LAS VEGAS – The debut season of 'The Ultimate Fighter' has long been recognized as the starting point of MMA's current popularity boom and was responsible for launching the careers of stars such as Stephan Bonnar, Kenny Florian, Forrest Griffin, Josh Koscheck, Chris Leben, Diego Sanchez and Mike Swick.
But as successful as the 2005 series debut proved, imagine what it could have been with one Chael P. Sonnen (27-12-1 MMA, 6-5 UFC).
Sonnen, who coaches on the upcoming 17th edition of the series, says he actually turned down a spot on "TUF 1."
"When the show very first started, the first coaches ever were my coach, friend, teammate Randy Couture vs. Chuck Liddell, arguably the greatest light heavyweight ever," Sonnen told MMAjunkie.com (www.mmajunkie.com
). "In fact, the argument would be between those two: Chuck and Randy. I was just a fan. I watched it as a fan. They asked me to be on the show as an athlete, and I passed on the chance. It was on a different network at that time, but an executive at that office invited me on as an athlete. Then I loved the show.
"I didn't know what to expect. I didn't know what it was. I sat down and watched it, and I regretted that decision. I really enjoyed watching it, and all these years later, here I am."
Sonnen coaches opposite UFC light heavyweight champ Jon Jones (17-1 MMA, 11-1 UFC) on "TUF 17," which debuts in January on FX. The first 14 seasons of the series aired on Spike TV and led to a long partnership between the fight promotion and the cable TV channel. UFC President Dana White has often referred to the series as a "Trojan horse" for the sport, with top-level athletes starring in a series that was half reality TV and half competition. Fans responded to the show, which was unlike anything on TV at the time, and the first cast is still considered the most prospect-rich group to date.
"That first season was nasty," Sonnen said. "You've got guys like Nate Quarry that didn't win it, and look how great he is. You've got guys like Josh Koscheck that did not win it. Stephan Bonnar. Kenny Florian. These guys didn't win it, and that's when you can really understand that first season."
With Sonnen, it is often necessary to take his claims with a grain of salt, and multiple high-ranking UFC officials admitted to MMAjunkie.com that they actually couldn't remember whether or not Sonnen's name was considered for the first edition of "TUF," which did not feature tryout sessions but instead a group of hand-selected athletes. Still, it's an interesting footnote in terms of what might have been.
Since that first series, the show has produced more than 100 UFC fighters and even a few UFC champions. Still, many MMA pundits question the remaining value of the program after 16 seasons on the air. Sonnen, who is currently in Las Vegas taping "TUF 17," insists this new edition will reinvigorate what some consider a tired proposition.
"When you see the guys that don't get into the house – when you see the black belts and the champions and the veterans and the flat-out studs with very incredible resumes that did not get into the house – that's when you're going to understand how loaded this bracket is," Sonnen said. "The No. 1 thing that I'm going to do is we're going to change the narrative of this show. This is not a frat show, and it is not a reality show. I don't know how those terms ever got coined. This is a tournament, period.
"All the way back to the greats – Royce Gracie and Dan Severn and Ken 'Never Should Have Been in the Octagon in the First Place' Shamrock – they never went through anything like this. Those guys did a great job. Those guys got me in the sport, the Don Fryes and the 'Tank' Abbotts, the real fighters. But it's nothing like a 32-man tournament. It's nothing like having to make weight five times, fight five times, have no preparation, not have your coach, not have your team, not sleeping in your own bed – and be expected to win anyway. It's nothing like that.
"Somewhere, somebody called this a reality show, and I just don't get it. So is the Super Bowl. It's reality, and it's a show, but I don't get it. This is real. This is the realest tournament ever. We have a guy that lost his job for taking this opportunity. He's got a wife and kid, and if he doesn't win this, he doesn't know what's going to happen to him. I could name a few of those stories like that. The sacrifice that these guys are going through to put it all on the line, it's humbling."
Sonnen's opposing coach also had a near-miss with "The Ultimate Fighter," albeit much later in the show's run. Because of the presence of alcohol in the "TUF" house, contestants must be at least 21 years old. Jones, who would go on to win the UFC's 205-pound title at just 23 years old, was underage when he went to an open tryout session and was ultimately told there was no way to bend the rules.
"I tried out for 'The Ultimate Fighter' back when I was 20 years old," Jones said. "I remember making it through the first round and then approaching a table to grapple for the second round and having Dana – I think himself, I remember him being at the table – saying, 'Man, you're too young. You're 20 years old, and you have to be 21 to apply for this show, but we're going to let you roll anyways. But you can't go much further than this.' I was like, 'Alright.' I was rolling and having a great time, and that was it. That was the end of the scenario."
Jones obviously didn't take the snub personally, as he made his debut for the promotion at UFC 87, less than one month after his 21st birthday. Now he views his role as coach as a bit of a full-circle moment.
"It's kind of surreal to me to know that just four-and-a-half years ago I was trying out for the show, and then to be on the show as such a young coach is just like, 'Man, we're doing things right,'" Jones said. "I said that to my manager. I said, 'We're doing it. We're doing things right.' It's just surreal to be a guy who was rejected from the show and now be the coach."