The UFC surprised many when it announced that not only was the women’s strawweight division coming in 2014 but that it would debut with an all-star lineup on TUF 20 that will air on FOX Sports 1. The move makes a lot of sense after up and down ratings on a mediocre season of The Ultimate Fighter that saw the women steal the spotlight. While bashing TUF’s tired formula is easy to do these days, the move to put a new division front and center may be the best decision in the show’s recent history.
While there are positives and negatives of the move, it is impossible to ignore that using The Ultimate Fighter makes the most sense as a means of introducing a weight class. While several have talked about the star power of certain cast members, like Felice Herrig, the reality is that these athletes are more stars amongst hardcore MMA fans/media more so than any sort of mainstream appeal. By putting these women on TUF, you allow them draw the audience in for the duration of the show if you have a compelling cast. Luckily for FOX Sports 1, this cast is a solid start.
What makes this season particuarly intriguing is that they have added the majority of the world’s best straw weights competing on the reality series. While TUF 18’s best ratings were owned by the ladies, the WMMA cast, largely made up of green prospects fighting out of their weight classes and/or veterans in the twilight of great careers, was largely uneven. The women delivered the majority of the season’s fight highlights and best memories/stories, but the level of competition was not necessarily the best it could have been.
In the end, TUF 18 did not provide much of a lasting influence on the UFC other than a champ’s damaged image and a TUF champion that has less than a fifty-fifty chance of making major waves in the division. TUF 20 corrects this issue by having multiple bonafied challengers and rising stars in the house, including Invicta FC champion Carla Esparza. The fights should be better in competition and have a little more meaning, especially to the fighters, with a title being part of the ultimate prize.
Speaking of Esparza, it is particuarly interesting that the Invicta FC champ would take this route into the Octagon considering how previous champs have simply been handed a belt by the UFC. The champ entering the always tricky TUF tournament is like putting one large tuna in a tank with several starving sharks and trying to survive. The Ultimate Fighter 20 strawweight field already features a fighter who nearly upset Esparza on a week’s notice, Bec Hyatt, and one of the more dangerous fighters at 115 in Claudia Gadelha. Add prospects like Tecia Torres, Rose Namajunas, and Joanne Calderwood and it seems like it will be a miracle if Esparza or her best friend in Herrig, survive to the semis, much less the finals. While this seems to setup plenty of story lines, the amateur and condensed aspects of TUF can still cause additional problems to the show’s usual issues.
While this all seems like a great idea, it is not without some negatives as well. A simple reality of the UFC is that the promotion is not growing in its home market, declining PPV buys and stagnant ratings have shown that, but it is still the most consistent draw on the struggling FOX Sports 1 network. Even if the show finds some exciting coaches, the show will be unlikely to ascertain the massive ratings the UFC and FS1 are hoping to garner. That said, the show should still perform well enough and the exposure the fighters receive on the show is invaluable with the UFC expanding lineups and needing more known faces on their cards.
What will be interesting to watch is who fills out the rest of the tournament field with atomweights and flyweights likely eyeing the final few spots in the house. Fighters like former Invicta FC atommweight champion Jessica Penne or XFC/Bellator MMA veteran Heather Jo Clark could provide interesting cast members, albeit for different reasons. While this helps the UFC, it definitely hurts those outside the Octagon like Invicta FC and the WSOF.
The while the two promotions are certainly stung by the move, the biggest loser in this whole situation is consensus number one strawweight Jessica Aguilar. The strawweight’s exclusive deal with the WSOF could not have come at a worse time, as the UFC announced they were adding the division mere days later. With the UFC holding open tryouts for the final slots in the house, Aguilar’s potential opponents are certainly limited even further. Unless Aguilar is unexpectedly released from her contract, the fighter is stuck fighting lesser competition with Megumi Fujii retired and Jewels in a partnership with Invicta FC. For the clear number one to be stuck outside the UFC during the strawweight division’s biggest moment is frustrating for not only the fighter but also those with prior knowledge of the division.
Even with all the headaches and promotional risks associated with putting the strawweights front and center, it is still the best move the UFC has made with TUF in years. While many will surely harp on the ratings, FS1 has largely underwhelmed as a whole and that is certainly not the fault of the UFC. By putting the strawweights on TUF you allow fans to not only get to know the fighters before a champ is crowned but also see what should also be a really competitive season of fights. The usual reality show drama will still be there, perhaps even more after Invicta FC 7, but the risks are outweighed by bringing in one of WMMA’s best divisions. This all adds up to TUF 20 being one of the more intriguing 2014 story lines when the show debuts in the fall.
Be sure to check out this past Monday’s episode of The MMA Word podcast for more discussion about TUF 20 and more.