THE 17th SEASON of UFC’s Ultimate Fighter was an odd one for me. Drawn to the show for one reason, I found myself drawn into it for another, and by the season’s end I came away with an experience that I’ll remember for some time.
I decided to follow TUF 17 after hearing that a Santa Rosa-based fighter would be on the show. Coming from Santa Rosa myself and having done the same thing when a Santa Rosan fought on TUF last season, it seemed only natural.
However it wasn’t long before the fighter from Santa Rosa stopped being the focal point here at the MSGV office, giving way to something much more compelling.
TUF 17 distinguished itself out of the gate with a colorful group of contestants. From Clint Hester to Gilbert Smith to Collin Hart to Luke Barnatt to Uriah Hall to Tor Troeng to Kevin Casey, this cast leaped off the screen, not necessarily due to their debut fights (though some did stand out in that regard), but more due to the personalities that shone through in the show’s early moments. These weren’t personalities in the stock sense of reality TV backstabbers and expressive attention seekers (though there were those, too), rather they were personalities in the sense of individuals with stories to tell. Hints of these tales lay etched in their faces, their movements, and in between the lines of their introductory interviews.
On account of the Ultimate Fighter format and the limited amount of screen time available, we weren’t able to see each story reach its true on-screen potential, but in the end there were three narratives that dominated TUF 17 and combined to make the season a memorable one.
Uriah Hall–who stood out the most from the beginning and could have carried this or any show on his own redemptive shoulders–was joined by two other fighters who emerged more gradually, the three of them weaving a tale of hurt, determination, triumph, loss, and the uneven reality that is life itself…a sort of reality rarely touched upon by reality shows.
In the UFC then at its athletic core is the competition within each weight class to move up the rankings and become champion, the champion of each weight class being by definition “the best” in the sport. However in the world of professional sports, athletic competition is only one part of the equation. One can be “the best” athletically yet fail to connect with an audience on any other level. And maybe in some cases that’s good enough. But in the case of martial arts, where the sporting competition is a desperate struggle between two individuals, one that often results in a pair of bloodied competitors embracing one another at fight’s end, there seems to be something more at play than the simple crassness of “winning” and ‘losing.”
Beyond wins and losses (which, granted, are important, and the bedrock upon which the whole thing stands) is the narrative that emerges through competition. A compelling narrative isn’t essential to a sporting event–such an event can exist on pure athletic competition alone–but it’s a compelling narrative that opens up sports into something more, that turns a sporting event into an art form capable of transforming performer and audience alike. And this is certainly true in the realm of mixed martial arts.
Throughout the history of professional fighting, the greatest fighters have been a combination of championship caliber athleticism and personal narrative. Muhammad Ali, Mike Tyson, Fedor Emelianenko, Kazushi Sakuraba…these were all fighters who won big fights and made a name for themselves with their technical skills and prowess, but more than that, they were all fighters who wore their individual stories on their sleeves, releasing them through their gloves and allowing them to collide with the stories of their opponents. These are the fighters we remember for their ups as well as their downs and long after the final bell has rung.
In the case of The Ultimate Fighter, narrative becomes all the more significant both through its presence as well as its lack, as the most that’s at stake is a spot on the regular UFC roster. No one will leave the show a champion, and so something else needs to happen to keep the tournament feeling important over the course of a season.
If TUF fails to be more than a collection of athletic guys complaining about their housemates and saying how they want to win the custom Harley Davidson and the contract at the end of the show, then the series remains indistinguishable from all the other reality programs on cable television. However, when TUF becomes a program about martial artists and the struggle that defines their art form, we’re treated to something more profound.
And this is what took place during TUF 17.
Shortly after the first episode, when many of the new faces seemed just as compelling as the next, one single face began to emerge above the rest, until–following a thunderous kick–that face stood unquestionably tall above the pack, while the fallout that took place in his shadow set the tone for the remainder of the season.
The face in question belongs, of course, to Uriah Hall.
From Uriah Hall’s first appearance on the show he was introduced as a person who’d entered elementary school as an outsider. If I remember correctly (and apologies if I’m wrong on the details) his family immigrated to the US from elsewhere, and so he found himself in a place where the language, culture, social structure and so forth were all new. Too often, that sense of newness is sniffed out by the established order as a weakness to be exploited, and indeed Uriah Hall described the typical bullying and ridicule that the pack is inclined to dish out to the newcomer.
Fortunately for Uriah Hall he discovered martial arts, and in doing so he found a conduit for excising the resentment and sense of displacement that afflicts the bullied, while at the same time drawing in the confidence, focus, and sense of purpose that comes along with commitment to any form of artistic or athletic expression.
In his second TUF 17 fight, with his decisive KO win against Adam Cella, we saw Uriah Hall’s narrative distilled into one furious, frightening, and decisive blow. And in the subsequent reaction of many of his castmates, we saw that same narrative expanded upon and reinforced.
One might think that after such an impressive performance Uriah Hall’s peers might be happy for him, as they were for many of the other winners over the course of the season. One might also think that the recipient of his kick, Adam Cella, would be gracious in the face of a wholly irrefutable loss.
Instead, much of the cast became edgy around Uriah Hall. There were complaints of him seeming aloof, an outsider to the group, overly sensitive to their “good natured” teasing, and so forth. The serpentine Josh Samman in particular seemed to spearhead an “anti-Uriah” sentiment on the show, seconded by his sidekick, none other than Adam Cella.
While this could all be a result of the show’s post-editorial manipulation, Cella is on record reiterating these sentiments in interviews after the season’s end.
Per an interview with mmafightcorner.com, Cella states:
“I don’t know if can say this, but Uriah’s a dick…Nobody liked him, even on his own team…As far as him saying stuff to me, this and that, outside the gym, I don’t think he understands joking…He was always by himself. He never really came out of his room. He’d be out in the backyard. He was always by himself because nobody wanted to be around him. He just said weird things which was kind of awkward…”
“Nobody” liked him. “Nobody” wanted to be around him. In this kind of language (and similar sentiments aired on the show) we see a group of insiders threatened by the uniqueness of an outsider, and on account of that perceived threat they attempt to isolate him from their group.
It’s a familiar dynamic to anyone who’s tried to walk their own path despite unending pressures and cajoling from the outside. It’s not an easy path to walk. In fact in can often be a cold and lonely one. But it’s a path that makes Uriah Hall Uriah Hall, and it was interesting to see how Uriah’s commitment to this path was an unending source of irritation to his more generic, conformist housemates.
Still, not everyone in the TUF 17 house was generic or a conformist. In fact another notable TUF 17 fighter was far from either of these things. His emergence was certainly quieter than Uriah Hall’s and he never reached the same overwhelming stature, though his stature by season’s end was something to behold all the same.
This second fighter was Dylan Andrews.
Dylan Andrews, a soft-spoken-to-the-point-of-whispering fighter from New Zealand, was one of the later picks (if not the last?) by Team Jones, and for the first part of the season he flew under my radar. I think he might have had an interview segment on an episode here or there, but being caught up in the more obvious drama between Uriah Hall and the Cobra Kai-esque Samman/Cella clique, I hadn’t given him much thought.
Until it came time for Dylan Andrews’ first post-qualifying fight.
On the episode that featured this fight, Dylan Andrews began to tell his story of growing up in a marijuana grow-house with older brothers whose lives were all derailed by drug-related issues. Determined to forge his own and different path, a young Andrews found himself in a video store perusing a collection of UFC video tapes when plaster began raining down from the ceiling at regular intervals. Curious as to what was causing the falling plaster, he explored the rest of the building and found that there was a small MMA gym directly above the video store. With every hit of the heavy bag the reverberations shook the building, and hence the plaster mystery was solved and an MMA fighter was born.
In addition to this pitch-perfect origin story, Dylan Andrews revealed a bit more in a one-on-one conversation with Uriah Hall, bringing up the fact that he doesn’t necessarily enjoy fighting but that it’s something he needs to do.
Like Uriah Hall, Dylan Andrews described a channeling of the hurt and disappointment experienced in his life, which, through the discipline of martial arts, is then excised and replaced with serenity. An imminently likeable, friendly, and gentle seeming person, Andrews explained that once he is in the cage, his opponent literally feels his pain as it is viscerally transferred from the inside out.
In terms of his fight, Dylan Andrews’ win was impressive but in a very different way than Uriah Hall’s locomotive knockouts. In Andrews’ case the fight actually went the distance, and rather than looking dominant from the beginning Andrews found himself in peril early on. However it seemed that as his peril increased in intensity so did his drive and focus, and in an almost Marvel comics-esque comeback scene Andrews’ pain literally left his body, descending on his opponent and ultimately winning him the judges’ decision.
As the season wound down both Uriah Hall and Dylan Andrews continued their winning ways. Uriah Hall delivered another brutal and instantaneous knockout, while Andrews’ own knockout win was a more drawn out, three round affair. It seemed a foregone conclusion that Uriah Hall would be one of the show’s finalists, and while Dylan Andrews couldn’t be counted out as making it to the finale either, I wasn’t looking forward to a bout between the two of them.
Much more appealing was the potential, and seemingly inevitable, collision between Uriah Hall and the smirking Josh Samman, a 1980’s kickboxing action flick main event if there ever was one. But it’s here where TUF 17 began to go off the rails and become strangely…well…real.
By the time we reached the final episode it had come down to Uriah Hall, Dylan Andrews, Josh Samman, and Kelvin Gastelum. Kelvin Gastelum was sort of a sleeper on the show. At 21 he was barely old enough to make the show’s age requirement, and he was picked last for Team Sonnen. Even so, he quietly won each of his fights, but every time he won it almost seemed as if it had been a fluke. “Oh, cool, that Kelvin kid won again! Good for him. Probably won’t happen next time, though.” But it did, again and again until he was in the final four.
Compared to everyone else on TUF 17, Kelvin was portrayed a bit differently. He was never shown to be a bombastic clique-ish type ala the Cobra Kai wannabes, but he wasn’t set up to be a “ronin’s path” warrior of uniqueness like Uriah Hall or Dylan Andrews, either. He was neither someone you could find annoying, nor someone with a really deep backstory. He was just Kelvin. This really nice, earnest seeming dude, who won fights while you were busy looking past him, but who wasn’t seen in the same “star” category as Josh Samman or Uriah Hall.
And so, like any smart promoter, Dana White set up the final four as Uriah Hall vs. Dylan Andrews and Josh Samman vs. Kelvin Gastelum. “Obviously” we would see a Hall vs. Samman bout for the finale on FX. Except that in this case, obviousness failed.
Uriah Hall did indeed beat Dylan Andrews in a fight I thought I didn’t want to see, but which ended up being amazing and a testament to both fighters. I was originally reticent about this matchup since these fighters were the only two I could identify with on the show, and I had no interest in seeing one get over at the expense of the other. Further, considering Uriah Hall’s track record, I didn’t relish the thought of seeing Dylan Andrews hurt in the same extreme way we saw Uriah Hall hurt his previous opponents.
It turned out my concerns were unfounded though, as the fight ended up being a multiple round affair that got both fighters over, and while punishment was of course handed out it wasn’t delivered in the same spirit-crushing way that it was in Uriah Hall’s other wins.
During this bout we saw Uriah Hall in an actual fight for the first time, so much of a fight that toward the end of the second round he found himself on the bottom grappling with Dylan Andrews, at which point he began to rain blows from that bottom position, pounding his way into a mount of his own until he won the fight via TKO. It was a spectacle to behold, and even more impressive–albeit in a less immediate way–than any of his other wins on TUF 17.
In the meantime, despite his loss Dylan Andrews took Uriah Hall further than anyone else on the season and completely exceeded expectations. These two unique fighters–each with their own story burning inside of them, waiting to be unleashed like astral fireballs inside the cage–had come together to create a work of art, and while Uriah Hall won the fight there was no shame in Dylan Andrews’ loss.
Before this fight though, Josh Samman had taken on Kelvin Gastelum, and a funny thing happened. Kelvin won! Again! While everyone was looking past him! Or at least I was.
This led to a sort of anticlimactic ending. Where I’d assumed the lonewolf samurai Uriah Hall would be talking on the sneering serpent king Josh Samman at the TUF 17 finale, all of a sudden that was gone, replaced by Uriah Hall vs…Kelvin?
Again, no disrespect intended toward Kelvin Gastelum whatsoever, and in fact looking back at his fights in hindsight, he deserved every win he got and looked convincing getting them, it’s just that instead of an epic battle between the individual and the group, uniqueness and conformity, truth and compromise, etc., we now had the coolest fighter on TUF 17 vs…a really nice seeming young man.
When the time came for the final fight it felt in a way as if the real finale had already happened in Uriah Hall vs. Dylan Andrews, but Uriah Hall vs. Kelvin Gastelum was the deciding match for TUF 17, and again Kelvin went ahead and won. Three rounds of fighting that I barely remember resulted in a split decision for Kelvin Gastelum, the newest Ultimate Fighter. No explosive knockouts, no controversies, just Kelvin Gastelum doing what he seems to do, which is to win quietly. And good for him. He seems like a really nice guy and his unexpected victory didn’t leave me with the kind of bad taste in my mouth a TUF win for Samman or someone like that would have. But still, it wasn’t the way the story was supposed to end.
And this is what made TUF 17 so real. Life isn’t “The Karate Kid.” Sometimes no matter how hard we try or how much the storyline makes sense we don’t get the “W.” Wins are never a given and they’re never handed out justly. They’re taken if we grab them, and even then we can’t always maintain our grip. Ultimately we have very little control on the outcome of events in our life. But what we do have control over is how we comport ourselves on our way to those uncontrollable ends. Do we stay to true to ourselves and accept the chips where they fall? Or do we constantly conform ourselves to someone else’s image in hopes that our phoniness will affect a better result?
In the end, this was what TUF 17 was all about. We saw some fighters who were willing to do whatever it took to fit in and get along. We saw other fighters who were constantly politicking, trying to maneuver themselves into an optimal position. And then we saw fighters with the strength to be themselves, despite the trials and tribulations that go along with that hard choice. And in the midst of it all, a nice young man kept his head down and won, upsetting the story that should have been but reminding us that in reality no stories are ever guaranteed, and more often things “just happen.”
There was a lot of talk immediately following TUF 17 that Uriah Hall had been all smoke and mirrors. That TUF 17 had created a hype train that was now permanently derailed. Personally, I couldn’t disagree more. This may rankle some sports purists, but it doesn’t matter to me that Uriah Hall failed to win the whole thing. Uriah Hall gave us a glimpse into the life of an artist, a martial artist, and that life is not perfect or without struggle. In fact it’s a life of struggle, as all life is a struggle when you stop to think about it.
More importantly, I have every reason to believe that long after TUF 17 is over Uriah Hall will continue to be Uriah Hall. As will Dylan Andrews keep on being Dylan Andrews. And so will Kelvin Gastelum be true to Kelvin Gastelum.
In this trio of fighters, TUF 17 offered a look at three artists true to their craft and true to themselves, and in that sense TUF 17 was a success. I’m glad I watched it, and I’m glad I got to watch these three fighters–along with a few others who didn’t get as much of the spotlight–show us the value of truth, focus, and determination in an otherwise indeterminable world.