There's been a lot of talk lately about what is and is not "UFC caliber" and I agree that this Saturday night did not meet my typical expectations of a UFC production. Part of this was the format and style through which they presented it with the commercials, interviews, previews, and a hundred other points that stretched an otherwise reasonable broadcast into an extended infomercial with fights in between. The other part was my expectations for TUF competitor's skill level was too high.
With the UFC reaching out into more shallow divisions (let's not pretend that the flyweight, bantamweight, or women's bantamweight division are all that deep; it's not for lack of skill [mostly] but rather just not enough competitors yet) and using TUF to 'discover' talent, we end up with a largely lower-level cast than the early days when TUF found the best of the best. The problem is not with TUF, in my opinion, but in a failure from us, the fans, to realize that the purpose of The Ultimate Fighter has changed.
The Ultimate Fighter, if you've been living under a rock in the MMA world, is a reality show which pitches mainly unknown talent against one another in a tournament fashion to earn a six-figure UFC contract in the show's live finale. It's a reality show allowing the common fan to get a glimpse of who these fighters are and learn their stories. The problem starts to occur once we see the skill difference between the contestants on the show versus those who are typically found on the main cards of UFC events (whether pay-per-view or a Fight Night card).
TUF uses an open audition format, sometimes drawing some notable names which have fallen upon hard times. This has allowed UFC main-stays such as Roy Nelson to earn their contract while also developing a strong following through the reality show's audience. However most of the contestants are not a Roy Nelson or even a Shayna Baszler (WMMA pioneer who made it into the house, but not to the finals of TUF). Most of these contestants are fighters who may not even headline a smaller promotion's regular event.
Now let's rewind a few years to when Strikeforce was alive and well. One of Strikeforce's strongest abilities was to take little known fighters who only had a couple fights and develop them into viable contenders through a smaller, lower production, and more locally focused set of shows called the "Challenger" series. Few viable contenders actually emerged from this, but Strikeforce did their diligence and weeded through them and received a few viable commodities (Ryan Couture, Tyron Woodley, Tarec Saffeiedine, Lorenz Larkin).
Few, however, made it to the main level (my examples not withstanding) of a Strikeforce event. When I compare the main cards of TUF finales of late and Strikeforce's Challenger Series cards I see a striking similarity. A few stars might be born and may excel, but on the most part if the cast of TUF is forced to compete in the UFC's typical cards they would fall short, some strikingly so.
Does this mean the "end of the UFC" or that we are "over-saturated" with MMA so must settle for a lower quality of fight because the good ones will be more spread out? I don't think so. I think we must just accept that the dominant brand in our sport is growing, and in growth there will be growing pains. Part of this is the need for the UFC to constantly be looking for the next rising star that might otherwise get over looked. I think that is the purpose of TUF and we seem to be lost in the nostalgia of the first five seasons where our sport was growing so rapidly there was hidden talent under every corner.
Sure, the women's divisions are behind the men, but they haven't been given the opportunity to grow the same way the men's has until recently, and even then we may have found some golden gems with Jessamyn Duke, Julianna Pena, etc.
With TUF going global we as fans will have to realize that the finale will be closer to a local show designed for that country's talent rather than a platform for future champions to announce themselves to the world.