It is unquestionable that the UFC would not be what it is today, if not for ‘The Ultimate Fighter’ reality TV series. Prior to the first season of TUF, which featured 16 fighters competing for two six-figure contracts in the light-heavyweight and welterweight divisions, UFC – and MMA as a whole – were more or less on life support. At the time when an opportunity to produce a UFC-themed reality show presented itself, the fans could only watch UFC on Pay-Per-View (PPV), with on average 5-6 events held every year. The success of ‘TUF’ season 1, and especially it’s live finale – the first time live MMA was broadcast on a US cable network – propelled MMA & UFC into the eye of the mainstream US viewer.
The winners of the first season, Forest Griffin and Diego Sanchez, became instant stars and household names. The bloody, back-and-forth war between Griffin and Stephen Bonnar is to this day widely regarded as one of the most exciting and important match-ups in MMA history. Griffin became the first of many Ultimate Fighter alumni to capture the UFC gold, retired while not far removed from his peak, and still holds a back office job with the company. Sanchez on the other hand remains an active fighter – the only Season 1 contestant to still fight in the Octagon, having racked up 32 bouts book-ended by his win at the Season 1 finale and his most recent loss to Jake Matthews at UFC 253.
While TUF became a hugely successful promotional vehicle for the UFC and the sport, it served another very important role: a steady pipeline of talented fighters funneled into the UFC. Post-TUF growth created more and more events (eventually reaching the point of there being a UFC event virtually every week) and more fighters were needed to be on the roster to account for more events and more fights. Fans have often complained about the level of talent in ‘The Ultimate Fighter’ house being not up to UFC standard. While to some extent this was true, those who didn’t measure up were quickly washed out, while the cream rose to the top with almost every season delivering a number of fighters who could fill out the mid-card of an event – and an occasional break-out star or few future champions and even Hall of Famers.
Let’s look at some numbers produced by TUF:
- Six Hall of Famers
- Ten UFC champions
- Twenty two title challengers who fell short
- One hundred and five additional fighters who had 10 or more UFC bouts since TUF
- 439 post-fight bonuses
Between the financial boon that ‘The Ultimate Fighter’ has been for the UFC, it’s impact on making the sport mainstream in the USA and through the world, and the DNA of TUF alumni so deeply embedded in it’s roster, it’s safe to say that the UFC as we know it today would not exist, if not for a silly reality TV series.