Schedule the ninth season premiere of Spike’s “Ultimate Fighter” franchise on April 1 -- April Fools’ Day -- and you’ve got me half-believing someone at that network is pretty self-aware.
Few dates could be more appropriate to unspool another cast of devolved tough guys with the collective maturity of a fraternity. Fans like to crow about MMA athletes being more educated than their boxing counterparts, the latter of whom frequently fight their way out of lower class or literal imprisonment with minimal book learnin’. And for the most part, that’s true. But you’d never know it by watching this series, which resembles a MENSA meeting only if there’s something enlightening about peeing in someone’s lunch that escapes my understanding.
I’ll watch, of course. It’s ultimate hypocrisy, and I’ll cop to it. If nothing else, the show -- which locks 16 men in a house with minimal distraction, not unlike some kind of sadistic ‘60s psychology experiment -- has proven itself to be a solid platform for discovering new talent. (Alums Rashad Evans, Michael Bisping and Forrest Griffin overcame early derision at being reality TV bums and went on to impressive UFC records.) And it’s only gotten tougher with age, making demands that fighters enter the house with pro records and/or win a bout before even stepping foot inside.
Unfortunately, that substance is frequently lost in the lurid conventions of reality exploitation, a genre of entertainment that has solidified my pessimism in humanity -- a leaning first explored by the incredible success of Adam Sandler movies. With little to do between fights and training (no books or television allowed), cast mates usually turn to alcohol poisoning and throwing lawn furniture into the pool as a means of unwinding. Vomiting seems to be a bonding experience.
I haven’t seen the newest crop of episodes, but I’m fairly confident we can look forward to the following:
Fighters will need less than 90 seconds to locate the stash of alcohol in the house.
Subsequently, fighters will need less than one hour to recreate key scenes from “Caligula.”
Eighteen seasons of “The Real World” will convince one or more athletes that the most expedient way to stardom in the sport is to create an irrational, functionally psychotic persona that antagonizes both housemates and viewers. (See: Browning, Junie.)
Someone will urinate on someone else.
Someone will figure what the living room really needs is a hole in the drywall the size of a head.
Dana White will enter any room he’s in with the understanding he’s to audition for a Quentin Tarantino film.
I’m not sure what’s more troubling: that the juvenile hall antics sell the show, or that the show has yet to evolve beyond them. With several more seasons contracted, “TUF” risks a greater sin by simply becoming repetitive and stilted. Even the primal humor in “Jackass” grows stale after a few seasons. (You’ve seen one staple gun to the testicles, you’ve seen them all.)
Even more unsettling: to think that the real paradigm shift in this sport’s young history was the conceit of showing fighters one step from hurling feces at each other like monkeys -- that this perversion of sportsmanship is what it took for a mass audience to take notice of an otherwise complex and beautiful thing. MMA was apparently beyond anyone’s interest until its participants began peeing on pillows for basic cable.
Was this really the secret saving grace of combat sports? Does our culture really need actual, literal poo to fertilize a sprouting athletic event? Correct me if I’m wrong, but I don’t recall any footage of Muhammad Ali taking a dump in an opponent’s toilet tank.
There was a time when I was puffed with pride at being a spectator of this sport. Watching “The Ultimate Fighter” is something I prefer to keep to myself.
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