Forrest Griffin may have wound up walking a beat as a police officer in Georgia. Joe Stevenson probably wouldn’t have had 16 UFC fights and fought for a world title. Ross Pearson might have still been doing construction work to make ends meet, and Matt Serra likely wouldn’t have gotten a world title shot, which he won.
If not for The Ultimate Fighter, the mixed martial arts universe would look completely different – and not necessarily in a positive way. In fact, if not for the reality series, which premieres its newest season April 20 on FOX Sports 1, the UFC might not exist.
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That’s not hyperbole, a call to the masses to watch 32 fighters compete for a spot in the TUF house and then fight for a UFC contract. It’s fact. Back in 2004, the promotion was hemorrhaging money at an alarming rate and the end seemed near.
“It was brutal,” UFC President Dana White told me in 2011. “We were waiting any day for the plug to be pulled. We felt like we were getting momentum and getting traction, but it wasn’t enough to dig us out of the hole that we were in and it didn’t look like there was any light at the end of the tunnel. When was this gonna turn? Then, boom, The Ultimate Fighter.”
White called it the UFC’s “Trojan Horse,” a way to not only introduce the sport to the masses on cable television, but introduce them to the athletes as well. Griffin was one of those athletes, and there couldn’t have been a better person to show the world that these were not folks who showed up with gloves and a mouthpiece in order to beat each other up. They were real people with real lives and real personalities who just happened to fight for a living.
Griffin, a college graduate who worked in law enforcement in Georgia, had paid his dues in the fight game. He made his pro debut against future Hall of Famer Dan Severn, fought in South Africa and Brazil, and even seemed to be on the verge of getting a call to the UFC before a broken left arm suffered in a win over Edson Paredao sidelined him and put his career on hold.
“I felt that I was really about to take that step when (UFC matchmaker) Joe Silva called me and talked about fighting in UFC, and I felt I was really about to turn that corner and the next fight – bam! – broken arm, that’s it,” Griffin told me in 2005.
But the roll of the dice the UFC was taking with The Ultimate Fighter didn’t just give hope to the promotion; it gave hope to fighters like Griffin and his peers over the next 11 years. Griffin won the first season of the show and went on to win a UFC light heavyweight world championship and earn a place in the UFC Hall of Fame.
A week after beating Stephan Bonnar on the first TUF finale card, he summed up his arrival to the UFC.
“I didn’t get here through all that hard work and winning fights nonsense; I got here through a TV game show, and I’m comfortable with that.”
“I didn’t get here through all that hard work and winning fights nonsense; I got here through a TV game show, and I’m comfortable with that.” -- Forrest Griffin
Others would follow Griffin into the Octagon. Some would become world champions, others perennial contenders and fan favorites, while those who couldn’t cut it in the big show would eventually be shown the door. It wasn’t the typical way things had been done in the fight game, and the early TUF cast members who migrated to the UFC were denigrated as TV stars who weren’t “real” fighters. But that was the beauty of the whole thing. If you deserved to be in the Octagon, you had your chance to prove it. It was – and still is – all about opportunity.
“I’ve been a good B-level fighter for a couple of years now, and I’ve been on that fringe,” Griffin said after the first Bonnar fight. “I’ve fought decent guys, I’ve fought good guys. I feel like I’ve been close to that level, and now I’m here; so now it’s just about making sure that I’m ready to be there, and that I deserve to be there.”
Television cameras couldn’t save someone on fight night. You either performed or you didn’t. And over the years, the number of fighters who performed once given the chance in the big show grew. On Saturday night in Las Vegas, the UFC 197 card will have five former TUF winners (Robert Whittaker, Yair Rodriguez, Carla Esparza, Glaico Franca and Efrain Escudero) featured. Today, TUF isn’t about the overlooked veteran getting his last shot; it’s a showcase for the young guns of the sport who can introduce themselves to the fans and speed up the process of getting into the Octagon.
It’s a part of the fabric of MMA at this point, and for a fighter, a good showing on TUF is the difference between fighting in front of thousands in a UFC event and struggling on the local circuit. On TUF, everything is cut down to the bare essentials. There are no politics, no local fight game antics behind the scenes. You win, you move on. You win it all and you get your shot in the big show. It’s the purest that reality television and the fight business will ever be.
And it’s a chance, the only thing every fighter wants.
It’s why TUF still matters. Just ask Joe Stevenson.
“I had quit fighting, and in my life a lot of things – such as a divorce and leaving my gym – were going on,” he said just before winning Season 2. “I ended up working in a tire plant, shipping tires around. It upset me, all the stuff that happened. I probably wouldn’t have continued if it weren’t for the show. The show is such a springboard for the fight game, and for the athlete himself, that it was an opportunity I couldn’t pass up. There are things in your life you just don’t say no to.”