Art Davie, The Ultimate Fighter and the changing face of the UFC

Female fighters have taken the spotlight in the UFC. And I haven’t heard anyone complaining. (Please don’t dig up some misogynist troll on Twitter — I’m sure they’re out there, but they don’t deserve any attention.) The current season of The Ultimate Fighter is all-female, and the fights are the most compelling in years.

davieSo it’s a bit of a culture shock to read Is This Legal?: The Inside Story of the First UFC from the Man Who Created It, by UFC founder Art Davie with longtime MMA/soccer broadcaster (and therefore friend of SportsMyriad) Sean Wheelock.

Davie is a throwback in every sense. With a gun tucked in his waistband, a few Cuban cigars as currency and a predilection for hiring attractive women, it’s easy to picture him as a lead character in a film noir about a 50s nightclub owner.

You might like the guy, you might not. What you can’t deny is that he took a compelling idea and pushed it into existence. That wasn’t easy, even after he fell in with the Gracie family and earned the trust of people who were eager to prove the superiority of their martial art in a new arena.

Davie had long had the question in his head of who would win fights between different styles of fighters — boxers, wrestlers, various martial arts practitioners, etc. But previous efforts to make such matchups always bogged down on the rules, leading to farces like the Muhammad Ali-Antonio Inoki fight. (This Guardian story on that event weighs in at 4,000 words, and it’s worth it.) And TV programmers didn’t know what to make of it.

Each problem weighed on Davie’s shoulders until the last minute. Like Apollo 13, you know the ending, but you’re still left in suspense as Davie and his broadcast partners play hardball until a few hours before the event. Davie and Wheelock also describe the contentious fighters’ meeting in which the rules were fodder for a few good shouting matches until a sumo wrestler put his weight behind the proceedings:

Then Teila Tuli, in the most dramatic and theatrical of gestures, stood up and announced, “I just signed my paper. I don’t know about you guys, but I came here to party. If anyone else came here to party, I’ll see you tomorrow night at the arena.” He then slammed his signed paper down on the table. The sound reverberated throughout the room.

And so began the Ultimate Fighting Championship and, with all due respect to now-defunct Japanese organizations, mixed martial arts as we know it.

Fast-forward 21 years. With Dana White at the helm, the UFC still hires women for the ornamental position of Octagon Girl. But The Ultimate Fighter, the reality show that pushed the UFC over the tipping point into the mainstream, is relying on women in its pivotal 20th season.

It’s also the first season in which the winner will be named UFC champion. They can pull that off because it’s a new weight class — strawweight, or 115 pounds. (The only women’s division already in the UFC is Rouseyweight, er, bantamweight. They’ve skipped flyweight, 125 pounds. See all the top fighters per class at MMA Rising’s rankings page.)

Personally, I was so excited by the prospect of seeing notable fighters squaring off on TUF that I forgot to consider whether the show was … you know … any good.

At Fight Opinion, the always candid Zach Arnold says it’s not. Among his complaints:

  • No tactical or technical talk about what’s going on in practice or what the fighters are trying to do. (To be fair, they haven’t done this in a lot of seasons. That said, this season has been more emotional than past seasons. Which is saying a lot.)
  • Not enough background on the fighters, personally or professionally.
  • The fights should air in the middle of the show, making it tougher to guess how long it goes. (He’s right. Fight starts at 10:52? First-round finish coming up. 10:35? Three-rounder.) Also, they could use the time after the fight to dissect what just happened and tell more about what’s coming next.

The third idea is simplest to implement. Start each fight at the halfway point of the episode.

The first two ideas illustrate the challenge for TUF producers: How do you balance casual fans and hardcore fans? The petty stuff at the house (Zach posted before Wednesday’s episode, which featured a raunchy slam-book session, though they left out the winning entry) drives the hardcore fans crazy but amuses the casuals. A point-by-point breakdown of striking combinations will have the casuals reaching for the remote control.

This season’s fights, at least, are hardcore heaven. Instead of leaving matchups to the vagaries of coaches who might send their top fighter to face the other team’s top fighter in the first week, potentially leaving one of the show favorites sitting around idle for the rest of the show. This time, they felt they had enough information on the fighters to seed them, 1 through 16. The result is the most compelling MMA tournament since PRIDE threw heavyweights at each other.

UFC 1 was a tournament as well. Aside from that, the sport has evolved quite a bit since Art Davie’s vision of tough guys from various fighting disciplines seeing which is the best. Now we’re talking about well-rounded athletes, male and female. I doubt Dana White tucks a gun in the waistband of his worn-out jeans.

So it’s a bit jarring to read Davie’s book and then tune into women punching each other in The Ultimate Fighter. But they’ve all played their part in growing this sport. And for that, we should be thankful.

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