Reality television has always been more real than we give it credit for. In real life, exploitation can be tolerated in exchange for such things as "visibility." In reality TV, though, exploitation became the key ingredient to "your big chance," and that cranks the knob to eleven for vicarious entertainment.
Nobody wants to die anonymous.
To this day the "Ultimate Fighter" franchise works on the tenant that its producers are plumbing the Earth’s great depths for that rarified talent that has gone hitherto undiscovered. There’s ore just under the surface, we’re told. By now, after umpteen seasons, we know we’re in the bargain bins for that talent. Fewer future champions are being made on TUF. At this point we are stockpiling the prelims.
Yet still there’s immense fun to be had watching people grope about for validation in, honestly, the realest of the "real" circumstances. Never mind the boom mics, the culmination of watching people act the fool in TUF is that we get to then watch them punch each other in the face. Other reality shows can’t boast as much.
The original Ultimate Fighter was a time buy that Zuffa did with Spike TV in 2005. It was a roll of the dice that smacked of desperation to position the fight game better into our collective conscience. Had it failed, like so much had between the dozen years of the UFC’s existence, Joe Lauzon would still be fixing computers. And there’s a real chance that so much of what we’ve come to be astonished by (FOX, Toronto, Nick the Tooth) would never have come to pass.
That first season of TUF had all the components, too.
It had Stephan Bonnar, who mysterious disappeared for a couple of shows (turns out he’d fled through the bathroom window in search of hooch and got busted), and to this day we don’t know who stole his beanie. There was Diego Sanchez, summonsing the energy from a lightning storm on the front lawn. There was Josh Koscheck, all peroxide and jocularity, prodding poor Chris Leben…and Leben spritzing on poor Jason Thacker’s bed…and Bobby Southworth mouthing off. Forrest Griffin shaved his head, and people kept getting drunk. There was Nate Quarry, and Kenny Florian fighting six weight classes out of his natural frame, and Mike Swick (who was still smarting about a loss to Leben in WEC the year prior, adding that elephant to the room).
In short, suddenly we had fighter back-story.
And the fights themselves were ridiculous. Even the well-known coaches, Chuck Liddell and Randy Couture, were props for this impromptu set-up. Remember when the contestants competed in games, like carrying Couture and Liddell on La-Z-Boys down the beach in a race? That still feels impossible.
Though there was a lot of talent on the show, even all that talent needed a nudge from time to time to do something as ridiculous as to lay hands on one another with intent to do harm. At one point, at the height of the mutiny going on behind the scenes with all these combustible parts, Dana White had to come down to the training center and have a word with everyone. His "Do you want to be a f---ing fighter" speech now belongs up there with Knute Rockne’s "Win one for the gipper" and The Gettysburg Address in fight game lore.
But it wasn’t until the TUF Finale on April 9, 2005, that the thing really took off. The headlining fight between Griffin and Bonnar was so mystifyingly good, so back-and-forth and frantic in pace and devoid of sound defense, that it created an old-fashioned groundswell. These days we like to think whoever was watching got on their phones and told those casuals who weren’t to tune in, and then those people called others, and those people still others, and pretty soon everyone was alive with the sound of leathersmash with their jaws dropped to the floor at what they were beholding.
"That fight was important," says the third man in the Octagon that night, Herb Dean. "That’s the fight that got people interested in what we were doing. Those guys brought it, and everything about it kind of went perfect. Dana White, he came out and gave them both the award. It was a great day."
The award was (and still is) a vague six-figure contract. But in this case, with the fight transcending all expectation, White awarded both men the contracts, because it was the right thing to do. White’s largesse was as central to the payoff as the fight itself. And that fight, with its show of pluck and determination and the willingness to swing freely, became the most valuable single event to ever happen to the UFC.
"When reffing, I can tell when a fight’s exciting, and that one I definitely could," Dean says. "I was like, okay, these people need to start cheering right now. This is something special. Hardly ever do you see light heavyweights go at it with that type of pace."
Dean, who came up in refereeing in the King of the Cage beginning in 1999, reckons the first UFC fight he officiated was at UFC 47, when Wade Shipp fought Jonathan Wiezorek. He’s been in the cage for some of the biggest fights on record over the years. He’s seen everything, but he says he had no idea of the magnitude of what he was watching at the Hard Rock Hotel that night.
"I didn’t know it would be that important at the time," he says. "I remember it was a great fight and I was so happy that for the Finale, that these guys did it as good as it could get, but had no idea it would have that type of importance.
"I’ve been surrounded by mixed martial arts. From the inside I can’t really see how big it’s growing, because it surrounds me all the time. If I’m treading water in a big swimming pool, a little swimming pool, the ocean, the bottom line is your surrounded by water, you know what I mean? So I don’t have a great perspective."
Bonnar and Griffin are now both tucked away in the UFC Hall of Fame, in no small part because they put on a fight that opened the floodgates to public enthusiasm. That bout, unbeknownst at the time to the fighters themselves, had the greatest stakes in the abstract sense. They were punching for a million futures, and eating punches for a million more.
At the time, who’d have thought that the UFC would grow so big?
"It’s really funny, but I did," Dean says. "I was upset because it took so long, but maybe I don’t understand things the way I should. In the 1980s, we watched all kinds of things on TV. I’m not trying to take anything away from curling, but we watched people brush ice. I believe that fighting is the purest sport on Earth, because I think that all sports really are a fight."