It's October 27th, 2008, and in Chicago, it seems it's already Halloween. Fighters who have come for the open tryouts for season nine of The Ultimate Fighter, Spike TV's hit mixed martial arts (MMA) reality show, are swarming the Crowne Plaza O'Hare hotel. Some look like seasoned MMA combatants with their shaved heads, cauliflowered ears, and scarred eyebrows. Others look like, well, anything but. One aspirant walks around dressed in a Superman costume, complete with foam muscles, while another is channeling Apollo Creed from Rocky by wearing an afro and an Uncle Sam outfit. By the end of the day, after a scrutinizing evaluation, 16 fighters will be eligible to go to Las Vegas to tape the show, where the chance to become overnight celebrities in the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) awaits.
Debuting in January 2005, The Ultimate Fighter was an instant success (its season finale commanded over two million viewers), launching the careers of future light-heavyweight champion Forrest Griffin and top contenders Diego Sanchez and Kenny Florian. TUF, as it's known, has been credited with almost single-handedly transforming mixed martial arts from an infamous fringe spectacle to a mainstream sport, now considered to be usurping boxing and closely tied to the all-important 18-34 male advertising demographic. Four years and eight seasons later, the show—which follows two competing teams of UFC hopefuls as they live and train together to win qualifying matches and earn a six-figure contract with the league—is still kicking ass. "This is the biggest turnout we've ever had," said Brian Diamond, Spike TV's senior vice president of sports and specials of the 700-plus applicants. "The show is growing, and the sport is growing."
This season, TUF's teams will be split into American and British fighters for a US vs. UK theme. "The last time we went to the UK [to look for fighters]," says Diamond, "we got [current top middleweight] Michael Bisping, and only about 40 guys showed up for the tryouts. This time, we had five times that . . . From a television perspective, we thought it was a great rivalry."
The UK tryouts were held in England the week before, and though the results are kept secret, 16 fighters will represent their homeland just as 16 Americans will be picked on this day. Once in Las Vegas, preliminary bouts will be held on the show's first few episodes to whittle the group down to eight fighters for each team—four in each weight class, which this season is welterweight (170 pounds) and lightweight (155). Bisping will captain the UK team. Top-ranked middleweight Dan Henderson will lead the Americans.
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.
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.