- NY TIMES EVEN COVERS TONIGHTS ULTIMATE FIGHTER

August 22, 2005
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by MMAWeekly.com Staff
Spike’s ‘Fighter’ an ultimate hit with young men

By BOB BAKER

New York Times

Las Vegas – For the young male television viewer who wishes the whiny reality-show participants would just step outside and settle things with their fists – for you, sir, comes “The Ultimate Fighter.”

The plot is primal: Throw 18 male boxers, wrestlers and assorted martial artists into a hidden-camera-infested house in Las Vegas, deprive them of phones, reading material, music, TV and women, and let the tensions build until they punch, stomp, choke and kick each other in a series of supervised but often bloody elimination fights inside a chain-link octagonal ring. To the last man in each weight category goes what the show bills as a six-figure contract to fight on “Ultimate Fighter” pay-per-view bouts.

The show, carried by the testosterone-dripping Spike cable channel, begins its second season tonight after receiving promising ratings during its initial run earlier this year.

More significant was the program’s demographic success: From January through April, “The Ultimate Fighter” was the ninth-most-watched basic cable show among men 18 to 34. It averaged 407,000 viewers in that category – just 4,000 viewers behind ESPN’s National Football League pregame show.

With a mix of machismo and soap opera, and a love of technique – even if the technique is sometimes that of slamming a knee into an opponent’s face – “The Ultimate Fighter” is the latest example of cable television’s innovative attempts to pursue a male audience. As for female viewers, the broadcast networks can have ‘em.

Consider a small difference between “The Ultimate Fighter” and a canceled NBC reality-boxing show, “The Contender,” co-produced by Mark Burnett and Sylvester Stallone. In the same way that NBC tries to attract women to its Olympic Games coverage by emphasizing human interest, “The Contender” sometimes cuts away from its bouts to show audience members reacting to their loved ones’ fates in the ring.

Don’t look for that on “Ultimate Fighter.” Shows like “The Contender” “personalize the stories, and they try to make you cry,” said Kevin Kay, a programming executive at Spike. “I don’t think Spike is ever going to make you cry.”

The cringe factor

It might make you cringe, however. Midway through the season, the host, Dana White, a former boxer and fight manager who chooses and oversees the contestants, decided to give them a break from the monotony of training. White took them to a nearby casino, where many of them drank, some to the point of vomiting (a sight to which viewers were treated).

One of the fighters, Bobby Southworth, was arguing with Chris Leben, an unpopular fellow contestant who had recently visited with the father who had abandoned him as a child. Southworth, aware of that emotional encounter, called Leben a “fatherless bastard.” Leben was visibly wounded but decided to sleep outdoors rather than throw a punch outside of the ring. But at 3 a.m., Southworth and another fighter, Josh Koscheck, sneaked out to where he lay and turned on a garden hose. Enraged, Leben put his fist through the glass front-door pane.

Instead of throwing them off the show, the producers decided to make them fight it out. Leben’s and Koscheck’s grudge match became the center of the episode.

“That was brilliant,” said Craig Piligian, one of the show’s executive producers, who is also a veteran of “Survivor.” “How do you script that?”

After that, the producers banned alcohol from the house and warned the fighters they were “ambassadors” for the sport, but the fuse was lit.

“It’d be so rad to break his jaw,” Leben said, adding, “This isn’t the ‘Most Outstanding Citizen Show.’ If I crippled him, I wouldn’t feel bad at all.”

That possibility is part of ultimate fighting’s appeal – and why, with its combination of wrestling, kickboxing and jujitsu but its paucity of rules, it is legal in only a few states.

The fight between Leben and Koscheck offered little drama, however, deteriorating into long minutes of mat-level grappling. Koscheck won on a decision.

A New York promoter coined the term Ultimate Fighting Championship in 1993 to match men of disparate combat styles. But because no states sanctioned the competition, it was often lumped in with more dangerous anything-goes events.

Some limitations on violence already had been in place when White, along with two friends whose family owns a chain of small Las Vegas casinos, acquired the Ultimate Fighting Championship franchise in 2001.

Two more seasons

To get the sport on television, they first had it sanctioned by the Nevada Athletic Commission. Then, in 2004, with Piligian, they pitched it to the Spike channel, which calls itself the first network for men. And last spring, a deal was signed for two more seasons of the show and six live events.

The second season’s fighters arrived in Las Vegas in June. Even before filming began, they seemed more serious than the first season’s combatants. They included the predictable nightclub bouncer and the bounty hunter, but also the plastics engineer, the loan officer and the bulldog breeder. Many had been to college but could find no calling as satisfying as physical competition.

When taping began, each weight class was broken into two teams that competed in physical challenges; the winning team member got to pick his opponent. At one point this season, a federal prison guard from Hawaii, Anthony Torres, is matched against Luke Cummo, a self-described Taoist from New Hyde Park, on Long Island.

Both men were weary of being quarantined for the show.

“The house is clean for an hour after the cleaning crew comes, then it gets messy,” Cummo said one afternoon inside the gym where the men train and fight. Torres suggested that the prisoners he left behind had it better than he did.

“The inmates can watch TV,” he said. “They can see their loved ones two or three times a week. They can call them.”

But they don’t have a privilege that Cummo and Torres do: the chance to thrash each other with total impunity. After three rounds, the men stood, exhausted, and the judges announced a winner by a wide margin. (A reporter was allowed to witness the event on the condition that he not name the victor.) The loser was taken to another house to live out the season., a technique that many reality shows use to keep ex-contestants from spilling any beans.

The winner lay down on the mat and tried to flip up onto his feet. He missed.

“Do it again! They can edit that!” yelled his coach, and on his second try, the fighter made it. Then he went home and slept.

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