LOS ANGELES – There were 190 middleweights and 81 light heavyweights who showed up cauliflower ears and all in hopes of becoming the next "Ultimate Fighter."
Tryouts for the eleventh season of the reality show – one of the longest running reality series on TV – took place last Monday at the Renaissance Inn near LAX and went from 8:45 a.m. until two the next morning.
You could cut the testosterone with a knife.
UFC president Dana White called it a low turnout and said he was looking to recruit three or four fighters that day. After season nine's tryouts drew 700 welterweight and lightweights, he was perplexed by the drop-off.
"It's very weird," he said. "You would think right now in these hard economic times. ... I thought this would be the biggest turnout we ever had."
Most of the fighters who showed up had little or no experience on the big stage. A few, however, had decorated resumes that included time in the Octagon.
One of them, 32-year-old Jason Lambert, has made eight UFC appearances – three on pay-per-view – and has 45 fights to his credit. He hit hard times recently, and two days prior, he lost his fifth straight fight. He saw the reality show as a new start.
"If this is another avenue I can take to get back in the UFC, great," he said. "I just figured, why not?"
Twenty-eight-year-old Nick Thompson's Sengoku contract has expired and he wants more stability for his wife and three-month-old baby. A veteran of 63 fights, he was 1-1 in the UFC and has wins over Paul Daley and Eddie Alvarez. In 2005, he was in the final running for the show's second season and was under consideration for the fourth.
"It's been a few years since I've fought in the UFC, and this would be a great way to rejuvenate my career... switch gears and come back home," he said.
Thompson's teammate, 24-year-old middleweight Logan Clark, also ran out of time on his Sengoku deal and was just along for the ride.
"I don't give a (expletive)," he said. "This is come out, see some friends and family, do the audition, whatever. I went into the light heavyweight group because the line was shorter."
Potential contestants faced three sections of the tryout: grappling, striking, and the interview. They were given two minutes each of grappling and striking. At the end of each section, cuts were made. Then came the interviews, which were overseen by Spike executives Craig Piligian and Brian Diamond.
"Craig (expletive) with these guys a lot after they get to a certain (level)," said White. "After we find out who can fight, and who has decent records and who can be on the show, then they get into the reality side of it and it's not fun for the guys."
Thirty-nine-year-old Bobby Southworth spoke to MMAWeekly.com after the grappling session, hands on his knees, sucking air. He had been a cast member of the show's inaugural season and was escorting six of his teammates to the tryouts when he tried out on a whim after seeing Lambert and Clark.
Southworth was released from the UFC in 2005 following a loss to Sam Hoger in the show's season finale and was acquired by Strikeforce shortly thereafter. He said the San Jose, Calif.-based promotion reneged on a promised four-fight deal early this year when they formed a broadcast alliance with Showtime.
"When I did the first season, I was coming off the worst year of my life," said Southworth. "I got kicked out of the jiu-jitsu program I spent six years building, had a tumor removed from my chest, found out my son had autism, all within about a three-month span. I walked away from the sport. Looking back, it was one of the greatest experiences of my life. For any of these guys coming up, it's the chance of a lifetime."
Not all veterans made it past the first round. International Fight League (IFL) and EliteXC veteran Wayne Cole was among those who were cut after the first round of grappling.
"I don't know what I did," he said in the waiting room. "I'm just really disappointed. I paid a lot of money, and did a lot of things to make it here. Just a little hurt right now."
His voice broke.
"I'm going to fight in the UFC before it's over with," he said. "I'm definitely not going to give up."
Diamond said three weight classes were under consideration for the upcoming season – welterweights, middleweights, and light heavyweights, though White said the show would likely center around light heavyweights. The odds to get a spot, however, remained steep.
"We put them through the rigors," he said. "They can always come back."
Lambert said he'd be a perfect fit for the show and believed he'd dominate the field.
"It's like when people get in there, they forgot what they signed up for," he said. "You're gonna be in the house, and you're not going to have a cell phone and all these things. I've been trying to get rid of my cell phone for two years. I would love to not have a cell phone, go back to the old days where you'd get home and mom says, 'so and so called for you.' I'd be like, yes!"
Thompson, meanwhile, thought the veteran's chances were slim.
"I'm sure none of them will get on, and we'll see a bunch of guys that are terrible but think they're the best fighters in the world," he laughed. "The truth is, if you're a really good fighter it's because you train hard, you don't drink, and you're doing the right things, which makes for boring TV. That's why they haven't had a second season of the veterans. All the veterans sit around and say, 'oh man, we can't drink, we've got to get up at seven in the morning and run.'"
A lawyer in his spare time, Thompson had a backup if his suspicions were confirmed.
"If this doesn't work out, I applied to a bunch of the JAG core positions, in which case I'd be gone for basic for nine weeks anyways," he said.
As it turned out, he was wrong, at least for the time being. A Spike representative on Wednesday confirmed that Thompson, Southworth, and Lambert had made it past the first day of auditions. That opened the door for interviews in Vegas, which would bring the fighters one step closer to getting on the show.
Then again, it was possible none of them would get the call, depending on what the show's producers wanted.
Diamond said he and his team were still working on the "twist" for Season 11. Season 9, U.K. versus U.S.A. Season 10, it was heavyweights. He acknowledged the channel needed to come up with something snappy to match the ratings of Season 10, bolstered by National Football League (NFL) players and Kimbo Slice.
For Southworth, it was better to take the chance to audition and fail then not take the chance at all.
"You've got to take the good with the bad in this business," he said. "It's a rough business; you're only going to be remembered for your last fight. I have many more good fights in me, and hopefully I'll get an opportunity to show that."