The came, they auditioned, and a select few kicked ass. On Monday, the Marriott Hotel at Newark Liberty International Airport in New Jersey was packed with wall-to-wall bantamweight and featherweights, all hoping beyond hope that they’d be the ones to impress Dana White, Joe Silva and the array of SpikeTV representatives present and earn themselves a slot in the upcoming fourteen season of “The Ultimate Fighter”. MMAConvert was on hand – matside, in fact – for the tryouts.

Some notes:

— According to SpikeTV reps, well over 400 hopefuls tried out. Included amongst the ranks of countless unknowns were veterans Din Thomas and Wagnney Fabiano, as well as numerous accomplished pro fighters and regional champs. There were, of course, “characters”; many sported dyed hair, one wore a white dress suit, another wore bunny ears, someone had a rashguard imprinted like a tuxedo. An aspiring fighter even barked and growled like a dog.

— The process was multi-staged, and included an initial pre-screening, where applicants filled out paperwork. Unlike other seasons, SpikeTV imposed a “three pro fight” minimum on contestants, and those with losing records were culled.

— The next stage was the grappling phase. Fighters were herded into a ballroom, paired up and called out onto a mat. Before White, Silva and others, they were then given only a few minutes to grapple. No leglocks or slams were allowed. However, when White made the unprecedented announcement that he would pay $100 for every submission, the fervor – and immediate stakes – increased dramatically. Also, there was no limit imposed on the number of submissions a fighter could get; when jiu-jitsu stud Carlos Oliveira nailed two omoplatas and a straight armbar, he strutted up to White to collect his money and said it was for “diapers and milk”. Everyone applauded.

— The next stage involved pad work, and only those who’d done enough to impress White and Silva in the grappling phase were allowed to move on to it. (Incidentally, Oliveira did not make it to the striking stage. As someone in his mid-30s, he was deemed too old for the TUF House). Even more hopefuls were culled based on their ability – or inability – to strike, which became painfully clear when they would accidentally kick and punch the trainers.

— After this stage, only a handful would remain. They would then leave for the final, and most important, phase: the one-on-one interview with SpikeTV reps. Keep in mind that, while White and Silva played a role in the earlier stages, they had no role in the final part of the process. If a fighter made it into the TUF House, it was at the whim of SpikeTV.

— The atmosphere was friendly yet competitive. Think: auditions for a Broadway show mixed with a Grapplers Quest. There were few egos, and everyone was wishing each other luck and shaking hands. And Dana White, with his impromptu hundred-dollar bill payouts and constant joking, made what normally would’ve been a tense and nerve-racking environment probably the coolest experience some of these guys would ever go through in mixed martial arts.

— Who will coach TUF 14? Insiders say that the decision hasn’t been made at this point. But one thing to note is that coaches usually approach the powers-that-be and ask for the role.

— Compared to the tryouts for the second season of TUF (the only other ones I attended), this installment featured an extremely streamlined process. And why not? White and company have been doing this successfully for a long time now. They know what they’re doing.

Check out our photo gallery of the TUF 14 tryouts below: