Opinion: A Change of Scenery

By David Bixenspan Jul 13, 2017

Editor’s note: The views and opinions expressed below are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Sherdog.com, its affiliates and sponsors or its parent company, Evolve Media.

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When Dana White’s Tuesday Night Contender Series started the other day, I quickly realized that it wasn’t quite my thing. At first, I couldn’t quite put my finger on it, but then it hit me: It was the setting. In spite of being full-on professional mixed martial arts fights and not exhibitions, they take place at “The Ultimate Fighter” Gym in Las Vegas, albert with a crowd there like there is sometimes during TUF elimination fights. And therein lies the problem.

“TUF” is already stale. It has been for a long time. If you watch it, there are still interesting personalities and good action at times, but it’s largely a non-entity these days. So when I’m watching a live fight card in front of a crowd, the last thing I need for it to do is remind me of TUF. The ambience of watching live fights on television just wasn’t there.

Keep in mind that the idea behind the new show, which is technically not an Ultimate Fighting Championship product, is to be Dana White’s version of “Tuesday Night Fights,” the legendary USA Network series that was eventually replaced in spirit by ESPN’s “Friday Night Fights.” Tuesday Night Fights was nothing like this, though. It was taped at mid-sized venues across the country as well as smaller, boxing-specific buildings like the legendary Blue Horizon in Philadelphia. Tuesday Night Fights had an ambience to it with plenty of spectacle, to boot. Dana White’s Tuesday Night Contender Series doesn’t even have the ambience of one of Scott Coker or Lou Neglia’s old marathon kickboxing tapings for ESPN 2. The TUF gym is not made to hold an actual fight card. It’s a fight gym and a television studio for a reality show. That’s it.

There’s no good reason to do this show in the TUF gym other than the financial savings ... which is, realistically, the most likely reason that the show is where it is. It’s a UFC-owned building in an era where the promotion no longer has common ownership with a casino chain, and its default state is with TV-ready lighting, cameras already positioned, and the Octagon assembled in the middle. There’s no rent, and even at a Fertitta-owned hotel, there would be considerably more preparation to set up the cage and production equipment. But it makes for a card that feels like a glorified episode of TUF.

Meanwhile, there have been reports this week that the next step for Justin Gaethje, fresh off one of the best debuts in UFC history, may be coaching the next season of TUF, where the first UFC women’s flyweight champion will be crowned. If the UFC were to see this plan through, he would be coaching opposite and eventually fighting Eddie Alvarez, one of the many top lightweights who make a thrilling matchup on paper for “The Highlight.” The matchmaking isn’t necessarily a problem, even if Alvarez really should be facing Dustin Poirier in a rematch of their fight of the year candidate that got derailed by an illegal knee that rocked Poirier. But why exactly would the UFC be squandering Gaethje’s momentum like that?

Between taping, production, and airing, it takes a good five months -- give or take a few weeks -- for a TUF season to cycle through. Sometimes, extenuating circumstances can make it even longer, as was the case with season 19, which started taping on October 16, 2013 and had its live finale on July 6, 2014, close to nine months later! It’s not 2005 anymore: TUF is no longer a star vehicle. Crowds at the finales rarely react to the finalists with any degree of familiarity anymore (Tatiana Suarez being the only exception that comes to mind in recent years) and viewership has eroded to the point that it’s not a star vehicle for the fighters turned coaches, either. It just extends a fighter’s time on the shelf, and unless the coaches are taking the time off anyway to recover from an injury or what have you it becomes frustrating as a fan. Gaethje actually does have a really likable personality, but TUF is not the only or close to the best way to spotlight it. Unless there’s an existing rivalry of some kind, the coaches don’t even get that much airtime anymore, to boot. So what exactly is the point of this exercise?

Look, I get why the UFC is doing the flyweight title tournament on TUF: Tournaments take up a lot of time in modern, regulated mixed martial arts, especially 16-person, four round tournaments. TUF minimizes the amount of time it would take for the finalists to have four fights. But even then, what works on TUF and what works in real UFC fights is not necessarily the same thing. Unorthodox fighters, like Uriah Hall or the 2-1 version of Rose Namajunas, benefit from the lack of time to prepare for them. Smaller fighters benefit from their reduced or nonexistent weight cuts more than usual, as the repeated severe dehydration does a number on the body (many, if not most seasons have at least one fighter who moved up in weight in the finals). Fighters aren’t with their usual coaches, and can disappoint as a result, with Tecia Torres on TUF 20 being the most obvious example. And if this season goes like TUF 20, the winner will quickly lose the title and find it difficult to get back into contention, while most of her castmates will fall out of the rankings. Three years after TUF 20 filming began, just 6 of the 16 cast members are in the UFC strawweight rankings.

None of this is relevant. None of this matters. But it’s the same thing that the UFC has always done, so they’re just going to keep doing it.

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