Making it to the 15th season of anything on television is an impressive feat. And if you have made it that far, the plan moving forward is usually “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” But when it comes to playing it safe, UFC President Dana White is the wrong guy to talk to. So when he got a new broadcast partner in FX, it was time to shake things up, and tonight will be the first test of what promises to be a compelling new experiment in reality TV.
“Basically, the reality portions of the show that you’re gonna see will have been shot in the last two days,” said White. “So everything is real-time. And the most incredible part of the whole thing is that every Friday night, these fights are live.”
That’s right, when the 15th season of TUF, entitled “The Ultimate Fighter Live,” premieres on FX, there will be 16 live fights to determine which 16 fighters continue on to the traditional TUF house to be coached by either UFC bantamweight champion Dominick Cruz or former WEC featherweight champ and current number one bantamweight contender Urijah Faber. And each week, the pattern will continue, with a week’s worth of filming culminating in a live fight on Friday night. That’s bold, but it’s also innovative, and something never before done in combat sports.
“Even if you look at formats like 24/7 on HBO, where they do real-time things leading up to a fight, it never ends in a fight,” said White. “The fight is on Pay-Per-View or whatever. This is real-time and the fight is every Friday night.”
Yet despite the new format, one of the always popular features of the show, which launched in 2005, is the fact that when the bell rings, all you’ll hear are the fighters’ cornermen, their teammates, and the referee.
“One of the cool things about this show is that when you’re watching it, there’s no commentary, there’s no crowds cheering, there’s no announcers going back and forth,” said White. “It’s very raw and very, very cool. You feel like you’re a fly on the wall in this place and you’re watching these fights happen.”
And when the fight’s over, the cameras will continue to roll, letting viewers in to see what happens after the final bell has sounded, a look behind the scenes that few will forget.
“As soon as it’s over, we follow them back to the locker rooms and you’ll feel all the emotion,” said White. “Let’s say you’ve been here sacrificing everything, giving a hundred percent of yourself, and then you lose. You were that close and you lost. All that drama and all that emotion pours out right there live in front of you. It’s not canned, it hasn’t been edited; you’re seeing it as it’s happening.”
So who are the 32 lightweight hopefuls competing for a UFC contract and the chance to change their careers and lives over the space of just three months? They range from seasoned vets to youngsters with just a handful of pro fights, and they hail from everywhere from Tijuana and Belfast to England and New York. Here’s a look (more info on who's who here)
Akbarh Arreola (19-6-1) – A Mexico native who lives in Tijuana, but fights and trains out of Chula Vista, California, Arreola has faced the likes of Mac Danzig, Toby Imada, and Ronys Torres, and owns a win over UFC and TUF5 vet Gabe Ruediger.
Al Iaquinta (5-1) – The 24-year old Serra / Longo fight team member from Wantagh, New York has come up in the same Ring of Combat promotion that once played host to UFC vets like Frankie Edgar, Jim Miller, and stablemate Chris Weidman.
Ali Maclean (9-5-1) – A 22-year old Belfast native, Maclean is the first Irish fighter on TUF, and he brings a five fight winning streak into the competition. “Growing up, everyone else played soccer, but I was rubbish in that and every other sport,” he said. “So I do what I do best and what my life revolves around and that is train and fight.”
Andy Ogle (8-1) - Tynemouth, England’s Ogle did play soccer in high school, but by 2008 he was competing as an amateur in MMA, and a little over a year later he made his pro debut. Following a loss in his second fight, he has won seven in a row.
Austin Lyons (9-1) – Tennessee submission specialist Lyons has finished seven of his pro wins by tap out, and he expects similar success on TUF. “Guys don’t want to go to the mat,” said Lyons, who once tipped the scales at 250 pounds. “I’ll let somebody take me down because I know I can submit them.”
Brendan Weafer (6-3) - New York’s Weafer began fighting in 2005, though after an on and off career, it wasn’t until 2011 that the 28-year old striker began to hit his stride, as he won two in a row leading into this week’s premiere.
Chris Tickle (7-4) - Bloomington, Illinois’ “Bad Boy” Tickle gets right to the point when it comes to his fighting philosophy heading into the TUF competition: “I want it more than anyone,” he said. “I’m experienced, relentless, very aggressive and like to beat you up.”
Cody Pfister (6-3) – Tough Texan Pfister learned to fight “as the smallest kid growing up, weighed about 80 pounds.” That scrappy attitude and determination has led him to six pro wins in nine fights and a shot at earning a spot in the TUF house.
Cristiano Marcello (12-3) – The lone Brazilian in the 32-man field, Marcello hails from the same city as Anderson Silva and Mauricio “Shogun” Rua, and with wins in six of his last seven bouts, the former Chute Boxe jiu-jitsu coach is hoping a win on TUF will allow him to join his countrymen in the Octagon.
Chase Hackett (4-1) – 4-1 as a pro with three victories by submission, Littleton, Colorado’s Hackett has gotten off to a good start to his career, but until he starts winning on TUF, the talk will likely center on the epic mustache sported by the man nicknamed “Prison Stare.”
Chris Saunders (9-2) – A veteran of nearly three years in the pro game, Long Beach, California’s Saunders was in with WEC veteran Chris Horodecki in his most recent bout last July.
Dakota Cochrane (11-2) - Omaha, Nebraska’s Cochrane has been a pro since 2009, but his biggest win came last September, when he decisioned former WEC champion Jamie Varner. Now he’s got the opportunity to take things even further if he can win on Friday night.
Daron Cruickshank (10-2) – Cruickshank has done well for himself thus far in MMA, but that’s not surprising, considering that the 26-year old Wayne, Michigan native’s mother is a former pro kickboxer and that his father is his striking coach. Now it’s time to see if TUF is ready for his family’s brand of Taekwondo.
Drew Dober (8-3) – Being in the world’s living room every week is nice, but that’s not why Omaha’s Drew Dober is here. “I’m here because this is what I was meant to do. And destiny, fate, whatever, but I believe I’m going in the right direction and I’m going to be the Ultimate Fighter because I work hard, I push myself, and I have a lot of heart and passion in this.”
Erin Beach (3-1) – Motivated by the birth of his daughter to give his MMA career a hundred percent in terms of dedication, San Diego’s Beach will likely have one fan cheering him on Friday night, his Alliance MMA stablemate and TUF Live coach Dominick Cruz.
James Krause (15-4) – One of the most experienced fighters in the 32 man field, Blue Springs, Missouri’s Krause is a WEC veteran who faced Donald Cerrone and Ricardo Lamas in the blue cage. Winner of three in a row, Krause is eager to get back in the big show.
James Vick (4-0) – Unbeaten as a pro, Fort Worth, Texas’ Vick has got his future in the sport all planned out. “If I get on this show and win, with basically five years of training, then in my mind I can be a world champ in another five.”
Jared Carlsten (3-0) – Nicknamed “Crazy Legz,” LA’s Carlsten has finished all three of his pro bouts via submission, not surprising considering that he owns a brown belt under Eddie Bravo.
Jeff Smith (9-1) – 24-year old Smith lost his first pro bout via submission in 2009, but no one has come close to beating the Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania native since, with seven of his nine wins coming by way of tap out.
Jeremy Larsen (8-2, 1 NC) – A veteran of the Arizona fight scene, Phoenix’ Larsen has won four of his last five, with the only loss coming to UFC vet Efrain Escudero.
Joe Proctor (7-1) – Despite graduating with a degree in business management from UMass-Dartmouth, Pembroke’s Proctor just wants to fight. “I have more drive than anybody else,” said the 26-year old. “I have so much heart and I want to fight for a living.”
John Cofer (7-1) – If Hull, Georgia’s Cofer wins on Friday night and gets into the TUF house, he may have a leg up on his competitors because it’s likely that he got some pointers from his trainer at the Hardcore Gym, TUF3’s Rory Singer.
Johnavan Vistante (3-1) - Pearl City, Hawaii’s Vistante goes by the nickname “The Immortal Warrior,” and if you sport a moniker like that, you’d better be ready to back it up. He is. “I’m a monster striker,” he said. “If Anderson Silva and Jon Jones had a baby, it’d be me.”
Jon Tuck (6-0) – Guam’s Tuck doesn’t mess around when the bell rings, ending all six of his pro bouts in the first round. And with three knockouts and three subs, he can get you wherever the fight goes.
Jordan Rinaldi (5-0) – Hailing from Matthews, North Carolina, Rinaldi is a highly-regarded prospect who has finished four of his five pro opponents by submission. Included in this list is TUF 14 finalist and current UFC fighter Dennis Bermudez.
Justin Lawrence (3-0) – The 21-year old Lawrence, who has been kickboxing since the age of six, claims to have over 150 amateur fights, which makes him an interesting puzzle to solve for any opponent.
Mark Glover (6-1-1, 1 NC) – Thai specialist Glover makes no bones about it; when this Liverpool native is in there, expect fireworks. “I don’t like all these wrestlers who hold people down and bore the crowd. People pay good money to watch you put on exciting fights and that’s the mindser to go into fights with.”
Michael Chiesa (7-0) - Spokane Valley, Washington’s Chiesa has represented the Pacific Northwest well thus far as a pro, winning all seven of his bouts, including five by submission.
Myles Jury (9-0) – The unbeaten Jury is no stranger to TUF fans, as he was a competitor on season 13 before a knee injury forced him from the show. Promised by White to get another shot, that shot comes this Friday for the San Diegan.
Mike Rio (8-1) – A two-time state wrestling champion in high school, Miami’s “Wolverine” is a well rounded competitor who has ended four of his victories by knockout and three by submission.
Sam Sicilia (10-0) – With three consecutive wins in less than 30 seconds, hard-hitting Spokane Valley, Washington product Sicilia may be one of the best finishers on this season’s 32 man roster.
Vinc Pichel (6-0) – But then there’s Sherman Oaks, California’s Pichel, whose six pro wins have all come by knockout, making him a pretty fair bet for some future Knockout of the Night bonuses should he get past Friday night’s elimination bouts and go on to win a UFC contract.
There you have it - 32 fighters, one UFC contract, and what promises to be a season to remember, not just for the competitors, but for everyone watching.
“You have people that have dreamt and trained for this moment and this opportunity their whole life, and then you get to sit back and watch what they do with this opportunity,” said White. But he forgot one thing…
You watch it live.
A New Era Begins for The Ultimate Fighter Tonight
The Ultimate Fighter Live premieres on FX tonight...