With the 17th season of The Ultimate Fighter (TUF) debuting Tuesday night on FX starting at 8 p.m. ET, much of what has happened has remained secretive behind all the multimillion dollar non-disclosure forms that have been signed.
But a few things have come out from various sources. The quality of the fighters and the fights is said to be a step up from the past few seasons. But as far as a coaching dynamic, if you're expecting Chael Sonnen and Jon Jones to be this year's edition of Rashad Evans and Rampage Jackson, or Ken Shamrock and Tito Ortiz, coaches who spend most of their time building up their own fight and spend a season seemingly on the verge of a violent explosion, it doesn't appear that is happening.
The show will also be repeated on Saturday night on FOX at 11 p.m., with the idea of putting it right after the nightly news that follows the UFC live show from Chicago. There is also the added twist in the first episode in that fighters were allowed to bring family in to watch their fights, leading to different types of emotions from both the winners and losers.
Before the season started, Jones had talked about how much he didn't like Sonnen, stemming from the endless verbal salvos Sonnen had fired in his direction in the aftermath of the canceled UFC 151 show. Sonnen agreed 10 days before fight time to face Jones in a title fight, but Jones turned him down given how close fight time was. At the time Jones said, among the reasons, was Sonnen wasn't deserving of a title fight. Sonnen hasn't won any fights since that happened. However, how deserving he was in August is exactly how deserving he is today.
But the business realities, in the sense Jones has the chance to make significantly more money against Sonnen than any other opponent, caused him to have a change of heart about the fight which takes place as the main event of UFC 159 on April 27 in Newark, N.J. Since the season ended, Jones has said that he's changed his thoughts on Sonnen, and that he isn't a bad guy.
Sonnen also had nothing negative to say about Jones and his coaching after the season was over.
"I'm not in the workout room (with Jones), but I was around him in social areas, the kitchen, the locker room, and from what I saw, he did a very good job," said Sonnen. "I really thought he gave a lot. I really thought he did a good job and took it serious.
"I wasn't in the room, but I talked to the guys. We were all around one another. He was personable. He was on time, which is important, and I thought he enjoyed what he did. I didn't see it all. I felt the guys who were fortunate to work with him had a great experience, and that's what it's all about. I've seen a bunch of buffoons as coaches, some of who treated the facility like it's a frat house, and that's wrong, and never should have been done."
UFC President Dana White has pushed the season around one fighter who was so good that nobody else wanted any part of him and people were coming up with reasons not to fight him. This is the second time White has pushed the show around the idea of an unknown killer about to be discovered. In season eight, he built up the season talking about how there was a new Anderson Silva in the house. As it turned, the fighter he was talking about was Phillipe Nover, who did look impressive during the show, but ended up losing in the finals. He also lost his next two in UFC competition and was gone from the UFC 18 months later.
"Well, I heard the thing, too," said Sonnen. "This tournament is incredibly nasty. When Dana said it, here's the problem, I'm not sure of who he's referring to. There's some hammers in this tournament, there really are. I also heard him make the comment, and he said it jokingly, but he still said it that, `What am I going to do with the winner of the tournament, put him against Anderson Silva for the title?' When the president talks that way, it means something. This is the nastiest field of competitors. All you have to do is watch the very first show. It's the eliminations to see who gets into the house. When you see the guys who don't make it into the final cut, that's when you're going to understand how tough it is."
Sonnen described the tournament as one that if the same guys were put in the same tournament three or four different times, that there would be three or four different winners.
There aren't a lot of familiar names. One standout, just because he's 6-foot-6, is Luke Barnatt (5-0) of Cambridge, England, a former high school basketball player. Kevin Casey (5-2) once fought Matt Lindland on a Strikeforce show and gave Lindland a very tough fight. He grew up as best friends with Rockson Gracie, Rickson's son who passed away years ago. Zachary Cummings (15-3) has also fought in Strikeforce, losing once to Tim Kennedy in 2009. Nik Fekete (5-1) fought a couple of times in Bellator. Bubba McDaniel (20-6) has been fighting for nearly eight years, trains with Jones at the Greg Jackson camp and fought before in Elite XC and Bellator.
"You're definitely managing talent, you're managing emotions, but I have a bit of a different perspective," said Sonnen, when talking about how there will be fighters who had to fight as many as four times during a six-week period of filming. "You have to accept that you're going to get hurt. You try to minimize it as much as possible, but don't use it as an excuse to not win. You get your eye shut or your finger broken, I still expect you to win the competition. You have to get them to understand, PAT is your best friend. Pain, Agony and Torture. Once you accept PAT into your life, everything else is easy."
Besides the middleweight tournament, Sonnen noted that the middleweight division, his former weight class, is going to get far more competitive this year with the addition of Luke Rockhold, the Strikeforce champion when the organization folded, and two of his top contenders, Tim Kennedy and Ronaldo "Jacare" Souza.
"I think this Luke Rockhold is a really special athlete that not a lot of guys know about. Tim Kennedy was the best-kept secret in this sport.
"Not a lot of guys are going to beat either of those guys. And Jacare's a handful. Ed Herman's the real deal and Jacare made that look easy," Sonnen said.