Whenever the colors of the "Ultimate Fighter" franchise begin to bleed together a little bit the UFC gets to experimenting. Over the years we’ve seen the shake-ups: There was the live version. There was Kimbo Slice season, which produced the single most comical epiphany of all time ("The enemy is the inner me," realized the back-alley brawler). There was the invisible season (purportedly TUF 16, which nobody can confirm because nobody watched).
And there was the "comeback" season, which regurgitated the likes of Shonie Carter and Matt Serra back into existence.
This season -- the 18th -- is sort of being rolled out as an evolution. It’s the first time we’ve seen an elixir of women and men in the same house. That the women are part of the enterprise isn’t so much a movement for fistic equality as a long-overdue inevitability. And this was all made possible by current UFC champion Ronda Rousey, who made up for Dana White’s concerns regarding divisional depth by containing multitudes, star appeal and armbars.
To spice things up, for weeks we’ve been tantalized with the drama going on with her and his archrival Miesha Tate, who slid in through the backdoor when Cat Zingano blew out her knee.
What’s to follow is hijinks, drama, and -- everyone suspects -- randy behavior, with Rousey shown in glimpses pouting over the action.
Here are five observations about the season’s debut show.
Reminiscent of TUF's 1 and 4
Since it’s the first time the women have been showcased on TUF there is a greater concentration of talent in one room. Just like the very first TUF, when Forrest Griffin, Kenny Florian and Diego Sanchez were the players -- back when "spritzing" was all the rage -- the women on the show figure to factor into the UFC’s landscape when all is said and done.
Yet, because we’ve seen Tara LaRosa before, and Roxanne Modafferi in Strikeforce, there’s a sense of second chances. Or, second first chances, given that the ultimate prize is a contract with the UFC. That’s a far cry from Moosin.
And there was nothing disappointing in how things played out in that first show. Modafferi, who was riding in on a five-fight losing streak, won her fight to get in the house. LaRosa, on the other hand, lost to Sarah Moras. The veteran whom many consider one the pioneers of women’s MMA couldn't punch her ticket to six weeks of utter deprivation.
The smiles and the storm clouds
It was a little strange to see the gleeful way in which Dana White passed along the news of Zingano having blown out her knee. Of course, he was mirthful not because of that, but because he got to roll out Tate as an alternative. Tate did her part by smiling at the confused Rousey like the proverbial cat that ate the canary.
Say what you will about Tate’s merit in getting that spot coming off a loss, but in a reality series where bad blood is fun and always watchable, this should be fun and pretty watchable.
It was even more fun to watch the surveying process as the fights unfolded to get into the house. There sat White between a chatty Tate and a brooding Rousey, who was taking copious notes and ignoring the small talk. Awkward.
A closer look at the other side of Rousey
One of the selling points that has come out entering this season is that Rousey is nervous about how she’ll be perceived by the public once the edited versions of this man-made reality hits the air. This, of course, translates to allure. What could she possibly mean? What does/did she do? What piece of canned scandal is giving her the fidgets?
We’ll have to tune in. But there's something about her "sides" that's still in the the process of sinking in. The stormy side was most in evidence in the first episode. At one point, while transfixed and soberly staring at the camera, she gave us a chilling glimpse.
"I am meant to retain this belt," she deadpanned. "I'm going to retire undefeated." It was ominous. It smacked of the time that Ivan Drago told us what was on his mind as Apollo Creed twitched and died behind him in Rocky IV.
"I cannot be defeated," he said very icily. "I beat all man. Someday, I will beat a real champion. If he dies, he dies."
White’s inspiration speech
Back in the day, when the whole TUF rat house was going up in flames and guys didn’t want to fight, Dana White came thundering onto the scene and gave his now iconic speech about "do you want to be a f---ing fighter." That served as kindling to the fitness of those modern warriors, and they proceeded with no further outbursts.
This time White arrived with a speech at the ready, like Knute Rockne showing up in Mad Max.
"What you don't want to be is that guy riding home on the bus tomorrow," he said. "Do everything you can -- punch, kick, knee, slam, go for submissions. If you ever fought a fight in your f---ing life, make that fight tomorrow."
The producers were smart enough to put an ominous drone sound behind him as his temperature rose. This was most effective.
Lost in the trail mix of all that’s going on, there are eight bantamweights on the men’s side. It’s become old hat to watch the guys fight to get into the house, but the UFC's current 135-pound division is in need of fortification. A couple of the contestants looked pretty good, too.
One of them was David Grant, who came on like a dust devil after being docked a point for an illegal blow. Will anybody noteworthy emerge from this cast? We'll find out as they ladle things out in weekly rations, but a couple of those guys looked like they'd give up everything they had to find success as a fighter. And, for this show's purposes, that can't be bad.