After a dreadfully boring fourth season that sent the show’s ratings on a downward spiral, “The Ultimate Fighter” returns for its fifth season this April. While not as novel as the first season nor as exciting as the third, the fifth seasonâ<80>“which features sixteen lightweights competing for a single, lucrative UFC contractâ<80>“is a welcome return to the style that made the show, and the UFC in general, so successful.
From the opening season preview montage, it’s clear that “TUF” is back on track. The montage features a breadth of drama, including some “street fights” within the house. While the clips were obviously presented in a way that exaggerates the drama, if the excitement of the actual events is even in the ballpark of their depiction on the season premiere, this season’s show could be the polar opposite of the dreadful TUF4.
But the excitement isn’t merely contained within the preview footage. The first episode delivers in a big way too, presenting a cast of very interesting fighters and equally intriguing coaches.
On the surface, BJ Penn and Jens Pulver seemed like odd choices for coaches. Penn, while a gifted fighter, has never given any indication that he has Tito Ortiz or Ken Shamrock-level charisma. And, as one of the fighters correctly points out, Jens Pulver isn’t exactly a talent whose star will shine eternallyâ<80>“he’s actually coming off a first-round-knockout loss to Joe Lauzon, one of the contestants on the show. For a show that is as much about the coaches and UFC brand as it is about the contestants, UFC’s choices definitely warranted skepticism.
Luckily, that skepticism is generally washed away by the season premiere. Sure, the aforementioned arguments about Penn and Pulver still hold, but they do not limit the quality of entertainment provided by the two. Penn’s arrogance goes hand-in-hand with Pulver’s personality, leading to fantastic chemistry not only between the coaches and the fighters, but between the two coaches. One particularly memorable sceneâ<80>“the team selectionâ<80>“features Penn going out of his way to bother his rival coach (and upcoming opponent). Penn, in an attempt to make Pulver look bad, asks those contestants who want to be on his team (and want nothing to do with Pulver) to raise their hands; ten of sixteen do, and as a fighter later points out, even those who didn’t still probably preferred Penn.
The scene becomes particularly hilarious when Penn and Pulver both agree, without UFC President Dana White’s consent, that they should allow the contestants to pick the teamsâ<80>“those who want to fight for Pulver should go to one side, and those who want to fight for Penn should go to the other side. White, who has no qualms about using expletives, unloads some as he reminds the two that team selection is a one-at-a-time deal: Penn picks, then Pulver picks.
The exchange between Penn and Pulver is undoubtedly immature, but it’s the type of immaturity that works on television. Sometimes it’s the most petty things that fuel fire between two peopleâ<80>“just look at the Chris Leben/Josh Koscheck/Bobby Southworth incident from “The Ultimate Fighter 1,” which is, in part, responsible for UFC’s popularity boom (that story fueled interest in TUF, which consequently fueled interest in UFC as a whole). People don’t always want sophisticated storytelling; if the action makes sense and is exciting, viewers will be intrigued.
After selecting what turned out to be a two-man cast last year (Shonie Carter and Matt Serra), UFC created a pool of contestants that is almost universally interesting. Corey Hill, whose 6’4″ height is incredible for a lightweight fighter, shows the most personality early on, but he’s not the only contestant who stands out. Nate Diaz, while not given too much face time in the premiere, will clearly be one to watchâ<80>“he’s a spitting image of his brother Nick (and that promises excitement). Without giving anything away, both of the two fighters selected for the competition’s first fight have charismaâ<80>“one’s the likeable “buddy” who probably doesn’t take mixed martial arts seriously enough, while the other probably has too much confidence for his own good. Both, however, provide great entertainment as they cut promos leading into their fight (which is probably the only weak point of the season premiere).
But, as further proof that the show’s producers know how to create characters better than those who fully script personalities at World Wrestling Entertainment, contestant Gabe Ruediger comes off as the guy to root for this season. Ruediger is not the most charismatic individual in the world, and the “problem” that elicits fan sympathy has, in the past, been cause for mockery, but the episode unfolds in a way that makes fans want to see him overcome his problem. One of the biggest criticisms with new, fictional television is that character development is often overlooked. Witnessing a reality show succeed in that department is cause for joy.
For all the positives of the season premiere, as noted, the negative still comes in the primary draw for many fansâ<80>“the fight. While some of the contestants this year are recognizable names who are capable of having good fights (contestant Matt Wiman’s 2006 fight with Spencer Fisher was a candidate for bout of the year), the first two to enter the Octagon have such a vast difference in skill level that the fight can’t help but be unexcitingâ<80>“there’s never a doubt about who’s going to win, and even then, the fight’s too “routine” (it’s basically like a MMA school sparring/rolling session) to feature “squash match” excitement.
Part of the problem is the concept of allowing coaches to choose the fights. Since the coaches are more concerned with winning than booking entertaining fights, they choose matchups that typically are not extremely compelling. That problem gets corrected in later rounds, since the remaining fighters all tend to be very good, but it would be nice to see some truly great fights early in the season. Even if there are exceptions (and there have been in past seasons), the general idea of letting the coaches choose will still naturally skew the fights towards the unexciting side.
Luckily, the season premiere offers enough in the way of drama and character introduction to make up for a mediocre fight. The fans who felt disconnected with the contestants on last season’s show will feel right at home with The Ultimate Fighter 5. TUF is back!