Boston Herald – Mark A. Perigard
By Mark A. Perigard

“Ultimate Fighter.” Season premiere tomorrow at 10 p.m. on Spike TV. Grade: A-

For its third season, Spike TV’s “Ultimate Fighter” punches up some major improvements, a scrappier group of fighters and two new coaches ready to pound each other into gristle. The popular reality series about mixed martial arts combatants returns tomorrow night at 10. Gone are the ridiculous product placements and the insipid challenges that had no bearing on the fights. (One challenge last season pitted the combatants in a race to pull each other’s socks off.)

Now it’s all about the training and the bouts that will end in a live finale June 24 with two fighters walking away with six-figure contracts. The 16 contestants make last season’s group look like a bunch of librarians – OK, beefy librarians who could pound the snot out of you, but you get the idea. Among the contestants: Matt Hamill, a deaf athlete; Ed Herman, who goes by the nickname “Short Fuse”; and Kendall Grace(sic)Groves, who says, “I love punching people in the face. That’s my paradise.” The real drama comes prepackaged with this season’s coaches, Ultimate Fighting Championship stars Ken Shamrock and Tito Ortiz. Their bloody rivalry is legendary and recapped here with several video clips. Left alone in the gym, the two men won’t even look at each other. After the coaches pick their teams, they demonstrate surprising approaches to training. Ortiz favors working out with his guys and emphasizes conditioning. “Prepare for the worst and the best will always happen,” he says. Shamrock maintains a distance. His decision to bring along a nutritionist mystifies some of his players. To cap the premiere, two middleweights brawl and the loser is sent home. It’s a satisfying opener to what promises to be the best season of the franchise. (The show is preceded by a two-hour, live “Fight Night” special featuring alums of the first two seasons.)

Alas, like a cut that won’t heal, UFC president and human wedgie Dana White returns to focus the drama on himself. “I’m the one that really did choose the coaches and set the season up, but I’d rather eat poison and jump off the roof of this building than do season 3,” he says. If only. No show is perfect. “Ultimate Fighter” is back, swinging for a knockout.