As the Ultimate Fighter reality show starts its ninth season on SpikeTV Wednesday, the first match on the live Ultimate Fight Night event from Nashville represents the paradox of the show itself.
TUF 8's Junie Allen Browning was without question the most talked about and well-remembered participant on the show in several seasons.
Was it because he was the vaunted "next Anderson Silva," that UFC president Dana White hyped would come out of the season? No. Was it because he had a great match in the finals? No.
In fact, it had absolutely nothing to do with his fighting ability.
The story of season eight was largely how Dana White would try and figure out a way to justify Browning not being kicked out of the house, for getting drunk and out of control, and breaking the big no-no, starting fights, on several occasions. From almost day one, Browning seemed like he was on his last strike, and the next week would start up something stupid again. But somehow, he never struck out.
In doing so, Browning meant ratings. Shows built around him drew the biggest numbers of the season. On the December 13 Ultimate Fighter finals, between the first run of the show and the repeat, it was Browning’s win over Dave Kaplan, the opening bout on the show, that drew the most viewers, even beating the championship matches.
That answers the question of why Browning vs. Cole Miller is on the live broadcast from Nashville on Wednesday night, while far more accomplished fighters like Matt Horwich, Ricardo Almeida, Gleison Tibau and Brock Larson are relegated to prelims.
But unlike a television series, where if there is a public fascination with a character, they get more exposure, in fighting, you can only be protected to a degree.
And his opponent on Wednesday night, Cole Miller, is not "protection."
Sporting a 14-3 record, the 24-year-old American Top Team lightweight came from season five of the reality show, and has gone 3-1 in UFC competition. At 6-foot-1, he’s tall for a lightweight, and is particularly strong from the bottom, with his best move being a triangle. That was the move he hooked with 12 seconds left in a fight he was about to lose via decision, to submit Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt Jorge Gurgel in his last match on July 5. Miller is coming off knee surgery after the fight.
The Browning who fought on the reality show probably wouldn’t last long with Miller. And Miller is hardly treating him like he’s some sort of a gimmick.
"He’s 1-0 in the UFC as far as I’m concerned," said Miller. "I don’t care how he performed or acted while on the show. He’s a hard-nosed purple belt in jiu-jitsu with a good chin. I’m training for this fight like I did for my last fight, like it will be my last."
Browning made for entertaining television as a bleached-blond stereotype of a small-town Kentuckian from the sticks (in reality, he is from Lexington, hardly a small town), who couldn’t handle his alcohol and went through major fits of depression. Browning's short-term benefits that resulted from his behavior make him a character future fighters on the show may emulate, particularly if they see they can’t win their contract by taking the tournament.
But if you look long-term, for UFC and Spike, the most successful TUF characters, like Forrest Griffin, Rashad Evans and Michael Bisping, were not successful long-term because of anything memorable on the show, but because of how successful they were as fighters once the show was over.
Even Chris Leben and Josh Koscheck in season one, probably the closest equivalents to Browning, got noticed for bad reasons at first. But their fighting since leaving that has caused their careers to sink or swim.
Browning’s notoriety may keep him in the company even with a loss, which may not be the case with a more quiet member of the cast, but long-term, if he can’t win more than he loses, he won’t have a long UFC career.
But the Browning of today insists that a different person is showing up on Wednesday.
"Those fights on the show, that’s not me," said Browning (3-1), who said he couldn’t show his skill on the show because he wasn’t in shape.
"He (Miller) has a very traditional style of jiu-jitsu that doesn’t transition to MMA as well," Browning said. "After watching many of his fights, I think our styles will make for a great match-up. I think people have the wrong idea from The Ultimate Fighter that I have a weak ground game. Being out of shape played the biggest part in my lack of jiu-jitsu on the show."
Another change is moving to Las Vegas and training with world-class athletes at the Extreme Couture camp. In his fight with Kaplan, his first after the move, Browning's punching was sharper, he added the dimension of kicking, had better footwork and better conditioning. He won with an armbar early in the second round, and even got the $25,000 best match bonus for the show.
After finishing the show, Brown hooked up with Shawn Tompkins, a coach at Extreme Couture, whose name Browning admitted he barely knew at first, and Tompkins had Browning move in with him as he trained for the Kaplan fight. After the win, Browning moved full-time into a Las Vegas apartment with his girlfriend.
"I made the decision the first day to move there," he said. "I started at a real good school to learn the skills (Four Seasons MMA in Lexington), but most of the people there did jiu-jitsu as a hobby," he said. "We did a lot of traditional jiu-jitsu. We rolled around. It was a good place to learn but not to excel because of the lack of training partners."
Spike TV is hoping that ratings lightning strikes twice this coming season, as another Browning, Junie’s younger brother Robert, ends up on the show.
"I made him try out," said his brother. "The problem is, he’s a 135-pounder who has to fight at 155 on the show. But he’s exactly like me."