The Ultimate Fighter returns this week on FX. Lost in all of the excitement is the impact that this show had on MMA 17 seasons ago. As much as UFC will try, they will never have another class and show as exciting as The Ultimate Fighter Season 1.
I watched back the entire season of the first The Ultimate Fighter show recently. I remember at the time being hooked on the show the first time I watched it. I felt the same way re-watching the season all over again. The season was filled with drama, tremendous fights, and a cast of characters that has never been quite as engaging as the cast from this season.
I don’t know if there have been a better paid of coaches than Chuck Liddell and Randy Couture. The guys were true pros and both seemed to have the best interests of their fighters. This was at a time right before the two blew up and became mainstream stars. Randy Couture in particular was fantastic, especially during the Southworth-Bonnar fight when he told Bonnar exactly what Chuck would be advising Southworth.
Joe Rogan has called the cast, “The heart and soul of ultimate fighting.” The cast was truly a classic. From their personalities to the legacy they would build in UFC. It’s funny, because they were portrayed as young hungry inexperienced MMA stars. Yet, a lot of them had great pedigrees and probably would have wound up in UFC at some point. Guys like Chris Leben and Bobby Southworth had good careers going before the show. It really shouldn’t be a huge surprise in retrospect that a lot of them easily transitioned into the UFC.
The cast featured a ton of guys that would go on to main-event UFC Fight Nights and Pay-Per-Views. Forrest Griffin, Diego Sanchez, Chris Leben, Josh Koscheck, Mike Swick, Stephan Bonnar, Kenny Florian, and Nate Quarry. If you just became an MMA fan in the last few years, you wouldn’t believe that all of these UFC fighters came through a reality show. The amount of talent that UFC was able to amass from the show was just amazing.
The first season saw the coaches pick teams. It is funny watching this draft back in retrospect to see how wrong Chuck and Randy were. Out of that entire class named above, none of them were picked #1 overall. The #1 overall pick was Bobby Southworth on Team Liddell. Arguably the biggest star to come out of the show, Forrest Griffin wasn’t picked until close to the end of the draft. It just goes to show you that there is no way to measure a fighter’s heart.
Chris Leben was the star of the show early on. If you heard Leben interviewed today, you would never realize that this was the same kid. Leben was a loud mouthed, arrogant, cocky, drunk during most of the show. Leben went from peeing in one of the fighter’s beds in the first episode to crying in a sleeping bag with Nate Quarry. The guy was an emotional roller coaster and really made his mark.
The most memorable thing about the show was probably the rivalry between Leben and Josh Koshcheck. Things came to a head when Southworth called Leben a, “fatherless bastard” one night while partying. Leben broke down crying and wound up sleeping outside of the house. Koshcheck and Southworth proceeded to dump water on Leben while he was sleeping. Leben got up and in a crazed state wound up going through the house punching walls and windows.
Dana White immediately capitalized on this and made a fight between Leben and Koshcheck. In my opinion, Koshcheck seemed scared going into the fight. This was the kind of a fight that would have made money if it was put on pay-per-view. Koshcheck actually pulled off the upset and won. The fight turned out to be kind of boring with Koshcheck continually grounding Leben. Koshcheck was just too good of a wrestler for Leben to go the ground with. It still amazes me that UFC has never re-matched the two fighters.
For a guy that was in his mid-30s, Southworth probably came out as the biggest idiot of the show. The guy was completely immature both in and out of the octagon. He reminded me of the little kid that encourages the bully in those 1980s movies, but won’t do anything himself. After losing a decision to Stephan Bonnar, Southworth whined and complained. The fight was definitely close, but it was his fault for not finishing. Two minutes after the fight he threw his UFC career out the window when he told Dana White to leave his room. White was angry and well, we have not seen Southworth in UFC since.
Plenty has been written about the finale between Forrest Griffin and Stephan Bonnar and how it impacted UFC and MMA. Diego Sanchez defeated Kenny Florian in the middleweight final. These are two guys that have fought for the UFC lightweight title while Josh Koscheck has challenged for the UFC welterweight title. The level of talent that came out of the show will never be repeated for so many different reasons.
Tonight’s show will kick off the most anticipated season since Ortiz and Shamrock were coaching. Jon Jones and Chael Sonnen have manufactured a rivalry that some are hoping will reach the boiling point like Evans and Rampage and Ortiz and Shamrock. As for the class, the UFC is already dropping hints of chaos in order to stir up interest in the show. No matter who emerges from this year’s class, I don’t expect any class to make the impact of the first season.