Built for Show
Spike TV's The Ultimate Fighter can springboard an MMA athlete's fighting career, but the battle begins at the tryouts
As the grappling gets underway, Leo, Khillah, and Foster look good, pulling off more than one submission against their assigned foes. Their technique is professional and their nerves under control. Other fighters aren't so slick. One refuses to tap when he is placed in a guillotine choke, the other fighter's forearm pressing against the artery in his neck, cutting off the blood. He passes out and twitches on the mat. Another fighter is tossed and finds his shoulder has dislocated. He calmly stands up and asks the judges if he can see the EMTs about it, who are on hand all day. They suggest he go to the hospital, and after several other fighters are unsuccessful in popping his shoulder back into place, he finally does.
TUF co-executive producer, Andrea Richter, who sits next to Joe Silva at the table in the back of the room, reads the names of those who will go on to the striking portion of the tryouts later in the day. "If I don't call your name, thanks for coming out and spending the day with us," she says. "Keep training." Leo, Khillah, and Foster make it, and will now have to wait several hours while the others grapple until they can hit focus mitts and demonstrate their kickboxing abilities. Those who don't get called clear out, or stick around to support their teammates.
While many of the TUF hopefuls display both impressive ground-fighting skills and crisp punches and kicks, this is no guarantee that they advance from one round to the next. "Television is sound and pictures," says Brian Diamond, "and we're looking for people who can radiate in those two mediums." Fighters who make the cut after the striking evaluation are asked to sit down for a 90-second camera interview to gauge what kind of personalities they might be on the show. If the producers like what they see, they'll contact the fighters in the coming weeks about making the trip to Vegas. "It's about balance," says Diamond. "Sometimes you'll have great fighters who may not be terrific personalities, but you want them to go through so you can have great fights." On the flip side, even if some guys' charisma hits harder than their punch, they can make it through.
One prospect who seems to offer both mayhem and marketability is Rob Browning, the 22-year-old brother of season eight's Junie Browning—the highly talented yet self-destructive Gary Busey of the season who terrorized his castmates with drunken rages. Browning, from Lexington, Kentucky, claims to be a better wrestler than Junie and the best striker at the tryouts. "I'm the best-looking, and best fighter here," he says. Browning goes to grapple and, as he predicted, dominates his opponent. An accidental collision of heads with the other fighter cuts Browning's mouth, but he swiftly applies a triangle choke from his back—squeezing the man's throat between his legs and forcing the other guy to tap the mat in surrender. As he sinks the choke in, Browning rolls up one sleeve, kisses his bicep, and smiles toward the judges with blood-stained teeth. Needless to say, he's on to the next round. When asked if he'll drink on the show like his brother did, should he make it that far, Browning says, "I was drinking today, about an hour ago." And as he slaps hands with his teammates after the victory, he echoes a sentiment understood by all the tryouts' hopefuls—"people won't watch the show unless you give them a show."
The Ultimate Fighter airs Wednesdays at 10 p.m. ET on Spike TV.