The Ultimate Fighter has become the UFC’s farm system for finding top undiscovered talent for mixed martial arts. The reality show has produced multiple world champions and countless contenders over it tenure on the air. The tournament format of the show is grueling. Three fights in a 6 week period while completely cut off from friends, family and the support structure that usually guides a fighter through troubled waters. Fighters must compete through injuries and literally live side by side with the very people training to knock them out. They are robbed of their privacy and all their eccentricities are broadcast worldwide for public scrutiny. Fighters who persevere to the finale possess an extraordinary amount of mental and physical fortitude; steadfast discipline and devotion to their craft make them the benchmark for aspiring combatants across the globe. However, juxtaposed alongside these marvels of martial excellence is a motley crew of self sabotaging underachievers with a surplus of hubris and a deficit of commitment. These self-proclaimed “professional fighters” forgo hard work and dedication in favor of binge drinking, street fighting, fraternity styled pranks and gluttonous overeating.
Aside from perhaps quitting on the stool, the most visible external sign of a fighter’s lack of heart is failure to make weight – a behavior that has plagued The Ultimate Fighter since its inception (I briefly discussed my first hand experience with a TUF cast member falling short on the scales HERE). Making weight on the show is much more difficult than other fights mainly due to the fact that the weight cuts are so frequent. Often times the fighters who do best on the show are those who compete above their natural fighting weight. Joe Stevenson, Mac Danzig and Kevin Gastelum are prime examples of this phenomenon. Mitigating circumstances aside, all fighters know what they are getting themselves into when they sign on the dotted line. The weight cuts are not a surprise and the fighters have access to the best food money can buy at zero cost for the duration of the show. This season, Cody Bollinger was the first to fall victim to the scale. He suffered embarrassment on the grandest scale and became the recipient of untold amounts of ridicule and disdain. In spite of this public crucifixion, his opponent to be Anthony Gutierrez suffered the same fate. Gutierrez is stable mates with numerous UFC veterans. He has seen how professionals conduct themselves at the highest level. Additionally, his coaches and teammates pointed out the recklessness of his “nutritional regimen”. Gutierrez simply arrogantly assumed he could cut 20 pounds in a week’s time and failed…miserably. David Grant was Gutierrez’s opponent and was the perfect foil, a consummate professional. Rather than enjoying an easy route to the finals, Grant was devastated that he earned his spot by forfeit. It was as if he considered his entry to the finals an unjust enrichment. He yearned for the crucible of competition and felt betrayed that he was denied his opportunity to demonstrate his worth. I actually believe he would rather have fought and lost than receive advancement via weight cut.
This turn of events holds many consequences for the sport. On the one hand, it plays to the sport’s critics by portraying the athletes as amateurish, weak minded children who can’t fulfill the most pedestrian of obligations. The title of “Ultimate Fighter” is forever weakened as the public now realizes that simply being on weight is enough to secure a spot in the finals.
The UFC and the sport of mixed martial arts should take this occurrence as an opportunity for some self assessment. Fighters routinely miss weight. There is one astronomical difference between a fighter missing weight on TUF as opposed to a regular UFC event – the fight doesn’t occur. There is no negotiation, no financial compensation to make up for the infraction, the penalty for missing weight is simple; you are not entitled to compete. At almost every UFC event someone misses weight. John Lineker has missed the mark a staggering three times yet for some reason he is still allowed to compete in the same division. Weight classes are in place to create a level playing field, to ensure that skill, athleticism and determination determine the victor rather than simply size. Violating weight class restrictions is the most blatant form of cheating. You don’t miss weight in the heat of the moment. There was no moment of confusion or anger that made you forget the weight class you signed up for. The competitor was aware of the rules and blatantly disregarded them. Allowing a bout to continue by simply instituting a financial penalty would be equivalent to allowing a fighter to openly take steroids if they sacrificed 20% of their purse. If athletic commissions scrapped a fight whenever a fighter missed weight then the UFC would likely cut fighters after their first infraction, or at the very least require them to move up a weight class for future fights. Additionally, if the threat of a fight falling through was real then coaches and promoters alike would check the progress of their fighters on the path to weigh-ins. A fighter competing at 135 pounds should not be 150 the week of the fight. The fighter didn’t mentally quit during the weight cut, they were far too heavy.
If the UFC adopted this model it would result in short term chaos followed by long term improvement. For the first year fights would be called off regularly, but once cuts were doled out fighters would wise up. They would stop trying to drop a weight class after every defeat. They would refrain from taking bouts on 7 days notice. They would stop assuming they could sweat out 20 pounds in a matter of days and instead make sensible weight loss decisions. Sadly, I doubt the UFC will adopt this policy. Instead we will continue to scold the TUF combatants who miss weight and reward the cheaters in the UFC who do the same.