Julian Lane, a fresh-faced welterweight MMA fighter, wasn’t in the Ultimate Fighter house for ten minutes before he was battling with one of his new roommates. It’s hard to say at this point in the show’s history whether Lane and his antagonist, Matt Secor, a grappler from Upstate New York, were actually bothered by each other or if they were just performing a long-observed rite as new Ultimate Fighter contenders—roiling the waters in the name of conflict, ratings, and attention—but they were the undeniable stars of the 16th season’s second episode as a result. I was so curious about who was going to win their unsanctioned battle of the kitchen that I quickly forgot who won the sanctioned preliminary fight the episode was supposed to be about.
Their initial argument concerned Lane’s pink Mohawk, which would stand out anywhere, but draws particular attention in a house populated almost entirely by ultra-masculine men with shaved heads. I’ve heard that whenever Yul Brynner would get frustrated with one of his Magnificent Seven co-stars for trying to steal scenes, he would threaten to take off his cowboy hat, knowing his bald head would outshine whatever acting tricks Steve McQueen or Charles Bronson could come up with. Julian Lane’s approach is the mirror image of Brynner’s: He knows several middling fighters have built careers on being the most noticeable character on The Ultimate Fighter, and in his case, the bigger and brighter the hair, the better.
Matt Secor, though, had apparently decided that he wasn’t prepared to cede the spotlight to Lane. So, like Steve McQueen shaking his shotgun shell, he decided to make noise of his own.
“You know what they say, right?” he said to Lane. “Pink’s the color of pussy; that’s why we like it.” Lane tensed up, but Secor pretended not to notice. He continued calmly, as if he were imparting some indisputable piece of information meant not to jab Lane but to enlighten him. “Pink’s the color of pussy,” he repeated. “That’s why we like it. That’s why I like it. I don’t know about you.” A simple bit of syllogistic reasoning, with just the slightest hint of homophobia and a less-than-subtle shot at Lane’s masculinity.
This is one of the eternally recurring events of the now ritualized Ultimate Fighter format: Two up-and-coming fighters move into the house and find a reason to hate each other with a speed that defies plausibility. By that first night they’re in each other’s faces, and by the next morning one of them is in a private interview room, promising viewers that his antagonist is going to get his comeuppance. Sometimes the two men actually back up their words and have at each other. If the UFC is lucky, this happens in a cage, with rules and a referee. If the UFC is unlucky, the two men fight back at the house, often drunk, meaning they’ll have to be sent home and the sport’s reputation will take another hit in the eyes of an already suspicious public. This struggle, between fighters’ instincts and the expectations of the marketplace, is as old as The Ultimate Fighter itself.
In the show’s fifth season, two contestants—one a quiet ex-Marine who had no business being anywhere near an Octagon, the other a loudmouth knucklehead who claimed to have won 300 street fights but also who had no business being anywhere near an Octagon—got into a unsanctioned scrap by the swimming pool. The next morning, White lashed out at the entire cast. “For the last six years I’ve been busting my fucking ass to prove that this isn’t what this fucking sport is all about and this isn’t what we’re like,” he said. “What happened last night is exactly what most people in the real world think of us: ‘They’re a bunch of fucking goons.’” He then cast the two offenders (and a third fighter, whom he accused of excessive goading) off the show and into the outer darkness of the regional MMA circuit.
This is the perpetual burden weighing on White and his TV show: how to tame cagefighters enough so that skeptical mainstream viewers will be willing to give them—and by extension, the show, the sport, the UFC, and its sponsors—a chance. When you’re trying to sell a queasy public on the idea that these enormous tattooed men with the shaved heads, the bloodlust, and the apparent indifference to things like pain and human decency aren’t goons at all but actually highly accomplished athletes too busy training and watching what they eat to do something as stupid as get into street fights—the last thing you need is them acting like goons and getting into street fights.
“You guys are athletes,” White went on that morning. “That’s what you fucking told us when you came here: You wanted to be professional athletes. You guys acted like a bunch of fucking little kids last night… It’s fucking bullshit, man… This is not what the UFC is all about; it’s not what mixed martial arts is all about.”
Of course it is, at least in part, what mixed martial arts is about. I hate real fighting as much as I love MMA, and I spend a not inconsiderable portion of my life explaining to doubtful friends and acquaintances that MMA isn’t a gladiatorial free-for-all but a real sport—compete with rules and traditions and a value system Bill Bennett could love. But it’s too much to hope for to think that professional mixed martial artists aren’t predisposed toward violence, that they’re not the kinds of guys who would fight over a haircut, and that they can simply shut down those predispositions because they’re being put up in a mansion and cameras are rolling. They are who they are, and I am who I am, and I just have to resign myself to the fact that my love of mixed martial arts sometimes has less to do with its artistry and evolution than I’d like to think it does, that there’s just a part of me that wants to see two good fighters fight, regardless of the circumstances. Inside a cage or inside a kitchen—sometimes it doesn’t matter.