In the opening seconds of episode number two of the rebooted Ultimate Fighter, now dubbed TUF Live because of, well, the new “live” aspect, and announcer Jon Anik informs us that in 47 minutes the show will go from whatever was recorded this past week to a fight that will transpire in real time before our very eyes. Before. Our. Very. Eyes. It was at that moment that I realized this was truly no longer a recycled SpikeTV product, played out, hackneyed and worthy of snark. No, this new TUF Live was serious business. Hence, a serious write-up was in order.
The meat and potatoes of the series is still the same, with proven formulas that must be adhered to. There’s still the coin toss, fighters picked like gym class heroes awaiting a dodgeball game, and the anticipation and faux-suspense surrounding the choosing of the episode’s closing matchup. The training montages remain, as does the time allotted for explicit (and sometimes only implicit) tension between the opposing coaches. There’s even drama. But with the promise of something violent and live waiting at the end… that impending action somehow colors it all with a shade of fresh curiosity. It makes the journey seem more worthwhile than it’s been in years.
And so came the aspiring TUFers first exposure to the opulence of the TUF House, a flood of humanity rushing into the lavish abode that will be their prison for the next few months. There’s the bedroom we remember from prior seasons, with its row of bed after bed (who’s the lucky bastard that gets the bedroom that inexplicably has only one bed?), there’s the magical liquor cabinet, its contents spilling forth like a cornucopia of spirits and bad decisions, and there’s the pool and massive backyard. Michael Chiesa informs us that in the real world he currently has no home, so this living arrangement is a step up. Yes, Chiesa, it is.
Everyone is lined up at the gym, and Dana White tosses a coin which results in coach Urijah Faber getting to choose the first fight while his adversary Dominick Cruz gets first pick of the litter. The incumbent bantamweight champ’s first pick – Justin Lawrence – is soon followed by slugger Sam Sicilia, Myles Jury, Mike Rio, Vinc Pichel, James Vick, Chris Tickle and Jeremy Larsen. Conversely, Faber beckons for the hard-hitting Al Iaquinta, PRIDE vet Cristiano Marcello, Daron Cruickshank, Joe Proctor, Chiesa, John Cofer, Andy Ogle and Chris Saunders. The obligatory training session follows, and fighters shadow box, are pressed up against the wall and forced to escape, and wrestled until they’re huffing and puffing and unable to get up. There’s something between Cruz and his ward Tickle, a dynamic involving Tickle wanting to be on Team Faber and Cruz working him perhaps a little harder than most, but everyone is all smiles afterwards.
The two teams gather again for Faber’s fight announcement, but first, words are exchanged between the coaches. Faber, it seems, has taken umbrage at a statement Cruz made in an interview about Faber’s parents helping “The California Kid” buy his gym. Faber tells his foe to leave his parents out of it, and just like that Cruz apologizes. As for the fight pick, it’s revealed that at the end of the episode it will be Vick taking on Cruickshank. We’re led to believe that in this scenario Vick is in for a beating, that Cruickshank has been karate chopping and wrestling since he was in diapers and Vick is a relative newcomer to the sport – which jibes with what we saw in the season opener, as Cruickshank slew his way into the TUF House and Vick barely squeaked by Dakota Cochrane.
It is then, during the training sessions of the respective combatants, that bad news comes in the form of a phone call to the long-haired Chiesa. Coach Faber pulls him from the workout and sends him to the locker room, where Chiesa learns that his father has passed away. It was a form of cancer, a tearful Chiesa informs us, and though not wholly unexpected, the death still has all the impact of a Matt Hughes’ bodyslam to the heart. Chiesa is a mess, and questions whether he should remain in the competition. Before he’d left for Las Vegas, the young fighter promised his father that he’d go on with the show no matter what, but still… Chiesa would like to say goodbye. As the very picture of benevolence and compassion, White flies him home for the funeral and brings him back, the whole affair really just a heartbreaking hiccup in the TUF contestant’s schedule.
It’s suddenly fight time, and everything switches to the live broadcast. In the Team Cruz locker room, the champ gives Vick a somewhat rehearsed speech about having fun; in Faber Land, the former featherweight champ is sitting beside Cruickshank, his counsel appearing more like a heart-to-heart than a Knute Rockne inspirational special. And then the two TUFers are fighting.
As predicted, Cruickshank is a fast and furious ball of confidence, dancing in and out to land a variety of spinning- and side-kicks. Vick may be taller and possessing of a far greater reach, but he’s getting chipped at and picked apart. However, it all comes to a screeching halt when Cruickshank changes levels and shoots for a takedown. What comes next is Vick’s knee to his face, and the heavily-favored fighter falls like a sack of potatoes. Cruickshank is out cold.
The official time of the improbable knockout is 2:16 of the first round.
The camera focuses in on Team Cruz’s unbridled glee, on assistant coach Lloyd Irvin jumping up and down ecstatic, and then it switches to the fallen fighter, slowly coming around as referee Herb Dean tells him he got caught and that he needs to stay there for a bit.
With the win coach Cruz gets to pick the next fight, and his choices are Justin Lawrence versus Faber’s second pick, Cristiano Marcello.
And that’s all she wrote.