BY HANK WINNICKI
November 3, 2005
He was the last fighter picked. Now, he could be the last man standing. Of the 18 contestants on season two of “The Ultimate Fighter,” New Hyde Park’s Luke Cummo was the final choice when coaches were choosing up sides. He’s proving everyone wrong.
Cummo recorded two impressive victories on the show and will fight in the live season finale Saturday (9 p.m on Spike TV). To win the prize (described only as a six-figure contract), he’ll have to kick, punch, knee or elbow his opponent, Joe Stevenson, 23, into submission. If that doesn’t work, he can try any number of bone-breaking holds or oxygen-depleting chokes. Either way, it’s not over until one of them is knocked out or cries uncle.
That’s Ultimate Fighting, and if it makes you wrinkle your nose, you’re not alone. Then again, if it’s the kind of action you enjoy, you are not alone.
Spike TV took a chance earlier this year with this series. Eighteen fighters cooped up in a house, doing the things you normally see on reality TV – complaining, conniving and creating drama. But these guys had to settle it in an eight-sided, fenced-in fighting area.
“To me, it felt like [MTV’s] ‘Real World,'” says Kevin Kay, Spike TV’s executive vice president for programming, “but in the end, they get to fight it out.”
The show has been especially successful with the hard-to-reach young male audience. The season one finale, telecast live on April 9, drew 2.6 million viewers.
Spreading the UFC gospel
“The reality show ended up being our Trojan Horse,” says Dana White, president of the Ultimate Fighting Championship and the host of the reality show. “It was our way of sliding this thing in there.”
After the success of the first season, Spike signed on for two more. With 2.1 million viewers, the season two premiere on Aug. 22 was the top cable show for males 18-34 and 18-49 in the time slot. According to Spike, the second season has averaged more males 18-24 than any prime-time show on broadcast networks except “Monday Night Football,” “Prison Break” and “Two and a Half Men.”
While the show is bringing more attention to the sport, it is the athletes who are getting viewers’ attention. “The stigma is that these guys are a bunch of brawlers that come in out of bars,” White says. “The reality is that Chuck Liddell, our light heavyweight champion, is an accounting major from Cal Poly.”
“It’s not just meatheads walking into a ring,” Liddell says. “Three out of the four UFC champions are college graduates.”
Cummo, 25, graduated from Chaminade High School in Mineola and has a biology degree from Nassau Community College. Might that be why was he the last guy picked when they chose up sides? “He’s got glasses and a unibrow and he wears socks with his sandals,” says East Meadow’s Matt Serra, Cummo’s Brazilian jiu-jitsu instructor and a UFC veteran. “But he’s very deceiving. When it comes down to it, he’s a very good fighter.”
Cummo, who also trains in kickboxing at Ray Longo’s school in Mineola, proved his mettle by winning a unanimous decision and scoring a knockout with a vicious knee to the head. “It was my first knockout,” he says, “and it takes a little while to get used to doing that to somebody.”
It wasn’t long ago that Ultimate Fighting was virtually banned from TV. After starting as a one-time, pay-per-view event in November 1993, the UFC – with no weight classes and loose rules that disallowed only biting and eye gouging – drew significant criticism.
“They marketed it as the bloodiest and most violent sport in the world,” White says. “It was very much a spectacle.”
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), a boxing fan, saw a tape of one of the early fights and came out swinging, equating it to “human cockfighting.” He helped get the sport banned in 40 states.
Oddly enough, White says McCain may have helped the UFC in the long run. “I believe that had John McCain not come out and gone after the old UFC the way he did,” White says, “we wouldn’t be where we are today.”
The old UFC continued to produce shows while trying to duck regulators. But without pay-per-view sales, the UFC was close to being tapped out.
Ahead of schedule
In January 2001, the organization was purchased by White and brothers Lorenzo and Frank Fertitta. “We had a five-year plan,” says White, 36. The goals: getting sanctioned by the Nevada and New Jersey athletic commissions, getting back on pay-per-view and getting a television deal. “We’ve accomplished all of those goals in four years.”
The sport’s image was cleaned up by adding weight classes, time limits and gloves. There are 31 rules, along with mandatory drug testing.
The UFC is now sanctioned in 19 states and is routinely drawing over 10,000 fans to the live shows. “In the beginning, it was more of a beer-guzzling crowd who wanted to see people get beat up,” Serra says. Audiences are learning that it’s more than just a street fight, he says. That’s where critics tend to disagree. But don’t expect White, who has two young sons of his own, to apologize for the violence.
“This is a contact sport,” White says. “People are going to get hurt. The big thing is that we’ve never had a death or a serious injury in the 11-year history of the Ultimate Fighting Championship. I hate to bash boxing … but on average, five to six boxers die a year.”
Did Spike TV have reservations about the violence? “It’s certainly something that was weighing on our minds,” Kay says. The reality show format gave them the ability to edit out anything they felt was too much, he says.
And the numbers suggest the audience is fine with it. “Think about it: This thing was dead,” White says. “The sport was dead in the United States. The company was dead. In 4 1/2 years, the sport is starting to sell out [venues]…. In 10 years, this thing is going to be big.”