The rise of mixed martial arts is often credited to the UFC’s ground-breaking reality series The Ultimate Fighter. In its earliest seasons, the show, airing on the Spike cable network, featured fighters who would go on to be stars, contenders and champions under the UFC banner.

In more recent years, however, the show’s stream of prospects has dwindled. Although some of the show’s graduates each season continue to show hope of breaking through in the UFC, it has been a while since a single season produced a roster that even remotely reaches the heights of the inaugural season (Forrest Griffin, Stephan Bonnar, Mike Swick, Josh Koscheck, Diego Sanchez, Kenny Florian, Nate Quarry and Chris Leben) or even season two (Rashad Evans, Joe Stevenson, Melvin Guillard and Keith Jardine).

Reported declines in the show’s ratings and the criticism of a stale format haunt the program regularly, often leading to the question of what the UFC can do differently to make it fresh again. Live fights on each episode didn’t help, and actually added to the torture of the participants by extending their stay in the TUF house. Other ideas of varying viability have been tossed around by pundits and fans, but those ideas generally deal with changes to how the house and training activities are covered in the final edit of each episode, or they involve some crazy doses of reality television creativity.

Where many look to the format and editing aspects of the show for the answer, the UFC has created another intriguing option with its recent decision to venture into women’s MMA. Could the answer lie not in the show’s structure, but rather in its choice of fighters? Could women turn out to be what The Ultimate Fighter really needs? The MMA Corner writers Bryan Henderson and Eric Reinert take sides in this installment of Opposing Forces.

The Winds of Change: Why the UFC Should Have a Women’s Season of The Ultimate Fighter—Bryan Henderson

Over the last several years, women have proven that they have a place in the sport of mixed martial arts, and that they can be just as exciting as their male counterparts when they walk into the cage. Do they deserve a season of The Ultimate Fighter devoted solely to them? There’s no doubt in my mind that the answer is yes. The inclusion of women on the show gives the series a renewed sense of purpose. With it will come a renewed interest from the fan base.

The UFC has secured the services of star female fighter Ronda Rousey, and the promotional push she has received is nothing short of tremendous. However, beyond a couple of other top female fighters culled from the Strikeforce roster, the UFC is severely lacking in talent to fill out the roster. The concern here is that this is all about Rousey—which it admittedly is at this point in time—and that once she falls, the UFC will lose interest. That doesn’t have to be the case though.

When the UFC launched The Ultimate Fighter, one purpose the series served was to create new high-level talent that could be injected into the promotional roster. Not only did the UFC get the benefit of fighters who in some cases would go on to challenge for—and even win—championships, but the promotion also had the added advantage of these fighters coming packaged with built-in drawing power from their role as television stars. The world had been introduced to the personalities of fighters like Griffin, Bonnar, Koscheck and Leben. They had a reason to be interested in cheering or jeering these guys based not on win-loss records, but on personal insight into what makes these fighters tick.

If the UFC is serious about building a division beyond Rousey, the reality series is the perfect vehicle for making it happen. The UFC has to make fans care about fighters in the same way those fans care about Rousey. Unfortunately, not every female fighter can organically become a star in the way that Rousey, or Gina Carano before her, did. Rousey had the right combination of personality, looks and opportunities to grow into a star. But with the reality series, the UFC would have its chance to create a bond between the female cast of fighters and the fans watching the show.

Furthermore, the female ranks of MMA have not been pillaged and plundered to the point where true talent is scarce. The UFC could gather a group of female warriors that would rival what the promotion did on the male side of the sport in those earliest seasons. Even a look at this weekend’s Invicta Fighting Championships 4 card hints at the possibilities—maybe the UFC couldn’t lure Shayna Baszler or Amanda Nunes into a TUF house, but Sarah D’Alelio, Raquel Pennington, Leslie Smith and Alexis Davis might be tempted to sign on.

And then there’s the factor of eye candy. As much as the ladies of the sport demand respect, there’s always going to be a segment of the fan base that looks at them more for their sex appeal than their skills in the cage. Regardless of how well Rousey or Carano performed in the cage, it’s impossible to deny that their rise to stardom was just as much a result of their sex appeal as it was their ability to throw a punch or snap an arm in half. We might not want to admit it, but there’s definitely a contingent of fans who would simply tune into a female season for the hopes of some risqué behavior and skimpy outfits. Regardless of what anyone might think of these fans, they become numbers towards the ratings goals of the UFC and FX.

What it really boils down to is a combination of renewing the show’s relevance to what takes place in the Octagon in front of a live audience. Feminine charms aside, these ladies have a lot to offer to the reality series. The show can regain its standing as a launching pad for future UFC stars, rather than just churning out one-and-done male fighters, and it can simultaneously introduce an entirely new divisional roster to the UFC’s audience. As an added bonus, it might even convert some of those less refined fans from looking at the women of MMA as eye candy to respecting them as someone who can kick their ass. And those are all good things.

It’s Still Too Soon: Why the UFC Should Not (Yet) Have a Women’s Season of The Ultimate Fighter—Eric Reinert

Before I begin, I want to clarify that I am a huge fan of all mixed martial arts. Men, women…doesn’t matter to me, as long as they can fight. In fact, one of the reasons I initially got back into MMA (and started down a path that has led me here, to The MMA Corner) was because of the first EliteXC card, which not only featured MMA legend Frank Shamrock, but also the first widely televised women’s MMA bout between Gina Carano and Julie Kedzie. I will admit, the prospect of a women’s fight was intriguing initially, but I quickly realized that there is no discernable difference between women’s and men’s MMA.

Since that time, as Bryan points out above, a few female fighters have emerged to become some of the brightest stars in the sport. Ronda Rousey is obviously the best example right now, but remember that Carano successfully parlayed her stint in the cage into what is becoming a nice little acting career (she’ll next appear in the sixth installment of the Fast and Furious franchise after her leading turn in 2012’s Haywire). It’s only a matter of time before female fighters are as widely known as their male counterparts among the MMA community at large…but that time has not yet arrived.

To push an all-female season of The Ultimate Fighter any sooner than mid-2014, after Rousey and others have had the chance to make their mark in the UFC, would be inviting even lower ratings than the show has experienced in recent seasons. First of all, who would coach the teams? Without much variation in the show’s format itself, the UFC has naturally relied upon the coaching matchups to draw in viewers throughout the years. That way, the season serves as built-in promotional material for the eventual coaches’ duel.

Sure, the UFC could have Rousey step in to coach one side, but what about the other? There is definitely no female fighter that carries with her the name recognition anywhere close to that of Rousey, so for many viewers the season would end up being The Ultimate Fighter: Rousey vs. Some Random Woman. Rousey would then end up being the “star” of the show, which would dilute the exposure given to the season’s actual contestants. In addition, with women’s MMA still a relatively new phenomenon, there might be the perception among the hypothetical all-female season’s participants that Rousey and whoever the UFC selects to coach opposite her are no more deserving of their starring roles than any of the ladies vying for the six-figure contract.

For every other season of The Ultimate Fighter (except the fourth one), up-and-coming fighters were coached by people who had already paid their dues in the sport to the extent that they were already champions or championship contenders at its highest level. The respect those coaches deserved from their teams was (initially, anyway) well earned and much deserved. With Rousey never having fought in the UFC, in addition to having just six professional fights overall, this natural respect from contestant to coach might be lacking. Of course, the UFC could simply have two of its male fighters serve as coaches, but then that would limit Rousey’s participation, which the UFC would likely be loath to do in its current attempts to make Rousey a star.

So there would already be a pretty significant challenge to overcome right off the bat if the UFC would run an all-female season of The Ultimate Fighter sooner than later. In addition, though, one must also examine the practicality of such a season as it pertains to growing the UFC’s female roster. Again, the UFC could use its considerable resources and invest what would probably amount to several million dollars in an experiment to add more fighters to its ranks, but with Invicta FC basically doing the work for them, why should it bother? Yes, one of the reasons the UFC dipped its toes into the waters of reality television in 2005 was to try to make stars out of unknown fighters, but the main reason was to give wider exposure to the UFC during a time when networks couldn’t possibly air enough reality competition programming.

In the seven-plus years since that first TUF season, the UFC has expanded its influence in the sport such that it is now unquestionably the top destination for mixed martial arts worldwide. With that being the case, its reality show efforts now serve primarily to promote pay-per-view bouts and expand the MMA audience through easily accessible programming. The roster-expansion aspect of the show has not been a factor for several seasons. Seriously…take a look at the cast from TUF 15 and see how many of them are still in the UFC. At this point, the UFC doesn’t need to invest its money in an all-female season of TUF just to bolster its roster when it can send a few representatives to events featuring female fighters and simply cherry-pick the best of them to add to its roster.

Finally, and most importantly, an all-female season of The Ultimate Fighter would simply not produce the ratings turnaround the UFC would be hoping for. Bryan talks about the “eye candy” factor, but that only really applies to the lesser enlightened fans who would tune in for an episode or two before returning to Manswers or Two and a Half Men or whatever the hell people who would watch a season of The Ultimate Fighter to see women in their undergarments usually spend their time digesting.

More importantly, though, female MMA is still very much battling for acceptance among MMA fans generally speaking, to say nothing of how this new phenomenon might or might not appeal to the American sporting landscape at large. This current cultural position of women’s MMA would likely result in fewer usual (male) viewers than for other (male) seasons, without replacing those usual viewers with new (female) ones, and thus lower ratings are the result. If the UFC hasn’t until very recently been ready to even have females fight under its banner, it certainly isn’t going to be comfortable with an entire TUF season focusing on that MMA subgroup.

The time will inevitably come when an all-female season of The Ultimate Fighter could be a viable programming idea, but that won’t be until the UFC already has a decent roster of female fighters to show the MMA community, and the community of sports fans on the whole, that the sport is nothing to shy away from. Women’s MMA has made gigantic strides in the last few years, but still is not in a place where the UFC would be wise to devote an entire season of time and resources to promoting it. Instead, the UFC should focus on recruiting the best female fighters for appearances directly in its events, rather than as subjects of a reality show. That’s the best way to grow its roster, and make new stars in the process.

Photo: Ronda Rousey (Rob Tatum/The MMA Corner)