Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) is a sport that was initially considered too deviant for the mainstream public. It was touted as a bloodsport and “human cockfighting”. John McCain led a nationwide campaign to ban the violent sport. In the face of bankruptcy and cultural rejection, the premiere MMA company, the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC), created a reality show, The Ultimate Fighter, in a last ditch effort to bring a more human face to the sport. Using the show, the UFC tried to shed some of MMA's deviant identity and show that the fighters were serious athletes working hard to be in a serious sport. The show is a fairly typical reality show in that 16 men are locked in a house with one another and many wild antics result, but it also tried to present the fighters as professionals. It wanted to show the public that fighters were not all brutes looking to fight, but disciplined athletes with a love of competition.
The show was a wild success and is one major reason for the UFC's success today. The show was a huge success in key television demographics such as males from ages 18-34 and popularized the UFC. Today, MMA is widely considered one of that fastest growing sports in the world. For my research project, I looked at three seasons of The Ultimate Fighter to see how the show was used as impression management for MMA and its Fighters. I wanted to look at how the sport and fighters were presented in the show, and how this presentation changed as the sport became popular.
Over time, the show moved away from the wild reality show aspects, and more towards a serious documentary style. The show took on a serious tone in music and aesthetics. The rhetoric used on the show changed to be more profession, such as from using “fighter” to using “athlete”. Less coverage was given to wild antics and drunken behavior and more was given to training and the fighter's lives. As the sport gained popularity, the show tried to help it shed the stigma around fighting and fighters, and professionalize them instead.