I am not a big fan of reality television. I've found myself sucked into programs, hating every minute, but consumed to know the outcome (I'm a fool for cliffhangers/"tune in next week" junk). So, I find myself watching two seasons worth of The Amazing Race only to realize every episode was repetitious melange of travel-weary couples grating on each others nerves, rushing through exotic locales so fast they cannot appreciate them, and mainly just watching racers stand around in some airport terminal bickering with a ticket agent. Frankly, I don't need to spend hours of my life watching such trivial things when I could be watching Buddha's Palm or The Story of Ricky for the twentieth time.
However, when Spike TV entered into a relationship with The Ultimate Fighting Championship, I couldn't resist because I am a mixed martial arts fan. Though the boxing reality show competitions on Fox (Next Great Champ) and NBC (The Contender) proved to be disastrous and the show was being broadcast on a network best known for CSI reruns and terrible original junk like Striperella and Joe Schmo, I still had a glimmer of hope for the UFC/Spike's The Ultimate Fighter. The end result was kinda' good/kinda' bad.
The premise is simple: Sixteen mixed martial arts fighters (Light Heavyweights and Middleweights) are put in a Real Word style bitchin' pad (did I just date myself by writing "bitchin"?) that is really cool for about thirty minutes until they realize they cannot leave, watch tv, or talk on the phone, so they are forced to stare at their meathead roommates for hours on end. Coaches Randy "The Natural" Couture and Chuck "The Iceman" Liddell (at the time, Couture being the UFC Light Heavyweight Champ and Liddell the top contender) split the prospects into teams. Each weak there is a team challenge and a mano y mano fight, the loser of the fight gets booted from the series. The team that wins the challenge gets the advantageous position of determining the fight match up. They can put one of their strong members against the opposing teams weakest, or choose to try and eliminate a strong fighter, and so forth. Along the way, the fighters get to train at a state of the art facility with their team coaches and assistant coaches, who specialize in different key MMA disciplines (Ju-jitsu, Muay Thai, and Boxing). Eventually it is whittled down to four fighters, two from each weight class, who will face off in a live finale where the winner gets prizes and a six figure contract with the UFC.
For better or worse (okay, actually worse), due to his penchant for egotistical trash talking and drunken obnoxiousness, Middleweight Chris Leben is the early standout character. The editors obviously saw him as a gold mine of onscreen antics. The first night culminates in a blitzed Leben pissing on the bed of Jason Thacker, who due to his goofy appearance, bad physical shape, and stereotypical bland/Canadian demeanor becomes the shows instant outcast. Middleweight Deigo Sanchez gets pegged as the weird one because he talks as if he was lead to mixed martial arts via the voice of God or innerstellar alien transmission. Josh Koshcheck and Bobby Southworth quickly become the villains/instigators, with Southworth being the dominant alpha male to Koshcheck's catty monkey on a leash tagging along. From the outset the most easygoing guys seem to be Forrest Griffin, Stephan Bonnar, Nate Quarry, and the seemingly too small for a middleweight Kenny Florian.
An unfortunate choice in marketing saw the cast being described as "the best unsigned fighters in the world," which proved to be not unlike saying "premium malt liquor" or "fancy peanuts." The truth was three fold, some were from established camps (Leben and Quarry from Couture's Team Quest), others had decent small show fight records (like Griffin and Sanchez), and some had meager records against crap opponents (like Thacker, Chris Sanford, and Josh Rafferty). And, of course, there was also the glaring fact that there were only Americans and one Canadian representing "the world." No Japanese? No Russians? No Brazilians? Those are countries where mma is more popular than in America.
In terms of reality bull, the format doesn't allow much room for the usual reality backstabbing and political maneuvering. Most of the drama came in the form of drunkeness and the usual personalities rubbing each other the wrong way. Leben goes on many a tirade which found him both reduced to tears and violently punching his way through doorways. Leben has many an embarrassing moment, both sober and sauced, but it did provide more drama. In the absence of Leben's antics they were left with lackluster subplots involving stuff like perpetually smarmy light heavyweight Sam (unaffectionately dubbed "Sausage Tits" by his fellow cast members) Hogar's supposed theft of UFC apparel and roommates vitamin supplements.
The funniest thing about the show, its biggest reality competition failing, was the challenge aspect. First, they have the challenges hosted by vapid model/blow-up doll Willa Ford, who has about as much business on a reality show with mma fighters as Richard Simmons. The main problem was, when you have a cast of guys who don't mind fighting- who actually want to fight- they don't care one way or the other if they get picked to fight or have the power to make the match. There is just no incentive to win the challenge. On top of that, most of the challenges look like some bargain version of a Survivor task, the worst of which involves the teams carrying around their coaches on some kind of dime store barcalounger rig. Luckily, in season two (currently airing Mon nights), the challenges have become more simple/self-consciously silly and the spokeswhore is no longer presenting the challenges.
Personality-wise as coaches, Liddell and Couture are each just down to business and soft spoken sorts so there were no real Burgess Merideth yelling bouts with their trainees. Another of the shows terrible stumbles was that it probably didn't anticipate one coach winning more than the other, thus when Liddell's fighters won the majority of their match-ups, he was forced to give up a fighter to Couture's team to even out their numbers. So, whats the point of winning if you have to give up a fighter? Again, another off putting point- the timeline of the show was too short to allow a fighter replacement to even out the teams, not to mention enough recovery time if a fighter is injured, which also took people out of the show.
Finally, to the nitty gritty- the fights. Having every show end with a fight and settling housemates inner disputes by having cast members duke it out in the ring was great in theory but wanting in terms of actual quality. A lot of the fights are pretty uneven mismatches, most show the fighters inexperience, and only a handful are decent. But, the UFC was fair enough to ask all of the fighters back for the finale where they fought against each other on the non-televised undercard. This allowed them another chance to prove themselves, and those that were impressive have been asked back, making the show have more than two winners. That final fight night saw the middleweight and light heavyweight finalists fighting before the main event match between UFC vet Ken Shamrock and up and comer, now current champ, Rich Franklin. In terms of the reality finalists, one match would be a short, one-sided beatdown, the other has been justifiably described as one of the greatest wars in UFC history, a bloody, all heart, three round battle.
The DVD:13 episodes (the last being the finale live fight night card) on four discs, plus a bonus disc of extras. Uncut. Which means you can graphically watch Josh Rafferty upchuck during training and hear words like "Pussy" and "Fuck."
Picture: Full-screen. Standard. Well, this is not a high definition series, so there are some slight quality setbacks to be expected. Pretty normal stuff. Fairly good looking color, contrast, and sharpness. Some slight compression issues, but nothing too irksome other than some slight edge enhancement.
Sound: 2.0 Stereo. Again, typical tv fare, pretty basic and simple. Gets the job done. The music (forgettable techno stuff for the incidental bits and heavy metal hooks for all of the drama and fight entrances) comes across very strong and appropriately aggressive.
Extras: Disc Four- The Finals, contains Fight Profiles for the finalists, Kenny Florian and Deigo Sanchez, and Forrest Griffin and Stephan Bonnar. UFC president and mouthpiece Dana White narrates the clips, which provide a good look at the fighters, including background info, problems they might have had (Forrest was too aggressive when sparring, which lead to Stephan Bonnar getting cut), their fights, and amusing moments, like Bonnar's needling of Diego or Griffin's ad for UFC water ("Ass kicking in a bottle!") and assessment of the difficulties in fighting Sam Hogar ("Sam's a greasy mother fucker.")
Disc Five- Bonus Disc. The main feature of this two hour plus disc is the prelim fights from the finale fight night. These fights were not televised until later when a few of them showed up on the UFC Unleashed compilation show. The fights are: Josh Rafferty Vs. Alex Karalexis, Mike Swick Vs. Alex Shoenauer, Nate Quarry Vs. Lodune Sincaid, Josh Koscheck Vs. Chris Sanford, Chris Leben Vs. Jason Thacker, and Bobby Southworth Vs. Sam Hogar. Except for one fight, none of these fights lasted the distance.— Fighter profiles for Karalexis, Swick, Quarry, Koscheck, and Leben. Again, like on the finale disc, a basic video bio with the fighters history on the show, some unseen moments, and assessment of their fights.— Coach Profiles. Video footage talking about the three principle coaches that worked with all of the fighters, Mark Lamon (Ju-jitsu), Ganyao (Muay Thai), and Peter Welch (Boxing). Good stuff.— Three additional featurettes round out the disc. "Definition of an Ultimate Fighter", "Conditioning Training", and "Technique of the Week." The first two focus on Couture and Liddell training the fighters. Actually, the show might have been better if they focused on this athletic stuff rather than the reality drama. The "Technique" feature are brief clips where Liddell and Couture demonstrate various mma moves, from a triangle choke to Liddell's favored overhand right punch. I don't recall if they aired these on tv (the liability of some kid doing them on his snotty brother would be high), but they were obvioulsy intended as a sort of tag at the end of the show.
Conclusion: Well, the show was not quite the perfect marriage of reality show drama/challenges and mixed martial arts. But, despite its drawbacks, the show proved to be a minor basic cable hit.
In terms of being rental or purchase worthy, I am in a bit of a spot. For fans of the first series, it is certainly worth a buy. For casual viewers and newbies, the series itself is only rental worthy, while the actual fourth and fifth disc (the finals and extras that focus on the fight training) are worth owning- but you cant unless you buy the whole set. A shame really, but that's the way it goes. I guess I'll give it a blanket recommendation, though, personally (and bear in mind I'm a reality hater), I only think the last two discs are worth owning/rewatching.