Thursday, March 15, 2007

'Ultimate Fighter' returns to the airwaves

By Dave Meltzer

Reality television show that in large part fueled the mixed martial arts boom returns for a fifth season on Spike TV.

"The Ultimate Fighter," the reality television show that in large part fueled the mixed martial arts boom, returns for a fifth season on Spike TV on April 5 at 10 p.m.

The reality show has turned complete unknowns into some of the UFC's marquee stars. On every UFC event, you see several fighters who first became names on the previous incarnations of the show. From his first fight after being on the show, Forrest Griffin has been one of the company's most popular fighters. Other show alumni such as Diego Sanchez, Josh Koscheck, Mike Swick, Rashad Evans, Joe Stevenson and Michael Bisping all have major matches with potential championship shots at stake over the next three months.

A new group of 16 fighters, for the first time in the history of the show competing in the lightweight division (155 pounds), will have a tournament play out every week with a multi-year UFC contract in the balance. The cast, picked by UFC officials and Spike TV, features a combination of good young fighters, interesting personalities, and hopefully, in some cases, both.

They'll be coached by UFC's first-ever lightweight champion, Jens Pulver, and his rival, B.J. Penn, a former welterweight champion who many within the game will say is among the most talented pure fighters in company history. When Pulver was champion, most felt he was only keeping the title warm for Penn. But when the fight happened, on Jan. 11, 2002, in Uncasville, Conn., Pulver won a close five-round decision. During the second round of that fight, the then-unbeaten Penn caught Pulver in an armbar at the buzzer. Pulver tapped a split second after the round ended, so it didn't count. Then, as has been the case so often with Penn, as the fight wore on, his opponent started taking over.

In the years that past, both fighters left UFC for what were at the time greener pastures in Japan. At one point Penn was even involved in legal action with UFC. When Penn was brought back in 2006, he wanted it guaranteed in the contract he could get a fight with Pulver. He didn't get that clause, since Pulver was fighting with Pride in Japan. But later in the year, a deal was struck with Pulver to return. Pulver had never lost the title in the ring (he went to Japan later in 2002 after a contract dispute), and the idea was to put him on the television show as a coach to get his name out to the new fan base so he'd be marketable for a title shot at whomever the champion would be.

In his return on Sept. 23, at the Honda Center, those plans were derailed. He was knocked out in 48 seconds by an unheralded Joe Lauzon. His title shot was blown. But after some thought and debate, UFC decided to keep Pulver as a coach for a season of shows that have finished taping at this point. Penn was named as his coaching rival, to use the promotional model that last year led to the company breaking both its PPV and later its television ratings record for two Ken Shamrock vs. Tito Ortiz matches after they were rival coaches on Ultimate Fighter 3, the most successful of the four incarnations.

Ratings for the fourth season went down significantly. Part of the reason was going against Thursday night football games, but a lot of the reason was a largely less interesting group of fighters and no personal heat between the coaches. Reports are very hard to come by over what will transpire on the show this season, but it is known UFC was very happy with what was taped. There were apparently some of the best fights in the history of the show, and the fireworks that broke out during the season between the two coaches were second to only the Shamrock-Ortiz rivalry.

Another interesting dynamic of the season is Lauzon, who spoiled Pulver's title shot, is one of the favorites to win the tournament. Sporting a 14-3 record, he may have stunned everyone by knocking Pulver out, but he's a genuine top-flight submission fighter with 11 tap-out wins. It's a 50% chance that Pulver will have to coach the fighter who knocked him out of title contention.

Opposition for Lauzon included colorful characters like Allen Berbue, who owns a lobster restaurant in Tampa, Fla., to whom appearing on the show, win or lose, constitutes a win for publicity to "Monsta Lobster," to recent UFC fighters Matt Wiman and Gabe Ruediger. Wiman, who had enough guts to wear shorts with "Handsome" written on them, had one of UFC's most exciting fights of 2006 in a losing effort to title contender Spencer Fisher. Ruediger is attempting to erase the memory of him being the recipient of one of last year's most spectacular knockouts, from a body shot by Melvin Guillard.

They come in different shapes and sizes as well. Corey Hill is 6-4, and towers over the rest of the cast, and who becomes a centerpiece of the show from the first episode of the series. While 6-4, 155 pounds sounds frail, and at first glance he looks to be a boxer or kickboxer, he was actually a multi-time high school state champion wrestler in Florida. He won one state title at a time he was 6-2 and 119 pounds. But he's now close to 30, married and with a family, and hasn't competed in years, but may be the best athlete in the bunch. Manuel Gamburyan, still in his early 20s, has competed at a national level in judo since entering age group tournaments at the age of nine. He's the regular training partner of welterweight contender Karo Parisyan, and a protege of old-time pro wrestling shooter "Judo" Gene LeBell. Being only 5-3, and with short arms, the stand-up game is not to his advantage. But he's got a true fighter's mentality and may be the physically strongest member of the cast.

Others come out of top camps. Brandon Melendez is a veteran fighter under Jeremy Horn. Cole Miller has extensive training with the American Top Team in Florida, and scored brownie points in a Florida tryout when Manny Reyes, who had bragged he could beat anyone in UFC on the internet, came to the tryouts and Miller put him out with a triangle in a grappling session in seconds. Nathan Diaz, from the Cesar Gracie camp in Concord, Calif., is the younger brother of former UFC star Nick Diaz. Nathan Diaz was fighting professionally in Japan at the age of 20, and in his most recent fight, he lost to current No. 1 contender in the weight class, Hermes Franca.

The rest of the cast includes Robert Emerson, who has fought several times in Japan with the Pancrase organization; Brian Geraghty, Gary Maynard, Brandon Melendez Marlon Sims, Noah Thomas, Andy Wang and Wayne Weems.

The show will conclude on June 23 with a live show in Las Vegas with the tournament championship match, and the Penn vs. Pulver main event.

Notes: Forrest Griffin, the most well-known Ultimate Fighter alumnus, had to pull out on Wednesday of his match with unbeaten Lyoto Machida on UFC 70, on Apr. 21 in Manchester, England, due to a staph infection in his knee. Griffin was attempting to bounce back after his knockout loss to Keith Jardine on Dec. 30. UFC failed to reach an agreement with HBO to televise the show, which will instead be the strongest line-up for a UFC event ever on Spike TV, headlined by Mirko Cro Cop vs. Gabriel Gonzaga. The winner of that heavyweight fight, which Cro Cop is a strong favorite, is expected to face Randy Couture this summer in what will be one of the most successful MMA PPV events in history. . . International Fight League commissioner Kurt Otto and CEO Gareb Shamus have been attempting to do damage control after the disastrous reaction to their television debut on MyNetworkTV, which aired on Monday night and will be repeated on Saturday. The show played up the violence and brutality to the point many viewers were sickened. The show was built around the constant tease of that before the show ends, you will see someone taken out on a stretcher. It gave the show a sleazy, freak show feel, something completely different than the impression one would get seeing a live event. The attempt to keep viewers from tuning out before the finish backfired, as viewership declined greatly in the second half of the show. The league makes its Southern California debut on Saturday night at The Forum, where Marco Ruas' Southern California Condors face the Tokyo Sabres; and Bas Rutten's Los Angeles Anacondas face Frank Shamrock's San Jose Razorclaws. The Anacondas are the team to beat in the league after knocking off the previously unbeaten 2006 champion Quad City Silverbacks on Feb. 2 in Houston, and also feature the league's hottest fighter in 18-year-old Chris Horodecki.

Dave Meltzer is the creator and author of the Wrestling Observer Newsletter, a leading publication covering pro wrestling and mixed martial arts. For more information, visit

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