I remember getting excited to watch the UFC‘s reality show “The Ultimate Fighter” throughout my high school and college years. Regardless of what night of the week the show was being aired on Spike TV (2005-2011), FX (2012-2013), or Fox Sports 1 (2013-2018), setting aside the time to watch 60 minutes of drama, violence, and competition was a must.
The show used to basically be like MTV’s “The Real World” but with fighters competing to reach the highest level of their sport. Each fighter brought with them their own baggage, demons, and tempers. The booze in the house would start flowing when the fighters weren’t training and the audience would get to witness some out-of-the-octagon brawls. Not to mention the coaches of each team used to be at each other’s throats constantly, which would also lead to impromptu scraps.
Those were the days.
Now, I’m not going to lie. I did watch every episode of TUF Season 29 that just recently ended on ESPN+, or as it was marketed “The Return of The Ultimate Fighter.” The show featured head coaches Alexander Volkanovski and Brian Ortega, who will fight for Volkanovski’s featherweight belt at UFC 266 on September 25.
The two fighters coached middleweights and bantamweights who were all hopeful of earning a UFC contract. Contestant finalists Bryan Battle and Gilbert Urbina (middleweights) and Ricky Turcios and Brady Hiestand (bantamweights) will fight to be the winner of their respective divisions this Saturday at ESPN Fight Night: Barboza vs. Chikadze.
This season’s revamped version of the show was still worth watching for the fights that occur at the end of each episode. The prospects are still talented and it’s exciting to see them get their shot. But beyond the last 15-20 minutes of the show, TUF has gotten sickenly soft on its new Disney-owned platform.
Here’s what you used to see on TUF:
Even Dana was edgier back in the day:
Dana had no such altercations on the latest season of TUF. He didn’t even come close to having to step in to stop coaches or fighters from doing something stupid. There were no visits to the house to tell guys they’re gone. No telling guys they may have screwed up the opportunity of a lifetime. Dana was nothing but smiles for all 12 episodes.
If you like compliments being thrown around left and right and fighters constantly saying how much they like everyone in the house and how sorry they are that they have to fight them to realize their dream of becoming a UFC fighter then maybe the “new” TUF is for you. But from an entertainment standpoint, especially when compared to previous seasons, let me just say, wake me up when the leather starts flying inside the octagon at the end of the show. The rest is for the birds.
The interviews leading up to the fights; the footage from the fighters’ house; the team challenges that are scattered into the mix; even the pranks the teams play on each other; it has all become corny beyond belief. Again, if you want to see how nice every fighter is and how good of family men they are, Season 29 might be for you. But so much of it feels scripted and we all know most fighters have egos that can lead to more drama than ESPN was willing to show, especially when they’re trapped with each other under one roof away from friends, family, and all forms of communication for weeks at a time.
This could be a calculated way to offset the stigma fighters receive as being meatheads or maniacs, but the reality show has lost its essence and the complete 180-degree pivot makes all the fluff seem more forced and less genuine.
I’m sure the fighters on Season 29 are great guys and are solid family men who are fighting for all of the right reasons, but this is reality TV and your audience is fight fans. Let’s see some action!
Perhaps I’m not the only one who feels this way and ESPN/Disney will catch wind of fan dissatisfaction and make some changes. One can only hope because TUF certainly needs its toughness back.
Pat Donohue has been covering sports for more than 10 years. He is a former Washington Redskins beat reporter and has been covering the University of Maryland football and basketball recruiting and daily beats for Rivals.com since 2013. Pat graduated from Maryland with his master’s degree in journalism and has received bylines in publications such as USA TODAY Sports, The Philadelphia Inquirer, SB Nation, and Yahoo! Sports. As a wrestler for 13 years in Pennsylvania, Pat has a deep appreciation for MMA and a keen understanding of the sport.