(Seriously? Not even *one* vote for Jason Guida?)
The 16th season of The Ultimate Fighter kicks off tonight on FX, and while we wouldn’t exactly say we’re looking forward to it, the premiere of a new season always puts us in a reflective mood. In this week’s installment of the CagePotato Roundtable, we’ll be paying tribute to our favorite cast-members in TUF history, and joining us today is a very, very special guest — Luke O’Brien, an award-winning journalist whose work has appeared in Rolling Stone, The New York Times, The Atlantic, Fortune, and many other outlets that are much more respectable than the one you’re reading right now. (I first discovered Luke through his excellent MMA reporting for Deadspin.)
Shoot us your own favorite TUF guys in the comments section, and if you have a topic for a future Roundtable column, e-mail us at [email protected]
Has there been a more unlikely TUF champion than Amir Sadollah? In 2008, the Persian-Irish surgical technologist came out of nowhere — or in his case, Richmond — to win the seventh season of the show by beating All-American wrestler C.B. Dollaway. Sadollah armbarred Dollaway not once, but twice. Before that, he triangled Matt Brown, who oozed tough. And before that, he TKOd Gerald Harris, who certainly looked tough. At the time, Sadollah had never had a pro fight. Not one. I liked him immediately. Not because he was an upstart, a little doughy around the middle and a bit of a lumberer. There were purer reasons that drew me to a fighter who walks out to Iranian techno music.
For one, he had a mullet. This wasn’t the unaware bumpkin coiffure found in many stretches of this country. Rather, it was a curated flange of keratin that complemented the smirk often playing on Sadollah’s face. It was a mullet that, like its owner, didn’t take itself too seriously. A mullet that grasped irony. And irony has always been in short supply on TUF. The premise of the show — quarantine 16 fighters for a month in a house stocked with unlimited amounts of booze and see what happens — is absurd, although I guess you could say the same about all reality television. As much as I enjoy TUF, the only way I can fully appreciate it is at a sardonic remove. Sadollah allowed me to do that.
Most of the fighters on the show not only fail to get the joke, however, they fail to grasp that they’re even part of it. The character tropes that emerge, whether unbidden or teased out by producers, tend to be obliviously earnest. There is the shit-talking asshole, the ugly drunk, the prankster who ejaculates on sushi, the lovesick prat who worries photos of his bastard spawn, the zen master who strokes chi in the backyard, the anti-social, the dolt, the hard-knock kid and so on.
To me, at least, this collection of “types” has always called out for a more self-aware presence, someone able to appreciate the weird meta-comedy of the situation while still engaging it, like a wiseass anthropologist conducting ethnography on a strange tribe (and occasionally winking to his audience). Sadollah was that. He was wry and introspective and funny as hell, in the vein of Forrest Griffin, minus the ever-encroaching darkness. He didn’t pound his chest. When he won, he seemed surprised. His default state was general bemusement and he went through the show with a shrug. He was, essentially, the kind of person I didn’t mind watching fight but I really wanted to watch on TV. Mainly because he reminded me that the hour of my week I’d given over to Spike, and soon FX, was forever gone. And what a silly, pointless hour it was. And why not?
I feel like Matt Serra is the greatest TUF competitor by pretty much any criteria you could name, and I’m not just saying that because I have fond personal memories of the man. He won the show, won a world title in the biggest title fight upset in UFC history — becoming the first and so far only fighter to TKO Georges St. Pierre — then came back to build an entertaining rivalry with Matt Hughes as a coach on season six. He was also one of the funniest dudes to ever pass through the TUF house, and through it all, he carried himself with integrity and class. Matt Serra made an impression, and he didn’t need to put his head through a wall like a fucking idiot in order to do it.
Even before he officially joined the “Comeback” season of The Ultimate Fighter, it was clear that Serra was destined for stardom. Just check out this audition footage, where the Terror puts his Long Island style of jovial ball-busting on full display, trading barbs with his boss and the show’s producers. He was entirely comfortable in his own skin. And that accent? Instant branding.
Serra’s run on the show saw him smash Pete Spratt, score a redemptive decision victory over Shonie Carter — who had knocked Serra out via fluke backfist with nine seconds left in their meeting at UFC 31 — and out-point Chris Lytle in a razor-thin decision at the finale. But it was Serra’s dressing-down of Marc Laimon that truly put him over, and remains the show’s most memorable verbal devastation not involving Dana White.
Season 4 was a far-fetched gimmick to begin with. (“Let’s take a bunch of near-washouts and award the winners an immediate title shot”?) The glass trophies that Serra and middleweight Travis Lutter won only seemed like tickets to a guaranteed ass-kicking. All Serra could do at UFC 69 was throw his hands and believe in himself. Three-and-a-half minutes later, GSP was staring at the lights, and Serra was a world champion. Following that win, Serra was brought on as a coach for TUF 6, and fans got to see a different side of him — the caring trainer and cornerman who was always reminding his guys to “BREATHE!”
Serra lost his title in a rematch with GSP, and only won one more fight in the Octagon, a knockout of Frank Trigg at UFC 109. These days, he’s settled into an elder statesmen role, sheperding along prospects like Chris Weidman and Al Iaquinta, always showing up in his fighters’ corners looking very well fed. But during his relatively brief time as a UFC star, the world got to know a true gentleman. While other TUF contestants have tried to create personas, Matt Serra was one of the few guys who passed through that house with genuine character. He was the scrappy underdog with brains and heart, who earned a second chance in the sport and made the most of it, achieving much, much more than anybody could have expected him to.
Before I begin, I am going to let the CP readers peek behind the curtain for just a brief moment. When a Roundtable topic is chosen, our fearless leader Ben Goldstein sends out a mass email asking each writer who or what they will be choosing as their nominee. It gives all the staff members/contributors a basic outline of what direction we are headed in, and it eliminates two people picking the same subject matter. Then, once all the topics are written and submitted, the workhorse that is BG crafts the posts with all the pictures and hyperlinks. I know, it is pretty complex and I am sure all of you thought we just used a couple of soup cans connected with some string to communicate (or in Danga’s case, sending bong-made smoke signals for correspondence).
With that being said, I had a general idea of who was being included and the usual suspects were covered. Considering this is the 16th season (17 if you count TUF Brazil) there is a virtual cornucopia of competitors to pick from. The freaks like Junie Browning and War Machine are both batshit crazy, but I could not call them my favorite. Then there are Forrest Griffin, Stephan Bonnar, and Chris Lytle who have/had great UFC careers while being fan favorites, but none of them (literally or figuratively) tickled my pecker either. I have already covered every single season of TUF in a previous CP post and there is only one man that makes me have undeniable feelings. Granted, those feelings are categorical hatred, but at least he makes me care one way or the other.
Josh Koscheck has been the notorious heel ever since he first appeared during the inaugural season of TUF. He teamed up with Bobby Southworth to give us one of the best moments to ever come out of the series when they instigated Chris Leben to go Bruce Banner’s alter ego on a few doors. Kos went on to beat the tortured soul of Leben and sent him packing with more insults as he adjusted his invisible “black hat.” That has been the Kos that we’ve all loved to hate for the better part of a decade and nothing will change.
There have been so many participants throughout TUF series and the feeling of indifference is overwhelming for damn near all of them. It is hard to get people to cheer you and it is even harder to get the masses to despise you. Much like Koscheck’s in-cage abilities, he has worked extremely hard to paint himself as the bad guy, and as his MMA skills improved, so did his propensity to infuriate the fans. Like my father always said, “Find something you are good at and stick with it.” I have stuck to extreme unicycling while singing “Weird” Al tunes and Koscheck has stuck to kicking ass while pissing people off.
Josh Koscheck epitomizes every character William Zabka portrayed from the 1980’s. Kos is the prototypical bully jock that walks around dolling out wedgies and swirlies while spewing insults to anybody that crosses his path. The problem with that, other than the obvious, is that he is a pretty damn good fighter. Sure he is a notorious eye gouger and has never won a title but love him (doubtful) or hate him (probably), at least you have an opinion of him. He gives you somebody to root against. With a UFC record of 15-6 and wins over guys like Diego Sanchez, Anthony Johnson, Paul Daley, and Matt Hughes, nobody can argue that Kos sucks. And while he may in fact be a complete asshole, at least he makes us give a shit. That is why my favorite cast member from TUF series is without a doubt — Josh Koscheck. Oh, and he has his own god damn plane that he flies himself too. Screw that!
You guys know those assholes out there that slow down at every car wreck, root for every horror movie villain, and just seem to find delight in the pain and suffering of others? Well, I’m one of those assholes, and Corey Hill was the busty blond to my Jason Voorhees. But for my money train wrecks just aren’t as good if you don’t get to watch said train pick up speed. Luckily we had all of season 5 for Corey to gain some momentum.
I will say for starters that I’ve got nothing against Corey. Throughout the course of the show he came across as a pretty down to earth and likable guy (Note: although that’s pretty easy any time you’re sharing screen time with one of the Diaz boys). Add in the underdog factor, and I was sort of rooting for Corey. Between managing to calm the shit storm that was Nate Diaz and Manvel Gamburyan, and helping to build his teammates confidence and skill with no complaints, he was an all around nice guy. There, now that the reality show bullshit is out of the way, let’s talk fights.
Coming on to the show Corey claimed to have a perfect 4-0 record. While he did have a perfect record, the reality was that he was 2-0, and both of those fights had been amateur bouts. None the less the coaches and the other fighters alike saw a lot of potential in the untested fighter. It went so far as guest coach Jeremy Horn claiming Hill to have the most potential to become a force in the UFC. Keep in mind that this was a season with guys like Gray Maynard, Nate Diaz, Joe Lauzon, and Cole Miller — so in retrospect, quite a bold statement. If Hill hadn’t lost to Nate Diaz in the quarter finals, it could have been one of the best Cinderella stories in TUF history.
So with season 5 coming to a close, the Corey Hill hype train was off to a good start. He immediately picked up a TKO win over Joe Veres before falling short against Justin Buchholz. Then this happened, and for me it was like Christmas, New Years, and my birthday all rolled into one gruesomely wrapped present. Since then, Corey has gone 4-2 in the cage, which really is impressive since every time I see the above picture I refuse to even kick my dog for at least a week.
Rashad Evans has accomplished a lot in his career. His knockout of Sean Salmon has a permanent spot on UFC highlight reels. He forced Michael Bisping out of the light heavyweight division and into the middleweight division, inadvertently enabling Bisping’s knockout at the hands of Dan Henderson at UFC 100. He brutally knocked out Chuck Liddell, went Donkey Kong on Forrest Griffin to claim the light heavyweight title, and is the only fighter in UFC history to go five rounds with Jon Jones or perform the stanky leg in the middle of a fight. (OK, so he did this at the precise moment he lost consciousness, but that actually makes it more impressive.)
But these accolades are not the real reasons I’m picking Rashad Evans as the best member of TUF. It’s because of how much he was able to piss off Matt Hughes. (And his subsequent Uncle Bernie anecdote.) Sorry, but I have a soft spot for people who piss off self-absorbed socially conservative assholes. Particularly ones who have some type of bizarre notion about “unwritten rules” in combat sports. Look, sportsmanship is nice and all, but there’s nothing wrong with showboating. In fact, it can make fights better — Anderson Silva vs. Forrest Griffin, for instance. Just don’t hit a guy when you go to touch gloves. That shit’s off limits.
Rashad is also responsible for absolutely demolishing Quinton Jackson in trash-talking during TUF 10, and exposed Rampage’s own smack-talking ability. Which, as it turned out, was limited to either calling someone “titties,” or simply taking one or two phrases and repeating them ad nauseum. (“Treat me like a bitch. Treat me like a bitch. Treat me like a bitch.” Etc.) When Rampage was unable to win the war of words — or, you know, have his fighters actually win a match since he was a terrible, terrible coach — he took his frustrations out on the only opponent he could actually beat; the poor, cheap cardboard door.
So whether you’re talking career accomplishments or TUF antics that aren’t borderline homoerotic or psychological breakdowns (hello Junie Browning!), Rashad Evans stands at the top of the heap. He accomplished all he could in his weight class, defeated legends in the sport, pissed off Country Breakfast, and mentally broke Quinton Jackson. Which isn’t necessarily hard to do or anything, he could have just thrown energy drinks and copies of “The Secret” at him, but it’s still very amusing.
As impossible as this sounds, I’m about to write something for this week’s entry that’s even more uninspired than what I usually publish. I’ll accomplish this by not only playing the “I got to meet so-and-so” card, but also by exploiting every keyboard warrior’s favorite angle, the infamous “I trane UFC.” If you were expecting more from me, do you mind if I ask why?
I know I’m pretty biased in saying this, but as a Lafayette, Louisiana resident who trains at Gladiator’s Academy, my favorite Ultimate Fighter alumnus is TUF 7‘s own “Crazy” Tim Credeur (For what it’s worth, I don’t cover fights from any of the gym’s fighters due to the obvious conflict of interest). For starters, Tim isn’t known for his zany antics on the show, a goofy, fluorescent mohawk or any of the other TUF cliches you’re sick of; definitely a plus. The fact that the only decision on his record is a Fight of the Night earning loss to Nate Quarry helps, too. But if I’m being honest, Tim Creuder is my favorite TUF alumnus simply because he’s cool enough to allow a hack journalist like me to come within fifty miles of his gym, let alone actually train there.
But let’s just say that if you’re looking to see how good of a coach he is, you should definitely check out Fightville instead of watching me practice. The other day, Tim watched me channel my inner Cro Cop by attempting a head kick during a Muay Thai practice. His reaction reminded me of the look on my father’s face when I tried out for the local Pee-Wee football squad. As a punter. Who broke his foot during the warm-ups. And cried for at least ten minutes afterwards.
Pissing on a pillow, sleeping outside, destroying a door, getting called a “fatherless bastard,” and oh yeah, drinking a TON of alcohol. On the inaugural season of The Ultimate Fighter, as Stone Cold Steve Austin would say, Chris Leben arrived, raised hell, and left. Love him or hate him, The Crippler’s antics made for some of the best TV in TUF history. His in-house rivalry with Josh Koscheck got so heated that even the Baldfather decided to just let em settle it in the octagon. Though Leben succumbed to Koscheck’s superior wrasslin’ skills in their fight, the Crippler forever cemented himself as arguably the greatest hellraiser in TUF history.
So why is Chris Leben my favorite TUF cast member of all-time? Along with the entertaining personal antics, the man does what a lot of fighters these days won’t do, he FIGHTS. Only two weeks removed from beating Aaron Simpson at the TUF 11 finale, Leben stepped in for Wanderlei Silva to fight Yoshihiro Akiyama at UFC 116, and after an all-out war, pulled off a miraculous triangle choke victory with seconds left in the 3rd round. Though he can never seem to get that big win to put him in title contention, Leben remains a favorite of the UFC brass as well because he is a very aggressive fighter who never shies away from a brawl in the Octagon. So here’s to hoping The Crippler can get back on track at UFC 155, and remember, if you’re gonna piss on somebody’s pillow on the Ultimate Fighter, just make sure you kick their ass at the finale.
Ladies and gentlemen of our esteemed jury, I ask you to turn your attention to Exhibit A: The single greatest moment in the history of The Ultimate Fighter. It literally contains everything that any fan of the show, the UFC, or the sport in general can appreciate: An upset victory, a brutal, lightning-quick submission, Dana White dropping the f-bomb, Steve Mazzagatti making a correct call for once, Arianny Celeste (for the gentlemen), Georges St. Pierre (for the ladies and gentlemen), and Josh Koscheck getting served a nice warm glass of shut the hell up. It’s the video clip equivalent of, as Seth would say, getting a blowjob while drinking a Mr. Pibb, but above all else, it features the coolest mofo to ever stroll through the TUF house: Cody McKenzie.
Now, I could simply rest my case right there and call it a day, but I suppose there are still a stubborn few of you out there who still aren’t picking up what I’m putting down, so allow me to continue.
We’ve talked a lot about the supposed fakeness that plagues certain MMA fighters over the past couple weeks, referring mainly of course, to Jon Jones. We’ve (and by we’ve, I mean you’ve) used such terms as “pussy”, “punk bitch”, “fake-ass trick”, “mark-ass trick”, “trick-ass mark”, “hoe,” “heffer”, “hee-ha”, and “hooley-hoo punk-ass jabroni” to describe Jones and his fakeness, and declared that if Jones would just remove the “businessman-like” façade and be real with us for a second, maybe we’d actually come around to the idea of embracing him as a champion. Maybe.
Well, if it’s realness you’re looking for in an MMA fighter, look no further than the tobacco-chewing, McKenzietining, TUF 12 Alaskan native. While 90 percent of his counterparts spent their time on the show picking fights in between their actual fights and acting like general assholes (a trend that seems to be increasing exponentially), McKenzie was content to simply chill in a hammock, sip a beer, and appreciate the opportunity he was given. He was/is a down to earth, honest guy who you would just as easily find next to you at the bar as you would in the gym. Essentially, he’s the very definition of the “common man’s” fighter.
In the moments leading up to his fight with Marc Stevens, McKenzie was more than willing to admit to Nam Phan (Stevens’ teammate) that Marc was, and I’m loosely quoting here, “a better wrestler, a better striker, and probably a better talent, who was faster, stronger, better looking, and probably better at the hard sciences that I am. But I’m going to win.” That’s realness, ladies and gentlemen, and 16 seconds into their fight, McKenzie accomplished what he set out to do using only the power of trickery and a pair of God-given vice-grips that would make Clamps clamp himself to death in shame.
You see, a lot of McKenzie’s appeal lies in the limited attributes he possesses as a fighter. The dude is the definition of a one-trick pony, and from the moment the bell rings, you know that McKenzie is going to look for your neck, that choke, and the nearest exit. Yet he is still managing to pull it off on the occasional fool, and God damn is it fun to watch. He’s like Ronda Rousey minus the off-putting amount of cockiness, which is made all the more respectable when you realize that McKenzie was actually born with one. A cock, that is.
And do you want to discuss the “take on all comers mentality” that seems to have disintegrated in the sport over time? Not in Cody fucking McKenzie it hasn’t. The “AK Kid” managed to get under Koscheck’s skin so much during his run on TUF 12 that Fraggle challenged him to a fight if he ever made it to the UFC. Without even batting an eye, McKenzie accepted a fight against the future title challenger of a division he didn’t even compete in, as was the case when he offered to fight former title challenger Chad Mendes in his own featherweight debut and former lightweight champ Frankie Edgar in his. Is McKenzie reckless, delusional, and borderline masochistic? Possibly, but that’s the kind of attitude I’d like to see more of in the age where athletes like to fancy themselves CEO’s.
And do I even have to mention that McKenzie is responsible for this?
NOW I rest my case.