TUF6 Finale, which was UFC 79 on December 29, 2007.

But another injury, this time to Serra, forced yet another welterweight title bout postponement (St. Pierre eventually stepped up to fight Hughes and win the interim strap).

These two untimely injuries — magnified by the timing of TUF 4 and TUF 6 — has meant that there has been only one true welterweight title bout in the UFC since GSP first defeated Matt Hughes in November 2006. That's 15 months with just one title shot in the welterweight division.

Luckily for fans of the middleweight division in particular and the promotion in general, we won't have to wait for a TUF series to see Champion Anderson Silva defend his belt. We'll receive all of the benefits from a TUF season (i.e. fresh talent) and none of the drawbacks (i.e. the wait in between title shots).

However, the light heavyweight division will be held hostage at least for another five months. But history proves that it could last much longer than that.

This is somewhat ironic, considering the middleweight division is thin and Silva has already beaten most of the true contenders other than Dan Henderson. If anything, the middleweights could benefit from the wait associated with a TUF season to develop new contenders -- certainly more so than the stacked light heavyweight division.

Perhaps that is the one major drawback this upcoming season. And one that the organization could have avoided as to potentially not make the same mistake more than once.

What's even more ironic is — despite dedicating four of the seven seasons to the middleweights (more than any other division) — how it can remain the thinnest in the UFC. Only time will tell if the division can grow in depth, as the light heavyweight, welterweight and lightweight divisions have.

That time hopefully begins on April 2.

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