“We literally met with every network, every sports network — from the big broadcasters, NBC, ABC, CBS, the obvious, ESPN — multiple times,” said Lorenzo Fertitta, the CEO of the UFC in 2004. “Met with anybody that would take a meeting. We couldn’t get anybody to bite because everybody was very concerned that the product was too violent, not something they could put on TV. It was too bloody. They didn’t want to see guys bleeding on the mat. TV executives were saying this is flat-out boring.”
“Our last hope was a new network called Spike,” said UFC president Dana White. “They were supposed to be a network for men. So we felt like we fit perfectly there. We met with the guys out in L.A. They couldn’t wait to get the hell out of that meeting and go to a Dodgers game.”
The quest to find a home for “The Ultimate Fighter” wasn’t easy, but it might have been the single most important moment in the history of the UFC, then a 9-year-old company that was still trying to find its place in the sports universe.
Nevada casino owners Lorenzo and Frank Fertitta purchased the Ultimate Fighting Championship in 2001 for $2 million. The siblings thought it could be a hit. So they kept investing, but money kept sinking. By 2004, the Fertittas had put more than $40 million into the UFC.
Growth wasn’t there. Pay-per-views weren’t profitable. They needed a splash.
With one last $10 million push, the Fertittas and UFC president Dana White came up with an idea along with “Survivor” co-executive producer Craig Piligian: a reality TV show. Sixteen fighters would live in a house together for several weeks and compete for a UFC contract.
They’d call it “The Ultimate Fighter.” On the 15th anniversary of its finale, April 9, 2005, those involved recall the story of its wild first season.
Editor’s note: Answers were edited for length and clarity.
Dana White: This was going to be our Trojan horse. You’re watching the fights, but they are taped so the network doesn’t have to be terrified of them. We can take a peek inside and let fans see how cool this sport is, how exciting the fights are, how interesting the fighters are.
Craig Piligian, producer: The UFC thought that would be a great way to introduce a more general audience to a niche combat sport that had this underground history — two men enter, one man leaves — to make it a broader, more general sport. Like boxing. To really legitimize it.
Lorenzo Fertitta: We were pitching the UFC, and the Spike execs were like, “Guys aren’t going to like that. It’s boring. We’re launching with this new sport called SlamBall.” I’m like, “SlamBall? What the heck is SlamBall?” They are like, “It’s basketball on trampolines.” Me and Dana walked out of that meeting and were like, “Are we in a parallel universe here? What’s going on? We’ve got this incredible fight product, and these guys are busy worrying about how to create a new sport with basketball with trampolines. It’s crazy.” We finally ended up getting back to them and said, “Look, we know you guys have turned us down a number of times. You’re probably sick of meeting with us. You’re probably sick of calling us. But this is what we’d like to do: We would propose to basically give you the product for free.”
Piligian: They were in my offices, in my conference room — me, Lorenzo, a couple of people from the UFC, Dana and some Spike guys. One of the Spike TV execs said, “Hey, if you guys want to pay for it, we’ll put it on the air.”
The UFC had its TV show. Spike was a neophyte network known mostly for cartoons. It did have WWE’s “Monday Night Raw,” though, and in a fortuitous decision, the network scheduled “The Ultimate Fighter” to air right after “Raw.” That gave “The Ultimate Fighter” a favorable lead-in and demographic. If only the UFC could find the right guys for the show, it might have a shot at success. So the UFC started by bringing in as its coaches two star fighters the company believed it could market: Chuck Liddell and Randy Couture. Those two would fight at the end of the season. The rest was unknown.
Randy Couture, coach on the show and six-time UFC champion: It was a great concept and a great idea, and I thought the show was going to be really good for the sport, to give us the kind of exposure the sport was looking for. It wasn’t a hard decision to sign on.
Piligian: We had trouble finding people to fight. Forrest Griffin wouldn’t even get on the plane to come try out. He was a cop at some little town in Georgia, scared to quit his job.
Forrest Griffin, fighter: My buddy Frank Bishop called me up and was like, “Hey, Joe Silva’s looking for you.” I’m like, “Joe Silva’s looking for me?” I had talked to matchmaker Joe Silva a year before, and he gave me a “Don’t lose and we’ll put you in the UFC pretty soon.” I had a fight coming up that November. I broke my arm in that fight; I quit. I became a cop, and now it’s almost a year later. I was a replacement, I think, because somebody failed a drug test; so they brought me out and did all the medicals and physicals, and within 17 days of hearing about it, I was in Vegas on the show.
Alex Karalexis, fighter: I was a carpenter in Boston, just fighting locally. UFC fighter Phil Baroni and I had a mutual friend. Phil was blowing through his sparring partners, so I went out there to Las Vegas for 30 days to finish up his training camp. We used to have some battles, some real battles. Dana came to watch one of the sparring sessions, and that’s the first time I saw Dana. That’s when I was asked to be a part of the show.
Chris Leben, fighter: The first test was you sat down in this chair, and there was a camera in front of you and they said, “Take five minutes and tell us why you should be on the show.” At the time, I’m 22 years old. I had no shortage of self-confidence, so I proceeded to explain to them why they should have me on the show. About three minutes into it, the door to the room opens and in comes Dana White and Craig Piligian, the head producer, and they are just cracking up. Dana’s like, “You’re on, buddy.”
Stephan Bonnar, fighter: My girlfriend at the time loved reality TV, always DVRing shows and would always be watching them. She said I was so lucky to be on the first season of something because everyone remembers the first season.
Piligian: We didn’t have a lot of fighters to pull from, but what we had was pretty quality. We ended up on the right 16. I think the storyline for every one of them was really intense, and I think they wanted it so badly.
White: This better be a damn good TV show. It was eight or nine weeks, and I want to say I was there all day, every day.
Things did not start smoothly. Producers had stocked the house with Snickers, ice cream bars and Hot Pockets instead of the proteins and vegetables the fighters needed. It prompted a complaint from the fighters to White, who remedied the situation and showed up with “mountains of groceries” just hours later.
Leben began to stir the pot and urinated on the pillow of fellow contestant Jason Thacker. Thacker wouldn’t find out until just before Episode 1 aired.
In the gym — a converted warehouse in Las Vegas owned by the Fertittas — the 16 fighters were training to impress their coaches. In the house, Leben was drinking, and Stephan Bonnar and Diego Sanchez were arguing over asparagus heads. Thacker and Chris Sanford were the first fighters to be eliminated.
There were rumblings of discontent. Fighters in two weight classes, middleweight and light heavyweight, were going through “Survivor”-style challenges. From carrying Couture and Liddell on recliners through part of Lake Mead to sawing apart and then putting back together a log, these challenges had nothing to do with fighting and could have risked injuries to the fighters. Instead, it was decided that the fighters should do what they came here to do: fight.
Bobby Southworth, fighter: The way it was explained to us was it was going to kind of be like a “Survivor” thing, where we went through all these different types of challenges and then whoever the last two guys in the weight class were at the end of the show, those were the guys that were going to fight. That was what we were told. Nobody was expecting to fight.
Karalexis: We were kind of just stuck in the moment. Like, “Whoa, whoa, whoa, we’re going out there and fighting and not getting paid? It’s called prizefighting.”
Fertitta: So I’m on my way to work and I would stop over at the gym, see what’s going on, watch the filming and whatnot. And I walked in and someone said these guys are pushing back on fighting.
White: The intention was always for them to fight. What the hell are we going to put it on TV for if there’s no fights? What are they going to do?
Before the show had started, there had been a discussion of challenges versus fights. Fertitta had worked with the Nevada State Athletic Commission to designate any fights before the live finale as exhibitions, so the results of these taped bouts wouldn’t be announced publicly, essentially ruining the suspense of the show.
Fertitta: The whole concept was you’ve got to kind of go through this tournament to win the UFC contract. But the fighters pushed back, so I called Dana. I was like, “You got to get down here, bro, and you got to figure this out.”
White: I said, “I’ll see you in five minutes.” I literally walked out of a meeting, jumped in my car and broke every driving law in the state of Nevada. Pulled my car up in front of the gym, left it running and went in, and that is how that speech unfolded. These were the last 10 million bucks the Fertittas were going to invest. And we’re just starting the show and getting it going, and these guys are saying they’re not going to fight. Who doesn’t want to fight? I’ll throw you out of here right now, and we’ll bring in people that do want to fight.
Nate Quarry, fighter: I don’t recall if we were ever really told we were going to fight during the show. Just from my perspective, it’s called “The Ultimate Fighter,” not “The Ultimate Carry a Coach Through Lake Mead on a Barcalounger Show.” So this is what we get to do.
White (as part of the speech from Episode 3): I’m not happy right now. I haven’t been happy all day. I have a feeling some guys here don’t want to fight. We picked who we believe are the best guys in this country right now. We did. And you guys are it. F—ing act like it, man. Do you want to be a f—ing fighter?
Quarry: I just stood there with my arms crossed and listened because, to me, this was, “Yeah, I do want to be a f—ing fighter. That’s why I quit my job with a 2-year-old baby at 30, to try and pursue this dream.” So if you tell me I have to fight — I get to fight, to pursue that dream — well, that’s what I signed up for.
Kenny Florian, fighter: Dana set us straight with that talk.
White: I was horrified for that episode to air because I knew that I flipped out. You get done filming, and it’s a few months later and I’m like, “Oh, Jesus Christ, this thing’s going to air right now where I flip out and start screaming at them.” I don’t even remember exactly what I said to them or anything like that. I was like, “Oh, man, this is going to be bad.”
Piligian: It was the single greatest speech in reality show history.
Life in the house
The 16 fighters all lived in the same house for 54 days, sharing everything. There were no books, telephones or television. It was train, rest, recover. Sit by the pool. Eat. Drink. Play chess or poker. This went on, sequestered from the world, for the entire time.
Sam Hoger, fighter: There was an extreme amount of downtime. You train insane for four hours, you get a little break, you eat and you train for another four hours. Then you go back to the house and have to cut weight for another two or three hours. To get as much material as they needed, the producers would start us out early in the morning.
Southworth: It was almost like being in jail, although the food was better and we were getting to train. Little freedom, with none of the little things you want to do, like reading a book or listening to music. Those are big deals. Try it for a week. Try going home after work and don’t do anything. Don’t watch TV, don’t read a book, don’t get on your phone. You couldn’t call anybody. You were completely sequestered.
Florian: I felt like I was part of an experiment, and it really was. We were the guinea pigs, being on Season 1.
Karalexis: It was torture. It was the best and worst experience of my life. It changed my life, but it was awful.
Hard Rock and the Leben-Southworth-Koscheck drama
Eventually, being cooped up in the house became too much. Tensions intensified, particularly between Leben and the combination of Southworth and Josh Koscheck. White knew it. The fighters knew it.
White: They wanted a night out. They were going crazy.
Couture: We were far into the season, and it had been going very, very well, but the producers realized how much of a grind it was. Let’s take these guys out to dinner. Let’s take these guys to a concert and give them a chance to blow off some steam and keep them sane.
Fertitta: We take them to the Kid Rock concert, and everything unravels from there. All these guys started drinking. We lost one of them. Where’s Leben? Where did he go? Where’s Diego Sanchez? We finally corral everybody together, get them on the bus and get them back to the house. And then all hell broke loose.
White: You could feel it escalating. I feel like we got them out of the concert and on the bus just in the nick of time. The whole thing exploded that night and went crazy.
Southworth: We went back to the house and drank all the alcohol there and then sent the producers and TV crew out to get us more alcohol.
Southworth and Leben get into it at the pool, and Southworth calls Leben “a fatherless bastard.”
Leben: Those wounds were particularly fresh, because the first time I met my father was a few weeks before, when I was trying out for the show. I snuck out, met him at the bar, the MGM or the Station Casino, and he ended up borrowing 100 bucks from me. For Southworth to bring all that stuff up, you know, was pretty fresh.
Southworth: Chris had some issues, and I set them off. But what they don’t show you of that evening is Chris played a lot of pranks on other people.
Quarry: You see Bobby and Josh getting hammered, picking on Leben, causing trouble. And jeez, Leben at times can be overly emotional and need some support. At other times, he can be the bully and picking on people. And Bobby and Josh, kind of the same way.
Quarry broke up the argument and took Leben outside, where he was emotional. “He hurt me. He hurt me bad,” Leben said. It could have ended there. It didn’t, because Koscheck and Southworth wanted to mess with Leben more.
Southworth: While they went out to get us more alcohol, that’s when we played the prank. Technically, I didn’t put the hose on him. He was sleeping on an incline in the yard, and the plan was I’m going to put the hose up here, and we’re going to turn the water on, and then we’re going to go in. And the water is going to trickle down, and it’s going to wake him up, you know what I mean? And so as I turned on the water, Koscheck put the thing in his face. That’s really what set it off. I think it would have been better had it slowly trickled down and he had woken up half-soaked in water. But I don’t know what would have happened. It might have been even worse.
Leben: I punched through that plate glass window and cut my freaking knuckle off. That sucked. That was no good. But you know what? Producers are probably sitting in the back going, “This is amazing. This is exactly what we need.”
Florian: The Leben-Koscheck thing was so bad when he smashed the door that I thought they weren’t going to show that because it would portray us in such a crazy light as psychopaths.
Couture: We’re going to have a meeting first thing in the morning to go over what happened and the repercussions. Is somebody going home?
Florian: We all thought Chris Leben was going home, Koscheck was going home and Southworth was going home. The producers had been driven over to the house to talk to us. It was a big deal. It was a scary moment.
Fertitta: It made for probably the most interesting episode of Season 1. We know how a reality TV show works. The most controversy is when people argue and fight. People like that.
The producers kept everyone, but things changed. Alcohol was banned from the house. Guys had to pay for damages. White told his fighters: “If there’s ever a case that any of you get into a fist fight in the house, you’re both off the show.” Leben and Koscheck ended up fighting in the cage soon after, and Koscheck eliminated Leben, who fought with a busted-up hand.
The lead-up to the finale
After the Leben-Koscheck incident, things became more serious. The show was closer to the finale, and the group was getting closer to the UFC contract. In the middleweight semifinals, Sanchez won a split decision over Koscheck, and Florian TKO’d Leben, who filled in for an injured Quarry. In the light heavyweight semifinals, Griffin beat Hoger, and Bonnar submitted Mike Swick. This set up live finales, and the fighters went home to train. As the show began airing on Spike, the fighters couldn’t tell anyone about the experience or how they had done.
Fertitta: It was a Tuesday, the day after the show premiered, and I got a call from Craig Piligian. I don’t remember exactly what he said, but it was like, “Holy s—, man, we f—ing killed it. Did you see the numbers?’ It was a 1.8 rating or something like that, which for Spike was a huge number in any time slot. He was like, “We’re off and rolling.”
Couture: Wow, the ratings. Look at how many people are tuning into this. You’re starting to get some magazine covers and some media covering this new show and this sport.
White: Now, when you have a show that’s this big of a hit, there’s billboards and buses and advertising everywhere. We had zero advertising. No buses, no billboards, no advertising on other shows; we had none of that s—. Everybody was radio silent on us.
Griffin: People in my community watched that show because they vaguely knew my mom, and then they saw me and then they saw Chuck and Randy. And here they are, they have a vested interest in what’s going to happen in that fight. That’s when I realized it was genius, and that’s when I realized it was mainstream.
Bonnar: I’d say, ‘Tune in and watch the show, motherf—er. You want me to spoil it?’ No, watch.
Griffin: I was slick about it. I’m a horrible, horrible liar, horrible poker player. So everybody thought that I won the first fight but I got cut so I couldn’t fight again. When I actually won, people were like, “Wait, are you fighting in the finale?” And I was like, “Yeah.” I sort of just twisted some things around, made that cut seem a little bit worse than it actually was, and I kind of fooled everybody. I didn’t tell my own mother, and she’s kind of bitter about that to this day. But in all fairness, my mom is quite the talker.
Most fighters went back to their lives before the finale. They convened again at the Cox Pavilion in Las Vegas on April 9, 2005.
White: Going into the finale, Spike was supposed to do this full-page ad for us in the USA Today. They bailed on it. And I’m freaking out.
Piligian: The first couple fights didn’t stack up. Then came Kenny and Diego. Kenny was really a 145-pounder, and he’s fighting at 85. And Diego was a powerhouse at this weight. The fight was good, but we’re like, “Eh, it’s an OK finale.”
Fertitta: I went to Dana and Piligian and said, “Can you believe how incredible this is rated? And it’s amazing. Spike executive Kevin Kay is here. That guy wouldn’t even take a meeting with us before. How is it even possible they haven’t even mentioned once a Season 2?” Craig was like, “Just wait. I’ve been around this for a little while. Just wait. They are not going to let you get out of this building.”
White: Entering the finale, I said we have to have a killer night of fights. This thing has to be successful because, yes, all the taped shows had been really, really good and successful, but we needed a successful live event.
Griffin: Me and my coach went through a bottle of Pepto-Bismol, the two of us. Oh man, was my stomach messed up. I don’t know what we ate, but we ate something bad. And we were so nervous.
Bonnar: Dana was over talking to Forrest, shaking his hand and wishing him luck. I clearly remember it. Then I went to the bathroom, prayed, and then Dana came over, shook my hand, wished me luck and all that. I just remember how nervous he was. I think I cracked a joke that you would think he was the one going in there and fighting.
Piligian: A lot of money was on the line. And there’s nothing we can do once they shut the cage door. Either the fellas fight or they don’t.
Bonnar: It was just a blur walking to the cage. So Forrest, I’m going through in my head, all right, he likes sparring. And sure enough, the fight started and he came out like he’s shot out of a cannon and started blasting me. Before I even really got set, I got hit a couple times. And then I just went.
Griffin: I felt really good after the first round. I felt quick and sharp, and my speed was on. I felt like I was a little quicker than him. And then I had just a complete metabolic meltdown between the first and second rounds. I just didn’t recover between rounds. This is something that I always tell fighters: Whatever you do when a round ends, don’t lay on the floor right after. I went for a submission right at the end of Round 1, went for a step-over armbar and didn’t get it. I held myself in a bad position. I guess I wasn’t breathing. And then when the round ended, I probably laid on the ground for 15 or 20 seconds. So for me, it felt like I got up and went to the corner and as soon as I sat down, they were like, “OK, Round 2.” I’m like, “No, wait. I just got here. It can’t be. Don’t start the clock until I sit on the stool.”
Karalexis: You just remember the energy. I remember watching it on the monitors in the dressing room and then everybody drifting out into the arena because we didn’t have tickets. You usually don’t get tickets to sit in the stands nor do you want to be in the crowd. So we were all sitting back there on the monitors watching it happen and you just knew, like, holy crap!
Piligian: I’m sitting next to Dana, Lorenzo is there, and I’m like, “Holy f—, are you f—ing kidding me?” We’re watching it and watching it, and in my brain I’m thinking the ratings are going up. Every minute people are going to be calling friends, saying, “Are you watching these two guys beating the f— out of each other on Spike? Are you watching this?”
Herb Dean paused the fight with 3:39 left in the second round to have a cut on Griffin’s face examined. Blood covered Griffin’s face. They cleaned him up, said he was good to continue and restarted the fight.
Griffin: I always joke the cut was the biggest lifesaver for me. It gave me a little time to recover, to breathe a little bit. After that I start fighting a little better. And he beats me up so much in the second round that in the third round he was as tired as I was.
Bonnar: The fatigue set in. That was my most clear memory of the whole fight. I was lighting him up in the second round. I laid in some good ones. We got in the clinch, and I wove my hand inside and got his head and just drilled him. I hit him with a knee and then the right hand. He wobbled back. I had him. Holy s—, I’m going to be the Ultimate Fighter. He’s done. Yes! And then I rushed in and just wham, threw a right hand, launched it — and it just barely missed. He was able to tie me up, and I was like I got to get my hands loose and finish him. It took all my might to free my arms up from his clinch. And once I did, it hit me — I had absolutely nothing left.
White: I was going crazy. At the end of every round, I was standing up cheering and clapping. I saw that thing unfold right before my eyes, like, “Oh, my God, this is so good. This is exactly what we needed.”
Griffin: People were stomping. Stomp. Stomp. Stomp. Like a pattern on the bleachers. You could feel it a little bit in the cage, the actual bam, bam, bam. I was like, “All right, this is awesome.”
Bonnar: We were both pretty gassed, and then we were just kind of fighting at the same fatigued pace in the third round. The third round we were both dogs—, let’s be honest.
Griffin: The last thing they said to us before we walked out: “Hey, because it’s a contract on the line, if it’s close or whatever, we got to go to a three-minute overtime round.” I just thought, “OK, overtime round. I can do this.” And if you notice with Stephan, they rush him back to his corner after Round 3 and sit him down and start getting him water right away.
Bonnar: I’m so F’ing tired that I hope to the Lord there doesn’t have to be an overtime round. I’m so tired. But at least if there is, I’m going to bulls— as long as possible. I can have my coach take my mouthpiece, just find ways to buy more time. I was so tired, but I knew it was a possibility. Forrest comes to hug me, and I look like a jerk, I shrug him off. Like, get off me. I was trying to prepare myself to do that overtime round.
Griffin: A period of time passes and I was like, “No, no, no, this is too much rest, let’s go.” What’s taking them so long? Let’s go to this fourth sudden-death, sudden-victory, overtime round.
Bonnar: I remember hearing the words, “There will be no overtime. No overtime.” It was kind of passed along. There was this relief coming over me. Like, “Ha, ha, yes, no overtime!” The funny thing is, right when they announced him as the winner, I fell to the ground. On the inside I was like, “What do you mean, no overtime?” I went from thanking God a minute earlier before to cursing it.
Griffin won the fight 29-28 on all three scorecards to earn the UFC contract. Things would change in a moment or two, though, because White and the Fertittas huddled up and came up with a plan.
Lorenzo Fertitta: It was me, Dana and my brother. We were like, “What do you think?” One of us said, “What about giving them both a contract?” It was a quick, spur-of-the-moment decision. The way the partnership worked is, I wouldn’t make a decision on my own like that, Dana wouldn’t either and neither would Frank. That’s the way we were and the way we talked about things. Nobody would rush to make a decision.
White: If I hired the best writers in Hollywood and they wrote that thing out, it couldn’t have played out any better than it did the entire season, including the finale.
A UFC contract was offered to both Griffin and Bonnar.
Fertitta: After the fight, the Spike execs said, “Hey, we got to talk to you.” I said, “What’s up?” trying to play it cool. And we went back literally behind the arena, where all the satellite trucks were and everything, and they said, “Hey, we want to do Season 2.” I said, “What will you pay me?” They said, “We’ll pay you this.” I said you got to pay this plus a little bit more. We agreed to an amount.
White: As soon as that fight was over, that was when I knew that we had made it. I didn’t give a s— about if Spike re-signed us or not. I knew we had a winner.
Fertitta: We went to Nobu at the Hard Rock and grabbed dinner — Dana, his wife, me, my brother, our wives, and a few other executives. That’s when we knew we turned the corner. Man, this is going to work.
Leben: Hands down, there’s no denying it: It f—ing saved the UFC.
“The Ultimate Fighter” has now run for 28 seasons. Some of the UFC’s biggest stars, including Nate Diaz, Tony Ferguson and Kamaru Usman, are alumni of the show.