I can’t wait for the next episode of The Ultimate Fighter, and I’m honestly not sure the last time that was the case. Tuesday night’s season debut had a decidedly different, more polished feel about it, as if the UFC and FX went back to the drawing board before filming began to decide what works about the show from the past and what needed to change. The result was two hours of compelling television to set up what could be the best TUF season yet.

For starters, coaches Jon Jones and Chael Sonnen seem like they’re just as interested in coaching their fighters as they are in promoting their upcoming light heavyweight title bout. This has not always been the case, as past coaches like Ken Shamrock and Quinton “Rampage” Jackson demonstrated during their stints on TUF 3 and 10, respectively. Provided their early enthusiasm is maintained, viewers will have the opportunity to see two elite MMA fighters using their accrued knowledge to help the up-and-coming TUF contestants improve their own skills. Jones could certainly use a bit of image repair after his DWI arrest and role in the UFC 151 rigmarole, and Sonnen could use his time on TUF to show fans that he’s much more than the heelish caricature he portrays before fights (much in the same way Tito Ortiz did on TUF 3).

The show also provided viewers with an even more detailed glimpse into the personal lives of the contestants by allowing, for the first time, their families and friends to come to Las Vegas for their preliminary fights. This added an extra human element to the preliminary fights that is often absent from other MMA broadcasts. Many times, the fighters are advertised more as abstract entities than actual people (“Cain Velasquez is a wrecking machine”), so the fact that they’re pretty much just like you and me is often lost. Watching fighters interact with people outside the fight community really humanized them and upped viewers’ emotional investment in the results. Normally, we don’t pay much attention to the fighters that lose in the preliminary round, but I’m still thinking today about Kito Andrews and how much he obviously loves his kids. Even though I only saw him on television for a minute or so before his fight, I still felt a palpable sense of disappointment when he lost to Kelvin Gastelum. Such is the mark of good television.

The fights themselves highlighted that this season’s middleweights are no chumps. Of the 14 preliminary fights aired Tuesday night, nine ended by stoppage. Perhaps the most impressive finish came from Zak Cummings, who floored Nik Fekete with the first punch he threw before finishing him off with a few quick strikes. Chael Sonnen certainly noticed Cummings’ performance, and selected him with his third pick. Collin Hart stood out as well, with a fairly dominant performance en route to a first-round submission. Look out for Hart as the season progresses. His seemingly laid-back attitude might lull his opponents into thinking he’s not dangerous, but his work in the Octagon to get into the house should alert them otherwise.

Ironically, though, the night’s most impressive performance did not result in a finish. In his decision victory over Andy Enz, Uriah Hall looked positively lethal, displaying a wide array of strikes and positioning himself as one of the early favorites to win the entire season. Hall only has two professional losses, and they’re to a couple guys you might have heard of—UFC middleweight contenders Chris Weidman and Costa Philippou. UFC President Dana White has alluded to one of this season’s contestants being extremely frightening to his opponents, and I’m predicting that Hall is that man.

Regardless of which fighter does end up taking the six-figure contract, this season of The Ultimate Fighter is shaping up to be the one that brings fans back. Like this season of Saturday Night Live, all the pieces seem to be in place for the show to have another successful run after a few “down” seasons. Its new Tuesday-night time slot should help improve ratings, since far more potential viewers will be in front of their televisions mid-week than on Friday nights (the time slot used for the previous two seasons). If Jones and Sonnen can prove to be effective coaches, and the quality of the fights throughout the season matches that from the debut, we’re in for a great ride.

Photo: Uriah Hall (Keith Mills/Sherdog)

About The Author

Eric Reinert
Staff Writer

Eric Reinert has been writing about mixed martial arts since 2010. Outside the world of caged combat, Eric has spent time as a news reporter, speechwriter, campaign strategist, tech support manager, landscaper and janitor. He lives in Madison, Wis.