Three episodes into the new “live” incarnation of “The Ultimate Fighter”, the only truly memorable and unscripted moment so far has come thanks to UFC bantamweight champion Dominick Cruz.
As TUF made the jump from SpikeTV to the FX Network earlier this month to begin Season 15 of its extraordinary run, we were promised (or at least we assumed) sweeping changes.
A few of those have indeed come to pass. Live look-ins to the TUF training center now bookend the show’s traditional reality format, quarterbacked flawlessly by former ESPN host Jon Anik and the fights that cap each episode are aired as they happen. Changed as well was the tired new metal opening inviting us to “bear witness to the fitness of the modern warrior,” replaced by the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ 1989 cover of a 1973 Stevie Wonder song.
Not sure that choice makes things feel any fresher, but whatever; after all these years, the song still works.
Aside from a few tweaks though, TUF is about the same as it ever was. So too, unfortunately, are the ratings, which dipped to a reported 1.3 million viewers during its debut episode, down slightly from the 1.5 million who tuned in a season before. Ratings for episode two were down a bit more, to 1.1 million. Maybe this is to be expected as returning fans find their way across the television dial and new fans (of which, many are expected) take notice. To its credit, the UFC is not panicking. Far from it.
If the first trio of episodes proved anything, however, it’s that TUF’s live set-up won’t be enough to breathe new life into the flagging show on its own. Not without some help from the people involved.
To date, Cruz (who has been owning it at every turn in his capacity as coach opposite rival Urijah Faber) appears to be the only person to truly grasp the possibilities of TUF’s new format. And perhaps the UFC’s mischievous 135-pound champ did it without fully realizing it.
The moment came at the end of the season’s second episode when -- after seeing his team win the show's first live, two-round elimination bout via unexpected knockout -- Cruz put Team Faber on the spot by tabbing top pick Justin Lawrence to fight the following week and then inviting Faber to pick anybody he wanted to oppose him.
What followed was a supremely awkward half-minute or so, wherein a surprised Faber froze up, an annoyed UFC President Dana White reddened noticeably and nobody on Faber’s squad raised a hand when their coach finally resorted to asking if anybody wanted a piece of Lawrence. To put the icing on what was perhaps the greatest (probably unplanned) piece of sabotage in TUF history, every member of Team Faber found something really interesting to stare at on the floor and ceiling and off in the middle distance for the next few seconds.
Tick ... tick ... tick. Silence. Dead air. Crickets.
Everybody looked nervous, and White looked significantly cheesed off. Not only was Cruz shirking one of the show’s primary conventions -- that winning coaches retain “control” by getting to choose the following week’s fight matchup -- but here he was, yanking back the curtain to reveal everyone in all their sweaty, uneasy, I’m-on-live-TV-right-now glory. Finally, Faber and White insisted that Cruz pick, and he did.
It was, in a word, awesome. Certainly the most interesting few seconds we’ve seen on TUF in seasons. Maybe ever, and we have the show’s new live format to thank for it.
Well that, and Dominick Cruz.
Frankly, this is exactly what you want if you’re running the new, suddenly live season of TUF. Cruz went rogue, and in a moment of genuine and unexpected theater (one untouched by the hands of those meddling editors we’re always hearing about) created some actual, honest to goodness drama.
Too bad not a ton of people got to see it.
Too bad we can assume that showrunners probably told Cruz never to do it again, because it's uncomfortable, all-the-way-live moments like that one that might just save this series.