Reality TV Can Bite, or Make You a Superstar

By Jack Encarnacao Aug 20, 2008
You probably remember Sam Hoger (Pictures).

He was the “thief” on the first season of “The Ultimate Fighter,” the Spike TV reality show that breathed new life into the Ultimate Fighting Championship and put it on track to windfall profits. In an episode toward the end of the season, Hoger played dumb when his training partners discovered their gear was missing. When it was later found in Hoger’s bags, he halfheartedly apologized with a wide grin, and just like that the show had a villain viewers couldn’t wait to see smashed in the cage.

If you remember Hoger, it’s likely because of that little piece of drama. He’ll take that.

“It was a good time. I had fun with it,” Hoger said. “You need to create interest and I knew that. We would have these huge production meetings where they would tell us, ‘Look, we need more drama. We need something we can sell.’ They were telling us all the time that the show’s not going to make it. We tried to create little scenarios where we could get more drama out of the characters.”

Starring in reality television is a great way to get noticed. But for fighters more protective of their images than Hoger was, reality shows can be a double-edged sword.

Increasingly, mixed martial artists have gone public with displeasure about how they were portrayed on TV. When the eighth season of “The Ultimate Fighter” premieres Sept. 17, a new crop of UFC hopefuls are likely to learn what many fighters say is a key lesson: The decision-makers who will steer their future in the sport are rarely the same as those who decide how they are portrayed on reality shows.

Dan Lauzon (Pictures) felt compelled to accept UFC President Dana White’s request to be featured on a recent episode of the documentary show “Tapout” on Versus, but he ended up taking several issues with the final product. The show questioned the rigor of Lauzon’s lifelong training camp. The youngest fighter to ever compete in the UFC, Lauzon was surprised to see himself portrayed on “Tapout” as nonchalantly agreeing to check out another gym. He said he had argued with the crew for half an hour about visiting the other gym because there was friction between him and some of its members.

“I think I was totally taken advantage of when they came out here,” Lauzon said. “It’s obviously my own fault. I guess I should have kept a closer eye at the way things were going and what was going on. Before they even came out to film the show, I think they knew exactly what they wanted to do with it.”

Lauzon joins fighters like Mike Dolce (Pictures) in speaking out. Dolce, who was not picked up by the UFC after TUF 7, criticized producers for supplying fighters with alcohol all day and night -- which inevitably paved the way to entertaining, drunken hijinks -- and not chicken breast and other nourishment fighters rely on in preparing for a fight. Boozing is what undid cast member Jesse Taylor (Pictures), who was pulled from the show’s finale for drunkenly kicking out a limo window and later cut from the UFC altogether after one loss.

Charles “Mask” Lewis, the Tapout crew’s face-painted front man, said it’s not always those who are immersed in the fight game who decide what makes the air. Hoger said the same thing, recalling regular meetings during TUF 1 tapings where producer Craig Piligian -- who also worked on “Survivor” and has a hand in producing “Tapout” -- steered the direction, not UFC officials.

“People have a misconception, I think, that me or ‘Skrape’ or ‘Punkass’ go in there and edit,” Lewis said, referring to his fellow “Tapout” hosts. “I was just as curious to see how it came out as anybody else. It’s reality, but at the same time they’re going to make the best story out of it as they can. … At the end of the day, everybody knows who Dany Lauzon is, and he has a chance now.”

Lewis has a point. With seven seasons in the books, members of the inaugural “Ultimate Fighter” cast -- such as Forrest Griffin (Pictures), Josh Koshceck, Chris Leben (Pictures), Diego Sanchez (Pictures) and Kenny Florian (Pictures) -- are some of the UFC’s top names three years later. In addition to stars, the show largely created the “casual fan” that is often referenced by mixed martial arts aficionados. Dana White has credited the reality show’s first season -- most memorable for Leben’s daddy-issues-fueled wrecking spree, Hoger’s thievery and the classic Griffin vs. Stephan Bonnar (Pictures) finale -- with saving the UFC from financial purgatory.

“There would probably be no UFC without ‘The Ultimate Fighter’,” White told Playboy magazine in an interview published last week.

“Mask” said reality shows were a missing ingredient in exposing the true nature of mixed martial arts athletes.

“The hope and dream was that (TUF) would expose not only MMA but the fighters and take away the stigma that all these guys were just barroom brawlers who couldn’t think and couldn’t talk,” he said. “From that first ‘Ultimate Fighter,’ not only did Diego Sanchez (Pictures) do well, but Kenny Florian (Pictures)’s doing well and you have Forrest Griffin (Pictures), who is now the 205-pound champ. Without ‘The Ultimate Fighter,’ who’s to say he would even get that exposure and get that chance?”

“The Ultimate Fighter,” which premiered to great success on cable right around the time “The Contender” fizzled out on network television, has spawned several spinoffs. “Tapout” was created after TUF producers noticed the colorful Tapout trio at UFC events, the Oxygen network series “Fight Girls” followed the exact same format as TUF with female muay Thai fighters, and the moderately successful “Iron Ring” series on Black Entertainment Television used hip hop stars instead of UFC stars as advisors to fighters who competed in a series of matches. In addition, “Fighting Fedor,” the latest idea by the management team behind the world’s top-ranked heavyweight, will pit 16 fighters against each other in a tournament for a crack at Emelianenko.

Though it’s hard to argue that exposure on reality shows is the fastest track to MMA stardom, fighters can be more selective about when and how they’re seen in a marketplace that has expanded since TUF launched in 2005. UFC lightweight Joe Lauzon (Pictures), Dan Lauzon (Pictures)’s brother and a TUF 5 cast member, said the experience could just as easily be the death knell for a fighter’s career. Lauzon cited his fellow cast member Gabe Ruediger (Pictures), who was shown eating mounds of junk food right before he failed miserably to make weight.

Lauzon said Ruediger’s excessive eating and weight-cutting woes happened far apart from each other, yet were spliced together for effect. The lesson appeared simple, but Lauzon said his brother’s experience on “Tapout” has made him think twice.

“Before I would have said you’ve got to be real, real careful what you let the cameras see and only let them see what you want,” he said. “But (with ‘Tapout’) playing sad music when Dan said his coach was going to be there a little bit late … one coach had another fighter already fighting, the other coach was at the hospital with his son because his son got sick.”

Tapout’s Dan “Punkass” Caldwell defended the portrayal of Dan Lauzon (Pictures) as a sincere assessment of where they thought his training stood.

“We’re not saying anything that wasn’t true,” he said. “We’re looking out for the fighter. If our idea is that the fighter needs to be training with people that are maybe more intense or have more skill level, we’re going to say it.”

As for Hoger, he’s announced his return to the ring this September in Massachusetts after a 17-month hiatus. You can bet every write-up about the return has mentioned his televised thievery. No matter what shortcomings there may be in his game, he’s got more than one payday ahead of him thanks to that.

Fighters “get lost in believing that reality TV is anything more than a game,” he said. “It’s purely a game. You have to understand reality TV is not in the best interest of the person on the show. Reality TV is about what’s in the best interest of the network.”
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