Julie Kedzie’s dalliance with reality show stardom is well-documented as an all-time debacle, but like so many others, she has high hopes for “The Ultimate Fighter 18,” which for the first time will feature women vying for a six-figure UFC contract when the series premieres on Sept. 4.
Though it was only a little less than three years ago that Kedzie tried out for the ill-fated “Ultimate Women Challenge,” which promised its cast a $50,000 grand prize and valuable exposure on NBC only to crash and burn before airing a single episode, the women’s mixed martial arts landscape has changed dramatically since then. Now, thanks to Dana White’s change of heart and the grassroots efforts of the Invicta Fighting Championships, female fighters not only have more opportunities to showcase their talents in the cage, but in less than one month’s time, a select group of bantamweights will have the backing of the reality show brand that once arguably saved the UFC from extinction.
While Kedzie can only describe her own UWC experience as “hell,” she foresees a far different fate for the “TUF 18” cast.
“I think it’s gonna be worth it for them,” Kedzie recently told Sherdog.com. “The women that made it onto the show, whether they made the finals or not, the experience is going to be worth it to them for the exposure they’re going to get, the potential branding and sponsorships that they’re gonna be able to have.”
Adding intrigue to the proceedings is that the women selected are an accomplished group, reminiscent of the early days of “TUF,” before the Las Vegas-based promotion’s ambitious event calendar gradually depleted the available male talent pool to a point where show standouts often struggle to advance beyond preliminary-card status. For example: With a combined 72 professional fights among them, Shayna Baszler, Tara LaRosa and Roxanne Modafferi almost seem over-qualified for the reality series. However, the UFC women’s bantamweight division is still in its growth period, having only officially debuted in February.
Kedzie, who has faced -- and lost to -- Baszler, LaRosa and Tonya Evinger, has also covered a number of other cast members as an analyst for Invicta and believes that more than a few fighters from the select 16 could earn a UFC contract based on previous merit alone, though only eight of the 16 will make it into the “TUF” house after the opening episode’s elimination fights. Still, the Jackson’s MMA representative points out that the rewards of having a host of cameras and crew intruding on one’s day-to-day activities could prove to be handsome.
“The women who are going to be signed to the UFC from that show I think will probably get double the amount of sponsors that I could ever have just coming straight into the UFC,” Kedzie said. “The exposure they’re gonna have is incredible. I hope they were all saying that to themselves as they were going through hell.”
If the combustible feud between rival coaches Ronda Rousey and Miesha Tate wasn’t enough, the upcoming season also adds the unprecedented dynamic of male and female fighters sharing not only training space, but living quarters. While that might not necessarily guarantee “Real World” type drama, the most innocent moments tend to take on increased significance when the cameras are rolling. Whether it is in competition, love, or both, things that seem important during those six weeks of filming usually diminish once everyone is allowed to find solid footing in their everyday lives.
“As long as [the cast members] don’t sleep together -- but who knows -- you could meet the love of your life in that kind of experience, [but] I think that’s unlikely,” Kedzie said. “The thing about reality shows is that your emotion … it’s a very high intensity situation where everything is heightened to a craziness where you feel things for people that you might have had a mild feeling for, and all of a sudden it’s [more intense].
“Afterwards, when you’re not in that fishbowl, you’re like, ‘Is this real, or is this not real?’ It’s a super heightened experience, and you have to deal with the fact that it’s not actually reality -- it’s just a form of it.”
Despite her familiarity with much of the female cast, Kedzie has trouble pinpointing a clear favorite, though when pressed, she does admit that Baszler, as “one of the toughest and most creative female fighters out there,” would be her early pick to win the whole thing. After watching the “TUF 18” trailer, Kedzie is fairly certain of one thing: the coach-versus-coach drama will be must-see TV.
“I think it’s gonna be exactly what it’s marketed to be,” Kedzie said. “Ronda, it seems as though she wore her heart on her sleeve a little bit and really pumped up the anger and the emotional side. It seems like Miesha, from the preview that I saw, comes across as pretty cool-headed. These [the coaches] are also potential opponents for all of these girls.”
While Rousey receives the lion’s share of the credit for bringing women to the UFC, the potential newcomers face a different type of pressure as the pioneers for breaking ground on another previously male-dominated establishment. Provided Rousey’s movie offers keep pouring in, the bantamweight champ won’t be around forever -- meaning that new stars are always welcome, especially when harvested from “TUF,” a UFC property which holds a considerable track record in that area.
“The women are under more scrutiny for this season. I think we’ve mostly changed the attitude of fans from ‘women can’t fight’ to ‘some women can fight,” said Kedzie. “There is still a little doubt, and I think that these women who are on the show, they may carry that burden of proving to the world on an even bigger scale that we can fight.”
“Basically, they’re pioneers in the sense that Forrest Griffin and Stephan Bonnar were. My hat’s off to them for going through it. Regardless of the outcome of any of the fights, they’re gonna go down in history, and they’re gonna be remembered. It’s a scary thing to do.”