Spike TV's hit UFC reality show, The Ultimate Fighter (TUF), is now two weeks into its tenth season, and its impact on the growing mixed martial arts phenomenon can hardly be overstated. Widely credited for reviving a floundering UFC franchise, TUF also finally gave SpikeTV its target audience and began a fruitful collaboration between Zuffa, parent company of UFC, and the upstart cable network.
TUF is a reality series and mixed martial arts tournament blended into one. Up-and-coming fighters are sequestered together in a house in Nevada as they train to compete in an elimination tournament to crown a season champion, who is guaranteed a "six-figure" UFC contract. Of course, all action both inside and outside of the ring was captured on camera to add drama and interest to each telecast, an effort that has unfortunately failed as often as it has succeeded.
TUF also provided plenty of new talent for the UFC Octagon, and has taken on the role of farm league for aspiring fighters. One hundred and sixty tournament competition spots have been open to up-and-coming pugilists, and many more fighters than that have at least received TV face time due to injuries and an opening "elimination round" during some seasons.
TUF also marked a dramatic change in the UFC, from a refuge for martial artists with no other professional venue to a production line churning out cookie-cutter fighters. The Ultimate Fighting Championship, as originally envisaged, was a battle between divergent fighting styles, pitting judokas against boxers and sumo wrestlers against bona fide ninjas. Since TUF, the UFC is no longer a mishmash of conflicting martial arts; it is now a legitimate sport with specific skills and techniques proven to be most effective under the rules in use. Fighters are no longer specialists, instead gravitating towards a balanced, yet effective, set of complimentary disciplines, including boxing, wrestling, and Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. In contrast to the recent past, fighters now have more similarities than differences.
But do these factory-stamped fighters represent a step up in competition for mixed martial arts, or are they merely gimmicks to sell television shows? More importantly from a handicapping standpoint, are these just overhyped losers who end up as sucker bets? A look at the results shows that the TUF reality show winners are far from cannon-fodder, with impressive records in the Octagon and significant profits for those who backed them at the betting window.
Eight of the TUF seasons have produced a total of thirteen tournament winners who have since re-entered the Octagon to defend their TUF legacy. Those fighters have gone a combined 48-26 (65%) in post-TUF bouts. Despite the fact that most found themselves as heavy favorites after their TUF run, a hundred dollar bettor would have netted over $2500 on their combined matches (assuming $100 "to win" on favorites and $100 "to risk" on underdogs). Notably, only 4 of the 13 TUF winners have shown net against-the-odds losses in their post-reality TV careers: Kendall Grove (4-3, -230), Travis Lutter (0-2, -200), Mac Danzig (1-3, -220), and Amir Sadollah (0-1, -125).
A closer look suggests that the TUF winner stats have been slightly inflated against weaker opponents, lending credence to the rumor that TUF fighters are given cupcake bouts early on. In UFC pay-per-view events, TUF tournament winners are 30-22 (55%) for +$1500, still impressive but much worse when compared to the record of the same fighters in non pay-per-view bouts. These fights, often against lower quality opponents, boosted the TUF winners records by delivering 18 wins to only 4 losses, for +$1020 to wagerers.
While backing TUF winners has proven profitable, the most sure-fire bet has been backing the tournament winners in their first bout post-TUF. In this situation, they are 10-3 (77%) for +$1035. Though some of these debuts are on free SpikeTV shows versus low-level opponents, looking only at the first pay-per-view bout for each fighter gives a similar record of 9-3 (75%) for +$1365. And for fighters making their post-TUF debuts on a pay-per-view, the record drops only slightly to 6-2 (75%) for +$1075. Any way you cut it, TUF tournament winners have been especially successful in their debuts, though bettors were often forced to lay some heavy chalk to back them.
While TUF winners have proven profitable in the past, recent results suggests the tide may be turning. Records of the TUF champs have generally gotten worse as the seasons have progressed, as shown in the year-by-year breakdown:
Season 1 winners: 15-6 +$1115
Season 2 winners: 14-5 +$775
Season 3 winners: 10-5 +$170
Season 4 winners: 1-4 +$400
Season 5 winners: 5-2 +$220
Season 6 winners: 1-3 -$220
Season 7 winners: 0-1 -$125
Season 8 winners: 2-0 +$200
Whether this means that less talent is coming out of TUF than in the past, or just that the overall level of competition is tougher is anyone's guess. Certainly it appears that the betting markets have taken stock of the situation and adjusted accordingly for recent events. But with both Season 9 winners (Ross Pearson, James Wilks) due to fight on the main card of UFC 105 in November, this angle is still worth some consideration.
If you would like to make or read comments about this article, you may do so by visiting the Mess Hall forum at MajorWager where a thread has been started. Please click HERE