clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Nine years after the original, TUF 20 busts down new barriers

MMA Fighting

At a screener for The Ultimate Fighter 20 in New York last week, eight of the strawweights were on hand, all of them in on a secret. They knew their short-term fates, while the media ate baked haddock and inferred what it could. A few of them, including the Scottish castmate Joanne Calderwood and Canadian fighter Randa Markos, needed to hustle so they could ring the NASDAQ bell. On the left coast, in Los Angeles, the other eight women of TUF were doing some approximation of the same thing with a different slate of gumshoe media.

Last night, there was an actual Hollywood premiere of TUF 20, with red carpets, the entire field of 16, the coaches (Anthony Pettis and Gilbert Melendez), Ron Kruck and everything. This season, which kicks off tonight on Fox Sports 1 for the whole populace, is getting some bells and whistles.

Not that that’s necessarily new, as the UFC has traditionally made a push to market its nine-year old vehicle to unearth tomorrow’s stars -- but this season has a lot going for it. For one, the stars have already been discovered, and the six-week audition process of TUF is more like a six-week "showcase" of what they can do. It’s not just an inaugural 115-pound title that’s on the line, it’s that we’re getting the entire division dropped into our living rooms all at once with a title on the line.

"Actually, it was six-and-a-half weeks [in the house]," Felice Herrig says. "It was so long. I made a link chain, and every day I took one off. It was motivation to see the chain getting smaller and smaller. The time did not fly by."

Herrig is perhaps the best known of the TUF 20 cast, and the most vilified for being a sort of come-to-life, grown-up Cindy Brady figure. Her and Heather Clark had a rivalry coming into the show, and even gathered in Manhattan to see their handiwork in a freshly produced, new look format, they didn’t seem overly chummy. They sat at opposite sides of the room, and giggled among their cliques, particularly when Clark demonstrates how Herrig chews gum on camera.

If the UFC is selling this cast’s sexiness as a sort of garnish to go with the main dish of fighting, Herrig is one of those who embrace it. She’s been known to drop a suggestive selfie her day on her Twitter feed, or see peculiar shapes in the cactus, which rubs some women (and plenty of media) the wrong way.

"I have made a living doing my thing, doing photo shoots, working for sponsors," Herrig says. "People only see, like, ‘oh, look at that person looking all sexy in that ad.’ Yeah, it’s an ad -- it’s an ad maybe representing a multi-million dollar company, and they choose you to represent their ad because they like your look, and they like your feminism. But also because of the sport and your athleticism, so they like seeing both sides.

"I think a lot of people like to look at things as black and white, why can’t you meet in the middle? Why can’t you have more going for you than just your profession, or just your sport? There are so many dimensions to each person, and not everybody is good at just one thing. It’s like if I go to school, and I take math and English and science, and somebody says, ‘oh, you’re so good at math -- you can only be good at math, you have to flunk out of science.’"

Her fight side is the science of eight limbs, as she’s a muay Thai practitioner. Tecia Torres, whom she’s fought before, is a karate blitzkrieg. Carla Esparza, one of the favorites to win the show, is a wrestler. Angela Magana, at least on surface, is a transcendentalist and self-described "face puncher." Jessica Penne, the former atomweight champion in Invicta FC -- the promotion that provided eight of the contestants in the house -- has jitz. Aisling Daly, bless her heart, is Irish.

It’s a (mostly) seasoned cast.

"It’s funny, one thing they didn’t show, but Dana says if you didn’t get picked [after the tryouts] it’s because of your record, it’s because you don’t have enough fights," says Angela Hill, who came in with a record of 1-0. "Then I’m like the second name he called. I don’t know if he did it just to get a reaction out of me or what."

What makes TUF 20 even better is that there is endless back-story intersection, something that the producers foreshadowed well. Plenty of the cast have crossed paths before. Herrig fought Torres, Torres fought Rose Namajunas, who herself fought Emily Kagan. Herrig also fought Esparza, Esparza fought Bec Rawlings, and so on. There is a lot going on underneath the surface. The competitors, without exception, are high-level martial artists.

There are also a couple of wrinkles in the format, smart ones, that set the table for what should be the best season since Chuck Liddell was being carried in a La-Z-Boy down the beach by the original batch of reality pioneers.

"It feels like we broke the mold and started anew," says the UFC’s Craig Borsari, who is the senior vice president of production and operations. "For us, just having the women was a big enough change, but you throw the belt on top of that, and your throw the format changes, and all of those changes collectively made it really feel new."

It does feel new. And that’s half the trick when it comes to something at times lambasted for being so tired and old.

Sign up for the newsletter Sign up for the MMA Fighting Daily Roundup newsletter!

A daily roundup of all your fighting news from MMA Fighting