BY DAN ALBAN
Last Wednesday, at an open casting call in nearby Newton, MA, over one hundred would-be TV stars auditioned for a spot on the third season of the hit reality series The Ultimate Fighter. The show, which features amateur and semi-pro mixed martial artists living together in a Las Vegas house and competing for a six-figure contract with the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC), has been a hit in two seasons on Spike TV.
When I arrived just before 10am on a rainy Wednesday morning, the parking lot outside Boston Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, the location of the casting call, was filled with vehicles, including a limousine. Two large, intimidating men wearing black trenchcoats, who appeared to be bodyguards, stood near a black luxury car. Out on the sidewalk, a handful of young men – one in military fatigues – spoke nervously or excitedly on their cell phones.
Inside, about 120 athletes clad in workout gear – and many covered in tattoos – warmed up and bantered with each other inside a large (but crowded) mat-covered workout room. Almost as many family members, friends, spectators, journalists, and Spike TV personnel filled the periphery of the room, mixing with previous stars of The Ultimate Fighter including Forrest Griffin, Stephan Bonnar, Kenny Florian (a Boston local), and Marcus Davis (also a New Englander). Peter Welch, the TV show’s Boston-based boxing coach, was also present. TV crews from Spike TV, the UFC, and several local news stations captured the proceedings.
The hopeful candidates presented an eclectic variety of experience, background, and geography. Some participants were local guys who had called in sick to work. Others had traveled to Newton from all over the country for the only open casting call in the U.S. The first participants I spoke with, Danny Abbadi, 22, of Orlando, FL, and Alan Belcher, 21 of Biloxi, MS, had flown up to Boston exclusively for the tryouts. For Belcher, this was his first trip to the northeastern U.S. The two best friends not only hoped for spots in the 185 lb. division, but predicted they would end up fighting each other in the finals of the show. However, Belcher, who said he was walking around at 220 lbs., seemed a better candidate for the 205 lb. division, while the smaller built Abbadi weighed in right at 185 lbs. Abbadi, who has a 13-1 record in mixed martial arts (MMA) (2-1 in professional fights), had started training in martial arts at age three, beginning with tae kwan do, and moving on to Muay Thai kickboxing and Brazilian jiu-jitsu. Belcher, with a 12-4 record, had started training in MMA at age 13 and his martial arts background includes tae kwan do and boxing.
Scott Rutherford, 26, of Lincoln, NH, took the 3-hour drive to Newton for the open casting call even though he had no previous martial arts experience, although he had trained in boxing for a year and a half. As he put it, “I’m just your normal 9-to-5er.” Having followed the sport since UFC I, he was excited to have the chance to participate in the tryout. Rutherford was optimistic about his chances to succeed as an MMA fighter, commenting, “With an opportunity to train with some people, I could be the best.”
At 10am, UFC president Dana White, a Boston native, entered the workout room accompanied by a group of Spike TV officials. He immediately called for those auditioning for the 185 lb. (middleweight) weight class to move to one side of the room, and those auditioning for the 205 lb. (light heavyweight) weight class to shift to the other side of the room. White explained that the casting call would have three phases – grappling, striking, and interviews – with some fighters being eliminated after each phase. He told the anxious fighters to take it easy and not worry about getting tapped out (surrendering to an opponent due to a joint lock or a choke) during the grappling phase, as that wasn’t a criterion for elimination.
The grappling phase proceeded with White calling out the names of a pair of fighters, briefly interviewing each about their martial arts experience, fight record, weight, age, hometown, injuries, and other background info. They then faced off in the center of the mat, with White instructing them to start on their knees and not stand up, in order to encourage the sort of ground grappling commonly found in the UFC. Since this part of the tryouts was designed to let the participants showcase their grappling skills, no striking was allowed.
White gave the fighters up to two minutes to try to catch their opponent in a submission hold, or at least work for a dominant position, before calling up the next set of fighters. As the participants grappled in the center of the mat for what turned out to be several hours, White and the Spike TV team watched attentively with clipboards, stopwatches, notepads, and stacks of fighter applications in hand, occasionally making notes and speaking quietly with each other. After a few matches, fighters ignored White’s instruction to take it easy, and began grapping with increasing intensity, occasionally even rising to their feet or spilling into the other fighters crowded around them on the mat.
White, keen to avoid injuries, adamantly insisted that fighters should not attempt a heel hook – a submission hold with a high injury rate, and would occasionally stop a grappling match when a participant was caught in a submission hold but hadn’t yet tapped out. At one point, when a participant began bleeding due to an accidental headbutt, White jumped in and held paper towels to the young man’s forehead to stop the bleeding.
Those trying out had widely varying levels of experience; one of the most obvious signs of a fighter’s experience, or perhaps expectations, was choice of clothing. While most participants showed up in standard workout gear or skintight grappling rashguards, a few showed up and tried out in street clothes. One participant, who told White he trained in karate and Shaolin (kung fu) and that his own grappling experience was wrestling with his father, actually grappled in a pair of cargo pants with a leather belt and metal buckle. On the other side of the spectrum, another participant was clad entirely in UFC-branded grappling gear, provoking a “nice shorts!” chortle from Forrest Griffin.
The UFC-logo-sporting participant was Roger Stiner, 28, of Jamestown, ND, an enthusiastic and talkative fighter with a 5-8 record. Despite his record (he lost his first eight fights, and then won the last five), Stiner’s website pictures him holding a pair of championship belts (he told me is the North Dakota Middleweight Champion in the Northstar Fighting Association), and a caption on the photo proudly proclaims “World Cage-Fighting Champion!” Stiner had a hard-luck story about losing most of his possessions and family over the past year, and told me that he had spent his rent money to buy a round-trip bus ticket to Boston for the casting call. He further claimed that the Greyhound bus he was on rolled over on the West Side of Chicago (unfortunately a Google News search could not confirm this incident), that he was robbed at gunpoint in the bus station in New York City, and that he had spent the previous night sleeping in an alley somewhere in Boston. He told me that he was there to live out his dream of fighting in the UFC, and because he wanted to be able to use the money to win back custody of his children and provide support for them. When asked about his chances of being selected for the show, he claimed he felt they were “as good as anyone else here.”
One participant that stood out in the room was Scott Rais, 31, who drove to the tryouts from Detroit, MI. Rais was the only fighter present wearing a gi, the traditional kimono-like outfit of martial artists who practice karate and judo. Rais, a second degree black belt in International Budo Ryokukai, a martial art that combines several martial arts including karate, judo, and aikido, saw his participa
tion in the tryouts as representing his sensei and dojo. Rais wore a gi to the casting call because he was “told it was dishonorable to train without a gi” and noted that “I feel outcasted, but I feel honorable.” He had not fought in a MMA fight, though he was a long-time fan of the sport and had taught and trained in full-contact kumite sparring sessions. Rais noted that many of the other participants seemed to “have a lot of aggression, not too much self-control” but acknowledged that “a lot of people [here] have a lot to bring to the table.” Rais said he felt his chances of getting on the show were good, particularly if he could make it to the interview stage where he thought he would stand out for his humility and respect. His grappling match ended with neither athlete getting a submission.
Another participant who stood out was Derek Fiore, 33, of Beverly, MA. Fiore, a tough-talking but friendly bodybuilder with a massive upper body, appeared to be nowhere near the weight limit for even the 205 lb. division, and admitted that he weighed 249 lbs. Like several others, he had shown up in street clothes, but, unlike others, he made a quick trip to Walgreens and bought a pair of pajamas, ripping the legs off of the pajama bottoms to create shorts. He said his background was in kickboxing and Tang Soo Do, a Korean martial art. He claimed a fight record of 5-0 but said that he mostly fought in Toughman competitions (amateur boxing contests which permit punching, but no kicking or grappling), although he made an offhand reference to some supposed “underground fights in Chinatown.” Watching the middleweights grappling, he said, “I don’t like to watch guys roll around,” but also admitted that he had no real grappling experience nor a plan for what to do when his turn came up. He mostly hoped to make it through to the striking phase, where, he confided, “I think they’ll be pretty impressed.” But when his name was called, he talked with White for a few moments and walked away without grappling. He later explained that he had dropped out of the tryouts because he didn’t think he could drop down to 205 lbs., and he’d rather just tryout for the heavyweight division “the next time.”
Lanny DiBartolomeo, 32, of Marlborough, MA, became a crowd favorite when he used an unorthodox grappling style to submit his opponent in their entertaining match. DiBartolomeo, an amiable fellow who works in floor restorations, is short and stocky, with a kind of goofy look that confounds expectations about what a fighter might look like, and an underdog appeal that had many rooting for him. His martial arts background includes kickboxing, submission wrestling, and boxing – he took 2nd place in the Massachusetts Golden Gloves tournament. He enjoys trying out unique and unorthodox grappling techniques, but wanted to test his skills. DiBartolomeo, a chess player, explained his motivations, “You might beat your friends, but it’s like chess – you don’t know how good you are until you enter a tournament.”
After each weight class finished grappling, and following an initial hiccup in which he began reading names from the wrong list, Dana White announced the thirty or so participants in each weight class who would advance to the next phase of the tryout, and politely asked the others to leave. White gently explained that many fighters who weren’t selected simply weren’t the right weight or just weren’t the right fit for the TV show; he cautioned, “Just because we didn’t pick you doesn’t mean you suck,” and added, “If you don’t get called, don’t bum out and go kill yourself.” After the announcement, White shook hands, chatted, and posed for photos with participants and spectators. Danny Abbadi, Alan Belcher and Lanny DiBartolomeo made this first cut, while Scott Rutherford, Roger Stiner, Scott Rais, and Derek Fiore did not.
Even though he was quickly forced to tap out in the grappling phase and didn’t make the cut, Rutherford remained enthusiastic, remarking, “I think this is the best thing in the world – to give an average guy like me a fair chance [to get on the show].” Despite not making it past the first round, Rais said he had “no regrets” about driving from Detroit for the tryouts. Stiner commented, “Initially, it was one of the most crushing blows…almost like my dreams getting stomped on,” but continued, “Hearing Mr. Dana White call my name made it all worth it…I got to meet some of the greatest trainers in the world and some of the best fighters in the world.” Asked about his plans, Stiner replied, “The first place I’m going to go now is McDonalds,” having been on a strict diet for several weeks prior to the tryout.
The striking phase of the tryouts did not involve sparring between participants but instead consisted of each participant punching, kicking and even kneeing mitts and pads held primarily by Kru Mark DellaGrotte and Neil Sityodtong of Somerville’s Sityodtong USA Muay Thai gym, as well as Peter Welch and Kenny Florian. The striking phase went fairly quickly and was relatively uneventful, though the participants were so enthusiastic about striking the pads with all the power they could muster that Welch at one point asked them to ease up a bit and reminded them that technique was more important than power. Observing the brief pad work, this writer had a hard time discerning different levels of striking skill except at the extremes.
After the striking phase ended, White called up a small group of five to ten middleweight prospects, including Abbadi and DiBartolomeo, and spoke with them in a huddle for a few minutes. According to several of the fighters in the huddle, White let them know that they were simply too small for the 185 lb. division but that they would have a free pass to the interview stage in the tryouts for the anticipated season four of The Ultimate Fighter, which is expected to feature welterweight (170 lb.) and heavyweight fighters like the second season. Afterwards, Abbadi expressed frustration at this turn of events, but the easy-going DiBartolomeo seemed fairly pleased with how things had turned out.
White then announced the roughly fifteen to twenty fighters from each weight class that would advance to the interview stage. Of the fighters interviewed in this article, only Alan Belcher advanced to the interview stage. White and the Spike TV officials conducted the interview sessions in a private office overlooking the workout room. Because they included sensitive questions about drug use and criminal records, the interviews were not open to the press.
According to Spike TV spokesman David Schwarz, Spike received applications from “hundreds of fighters” to be on the show. Out of the 120 or so who tried out at the Newton casting call, about fifteen of the fighters advanced to the next step of the casting process: a week of auditions in Las Vegas, happening this week. Ultimately, they plan to cast eighteen fighters, nine in each weight class, as well as a handful of alternates. Season 3 of The Ultimate Fighter will begin shooting in mid-January 2006 and will air in April 2006 on Spike TV.
Dan Alban is a 3L who has followed mixed martial arts for years.