Personalities make television and fighting skill make champions. A lot of the time, the two are unrelated. In special cases, the two combine to generate a superstar. Spike's 16-men-in-a-house reality show The Ultimate Fighter (TUF) strips away the off-limits nature of rival reality programmes and allows enemies to settle differences the old-fashioned route. Along the way, characters are formed, bonds are broken and teeth are knocked out. In the case of former champions Forrest Griffin, Diego Sanchez, Matt Serra and Rashad Evans, sometimes even stars are born.
This weekend in Las Vegas, the two latest wannabe stars draw battle lines in the hope of snaring a six-figure contract with the Ultimate Fighting Championship. The four remaining finalists at this time are live-wire Jonathan Brookins, veteran Kyle Watson, athletic Michael Johnson and intellectual Nam Phan. Each of the four have won fights, talked a a great deal, developed USPs and personas, and now stand before us as potential stars. Whether they reach the lofty heights of former TUF alumni remains neither here nor there right now -- as there is still plenty of fighting to do -- but there can be little doubt that whoever emerges victorious this Saturday night (December 4) will be on the fast-track to gold.
If it's templates they're looking for, the cast of season twelve didn't exactly have to go out of their way for reference points. Heading up the two teams this season were UFC welterweight champion Georges St-Pierre and number one contender Josh Koscheck. Talented wrestlers and mixed martial artists, St-Pierre and Koscheck are similar in many ways, yet so different in many others.
As far as personalities go, they were, perhaps, two of the most contrasting in TUF history. College jock Koscheck, plucked straight out of an 80's John Hughes movie, poked, prodded and slammed St-Pierre up against his locker whenever the chance presented itself. Meanwhile, St-Pierre, stoic, rigid and a man of principles and manners, refused to rise to the bait. It was a stalemate, a stand-off and the battle of opposing magnetic forces. No amount of taunting and teasing would force St-Pierre to snap, as Koscheck attempted every trick in the bully handbook.
The chemistry between the pair was fascinating to watch, St-Pierre either unwilling or unable to compete verbally with Koscheck and the American, for his part, refusing to call off his attack. Sensing he wouldn't get a bite from the champion, Koscheck would later turn his attention to riling young fighters on Team GSP and even their on-site doctor, or 'male nurse' as Josh routinely labelled him. It wasn't pretty, it wasn't big or clever, but Koscheck plays Koscheck better than anyone else in the UFC and, if nothing else, it all made for great television.
Some would say St-Pierre's lack of pep in front of the camera made for bad television. He would argue that, as a fighter, his casting call arrives next Saturday (December 11), when the pair meet inside the Octagon at UFC 124. Besides, with one victory already scored over Koscheck in 2007, the reigning UFC champion hardly has reason to panic in the face of his pesky challenger. His steely silence on the show was borne from knowledge and past history, and the belief that round two will be exactly the same as the first. Of course, Koscheck would no doubt put St-Pierre's non-performance on camera down to a lack of personality or charisma.
Personally, having spoken to St-Pierre about both his childhood and past demons, I've no doubt Koscheck will have rattled him like no other opponent to date. Canny and calculated, the challenger will have known that, too, hence his relentless pursuit of the champion throughout the course of the show. A naturally quiet, reserved and humble human being, St-Pierre's character has been moulded from time spent in the headlocks of bullies.
"I learnt a lot of life lessons from my time at school," St-Pierre told me last year. "The funny thing is, a lot of the scars I have in my head are from my time at school, not from any of my experiences in mixed martial arts. People find that hard to believe. They see me as this strong and dominant UFC champion and just assume that I've always been the one handing out the beatdowns. That's not true at all, though. The most pain I ever suffered was when I was growing up in school and was being bullied.
"Competing in mixed martial arts is fairly easy, compared to what I had to go through as a child. You're afforded weeks and months of preparation time for a fight in the UFC. You can train your body and mind to get ready for a certain fight. You know the time, place and reason for your next fight. You can visualise the outcome. On the school playground it's completely different. I often didn't know when a fight would break out or why an older kid would be kicking and punching me. There is no time to prepare or negotiate at school."
St-Pierre recalled stories of being jumped on by up to half a dozen school bullies at one time and having to use his lunch tray as a defensive shield. He told me how he hung with 'geeks' and was anything but part of the in-crowd. His father taught him kyokushin karate simply in order to restore the shattered confidence in a young St-Pierre. By 14, St-Pierre was thriving on the athletics field and, having taken his licks on the playground, finally banished the bullies that haunted his early school years. He was now the strongest boy in school.
Koscheck seems to believe that, despite the strong exterior, a meek and mentally fragile boy still exists within the mind of the 29-year-old St-Pierre. He views the champion as a manufactured fighter, someone not born to fight, but merely trained to do it. Many past St-Pierre victims made the same observation before being taken down and facially reconstructed through a series of hammer-fists. 'An athlete, not a fighter' they would say, as if such a conundrum would impact the way St-Pierre fought when the first bell tolled.
When the time comes to sledge, Koscheck goes harder and heavier than anybody else in the UFC, hence his shaky reputation with mixed martial arts aficionados. Some love him, most hate him. The spoiled brat of the welterweight pack, Koscheck is, nonetheless, an engaging and eminently watchable character. Unsure what he'll say or do, you can't take your eyes off him. He's wildly unpredictable in all the ways St-Pierre is programmed and disciplined. While the champion does and says what is expected of him, Koscheck gets a kick out of doing the polar opposite. They are made-for-TV characters, sketched by a writer's pen and delivered to an audience that have invested time and feeling into their back stories.
When all is said and done, the talking stops and the fighting begins. Everybody becomes anonymous and silent once that Octagon door slams shut. St-Pierre has never felt more comfortable. Accustomed to once fending off half a dozen bullies at once, the current champion will only have to deal with one come December 11.
Thirty-three-year-old Koscheck, meanwhile, has spent the last three months planting seeds of doubt in the head of St-Pierre and reminding the champion of a time when he was presumed weak of mind and body. Koscheck has taken him back to middle school and bog-washed him the way so many others attempted. He has prodded him with the memory stick, reminding St-Pierre of a time he wished to forget. The hope is that the programmed French-Canadian then malfunctions on fight night, becomes hesitant and folds the way he did against Matt Serra in 2008.
Koscheck has wiped the floor with the hopelessly nice St-Pierre at the mic. It hasn't even been close. Three years ago St-Pierre performed a similarly one-sided drubbing on Koscheck's head. Both possess mental demons, regardless of how they choose to express them. On December 11, we'll find out exactly which fighter falls under the category of 'reality' and which one is better suited to 'television'.