TUF Problems, TUF Solutions

Oct 1, 2008
Imagine you’re an up-and-coming mixed martial artist, the kind of guy about whom the forum junkies already whisper and the neighborhood fans know to check out. You’re practically a local celebrity, and everyone figures you’ll be in the UFC someday soon.

It doesn’t sound like too bad a journey until you realize fighting for peanuts on local circuits means choosing between paying rent and covering your training costs, all while spending night after night camped out by your phone praying for a call from the UFC. It’s not such a glamorous life after all.

But there’s a shortcut to the perceived promised land; join the likes of Omarosa and Richard Hatch by becoming a member of the reality television fraternity on “The Ultimate Fighter.” Assuming you’ve got a shred of personality and enough skill to make up the difference, you’ll be set up with elite trainers in a five-star training facility.

Of course, there’s a catch, and it isn’t just dealing with a camera in your face 24 hours a day while being surrounded by a bunch of guys who seem more interested in free booze and “Animal House”-inspired antics than actually becoming a star in the UFC.

That’s only part of the toll one has to pay to land the overhyped six-figure UFC contract. Ironically, the catch is the contract itself, which UFC President Dana White talks about as if it were a ticket to the top tax bracket.

The six-figure contract is nothing more than a slick piece of marketing; its original incarnation was as a nine-fight deal that required three full years of service to earn $300,000, assuming you could go undefeated over the course of the contract. Let’s also not forget the contract is not guaranteed, which means you’re always a couple of losses away from being shown the door.

Considering the value of your average “The Ultimate Fighter” winner to the UFC, it becomes rather obvious the promotion preys on the desperation of fighters who would practically sell their souls to get their foot in the door.

As the nature of the six-figure contract has become more publicized, however, many top prospects have come to realize that their future does not rely on allowing themselves to be manipulated into becoming cash cows on the cheap.

Jeff Sherwood/Sherdog.com

Brandon Vera (left) found the TUF
contract terms to be unacceptable.
Perhaps the most notable example is Brandon Vera, who refused to sign on the dotted line when offered a spot on TUF because he felt the contract contestants must sign was simply unfair. You’d think the perpetually vindictive White would have made sure Vera got his comeuppance by joining the UFC’s blacklist, but a funny thing happened along the way to banishing the gifted light heavyweight.

Knowing it could ill afford to lose a charismatic and talented prospect like Vera to another promotion, the UFC signed him. He made $200,000 in a unanimous decision win over Reese Andy in his seventh fight inside the Octagon in July. Even more staggering, Vera pocketed more in his last three fights -- he lost two of the three -- than a TUF winner would make even if the winner went undefeated over the entire life of his initial contract.

It makes more sense for blue-chip prospects to negotiate a three-fight UFC contract that pays them less than TUF winners initially but leaves the door open for future.

Now that this has become common knowledge among fighters, we’re starting to see the aftershocks. More high-end prospects are making the UFC come to them and negotiate legitimate contracts. Meanwhile, the level of talent seen on “The Ultimate Fighter” has dropped noticeably, as the last two seasons have provided an excess of inexperienced and unskilled contestants who were quickly dropped from the UFC roster once filming wrapped.

Compare that to the first two seasons of TUF, which produced 16 fighters still under contract with the UFC. That list includes top welterweights Josh Koscheck and Diego Sanchez, lightweight contenders Joe Stevenson and Kenny Florian, the unbeaten Rashad Evans and reigning light heavyweight champion Forrest Griffin.

The only season to come close to matching the success of those first two was the fifth. It featured the lightweight division -- a division loaded with men accustomed to the idea that their long-term financial prospects in the sport are dim at best. Considering the UFC had just recently revived its 155-pound weight class, most anyone would have jumped at the opportunity.

We saw the results from the UFC’s slide down this slippery slope when Amir Sadollah won the seventh season of TUF despite having no professional MMA experience. That’s not a knock on Sadollah, who’s clearly a talented fighter, but even a prodigy like lightweight champion B.J. Penn experienced growing pains after being tossed to the wolves early in his career.

If anything, it’s unfair to Sadollah, who will have to learn on the job. As we saw with inexperienced contestants like Koscheck and Corey Hill, early hiccups are inevitable when pure talent takes the place of actual experience.

We’re nearing the point where no one wins. The fighters get by on subpar paydays, while the UFC gets stuck with guys it can’t quickly convert into contenders. Suddenly, TUF no longer lives up to its premise, and the UFC can no longer use the reality series to replenish its ranks.

The solution seems painfully obvious. If the contract keeps the best fighters from signing up for the show, make it more lucrative. A good start would be an incentive-based system that rewards TUF graduates for winning fights, finishing opponents and putting together winning streaks. If you make the incentives package sufficient enough that a fighter can earn a quality paycheck, you’ll see a return to form for the reality series.

Another important factor to consider is that while there is no need to load up every season with the 16 best prospects in any given weight class, bringing in at least half a dozen quality fighters will ensure the cream rises to the top. The UFC has benefited from this, as Forrest Griffin has emerged as its most marketable and profitable champion in some time.

In doing so, you leave enough space for the usual crew of sophomoric sociopaths who make the show palatable to the casual crowd. The booze-and-hijinks bunch will provide some cheap entertainment and eventually serve as fodder for the real prospects that will get a chance to shine at their expense.

As the show progresses, the drama of who will land the contract tends to take over anyway, so it makes sense to have a group of fighters who can actually put on entertaining bouts and keep the audience interested. Regardless of how things shake out, the UFC would be guaranteed to end up with prospects capable of holding their own inside the cage.

If the stated goal of TUF is to develop the next generation of UFC superstars, it behooves the promotion to live up to that goal by taking the steps necessary to ensure the early years of the show do not go down as an all-too-brief golden era in its history.

The only other option is a never-ending cycle of subpar alumni that ultimately fails to live up to expectations and make the show look like a bad joke. Then again, we could just turn TUF into a glorified weekly session of Alcoholics Anonymous. That’s where we’re headed if the UFC continues to see diminishing returns from its would-be golden goose.
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