We’ve heard the story before about how The Ultimate Fighter reality series saved the UFC from financial ruin and catapulted the sport of mixed martial arts into main stream culture.
The UFC was tens of millions of dollars in debt when UFC brass pitched the idea of a reality show featuring athletes trying to fight their way into a position on the UFC roster. The network was skeptical, but when UFC owners offered to fund the production, a one-season deal was signed.
“Spike didn’t want it either when we pitched it to them, and then the Fertitta brother said, ‘what if we pay for it?’ And the said, ‘we like that idea,’ which ended up being incredible because if the network paid for it, the network would have owned it. We paid for everything, so we owned 100 percent of all the rights,” UFC president Dana White said during an appearance on the Jim Rome Podcast.
The Ultimate Fighter 1 debuted on Jan. 17, 2005 and was an immediate hit, but it was the season’s finale on April 9, 2005 that sealed the deal for the fight promotion, the sport, and the television network.
Despite the series’ popularity and ratings, it was unclear if it had a future on Spike TV until the finale aired live. Light heavyweights Forrest Griffin and Stephan Bonnar went to war in the finale’s main event captivating viewers across the country. The UFC brand became a household name overnight.
“During that season of The Ultimate Fighter, the thing is a huge, smash success. The thing’s a huge hit. Half way through the season the president of the network gets fired. Those guys go radio silent on us over there. Normally, when you have a hit show like that, you’re on the side of buses. There are billboards everywhere. They’re promoting the shit out of you. These guys went radio silent on us. No promotion,” White said.
“For the finale, they were supposed to spend all this money. They did nothing. They did none of it. I was on the phone fighting with these guys the whole time. We didn’t even know if we were going to have a second season, but after that finale was over, I didn’t give a shit about what happened with Spike TV. I knew we were going to end up somewhere,” said the UFC president.
The reality series remained on Spike TV until 2011, but the second season contract was hastily signed by Spike executives on a napkin outside Cox Pavilion in Las Vegas on that April night in 2005.
“The (Spike TV) executives that were there literally walked out in the back alley with us and f*cking signed a new deal on a napkin,” White said.