Built for Show
Spike TV's The Ultimate Fighter can springboard an MMA athlete's fighting career, but the battle begins at the tryouts
The tryouts begin shortly after 10 in the morning. Groups of 50—ranging in age from 21 (the youngest allowed) to 40-plus—are brought into the hotel's convention center to test their grappling skills. One-inch thick tumbling mats have been placed on the floor, and two men at a time are called up to wrestle each other for 60 seconds in order to display their Brazilian jiu-jitsu skills. The remaining aspirants are partitioned in other makeshift holding rooms or are free to move about the hotel until their turns come (which, for later arrivals, is several boredom-drenched hours away). Joe Silva, the UFC's official matchmaker and one of the judges presiding over these tryouts, sits at a fold-out table at the back of the room and barks instructions. "Show us what you got. Get a sub, then let go . . . . No body slams, no leg locks, no neck cranks. You hurt somebody, you're outta here." His words are somewhat ironic, as many varieties of chokes and arm and shoulder locks are encouraged. While there are no absolute prerequisites to try out, Silva has strongly suggested that fighters have at least three pro bouts under their belts, as the underlying goal of the show is to discover talent that has a legitimate chance of making it in the UFC.
As names are called, some fighters backflip onto the mat, or howl as they step forward. One is wearing a T-shirt that reads, "I have the dick, so I make the rules." Anything to draw attention. "It doesn't matter how good you are," says Kelly Leo, a 34-year-old fighter from Jackson, Miss., with a pro record of 3-0. "You just need to get noticed." He catches the eye of both the judges and fellow competitors alike with his pink T-shirt, which he had custom made. Unlike most fighters here who are walking around with their chests puffed out, trying to sell their greatness, Leo's self-deprecation is refreshing. The shirt looks like a ballot and has boxes on the front that read, "Too old, Too fat, TUF 9 reject," all of which are checked.
"One minute of grappling is not a lot of time," says Sean Sherk, former UFC lightweight champion and coach at Minnesota Martial Arts Academy near Minneapolis, who has a student competing today for a spot as a lightweight on the US team. "You've got one minute to make a big impression that could change the rest of your life," and that means seizing the moment in every way possible. According to Sherk, at least half the guys at the tryouts aren't serious martial artists at all. "I can tell that some haven't been training long and thought, 'What the heck, I don't have anything else going on,'" he says. "A lot of guys are overshooting their weight, coming in way too heavy and they have no chance of slimming down for the show." Nevertheless, because success on TUF could mean the difference between becoming famous overnight and toiling in obscurity at small, regional MMA promotions for years, even the least-qualified aspirants stand to gain a lot if they squeak by.
Though the tryouts have their fair share of goofballs, there are others who mean serious business. Marc Fiore, a coach at H.I.T. Squad, UFC legend Matt Hughes' training center in Granite City, Ill., has brought two of his top students, Amir Khillah and Brian Foster, to compete. "These guys train day in and day out," says Fiore, who doesn't exaggerate, as H.I.T. Squad is located at an old army base and its fighters live in a barracks—their job is to train MMA. Because of these conditions, Fiore thinks that his guys are already conditioned for the structured environment of TUF. "They are ready to represent America."
For Khillah, 29, who has a record of 3-3, the bravado of the other fighters in the hotel has no effect. "We don't care," he says. "We'll take on whoever." Khillah has the advantage of having been in this situation before—he tried out for season five of TUF. "I made the finals, but I had a broken arm at the time, so I was disqualified. Filming was going to start [the next week]." When asked why he tried out despite a broken arm, Khillah says, "That's part of the game."
"That's love for the game," adds Foster.