Inside The Ultimate Fighter lives … at Bloody Elbow

I wrote a book about The Ultimate Fighter that never saw the light of day. But Bloody Elbow will publish excerpts for the next 10 weeks. Here’s the story of the book …

Source: Inside The Ultimate Fighter: The best-selling tell-all book that never was – Bloody Elbow

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MMA writing: 2008-2015

Selected pieces on mixed martial arts — all USA TODAY except as noted:

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Preview, features, event coverage 

Covering MMA: Fascinating, frustrating, never dull

One of my projects for this year is to wrap up a book on my experiences covering mixed martial arts. I promise it’ll be a fun read.

So I was happy to see SI’s terrific media reporter, Richard Deitsch, hosting a roundtable of MMA journalists. He got a good cross-section — people are very much “in” the UFC orbit (Heidi Fang, Ariel Helwani) and those who are “out” (Josh Gross).

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Boxer James Toney, soaking up attention in a Boston hotel lobby before his lone UFC fight.

It’s a unique environment. I’ve never covered another sport that handed out copies of Playboy featuring an employee. I’ve rarely found athletes in other sports who’ll just chat, though that’s largely a function of having media and athletes in the same hotels.

I’ve also rarely seen qualified journalists — in some cases, the best in the sport — denied credentials for obviously petty reasons. And I hated that. Not only did it strike me as unfair, but it gave readers the impression that those of us who were “in” had sold our souls and agreed not to say anything negative about the UFC.

So it was refreshing to see this roundtable address that issue and a lot of other things that you’ll see in my book whenever I get around to finishing it.

In order of appearance in the roundtable:

Fans on press row, real journalists not: Fang mentions this in her first answer, and she’s right. To an extent, it’s simply a function of having reporters who didn’t go through the dues-paying you get at a local newspaper. I experienced the same thing when I was courtside at the ACC basketball tournament in the late 90s alongside a couple of kids fresh out of college working for a new whiz-bang website, cheering for N.C. State over Duke while I swallowed my tongue.

Helwani says every reporter working for a credible outlet should be credentialed. And that’s something Kevin Iole and others get into as well later in the roundtable.

Media access: Fighters are, for the most part, quite accessible. I interviewed Tom Lawlor while he was going in and out of the sauna to cut weight. Randy Couture saved a seat for me in the stands backstage at a weigh-in so we could do our interview. Kimbo Slice teased me in a small-group interview, which was hilarious.

Helwani raises a good point — fighters only compete 2-4 times per year, so it’s not like they’re doing locker-room interviews 100 times a year. There’s no time for familiarity to breed contempt.

Some are more private than others. I needed a bit of back-and-forth through PR reps to get a phone interview with Brock Lesnar, and he called me from a number that came up as “Private Number” on my called ID. But the interview was just fine.

Rampage Jackson is another story.

Dana White access: Helwani points out the UFC boss isn’t as accessible today as he was a few years ago, back when I was on the beat. When I was at USA TODAY, he’d chat with me regularly. He has withdrawn over the years, to the point of actually not being present at some press conferences. I think it’s a function of rapid UFC expansion — they put on so many fights each year now, and he can’t be everywhere.

Social media: Some of the nastiest stuff I’ve ever read has been directed at female MMA journalists. The MMA fan base is generally more civil than you’d think from afar, but Twitter gives the idiots a platform.

Of course, I’ve been threatened by Alex Morgan fans, so perhaps it’s not unique to MMA. But I don’t want to trivialize the abuse female journalists have received, on Twitter and on message boards. Some people need Royce Gracie to knee them in a place where it used to be legal.

Will your job exist in 20 years?: I don’t know. I think writing jobs are going to decline. Multimedia jobs are safer. And organizations are likely to demand more control.

The roundtable is a good read, with good thoughtful people. Enjoy.

MMA fighters: Please don’t fight for your family

Marion Reneau is just the latest MMA fighter who says she’s fighting to support her family / give her family a better life:

UFC women’s bantamweight contender Marion Reneau, who is pushing 40, started MMA in her early 30s to help finance her son’s college fund.(From MMA FIghting)

Let’s take a look at the money available in the UFC …

UFC 189, one of the biggest cards in history, paid most of its fighters $10-15K to fight, plus the same amount as a win bonus. (Conor McGregor made a bit more. Just a bit.)

Reneau was actually on a lower pay scale, the dreaded “8+8” scale, for her January fight. She got a bit more because her opponent turned up overweight.

I can’t find the numbers for her February fight, possibly because it was in Brazil. She did get a $50,000 performance bonus.

Then there’s sponsorship. With the Reebok exclusivity, a fighter like Reneau will make $2,500 per fight. A couple more fights, and she’ll make $5,000.

So she might gross $100,000 for the year so far. Not bad, right?

Now consider the following factors:

  • Fighters are paying managers, corner personnel, trainers, etc.
  • This might be a once-in-a-lifetime year for Reneau. Her loss last night to Holly Holm, in an unimpressive fight, put her back down the ladder. Half of her income is one performance bonus — if another fighter had a more impressive knockout or submission on that card, she wouldn’t get that money.
  • Many fighters don’t get three fights a year in the UFC. The roster is too crowded.

So Reneau might clear six figures if she has some other sponsorship that she can tout outside the Reebok-only cage. Or maybe she wins the virtual lottery to get a rare fourth fight this year.

Then next year, she might get two fights and end up with about $30K. And she’s almost 40.

Reneau’s other job was teaching in the Farmersville (Calif.) Unified School District. Minimum salary: $41,485.

This post isn’t about picking on Reneau, though. She picked up a nice bonus. Invest that wisely, then get back to teaching and push that salary into the $50Ks, and she’s on firm footing financially.

Reneau’s plan is much sounder than that of the typical UFC fringe performer you see on The Ultimate Fighter. These are the people who stare into the camera, cry a little and tell us they’re fighting so their families will have a future.

If you’re telling me that, please tell me you have a backup plan.

Reneau is both good — she’s one of the 20 best in her weight class — and lucky. That gets her one good year of solid earnings. A second is no sure bet.

So if you’re the 10th best welterweight in your gym, please do your family a favor and make sure you’ve got some way to make a living other than fighting.

The Ultimate Fighter 21, Episode 3: Please, please throw a punch

A few observations on this week’s episode of the biggest fight series in South Florida since Kimbo beat Afropuff and Big Mac on the same day in the boat yard.

– The new theme song is as lame as it gets. The credits tell us nothing. No idea why they did this.

– Is American Top Team saving its best fighters for when the point values increase? But then the best fighters don’t get to fight twice. Are they just not that good?

– Was Valdir “Baby Monster” Araujo motivated by ATT’s Michael Graves stealing his wine?

– Does the house really have a spa and sauna — only on the Blackzilians’ side of the house?

– Where is Dana White filming all his cutaways? Is NORAD involved?

– Lots of cameos by TUF alumni: Rashad Evans (Blackzilians), Din Thomas (ATT), Robbie Lawler (ATT), Michael Johnson (Blackzilians).

– Will Florida refs ever break up the fight when it’s stalemated against the cage?

– ATT’s Nathan Coy might have made the snappiest comeback in TUF history. ATT’s Steve Carl missed weight and needed to cut a bit, so he headed for the Blackzilian sauna. A couple of Blackzilians took issue, to which the incredulous Florida commission guy asked, “Um, you guys didn’t work this out in advance?” Blackzilian Tyrone Spong tried to kick Carl out, justifying it with a trite “In war, there are no rules.” Coy: “If there’s no rules, we’ll stand here and barricade the (bleep) sauna.” Gotcha there.

– If your corner tells you to punch … punch! Steve Carl didn’t, and ATT is down 75-0.

UFC champions’ declining star power

On July 3, 2010, Brock Lesnar defeated Shane Carwin to unify the UFC heavyweight belt, completing Lesnar’s comeback from diverticulitis. As compiled by Dave Meltzer, the authority on such matters, the pay-per-view buyrate for that event was more than 1 million — the sixth time that had happened in UFC history, the third involving Lesnar.

That has happened only once since then.

The champions as of that date:

  • Heavyweight: Lesnar
  • Light heavyweight: Mauricio “Shogun” Rua
  • Middleweight: Anderson Silva
  • Welterweight: Georges St. Pierre
  • Lightweight: Frankie Edgar

Edgar had recently upset BJ Penn for the lightweight belt, then showed later in the year that it wasn’t such a shock, defending the belt in a rematch. Rua had beaten Lyoto Machida — ending the much-hyped “Machida era” after less than a year — but would soon give way to Jon Jones, who held the belt until … Tuesday, when the UFC stripped him in the wake of a hit-and-run investigation in Albuquerque.

Today’s champions:

  • Heavyweight: Nominally Cain Velasquez, who beat Lesnar and traded it back and forth with Junior dos Santos in an engaging trilogy. But he hasn’t fought since October 2013. The interim champion is Fabricio Werdum.
  • Light heavyweight: Vacant until Anthony Johnson fights Daniel Cormier next month.
  • Middleweight: Chris Weidman, who pulled a Frankie Edgar by shocking a longtime champion (Anderson Silva) and doing it again.
  • Welterweight: Robbie Lawler
  • Lightweight: Rafael dos Anjos
  • Featherweight: Jose Aldo
  • Bantamweight: TJ Dillashaw
  • Flyweight: Demetrious Johnson
  • Women’s bantamweight: Ronda Rousey. Perhaps you’ve heard of her.
  • Women’s strawweight: Joanna Jedrzejczyk

Rousey is easily the champion with the biggest media exposure, gaining a Mike Tyson-style rep for fast finishes while appearing in action filns and making the talk show and magazine rounds like Jennifer Aniston. She has just recently established herself as a pay-per-view draw.

The lighter weight classes have been difficult sells. Aldo needs a compelling opponent. Dillashaw knocked off Renan Barao, someone the UFC had been trying to push without much success. “Mighty Mouse” Johnson has attracted a legion of hardcore bloggers trying to point out his brilliant technique, and his literal last-second armbar win in his last bout should give the UFC a highlight to tout, but casual buyers just aren’t biting. Jedrzejczyk didn’t do UFC marketing any favors — the company held an entire season of The Ultimate Fighter with the alleged 16 best women’s strawweights and crowned tournament winner Carla Esparza its first champion in the weight class, only to see the little-known Polish fighter dismantle Esparza in her first defense.

But the real problems are in those higher weight classes, where the UFC has to market people it pushed away not too long ago:

– Werdum was let go after a disappointing run in the UFC. While beating the invincible Fedor Emelianenko outside the UFC is a nice calling card, he then lost to Alistair Overeem. Since he first joined the UFC in 2007, he is 2-3 against other heavyweights in the UFC’s top 10.

– Anthony Johnson, until recently, was best known as a welterweight and a middleweight who could neither make weight nor beat top guys. His first UFC stint included losses to Rich Clementi, Josh Koscheck and Vitor Belfort. (We’re not counting the “loss” to Kevin Burns, a referee’s error that Johnson remedied in the rematch.) The UFC cast him out, and he pulled a stunning win at heavyweight over Andrei Arlovski before returning to the UFC as a light heavyweight. He fought off Phil Davis, pounded the ancient Antonio Rogerio Nogueira and shocked Alexander Gustafsson to earn a title fight against Jones.

– Lawler spent years in the MMA wilderness, getting cut from the UFC after a loss at UFC 50 in 2004. He fought what might have been the two best bouts in EliteXC’s brief history, both against Scott Smith. Then he compiled a 3-5 record in Strikeforce. In his return to the UFC, he moved to welterweight, with the only loss in seven fights being a narrow decision loss to Johny Hendricks that he avenged in December.

Cormier, an Olympic wrestler and a World Championship medalist, has long-term star potential. Weidman might — he did draw more than 1M PPV buys for his rematch against Silva, and no one who saw that can doubt his legitimacy.

Perhaps the lesson to take from this is that the UFC shouldn’t be so quick to dismiss fighters outside its own ranks. Fans can be excused for thinking, “Wait, was Werdum part of that tournament you said was crap?”

But outside of that, I don’t see many lessons here for the UFC. They’ve done what they can to build up Weidman, Cormier and company. They’ve been unlucky with injuries to Velasquez and former bantamweight champion Dominick Cruz, who had an entertaining rivalry with icon Urijah Faber. Then several of their best fighters and biggest stars have either been beaten (Silva, Benson Henderson, Anthony Pettis, Barao) or drifted into limbo (St. Pierre, Jones).

So these years are a test of the UFC’s staying power, and for the most part, they’re passing. Just don’t expect any Lesnar numbers any time soon.

The Ultimate Fighter 21, Episode 1: These teams matter

How do you keep The Ultimate Fighter fresh after 10 years? Give the UFC credit for trying.

In 2011, they used it to introduce their bantamweight and featherweight divisions. T.J. Dillashaw has gone on to do pretty well for himself, and John Dodson isn’t bad, either.

In 2012, they tried a live season. They decided it didn’t work, so they backed away.

Then — women! First as coaches and half the cast as Ronda Rousey yelled at Miesha Tate for a while. Then as the whole cast last season, with the winner getting the belt. (And, sadly, not successfully defending it.)

This season, things are totally new. Yes, you’ve seen it from the ads — they’re staying in a house that will be underwater when the ice caps melt.

(Disclaimer: Reading the preceding paragraph may be illegal in Florida and North Carolina.)

But this season has a few other novelties:

1. They’re in Miami, not Las Vegas.

2. It’s a matchup of existing teams, not something contrived through a draft. These are rival gyms in South Florida. The fighters are all from those gyms. The fights will be in the gyms. After a coin flip for the first fight, the winner gets home gym for the next fight.

3. To keep up the team-vs-team aspect, this isn’t a tournament. Teams are fighting for points — 25 points for each of the first four fights, 50 for each of the next four, 100 for the last. Fighters can fight once, twice, three times, or none. You have to fight twice to fight in the finale. (They don’t mention the criteria for an overall winner.) And the gym with the most points gets paid.

Oh, and the owners don’t like each other.

Dan Lambert runs American Top Team, which has been around forever and has 45,787 professional fighters, including 17,786 in the UFC. That includes Robbie Lawler, who has completed the improbable rise from middling Elite XC/Strikeforce fighter to UFC champion.

Glenn Robinson used to train with ATT, but he says Dan banned him after he helped some fighters work through … some stuff. Or something. They’re not specific. But Robinson and those fighters struck out on their own. And in a bit of good timing, Rashad Evans bolted from Greg Jackson’s gym and figured South Florida was a trade up from New Mexico.

The best early zinger, from ATT: “Glenn’s just a fat guy who makes tools.” (Thanks to commenters at Bloody Elbow, I know now it’s because he owns a big-time tool company, which may explain the opulent house he shows off later.)

So the only recognizable part of this season is the TUF house, which looks even more opulent than ever, occupying one of those little points out into the water that’ll be worth a lot of money until the next storm hits.

Each team’s arrival in the house looks like this:

The curious thing: Why just one weight class? Does each gym really have eight quality welterweights? I guess they think so.

We get a really quick intro to all the fighters. The standout name is “Creepy Steve” from ATT. The standout resume goes to ATT’s Steve Carl, the former World Series of Fighting champion. (Yes, they mentioned another promotion on the show, though not on the official site’s bio pages.)

We also get a trip over to Glenn Robinson’s dazzling house, where the Blackzilians watch teammate Anthony Johnson’s stunning demolition of Alexander Gustafsson. If you watched the lead-in program, you know that the UFC producers named Gustafsson’s close loss to Jon Jones the best UFC fight … um, ever, apparently. So Johnson’s win was a very big deal.

Over to the ATT gym, where they talk about their strategy for picking fighters. It’s sensible — if you want people to fight more than once, you’d better get them in that first fight early rather than trying to have them go twice with little rest in between in the last few weeks.

And they pick their first fighter: Michael Graves, who describes his style as “wrestling, but all over the place.” If you watched Bull Durham, you know that’s not a compliment. But he doesn’t care about that — he has a fiancee who’s expecting.

Back at the house, conflict has already arisen in the most obvious place — the kitchen. The ATT guys say the Blackzilians are writing their names on all the food, including stuff they didn’t order. Looks like they’re still making a nice meal, though. How did all these fighters turn into such good cooks? I know journalists in their 30s who can barely handle Lean Cuisine.

Speaking of journalism, the Blackzilians’ complex has office space that looks like something big newspapers built before the business model crashed. They do a quick video conference with their guys in Sweden before picking Kamaru Usman for the first fight. Bloody Elbow likes this guy.

Usman is shown praying at the fighters’ house before we get his back story — born and raised (until age 8) in Nigeria, pursued Olympic wrestling career in Colorado Springs (not mentioned: he won the 2010 NCAA Division 2 championship), switched to MMA under Evans’ tutelage, has a daughter.

And we get one of my big TUF Pet Peeves: The guy who says he’s fighting for his family’s financial stability. You want financial stability? Work at a bank. Work at Starbucks and get your degree in the process. If you’re a UFC veteran who continues to fight because you’re actually getting a payoff, OK — then you’re fighting for your family’s long-term financial stability. When you’re on The Ultimate Fighter? You’re chasing a dream. Like me when I ditch this whole writing thing and start my prog-rock trio.

Obligatory beach and water shots, then over to the weigh-in. This is the first time the fighters will know who they’re fighting. Game plan? What game plan?

Anonymous Florida commission guy (that’s right, we’re not in Nevada any more) runs the weigh-in with remarkable formality. Both guys weigh in at 170. They face off, sort of — Graves is looking at the floor.

This is a 90-minute episode, so we get Robbie Lawler on camera along with the usual training cliches. Did you know a lot of fighting is mental? (Funny, I did well on the SAT — can I beat Jon Jones?)

Quick trip back to the house — damn, what are they making in the kitchen? Can we make this a cooking show instead?

I still don’t know much about Graves. He was born three months before I graduated from college. I’m not sure whether to call his hair a mullet.

Usman oozes confidence. He says he scouted everyone on their team. Graves is talented at controlling distance, he says, but that’s against lesser opposition.

Dana White loves the atmosphere, which is strange when you consider that he isn’t there to do the “two five-minute rounds, then sudden victory” speech. He leaves that to our unnamed ref.

Round 1: Usman does the spider crawl across the cage to start, and he soon gets Graves down by the cage. Graves does a decent job of getting up and eventually out. He lands a glancing head kick, and Usman again goes for the takedown. Graves has blood on his cheek somehow, but he gets up again and gets stuck clinch-fighting. Usman gets the underhooks, but Graves powers out and fires a strong knee. His punches, though, lack conviction. With a minute left, Usman lands a solid punch to the face and another takedown, though Graves again bounces right back up. I hate to give the round to someone just because he got a couple of takedowns and did nothing with them, but Graves didn’t do enough to win it. 10-9 Usman

Round 2: Graves is picking up the tempo on the feet, flinging a couple of kicks and punches. Usman gets the clinch against the cage. Ah, my favorite part of MMA — the pointless clinch against the cage where the clincher occasionally tries to land a knee from two inches away to show that he’s busy. Graves gets out, Usman shoots again, Graves gets briefly on top, and … they clinch again. Usman gets him down briefly and very briefly gets on Graves’ back. They break again, and Graves tries a half-hearted spinning back kick.

You get the picture. It’s another one of these fights with a wrestler who has no other discernible skills facing a guy who can’t get his striking game going.

Then suddenly, with 1:40 left, Graves dodges a takedown attack and takes Usman’s back. Usman stands with Graves draped on his back. Graves grits his teeth, going hard for the rear naked choke, but he can’t get the arm under the chin. Graves is on the verge of sliding off Usman’s back when Usman flings him off instead, landing in half-guard and dropping a couple of elbows. “GET UP, MIKEY!” yells an ATT member.

The coaches think we’re going to a third round. It’s 11:21, so it’ll be a brief one if we go.

And we’re not. It’s a majority decision for Usman. ATT is pissed that Usman got the second round, but one submission attempt isn’t going to overcome a whole lot of positional dominance.

The highlights show Graves’ early kick to the face was pretty powerful. But that was it.

An ATT guy starts yelling at Usman that he’s next. Usman comes over to yell back at him. Pity we didn’t know who it was.

Over to Dana White. He is not impressed. At all. He says neither guy fought like he wanted to win. Each guy was trying to do just enough to get the decision.

And that’s the curious problem with so many recent seasons of this show. I don’t get it, either. A spectacular loss on TUF will do more to get you in the UFC’s good graces than a grinding win. But that’s easier said than done.

We get a name for the guy who called out Usman — he’s Hayder. That would be Hayder Hassan, whose bio tells us he has a degree from Florida State.

Glenn Robinson is amused in the locker room. “‘I’m next?’ What do you mean — you’re next to lose?” Oooooh … snappy comeback.

We go straight to TUF Talk, where Karyn Bryant asks Usman what he thinks of Dana’s dissing. Usman says he’s a big fight fan, so he’s used to hearing that. Well, I’m inspired.

TUF Talk has more topics lined up on the right — “Hayder challenges Usman,” “Breaking down Usman” and “G. Robinson calls out Lambert’s ex.” Yeah, I think I’ll go to bed.

The (sex!) marketing of (catfights!) women’s MMA

Let’s get this straight: Women’s MMA is fantastic.

Women’s fights are often the highlights of a typical fight card, especially when they’re sandwiched in between a couple of wrestling stalemates with one dude leaning against the other up against the cage. And the athletes are compelling.

Don’t believe me? Let Tommy Toe Hold sing the profane praises of all-women’s organization Invicta.

Tommy was also ahead of his time in spotting the extraordinary talents of Rose Namajunas, one of the finalists in …

The Ultimate Fighter 20: A Champion Will Be Crowned

Yes, a champion will indeed be crowned. This is a unique season of The Ultimate Fighter — the UFC is adding a new weight class, and most of the fighters they’ve signed were in the TUF house. Instead of letting coaches pick matchups to benefit their teams (even as Dana White insists this isn’t a team sport), the UFC seeded the bracket to increase the odds of getting the top two to the final.

So these were the most accomplished fighters in that house for a long time. Namajunas made a mockery of her seed (seventh?!) by demolishing her opponents with wicked submissions. If I may repeat myself …

Her opponent in the final was the top seed, Carla Esparza, who got through a few tough fights to get to this point. They also had seasoned veterans like Joanne Calderwood, Jessica Penne, Felice Herrig, Bec Rawlings and Aisling Daly.

And these people are interesting. The inexperienced but talented Angela Hill is an animator who took up Muay Thai. Alex Chambers has a physics and math degree. Calderwood is a wispy-sounding Scot with a wry sense of humor. Several of the fighters, including Namajunas, had a tough childhood. A couple of them are moms.

So what will people remember most about this season?

(Now I feel guilty for using that phrase in a recap of one particularly nasty episode.)

It is reality TV, after all. Angela Magana may not have gone into the season intending to be this season’s Junie Browning or Jamie Yager (men who got a lot of attention for their antics in their TUF seasons), but she wound up on that path and likes where it led:

Magana uses her TUF castmate Emily Kagan as an example of the opposite.

“Nobody is gonna f—ing remember Emily,” Magana said. “I love Emily, but she has no charisma. She has no personality on TV. Even if she puts on a great fight, nobody remembers those people. The only people they’re going to remember is people who talk.”

One thing that didn’t help was TUF Talk, the Fox Sports 1 segment hosted by Karyn Bryant, who brings her own questionable decorum to the proceedings and made sure she highlights all the feuding.

https://twitter.com/mmaencyclopedia/status/542900077162143744

The first women on The Ultimate Fighter had a little bit of these undercurrents, but what most people remember from that season is that Roxanne Modafferi might be the friendliest person on the planet.

But women’s MMA has this “Mean Girl” precedent … in the UFC. And how did that start? Ah, I remember asking a young Olympic athlete if she had thought about cashing in on her ability by going into …

https://twitter.com/BuzzNgayon/status/540269328906850304

Yeah.

Some of these antics are simply part of the sport. In the height of my UFC-covering days, I covered UFC 100. Dan Henderson knocked out designated bad guy Michael Bisping and followed up with a forearm to an unconscious opponent, for which he didn’t really apologize. Brock Lesnar beat Frank Mir, taunted Frank Mir, taunted a UFC sponsor, and made us all picture him having sex. It was foul.

And some of the drama on this TUF season was intriguing. Heather Clark was built up as the season’s villain, but it turned out some of the girls ganged up for no good reason. And who could really fault someone who vaguely resembles the truly awesome rock singer-songwriter Poe?

(Why do most streaming services play the toned-down version that erases all the guitars from the mix? This song rocks, people. Save the dance grooves for Haddaway.)

You could also make an argument either way on Randa Markos choosing to get her two training sessions a day even if the rest of the team wanted to split up to keep opponents apart. Esparza really didn’t help her image in that one.

In any case, the drama is done for the time being, and now we have a new class of interesting fighters in the UFC. And they have history beyond the show:

– Esparza has beaten Rawlings and Herrig (but finished neither).

– Torres beat Herrig and Namajunas (and Paige VanZant, who wasn’t able to go on TUF because she’s under 21 but was a smashing success in her UFC debut).

– Namajunas beat Emily Kagan and has one loss — to Torres, who lost a pair of close fights on the show.

– Penne beat Lisa Ellis and Magana.

– Herrig beat Clark and lost to Esparza and Torres.

– Ellis beat Daly and lost to Penne.

– Markos lost to Justine Kish, who was injured and unable to fight on the show or on this finale.

So do I have a few reservations on how women’s MMA is presented? A couple, sure. Will I be watching Friday night? Hell yeah.

The Ultimate Fighter 20, Episode 9: Mean girls

It’s been a while, hasn’t it? The last season of The Ultimate Fighter I recapped in full was Season 16. Remember Shane Carwin?

But I’m inspired. Season 20 — all women, all contenders, a title belt on the line — is terrific. The fights are more intriguing that what you’ll see on some UFC pay-per-views these days. I can’t wait to see Rose Namajunas take on Joanne Calderwood. Not because of their staredown. Because they’re great fighters with good personalities.

Even the reality aspects of Season 20 have been better than many past seasons. Sure, the house has divided into cliques — as it always does. (So please don’t assume this is some female trait on display in the TUF house for the first time.) The producers have given us a bit of misdirection on the supposed house villain, Heather Clark. After a couple of episodes of teammates ganging up on her, the careful viewer started to notice that she wasn’t actually doing anything worthy of such scorn. By the time we learned she was definitely not faking her knee injury, Angela Magana and other Clark tormenters had become the villains.

Luke Thomas and Kid Nate are a little down on the lack of coaches’ interaction in this season. I have no problem with the lack of a coaching rivalry. My respect for both coaches has grown. Anthony Pettis is thoughtful and empathetic. Gilbert Melendez is doing his best to mediate intrateam disputes.

So here we go — back in the recappers’ chair. It’s Episode 9.

(Have I mentioned that I love the new theme song? I do. Good subtle touches like the ride cymbal building up to the final guitar riff. Quality.)

Rose Namajunas laments that she’s the only fighter left from Team Melendez. That’s actually a good situation in some ways.

And, hey — there’s alcohol! I had just been thinking that we hadn’t seen much drinking this season. That leads to Bec Rawlings, drowning her sorrows after elimination, having a slumber party with Magana and a couple of the other Rude Girls. Tecia Torres, awakened in her upper bunk, decided to take her pillow elsewhere. And … that’s it? In a lot of seasons, that sort of thing ends with furniture being destroyed. This time, it ends with Torres and Magana agreeing to switch bunks and rooms without incident.

Over to Team Pettis, which has seven quarterfinalists. Lots of teammate vs. teammate situations, and Pettis follows TUF precedent by backing out of cornering against someone he has been coaching.

But this is where the conflict shifts …

We’ve heard very little from Randa Markos since she upset Tecia Torres (who wound up reinstated to the tournament and winning) in Week 1. She’s fighting Felice Herrig, who always finds the camera.

The team decides to split into mini-teams, each only taking one session per day, so fighters aren’t training with their next opponents. Torres is a little reluctant to drop the two-a-days, but at this stage, it seems like it’s just as well.

And now, Dana White’s favorite part of the season, the Coaches’ Challenge. As we’ve seen in all the ads, it’s a trivia competition hosted by the golden-voiced Bruce Buffer. White explains that they moved away from a physical challenge to rest Pettis’ knee.

Round 1: 10 fighters have coached and competed. Name two. Melendez buzzes in — Rashad Evans and Forrest Griffin.

Next: Which fighter won a championship title but did not win his season of TUF? Pettis guesses wrong.

Felice Herrig has little faith in Pettis, but he redeems himself a bit by coming up with the year of the first UFC event (1993). He ends up with 900 points to Melendez’s 1,800.

The “sudden victory” round is like Final Jeopardy — wager, then answer. The question: How many successful title defenses does Anderson Silva have? Each coach answers “9.” It’s 10. They bet wisely — Pettis bet it all, as he had to, and Melendez bet nothing. Melendez wins. Pettis finally gives the producer-friendly “Well, that’s all Gilbert’s going to win” spiel.

We’re abruptly back to the next fight, where Markos talks about her underrated striking. But Aisling Daly thinks she needs to take this fight to the ground. Then it’s cliche time — Markos really wants it, she works hard, this is her chance, etc.

But Markos wants to go back to two-a-day training. She doesn’t care if Herrig is watching her. Conflict time!

The Pettis coaching staff asks Herrig, No. 1 seed Carla Esparza and whoever else is in the room if they would reconsider the split training sessions. Herrig is so livid that her hair suddenly sprouts a few more colors as she gives her confessional about how the team voted but the other girls went “behind their backs” to the coaches to complain. The “behind the back” talk would’ve been when the other fighters were in the session that the Herrig crew didn’t attend. That’s kind of like saying the Sales team went behind the backs of the Marketing team by discussing something in the Sales meeting.

The Pettis coach who was trying to sort things out is identified. He’s Scott Cushman, one of the focal points of an investigative report about the death of a fighter he was coaching. Not the best timing, though I’d have a few more pointed questions for the referee and doctors than I would for the coach.

Another coach tries to sell the “they don’t want to watch you train; they just want to cut weight and work out” angle. Esparza calls them cowards for talking with coaches in … again, in their training session. Does this mean Esparza is a coward for calling the other fighters cowards when they were cowardly not there to be accused of being cowards?

Herrig continues that line of thought in the sauna with a very frustrated assistant coach who looks a little like Jake Shields but clearly isn’t. Shields is helping Melendez, though I’m not sure he has been identified once.

Back at the house, a few fighters are in the hot tub talking about the situation. Herrig, her hair pulled so tightly into twin buns that it now qualifies as Kevlar, struts out to complain that they didn’t mention it at the team meeting. She calls them “cowards” … then quickly races back into the house. That’s called “undercutting your point.”

Markos, in confessional, laughs it off as extra motivation.

The next day, the Pettis van is crowded. Esparza and Herrig gang up on Markos, who wants no part of the discussion. Esparza and Herrig conclude that Markos is the rudest person they’ve ever met. She’s Canadian! She can’t be rude! Back from commercial break, Herrig does a mean impression of Markos for Esparza’s amusement.

At this point, it seems only fair to get Herrig’s postshow thoughts on this whole mess, even though I’ve accidentally spoiled the outcome of the fight. Here’s what she says about Markos:

Back to game-planning — Herrig thinks Markos will get tired after missing a couple of takedowns. Jessica Penne, another fighter who hasn’t gotten a ton of screen time, thinks Herrig will win — oh, we’re suddenly back to Herrig. Earlier, she said she prefers to fight when she’s not mad at her opponent, but now she says she fights better when she’s mad.

And back to the house, where Herrig and Esparza do a patty-cake game repeating Markos’ “Don’t talk to me” line. Markos, stretching by herself in the house, mutters “(bleep) bitches.”

At long last, 44 minutes into the episode, we have the weigh-in. Esparza says the fight will be easy because Markos hasn’t been nice, which is impressive logic.

Now we get the Scottish voice of reason, Joanne Calderwood. In her lilting Celtic voice, with subtitles, she says Randa’s mentally stronger than Felice and more focused. “Randa’s going to take it to the ground, and I think that’ll be it.”

The staredown is entertaining. Herrig again trots out the “Don’t talk to me” line. Then she blows a bubble, which Markos impressively swats away. That’s accurate striking.

Back in the house, Calderwood looks very comfortable on her bunk bed as she chats with Markos. They strip away the subtitles as Calderwood says Herrig looks like a (bleep) clown. Markos goes to confessional and says it just shows Herrig is weak.

Let’s get a word from Calderwood:

Herrig says Markos was quivering and cowering. I don’t think those words mean what she thinks they mean. Markos looked quite intense.

One last reminder that Herrig doesn’t like Markos before they finally walk to the cage. “The anger that I bring into the cage does help me a lot,” Herrig says before listing all the nasty things she’s going to do.

We get back from the ad break at the 53-minute mark, so we know this’ll be a short fight. Herrig has a three-inch reach advantage even though they’re the same height. Dana White isn’t there, so we once again have the ref giving the “two five-minute rounds” speech.

Herrig throws a few punches from distance, but she can’t stop Markos from coming in and clinching 20 seconds in. Herrig gets Markos against the cage, but Markos reverses it and starts going for the trip. At 1:15, she gets it, but Herrig manages to end up on top of her. They stand again, and Markos throws a knee against the cage. That’s a rare strike attempt from Markos. The grappler then gets her arms around Herrig’s head and throws her to the mat, landing on top in side control. Markos pulls a slick armbar. Herrig taps.

They don’t shake hands. Markos says she should’ve pulled harder to break her arm.

“That should shut her up, right?” Markos says to a couple of people in the Team Pettis bleachers. Esparza: “Maybe if you weren’t such a bitch, she’d shut up.” Markos: “Don’t worry, you’re next.” Esparza: “Oh my god, I wish you were my next fight. I can’t wait to fight you.”

They’re on opposite sides of the draw, and I don’t see Markos beating the Namajunas-Calderwood winner. At this point, with Esparza’s head somewhere other than fighting and training, I don’t see her getting past Tecia Torres, much less the Aisling Daly-Jessica Penne winner.

Herrig and Esparza didn’t come across well in that episode, to put it mildly. But in fairness, remember what Rich Franklin called “The Edit Monster.” Six weeks get distilled down to a few hours of footage. Maybe Markos secretly switched the coffee in the house to decaf. Maybe she forced Herrig and Esparza to listen to Caress of Steel, by far the worst Rush album. We don’t know.

Scenes from the next: It’s Harley-Davidson plug time. And Conor McGregor visits his pal Daly. The fighters don’t appear to have anything nasty to say to each other. “I’m looking forward to the challenge of facing her,” Penne says. I think I’ll watch anyway.

Update: The fighters went on TUF Talk, and Esparza, unfortunately, doubled down. Markos pointed out that it’s all there on the show for people to see. Esparza could’ve claimed that the editing made her seem worse that she was. But Esparza seems to think the episode made her look OK. Oops.

Unsolicited advice for the UFC

When a UFC fight card coincides with a Bellator fight card, the choice should be obvious. And yet it’s not.

The UFC has the talent — by my quick count, 83 of the 90 top-10 fighters in the Sherdog rankings. At USA TODAY/MMA Junkie, which ranks 15 per class but only ranks men (come on, guys!), it’s 101 out of 120, and no non-UFC fighter ranks higher than seventh.

But Bellator, now under the leadership of Strikeforce founder Scott Coker, is going in a new direction that cleverly stakes out a couple of niches. If you don’t believe me, listen to Kid Nate and Luke Thomas in the return of their Tete-A-Tete segment.

This weekend’s Bellator card drew an average of 1.2 million viewers, peaking at 2 million (probably not coincidentally after the UFC pay-per-view card ended). UFC 180’s prelims drew an average of 624,000, peaking at 771,000. World Series of Fighting should have picked another weekend. (I haven’t seen estimates for the UFC PPV audience — it’s not an apples to apples comparison, anyway, because a PPV “buy” usually represents multiple viewers, and you have to figure in people who went out to see it at a local viewing spot. Plus, you know, you have to pay for it.)

It was a strange UFC pay-per-view card. For one thing, the prelims were mostly fighters from The Ultimate Fighter: Latin America, plus one women’s fight that promised (and delivered) a lot of action. The TUF season had generated very little buzz — the foreign installments aren’t really promoted in the USA.

The main card opened with a battle of sheer journeymen, Edgar Garcia and Hector Urbina. Then came Augusto Montano, a Mexican prospect making his UFC debut, for a predictable demolition of Chris Heatherly, who somehow managed to lose his only prior UFC fight by omoplata.

Only the last three fights looked like typical pay-per-view fare. Top-1o featherweights Ricardo Lamas and Dennis Bermudez were a combined 12-2 in the UFC coming into this bout. Welterweight Kelvin Gastelum, a surprise winner on The Ultimate Fighter 19 months ago, continued his rapid rise with a first-round finish of former contender Jake Ellenberger. Then Fabricio Werdum won the UFC interim heavyweight belt in a thriller against Mark Hunt, a compelling substitute for champion Cain Velasquez.

It’s not that the UFC is just coasting on its brand name. This was supposed to be the UFC’s big breakthrough in Mexico, and despite losing Mexican-American Velasquez to injury, it probably did the trick. As is the case with a lot of UFC cards, several fighters had to pull out with injuries, including Velasquez, Mexican star Erik Perez and both sides of an appealing bout between veterans Diego Sanchez and Joe Lauzon. At one time, the card was solid: Velasquez-Werdum (title bout), Gastelum-Ellenberger, Lamas-Bermudez, Sanchez-Lauzon, Perez-Marcus Brimage.

This is all part of the UFC going global. In 2009, the year of UFC 100, the UFC did 15 cards in the USA, two in Britain, one in Ireland, one in Germany and one in Canada. The Germany card was the first held in a country that didn’t speak (mostly) English since 2000. In 2014, the UFC has been to Brazil six times, with a seventh scheduled. It’s been to Macau twice. Three ties to Canada. Also to Singapore, Britain, United Arab Emirates, Germany, New Zealand, Ireland, Japan, Sweden, Australia, and now Mexico. These cards tend to have a bit of local flavor. And why not?

Bellator, despite a healthy dose of international talent on the roster, has only left the USA to go to Ontario. And Coker is putting together clever cards such as the one that drew a couple million viewers over the weekend.

The main event — Tito Ortiz vs. Stephan Bonnar — was a circus. Most fans surely watched out of morbid curiosity, and what they saw looked like this:

But if you tuned in ahead of the graybeards riding on the last few waves of their UFC glory days, you saw a few interesting bouts:

  • Interim lightweight champion Will Brooks outlasting former champion Michael Chandler
  • Joe Schilling knocking out Melvin Manhoef in a battle of kickboxers
  • Bellator veteran Mike Richman taking apart well-regarded UFC veteran Nam Phan
  • Light heavyweight motormouth, former Strikeforce champion and former college wrestling star King Mo (Muhammad Lawal) getting a TKO win over late fill-in Joe Vedepo

So Coker mixed a couple of “fun” bouts (Ortiz-Bonnar, Schilling-Manhoef) with a title fight and a couple of bouts with guys we’ve heard of.

Bellator isn’t out to take the No. 1 spot away from the UFC. But in its brief history, MMA has been better off with a solid No. 2. With Coker in charge, Bellator should have that position locked down for a while, at least in North America.

But even if Bellator isn’t a direct threat to the UFC, this weekend was a reminder that a lot of things aren’t quite right in UFC land. A couple of pay-per-view cards this year have drawn fewer than 200,000 buys. The Ultimate Fighter is no longer a ratings juggernaut. Standard & Poor’s says UFC parent Zuffa may see its profit drop 40 percent from 2013.

It’s not exactly time to panic. The UFC is going global, and that’s going to be costly and difficult. It’s still surely a good idea in the long run.

The U.S. audience, though, has the right to feel a little neglected when we’re seeing the likes of Heatherly, Hans Stringer and other fighters we don’t know on a pay-per-view card.

And the UFC quite rightly avoids “circus” bouts most of the time. Randy Couture’s demolition of boxer James Toney was a rare exception. The UFC is supposed to be about the best fighters gradually climbing the ladder to the top of the ranks. No reason it shouldn’t stick to its guns on that front.

My unsolicited advice goes back to the roots, a topic about which I wrote a book. Don’t look for it in bookstores. Or Amazon. Maybe in the cloud. I wrote about The Ultimate Fighter, and I think that’s where the UFC needs to get back to building its fighters.

The current season of The Ultimate Fighter is the best in years. That’s because the fighters already have a bit of a name, and they’re looking for a breakthrough.

The basic problem with The Ultimate Fighter is that the talent pool is tapped out. The UFC has so many good fighters under contract that it’s highly unlikely that a new fighter is going to have much of an impact. The days of Forrest Griffin winning the UFC belt a couple of years after winning the TUF title are gone. Gastelum may actually be the biggest success story of recent seasons …

… except when the UFC is building a new weight class. This season, they’re doing just that. And the winner won’t just be in the UFC — she’ll be the champion.

So fans like me can’t wait to see the next bouts. Aisling Daly vs. Jessica Penne? That’s quality. Rose Namajunas vs. Joanne Calderwood? That’s PPV-worthy.

TUF 14 had new weight classes — bantamweight and featherweight. TUF 18 had a few good fight veterans in the women’s bantamweight class, though Ronda Rousey’s diva attitude made it nearly unwatchable.

The problem is when TUF goes back to scouring the depths of the talent pool.  TUF 16 champion Colton Smith lost his next three fights. A couple of good fighters have come through — Gastelum has gone from the No. 13 draft pick on TUF 17 to a legit top-10 guy. But too many of the fighters are fleeting memories.

Back up to the basic problem: The UFC has too many fighters and not enough “names.” That’s where TUF comes in.

It’s time to put existing UFC fighters on TUF.

I’m not talking a replay of the “Comeback” season, in which guys who had been in the UFC got a second chance and fought for a title shot (which Matt Serra shockingly converted, beating Georges St. Pierre in an upset for the ages). But take some of the unknown guys who have had a couple of UFC fights and put them on the show. Offer up a headlining spot on a free Fight Night card as a reward.

We’ll get to know more fighters that actually have a chance of sticking around in the UFC. There’s no point in watching TUF if it’s pretty clear only a couple of the cast members are going to be around long enough to know their names.

That’s the simple fix. The other is to keep guys from getting hurt and wrecking PPV cards. That’s beyond a simple blogger’s ability to fix.