Since its debut over a decade ago, The Ultimate Fighter has produced some of the biggest names in mixed martial arts.
Typically filmed over a six-week stretch, the popular reality series forces fighters to live under the same roof as their competition, with no access to the outside world. This means athletes have little else to do but eat, sleep and train in pursuit of their dreams.
The fighters who thrive under these gruelling conditions are signed to UFC contracts. Five past contestants have even gone on to win UFC championships: Forrest Griffin, Rashad Evans, Matt Serra, T.J. Dillashaw and Carla Esparza. However, those who fail to impress are forced back to the drawing board.
Canadian fans received their own version of the program when TUF Nations: Canada vs. Australia debuted early last year. The series culminated with London, Ont. native Chad Laprise and Mississauga, Ont.'s Elias Theodorou conquering the welterweight and middleweight tournaments, respectively.
With TUF Nations now receiving three Canadian Screen Awards nominations, Laprise finds himself fondly reminiscing about his experience on the show.
“It's probably the hardest thing I've ever done in my whole life,” Laprise told UFC.ca during a phone interview. “Being away from your family for six weeks, you have no contact with anybody. I'm married, but couldn't talk to my wife. I couldn't talk to anybody in my family. Afterwards, when you come home, you have to be dead silent — you can't say a word (about the results). So it was definitely very challenging.
“It's been a little over a year now since I got out of the house. I definitely think back to the time that I was in there. It was a great opportunity for me. It definitely led to what my career is now. Without that show, I wouldn't be where I am today.”
The Canadian Screen Awards go down Sun., March 1 in Toronto. TUF Nations has been nominated for: Best Direction in a Reality/Competition Program or Series, Best Photography in a Lifestyle or Reality/Competition Program or Series and Best Reality/Competition Program or Series. The latter category sees it battling Big Brother Canada, MasterChef Canada, The Amazing Race Canada and Unusually Thicke.
As far as Theodorou is concerned, the nominations reaffirm how far MMA has come in Canada.
“It just shows that mixed martial arts is a genuine sport — we're recognized,” Theodorou began. “Then you just throw in the aspect of the storyline, which is huge for the fighters. There are 16 in total and each has his own history and story to tell. Those Canadians Media Group, along with the UFC, put a great storyline together. You got to see each fighter put their heart and soul into what their end goal was, to become an Ultimate Fighter.
“Canadians love mixed martial arts and they love those stories.”
Much like Laprise, TUF Nations offered Theodorou a launching pad for his UFC career. Though fighters all strive for the limelight, he admitted increased fame also has its downsides.
“With that comes notoriety,” Theodorou said. “Every once in a while, a 16-year-old girl will profess her love to me on Twitter. Then I'll get a 30-year-old man from Minnesota who wants to see me get my face punched in. It comes with the territory.
“But whether they love me or hate me, they're still watching me. I'm just being me. I'm happy and privileged to be a part of this great opportunity.”
Since TUF Nations finished airing last year, Laprise and Theodorou have kept their respective momentum rolling. Laprise netted a dominant unanimous decision over Yosdenis Cedeno at UFC Fight Night 54 in October. Meanwhile, that same night, Theodorou won a unanimous decision against Bruno Santos.
Theodorou's next outing will see him face Roger Narvaez on the undercard of UFC 185 in Dallas March 14. As for Laprise, he is slated to meet Bryan Barberena on the UFC 186 prelims in Montreal April 25.
Though Laprise and Theodorou are well into preparations for their upcoming fights, they will be in attendance at the Canadian Screen Awards show. Both fighters are focused on climbing the UFC ranks, but Theodorou has made a point of stopping for selfies along the way.
Should TUF Nations walk away with the award for best reality series, he has his phone primed for action.
“Hopefully it will win,” Theodorou said. “It's good to see everyone who put their time, effort, heart and passion into it getting nominated and being recognized for all their hard work. It's just a testament to the production company, Those Canadians Media Group, and all their hard work showing off us fighters.
“I'll bring my selfie stick just in case,” he added.
Even if TUF Nations leaves empty-handed, Laprise is hopeful the nominations alone will be enough to expose a new audience to MMA.
“It will (attract) a different audience that didn't watch the show,” Laprise said. “Now that it's been nominated, maybe they'll check it out.
“It was really great to reminisce on all the memories (while watching the season). They film you 24 hours a day, but the show is only one-hour long each week — with a fight in there, which is 15 minutes long. So there's so much stuff that goes on that you don't see on TV, but the parts that you did see were pretty special.”