LAS VEGAS – "The Ultimate Fighter 9" finale Saturday at The Palms was a microcosm of what the reality show has been since its debut on Spike TV in 2005.
There was drama and unforgettable moments, but there was also some moments that were hard to take and difficult to understand.
The 10th season of the show that essentially saved the Ultimate Fighting Championship from extinction is almost guaranteed to be a ratings bonanza, largely because of the presence on the cast of one-time street fighter Kimbo Slice.
Ratings, though, have stagnated and while both Spike and UFC officials insist they're pleased, they don't mirror the UFC's pay-per-view growth. Pay-per-view sales have skyrocketed since 2005, but the reality series hasn't come close to matching the 1.67 household rating from Season 1 or the 1.77 from Season 3.
Beginning in Season 6, the ratings have gone 1.29, 1.20, 1.25 and 1.19. While that's a solid figure and almost unheard of for a cable reality series in its ninth season, the numbers would suggest that some have had their fill of it.
The median age of the show's viewers was 30 in Season 1. In Season 9, it was 33, suggesting the viewers have aged with the show and have remained loyal to it.
The show has been an unqualified success for the UFC. Several of its biggest stars – Forrest Griffin, Rashad Evans, Diego Sanchez, Kenny Florian, Josh Koscheck and Mike Swick, among many others – are alumni.
And the show has helped introduce fans to the sport who otherwise would have no clue about mixed martial arts.
But the UFC and Spike have to find a way to reinvigorate the series to prevent it from becoming stale, if it already hasn't.
The UFC and Spike came under criticism in recent seasons for focusing so much on the lunacy in the house, making stars out of men like Junie Browning and Jesse Taylor for their drunken tirades.
That changed dramatically in Season 9, when producers made the conscious decision to show more of the training sessions.
"We were hearing that the fans wanted to see more of the interaction between the coaches and the fighters and what they do when they're training," said Brian Diamond, Spike's senior vice president for sports and specials. "But we don't tell them to do anything. What happens in that house is what you see on television. It's reality TV.
"When you put 16 guys in one house, it's not going to take long for them to start climbing the walls. In Season 1, Forrest was jumping like an orangutan by Week 5. It's always going to be about the fights, but the personalities are a big part of it as well and that's something you can never predict."
The show is, in essence, an infomercial for the pay-per-view fight between the coaches that will take place following the finale.
And while former UFC light heavyweight champion Quinton "Rampage" Jackson took some heat for turning down a shot at new champion Lyoto Machida to coach on Season 10 and then fight Evans, to Jackson, it was a no-brainer.
Jackson, who coached opposite Griffin in Season 7, said he'll be a more well-known personality by the time Season 10 concludes and his fight with Evans takes place.
"I make most of my money off of pay-per-view," Jackson said. "When you do 'The Ultimate Fighter,' it's going to help your pay-per-view numbers. Me coaching 'The Ultimate Fighter' show will be good revenue in the future. Being champion or fighting Machida, that's good. A lot of people would tune into to see that. … I think a lot more people watch 'The Ultimate Fighter.' You get bigger pay-per-view numbers [following the show]."
And as long as the pay-per-view fights following the season sell, everyone connected with the show will be happy and not much is going to change.
The stream of top-echelon talent seems to have slowed, as no one of the caliber of the Season 1 or Season 3 fighters have emerged in recent years.
But Bisping, who won the light heavyweight title on Season 3 and coached on Season 9, said it takes time.
He said confidence is often a factor for fighters who aren't in the UFC. Competing on TUF and winning at that level often significantly improves a fighter's performance down the line.
Fighters go from thinking they can win to knowing they can.
"You go on the show and you believe in yourself as a fighter, but you haven't fought in the UFC and there's always that little bit of a question," Bisping said. "Until you do something, you always wonder if you can. When you get through something like the show, it makes a tremendous difference."
The show itself has made a tremendous difference in the perception of MMA and it's showcased it as a real sport.
The challenge for the future is to make it compelling enough that viewers keep tuning in. Spike and the UFC have signed an extension to keep the show on the air through 2014.
That could take it through Season 20.
It's going to be a massive challenge, but given the show's significance to both companies, they'll spare no expense to find a way to keep it relevant.
"I can't overestimate how important that show is to this company," UFC president Dana White said. "It's huge for us and it's going to continue to be. I guarantee you that."