Squirrelled away in a converted three-car garage in suburban Las Vegas, a producer sits in front of a bank of 11 TV screens. Each one is split into four feeds, showing different angles of the attached house. Two laptops, assorted mixing boards and electronic doohickeys sit neatly below the monitors.
Welcome to Mission Control for The Ultimate Fighter reality TV show.
Take 16 mixed martial arts fighters and divide them into two teams. Then stash them in a gilded cage for six weeks, denying them access to TV, computers, telephones, books or any other contact with the outside world save for trips to the UFC training centre to work out or fight under the tutelage of marquee fighter-coaches.
Add booze and cameras, and watch what happens.
Cast members battle it out until only two are left in whatever weight classes are being contested that season. The finalists go on to meet on a live televised card, with the winner earning a contract to fight in the UFC.
The show has been a huge part of the UFC’s success, with president Dana White calling it the organization’s Trojan Horse to get on TV.
The UFC had to put its money where its mouth was at first. Season 1, which debuted in January 2005, cost the UFC $10 million US to produce. Spike TV paid nothing for the show, providing only the airtime while the UFC had to find the advertising.
Now the show is an MMA institution.
Season 9 debuts tongiht (Spike TV, 10 p.m. ET and Rogers Sportsnet, check local listings) and a casting call for Season 10 is scheduled for Monday in Seattle.
A good number of each cast graduates to the UFC these days and the “six-figure contract” going to the winner is not quite as attractive when you realize it is spread out over several years. But the show’s premise remains true — fight your way into the major leagues of mixed martial arts.
The show has served to educate viewers on the sport while allowing them to develop ties to one graduating class after another. White calls the Pier Six brawl between Forrest Griffin and Stephan Bonnar in the finale of Season 1 one of the sport’s turning points. Griffin went on to win the light-heavyweight title, then lose it to Season 2 winner Rashad Evans.
Producers have tweaked the format. Season 4 was devoted to fighters making a comeback while the new season pits American against U.K. fighters. And in a bid to add drama, cast members now have to fight their way on to the show via an elimination bout.
It’s not for everyone. While each season offers different fighters and storylines, much remains the same. Some worry the drunken hijinks may end badly one day.
And not every demographic chuckles when a grown man seasons someone else’s food with urine or semen.