By Dwight Wakabayashi
The Ultimate Fighter 17 is entering the home stretch of the season and it has provided viewers with a little bit of everything needed to make a successful recipe for the aging reality series. Improved production, polarizing coaches, solid fight finishes and guest appearances have all contributed to the interest and intrigue that has been built for the show heading into the semi-final round of the show.
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The only thing that has been missing from the show is the expected major heat and conflict between coaches Chael Sonnen and Jon Jones. Sonnen is the UFC’s — and possibly the world’s –best trash-talking antagonist, yet he has spared Jones the ridicule and hate thus far. With things heating up and the final four of the competition upon us, I fully expect things to change and take a turn for the better in that regard. Things will get heated in the next couple weeks of the show with Sonnen and Jones front and centre and the genuine timing of it will not disappoint.
Some critics may think that this calm leads to a boring show, but conflict and controversy needs to be built up and is not the only or best way to skin a cat. The shock value of it is best left as a card to play once or twice later in the show.
This season’s best moments of entertainment have happened exactly where they should happen on TUF — inside the cage. From Uriah Hall’s technically vicious knockout early in season, to the two knockouts that fans enjoyed this week, the guys are bringing it for the right reasons this year.
The production of the show has gotten better and better over the years, with this season taking the prize as the sharpest and highest quality program we have seen to date. Nothing has been wasted this season and the show has been building up to an intriguing final conflict, rather than showing all its cards early and dragging it out with manufactured drama towards the end of the show.
The staged house conflict between the fighters has been kept to a minimal, with pranks and showmanship taking a backseat to discipline, sacrifice and an overall focus on the end goal. It has been a pleasant surprise to see the growth in the way that all competitors have handled themselves inside the TUF house.
The fighter group this year is a very mature one. Veteran leaders in the house like Josh Samman and Dylan Andrews, as well as some very mature youngsters like Kelvin Gastelum and Collin Hart have put a stamp on the positive perception of the fighters this year.
The fighters have taken the surprisingly cool example of coaches Jones and Sonnen and have been very respectful towards each other overall. Surprisingly, the conflict between the coaches has been minimal at best and resigned to the various coaches’ challenges throughout the show.
This season, Jones and Sonnen have competed in bowling, as well as a “dig it” challenge while driving excavators. Sonnen has won both challenges and has been a model coach and citizen on the show. He has presented himself as a very likeable professional, whom the fighters can learn a lot from. Jones has shown a unique coaching style and has offered the fighters great help on his staff with Stonehorse Goeman and Frank Mir.
Contrary to complaints from previous seasons’ competitors and the hardships of the house and the experience, the show seems to be providing a positive experience for the fighters. UFC women’s bantamweight champion Ronda Rousey helped train Team Sonnen in the week’s episode and Mike Tyson and Mickey Rourke have both made cameo appearances. These guest star appearances have been subtle and have not overshadowed the fighters on the show in any way. They should all be better for the experience.
The drama has built up and the stage has been set, and now the season is ready for a complete turn for the better. The stakes are high from here on in and the pressure is mounting on these men. The fights are going to get nasty and the coaches will play a huge role in the final outcome of TUF 17, leading to a fantastic stage at the finale on April 13, followed by the Jones-Sonnen showdown at UFC 159 on April 27.
Dwight Wakabayashi is a featured columnist for Bleacher Report UFC and regular contributor to Sportsnet.ca’s UFC section. Follow him on Twitter @wakafightermma.