by Ken Pishna – MMAWeekly.com
Three years ago, Forrest Griffin fought Stephan Bonnar in what is widely regarded as the most significant fight in mixed martial arts history. On Saturday night, Griffin was part of another significant fight, wresting the UFC light heavyweight championship away from Quinton “Rampage” Jackson.
It won’t shift the course of the sport the way that the inaugural Ultimate Fighter Finale did, but Griffin’s title win does shine a glaring spotlight on the impact of the reality series.
Following Griffin’s title winning performance on Saturday night, Ultimate Fighting Championship president Dana White held court and went deep into the tectonic shift The Ultimate Fighter has had on what is now the fastest growing sport in the world.
“It is one of the biggest things that’s ever happened to mixed martial arts,” he stated. “The people that are on the inside know. Young, up-and-coming talent can’t wait to get on that show. And the talent that’s coming out of that show… if you look at half the guys that are on our cards, they’re coming from this show.”
Not only does the show sling talent into the Octagon, White says it puts the development of that talent on fast forward. “The fact of the matter is, the guys that are on the show are on a certain level, and when they come off they’re at a whole other level.”
Forrest Griffin is White’s quintessential example.
“This whole week I’ve been telling everybody this guy is the American Dream. He was going to quit mixed martial arts. He was going to do the white picket fence, become the cop in Georgia. He didn’t fly out like he was supposed to. We had to get on the phone and talk him in. All the things that happened, he gets cut in that fight against (Alex) Schoenauer. He wins the fight easily, but gets cut bad,” White recounted.
“If we didn’t have Dr. (Gregory) Shu – the guy we used to stitch guys up – Forrest Griffin would have never fought that fight. So if it wasn’t for him, Forrest would have never fought Stephan Bonnar in the finale. And I swear to God, I don’t know if we’d be sitting here talking right now if that fight didn’t happen.”
That’s the value White puts on The Ultimate Fighter. But just as the stars have aligned for the reality series to drive the sport towards the mainstream, the UFC could have as easily slid over the edge into oblivion… and it nearly did.
“Going into that finale, we didn’t have a deal,” said White in a sobering moment of candor. “Spike TV was in turmoil. The president of the company had just been fired. I was flying back there 50 times a day fighting with these guys and it didn’t look like there was going to be a season two of The Ultimate Fighter despite the huge numbers it pulled.”
(Enter Forrest Griffin and Stephan Bonnar on matching white stallions.)
“This is no (expletive). But when (the Griffin-Bonnar) fight happened that night, (The Ultimate Fighter) deal was signed in the alley behind the Thomas & Mack.”
It seems almost comical now to think the sport once hinged on a single fight, especially considering how strong the ratings of that inaugural season were. By all counts, the inaugural season was a ratings success for Spike TV, but White put perspective on that issue as well.
“(Even though the ratings were strong) that doesn’t mean (expletive). You see us on a network yet? We’re one of the most powerful sports on Earth and we’re not on network television,” he said, referring to the UFC.
“The main reason (the UFC is not on network TV) is we know we have to run a business and you can’t make stupid deals,” stated White. “All these other guys that are going down in flames, they’ll take anything. We were never like that.
“Most of these guys are giving all the rights away. Even when we were in a bad situation – we payed $10 million to be on the first season – but we own everything lock, stock and barrel. That’s unheard of in the television business, to own the content.”
It’s been a long and winding road, but now, three and a half years since the inauguration of The Ultimate Fighter, there are eight seasons in the bag (they just finished filming Season 8) with a contract that calls for four more, and the UFC hasn’t looked back.
And on Saturday night, the Ultimate Fighter prototype went into full-on production, as Forrest Griffin became the UFC light heavyweight champion of the world.