Spike TV's Ultimate Fighter reality series will likely always have a footnote in U.S. sports culture, as it was the only reality show that essentially launched the popularity of a sport.
The seventh season will run on Wednesday nights at 10 p.m. Eastern/Pacific from Apr. 2 to June 18, finishing with the live finals on June 21 from Las Vegas. The coaches are UFC light heavyweight champion Quinton "Rampage" Jackson and top contender Forrest Griffin.
While the Ultimate Fighting Championship's history dates back to 1993, the company was losing millions of dollars and was up for sale in 2004 due to its inability to get a viable television deal, and inability to draw consistently on pay-per-view without it.
Mixed martial arts was deemed too controversial for television, but Spike picked up the concept of a reality show in which star fighters would coach up-and-comers, with the winners getting UFC contracts.
The first season, which ran in early 2005, was a huge hit, for a number of reasons. One of the biggest is that it aired at 11:05 p.m. on Monday nights, right after World Wrestling Entertainment's "Raw" program. While most wrestling fans, in particular the kids and older people, weren't that interested, Ultimate Fighter kept the vast majority of the WWE's male 18-34 audience, which became the new core audience for the promotion.
The vast majority of the public envisioned "ultimate fighters" as thuggish bar room brawlers, devoid of the skills of boxers and wrestlers. But in airing the brutal training sessions and even more controversial weight-cutting, they became very real people, with real flaws and insecurities who worked incredibly hard. Instead of being unskilled, they actually had to be skilled to some degree at many fighting styles.
There were two nights from the first season which put UFC on the map: a two-week television grudge program that led to a match with Chris Leben vs. Josh Koscheck, still the highest rated episode in the history of the series, and the live championship match with Forrest Griffin winning a controversial decision over Stephan Bonnar, the almost perfect fight at the perfect moment.
The two coaches from the season, light heavyweight champion Randy Couture and Chuck Liddell, fought with Liddell winning, and the match did record numbers for the sport on pay-per-view and it was established as a viable attraction.
Many of the fighters introduced that season, Griffin, Diego Sanchez, Koscheck, Leben, Mike Swick, Nate Quarry, Bonnar and Kenny Florian remain stars with the promotion.
The new season features Griffin as both a coach and UFC's top contender for the light heavyweight title. The Athens, Ga. native, who was living on fighter Rory Singer's couch three plus years ago, is coming off a submission win over Mauricio "Shogun" Rua, who was generally considered the No. 1 light heavyweight in the world at the time, on Sept. 22 in Anaheim.
The pairing of Griffin and Jackson makes you think there will be a lot of comedy, given the duo's vibrant personalities. And according to UFC president Dana White, some does exist. But White said one of the episodes saw the problems between the two get so heated that it nearly turned into a coaches' fight. Similar confrontations in Season 3 with Ken Shamrock and Tito Ortiz in 2006 led to two matches, which took the popularity of the sport to a new level.
But it's a very different show in Season 7. Criticized for being long in the tooth, the biggest obstacle in the show is the success it created. The success of the sport led to the formation of new promotions. The 16 fighters on Season 1 were not, as billed on television, the best 16 up-and-coming fighters in the country. But Griffin, Bobby Southworth, Sanchez, Leben and Bonnar were known commodities in the fight world, and Koscheck was well known in college wrestling circles for being an undefeated Division I champion in 2001.
More fighters exist than ever due to the popularity of the sport, but the top guys can make money, and aren't as apt to sacrifice six weeks of their lives away from the outside world if they can earn a living in another promotion.
Last season, there was only one name fighter, Mac Danzig (who ended up winning the competition) in the cast.
Season 7 features middleweights (185 pounders), and instead of 16 fighters, they are doubling it with 32. The April 2 and April 9 shows will feature highlights of 16 first-round fights, with the winners going into the fighters house. "I was blown away by the level of professionalism," said Griffin, about the series which just ended filming last week. "They knew they were there to fight and learn. Nobody had problems making weight." The four semifinalists on the show ended up fighting four times in six weeks, so the idea was not just to win, but win with minimal damage. "It was real tough," said Griffin, who like Jackson, had never been a coach of fighters before, let alone fighters he didn't personally know.
"You had to end the fight the first chance you got. I'd tell them, 'Just go out and knock the other guy out and we'll put your hand in ice and you'll be fine in a few days.'"
"The new format will give us two incredibly intense episodes to launch the season and will weed out some of the guys who might not have the heart and desire that it takes to become a UFC fighter," said White.
More than any season to date, the 32 names are largely unknowns, with nobody even at Danzig's experience level. "A lot of guys came from good camps and were at a good level," said Griffin, who estimated five or six of the 16 who made the house would survive on the UFC roster. "There wasn't anybody I would call a standout. The show did a good job of evenly matching the fighters but there's nobody who is going to upset Anderson Silva."
Paul Bradley (5-0 in small shows) is known to only the most ardent fans. Steve Byrnes fought once in UFC, losing to Logan Clark on December 13, 2006. Mike Dolce went 0-3 last season with the International Fight League. Gerald Harris, 6-2, with both losses last season in the IFL, is a genuine prospect with real wrestling ability. Dante Rivera, 10-2, also fought last year with the IFL.
Before the final week of the season, White said there was one fighter whom he thought was going to come out as a genuine star from the season, but he still had to win one more match to get into the finals.
The other 27 names starting out are David Baggett (4-2), Matt Brown (9-6), Erik Charles (10-5), John Clarke (7-2-1), Daniel Cramer (3-0), Tim Credeur (9-2), Clarence Dollaway (0-0), John Hall (3-3), Nick Klein (3-0), David Mewborn (0-0), Mike Marrello (7-1-1), Jeremy May (5-5), Prince LaDonas Mclean (4-5), Aaron Meisner (2-0), Reggie Orr (4-5-1), Matthew Riddle (0-0), Jeremiah Riggs (1-0), David Roberts (5-7), Nick Rossborough (0-0), Amir Sadollah (0-0), Patrick Schultz (0-3), Brandon Sene (2-0), Dan Simmler (0-0), Jesse Taylor (6-2), Cale Yarbrough (0-0), John Wood (6-3) and Luke Zachrich (7-1).