(“Look mom, no future!” Pic: Las Vegas Sun)
If 13 seasons of “The Ultimate Fighter” have taught us anything, it’s that we will never see Keon Caldwell again. Truth is, you can get away with a lot of things on “TUF” and very little of it really has anything to do with being a professional fighter. You can piss in somebody’s fruit tray. You can piss in somebody’s bed. You can piss in somebody’s workout gear. Hell, you can even get drunk and piss in your own pants and as long as you don’t cause an embarrassing public scene at a casino later, you’ll probably be fine. After approximately 160 episodes however, one thing we know you absolutely can not do is quit the UFC’s popular reality show.
In choosing to leave “TUF” of his own free will this week, Caldwell essentially committed career suicide. Of all the bullshit UFC fighters can do and be forgiven — Steroids? Fine. Federal crimes? Whatever. High speed chases with the cops? No problem – it’s strange to think that quitting a TV program is a sin that simply can’t be absolved. It’s true though, leave “TUF” and you might as well be a child molester. You’re done. Finito. Dead to them. Time to start thinking about community college.
More than any of the ridiculous “made for TV” aspects of the show – more than the editing designed to bury him or his coach’s cartoonish disappointment or Dana White’s self-righteous fuming — that’s what made Caldwell’s exit from the show so hard to watch this week. As fake as the rest of “TUF” may be, one fact is very real: We just saw a 22-year-old kid euthanize his own dream on national television, seemingly without fully grasping the consequences.
From a viewer’s standpoint, the psychological reasons are obvious: Rightly or wrongly, being a quitter isn’t a personality trait we want to associate with MMA fighters. Granted, there is a certain irony in that, since quitting is one of the main ways that an actual MMA fight can end, but the “TUF” audience apparently doesn’t like to see that weakness displayed outside the cage. Especially when it’s emotional. No, we want tough-as-nails warriors. We want our “TUF” contestants to persevere stoically though all this soundstage adversity, even though very little of it (besides maybe the strange, two-round fights themselves) can possibly be an accurate barometer of their abilities.
“This guy can’t handle six weeks in a mansion?” We crow on our internet message boards, knowing almost nothing of Caldwell’s situation, his family, his background and what little we have seen of him presented to us by a company that now has a vested interest in making him look like a pussy. “What a pussy!” we say. See how good we are at this?
From the UFC’s point of view, it gets a bit stickier. Obviously, the company loves to frame “TUF” as a totally benevolent endeavor. What a great opportunity, they insist! It’s the chance of a lifetime, they repeat ad nauseum! Never mind the fact that neither the UFC nor SpikeTV would be here if the margins weren’t right, if there wasn’t a ton of money to be made off these guys’ fragile aspirations.
Essentially, the guys who run “TUF” legitimately view an unknown fighter who quits the show as thumbing his nose at the UFC’s overflowing generosity and that fucking pisses them off. Quitting “TUF” is like refusing to kiss the pope’s ring. It’s like depriving a rich person of a tax write off by turning down his donation. How dare you, they think, and to a certain extent, they’re right. Being on “TUF” is a great opportunity. It can be fast track to the UFC and it’s a chance not available to young fighters prior to 2005. Jumping through all the administrative hoops it takes to get on the show, only to then quit is just dumb, especially at this point in the game.
On the other hand, the problem with framing “TUF” as some kind of amazing, life-altering experience for your MMA career is that unfortunately that’s just not true for most guys. Comparatively few competitors from recent seasons have actually gone on to successful careers in the Octagon. For example, if you consider the 60 or so guys who competed in “TUF” seasons 8-11, just 16 of them still have UFC contracts (not counting the season winners). That’s a little under 27 percent. So really, if you don’t win the whole show, the chances that your “TUF” experience honestly “changes your life” seem pretty slim.
The fact is, Keon Caldwell probably wasn’t going to win the show. That 8-1 record they mentioned on this week’s episode includes just two opponents with winning records and one of those guys (Dhiego Lima) dispatched him via first-round submission last July. Unfortunately, we’ll never know for sure. The only thing we know is that now, because of what essentially amounts to a lot of reality TV nonsense, Caldwell will never fight in the UFC. Weird, right?
“The only thing good about it is that it happened early enough that we can get his ass out of here and get somebody real in here,” White said to neatly sum up the death of Keon Caldwell’s dream.
Somebody real, huh? What an interesting way to describe it …