‘The Ultimate Fighter’ tryouts and the soul of MMA fighters

Can you look into a mass of humanity and find something wonderfully human?

Yesterday in Newark, I shared a long table with Dana White, Joe Silva, ESPN’s Franklin McNeil and other people who had more business being there than I did for tryouts of The Ultimate Fighter. The hotel as a whole was a stunning sight — hundreds of fighters, some with training partners, coaches or even the occasional significant other, all waiting their turn to grapple for a couple of minutes, hit pads for a couple of minutes and, if they were lucky, talk to the show’s producers for a couple of minutes.

More than 400 fighters showed up — a few hours into the proceedings, the official count was 405. With groups of roughly 50 fighters each taking more than an hour to get through the big room in which UFC president White and matchmaking mastermind Silva were holding court, some fighters were waiting around for several hours. Some found nooks and crannies of the hotel for a quick nap, some chatted with their fighting buddies, some shadow-boxed perilously close to passing journalists.

After all that waiting, the actual audition and the cut can happen quickly. Within each group, the fighters are paired off to grapple, and then White or Silva immediately calls 20 or 30 names to continue to a brief striking workout. Not called? Thanks for your time — please clear the room.

The striking workout eliminates a few more fighters. Out of the 400-plus fighters who showed up, roughly 150 advanced to another long line, waiting for their individual interviews with reality TV guru Craig Piligian and his staff. From there, they’ll cut to a small group to bring out to Las Vegas for final casting.

One rule of thumb is that the interview, which is closed to the media, is by far the most important part of the process. But it’s just a couple of minutes long, just enough to get the idea that fighters can string together a few words. I spoke with one fighter who said he only heard one question, and it related to something on his application.

More likely, the application is essential, and some fighters had an advantage (or long odds) before arriving in Newark. The 20-30 names White read after the grappling phase weren’t necessarily the 20-30 best grapplers in the room. Some guys who barely held their own advanced; some who made their opponents tap more than once didn’t get the call.

Before reading the names in each group, White stressed that the people who didn’t make it were usually those with inferior records. After hearing a few polite protests in the first group, White launched a pre-emptive strike in succeeding groups: “If you’re telling me and Joe these other guys padded their records, pad yours, too.”

Some fighters didn’t grasp the situation. One fighter did a lengthy interview with a TV crew, calmly but pointedly griping that he was more of a striker than a grappler but didn’t get a chance to show his punches, knees and kicks. But if your record shows a long line of knockouts, how are you going to enhance your status by making a few loud pops on some pads? Silva and company probably knew he could strike and figured that wasn’t enough. That’s a life lesson: If you’re interviewing for a multifaceted job, be prepared to answer questions on the parts you haven’t clearly mastered. A job interview that fails to progress past “Hey, tell me more about your awesome typing skills!” is not a good interview.

Yet what was notable about the complaints was their scarcity. American Idol, this was not. No one made a scene, dramatically departing with an entourage of obese enablers while yelling that Simon and company were going to be sorry when they made it big. A camera crew covering these auditions would’ve been bored.

Mutual respect was the order of the day. Fighters slapped hands before their grappling sessions and hugged or occasionally bowed to each other afterward. Hallway conversation sounded more like a business convention or class reunion than a competitive endeavor.

Sure, sharing an experience creates a bond, and perhaps some Hollywood auditions are similarly professional. But while American Idol thrives on deluded wannabes and while NFL players and owners battle over billions, seeing people treat each other and their sport with such respect after driving 25 hours to grapple for two minutes is reassuring. And it’s a sign of a special sport.

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