Whether you tune into The Ultimate Fighter for the action in the octagon or the drama in the house, you’ll notice some welcome changes to the newest cycle of the FX series — beginning with its Tuesday night time-slot.
Having asked UFC president Dana White for one more shot at bolstering the show’s Friday night ratings, which trailed painfully behind the audience numbers TUF enjoyed at Spike, FX head John Landgraf honored his promise to move it to Tuesdays as a lead-in to the network’s hit drama Justified.
In the newest go-round, twenty-eight middleweight fighters will battle for a slot on seven-man teams coached by current UFC Light Heavyweight Champion Jon “Bones” Jones and his upcoming UFC 159 challenger Chael Sonnen over a 13-week tournament.
TUF also ditched the live format it experimented with last cycle, after White and company realized that the personal stories that helped attract a 50% female audience share to the show were given too much of a backseat. “I loved it; I thought it was great,” he told reporters at this month’s TCA Press Tour, “but what we were missing was that it was a reality show, and when you did it live, you didn’t have enough time for the reality and the human drama that people loved to see. It was basically just a fight show.”
Instead, White said, the new cycle has a documentary feel — bolstered by the fighters’ ability to bring loved ones in to support them in their elimination battles.
“I wish we did it five seasons ago,” White said. “It was awesome to have the place packed with family members and the emotions on both sides — the guys who lost and had to go home with their families that day, and the guys who won and had to say good bye to their families. A lot of people have this total misconception of what a UFC athlete is, and having their families there definitely humanized them. You got to see this guy is actually a father and he has a wife. It’s awesome.”
Jon Jones agrees. “It let the viewer know who the fighter was, gave you a better sense of where they’re from, what the tournament means to them and how serious it really was, seeing the guy’s kids cry and their wife screaming,” he said. “It just made you more attached to the athlete.”
The 25-year-old Jones — who tried out for the show unsuccessfully at age 20 — also said that coaching athletes who were once in shows taught him a lot about himself as a fighter and an person.
“It was definitely a learning curve to be able to set yourself aside and to realize that everyone is not you and they don’t have the capabilities that you have and they don’t have the mindset that you have,” he said. “So you really had to step outside of yourself and really look at who you’re working with and what you’re working with and try to give them all an equal opportunity. You had to be sensitive to everyone’s weaknesses and everyone strengths and try to find an even playing ground for everyone to come up together and be in one court — and that was kind of tough. Because I know what works for me, and to realize that they weren’t me was the first step I had to take.”
Finding himself a father figure to men who’d past a few more birthdays than he proved challenging, as well. “To talk to adult men that were a lot older than me about staying strong and staying tough and saying ‘Hey, I know you want to cry right now, but try to stay strong’ was a lot for me to learn,” Jones said. “I think I’ve evolved a lot from being around these guys.”
Asked if he discovered any common challenge in all of his fighters, Jones says it was getting them to own and appreciate their talent — something he’s never struggled with himself.
“A lot of the guys had issues with belief — believing in their abilities and what it was possible for them to achieve,” Jones said. “A lot of people didn’t believe strongly — and belief is everything. It’s the core of anything great happening. My belief is really strong, so I realized for the first time that that’s what makes me special, I guess.”
As for the chance of his April 27 title bout with rival coach Sonnen bleeding into their efforts on The Ultimate Fighter, Jones said the two stayed focused on the show — and finding the next great UFC middleweight.
“Me and Chael, we kept it about the fighters,” Jones smiled. “We are very passionate about the fighters, and we had a lot of respect for each other. We’re both adult men, and I don’t think it should be like a freak show — so very respectful towards each other. We’re gentlemen, and we focused on being the best coaches to these guys.”
The two-hour season premiere of The Ultimate Fighter airs Tuesday, Jan. 22 at 8pm ET/PT on FX. The show moves to its regular 9pm timeslot Jan. 29.