Of all the hundreds of criticisms reasonable people can level against reality television, for my money the most resonant is that the producers, participants, and viewers of reality television shows have no interest in reality. Outside of the first few seasons of The Real World, reality television has been nothing so much as confirmation that real life is, by and large, impenetrably dull, and only the inclusion of fabricated stimuli and media-savvy participants coached to live their lives at an unnatural pitch can make it watchable. Rarely does real life provide the kind of drama we expect from our entertainment, so when we see that kind of drama actually unfold on TV, we can’t help but assume the whole thing was made up. More than making us a culture of voyeurs, reality TV has made us a culture of skeptics.
This season of The Ultimate Fighter has turned out to be the exception to that diagnosis. If, at the beginning of the season, the show’s producers had decided that the two fighters standing at the end of the season would be Uriah Hall and Kelvin Gastelum, they would have rejected the idea because no one would buy it. In Hall you have the portrait of a modern mixed martial artist: a living, breathing video game character; muscular, fast, athletic, and capable of knocking out his opponents with all manner of bizarre spinning kicks that seems to launch from one side of the Octagon to the other; a fighting machine who can’t seem to connect on any human level aside from that most primordial one; "A combination and a form indeed/Where every god did seem to set his seal/To give the world assurance of a man," as Hamlet might say; a middleweight Jon Jones who somehow slipped below the radar of the entire MMA community yet came into the TUF house fully formed and ready to challenge for the title.
Meanwhile, in Kelvin Gastelum, you have the opposite: a short, slightly pudgy 21-year-old kid with limited skills but a bottomless well of heart and aggression, who quietly beats up everyone he fights without fuss or fanfare, a real-life Rudy—“five feet nuthin’, a hundred and nuthin’”—who somehow manages to beat everyone on sheer force of will. As his coach, light-heavyweight Chael Sonnen, put it before last night’s fight, Gastellum is great at nothing except being effective.
Uriah Hall is the guy who’s so intimidating that fighters lose to him before they even step into the cage. Kelvin Gastellum is the guy you don’t even realize is your opponent until he’s lifting you off your feet, smashing you to the ground, and standing above you with his arms raised. For the first time I can remember, the finals of The Ultimate Fighter will be fascinating to watch not just because the men fighting are talented but because they represent two struggling sides of the human condition: the desire for perfection vs. the resignation to our failings; the video game hero vs. the workaday striver; the people we want to be vs. the people we are.
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