A reality TV trainwreck and the female MMA fighters still dealing with the mess
Michelle Ould knew right away that she'd made a mistake.
This was the summer of 2010, the first day of filming for the new reality TV show known as the Ultimate Women Challenge.
Like a lot of her peers in the world of women's MMA, Ould had been hearing rumors about the show for months. She'd heard how it would pit the competitors against each other for a $50,000 grand prize, how it would air on NBC and make everyone involved into household names. She didn't quite believe it at first.
"I'd heard of it, but didn't pay too much attention," Ould told MMAjunkie.com. "But when I heard Kaitlin (Young) and a couple other girls I respected were going to be on it, I thought, 'Sure. Maybe this will work.' "
It was the same for Julie Kedzie, who by that time had more than 20 professional fights to her credit and no small amount of camera time for TV show pilots that never went anywhere.
"I thought, 'Yeah, this'll never happen,' " Kedzie said of the UWC. "Then I heard that Kaitlin Young and some other girls I knew were going to be on it, and I thought, 'I trust them. I don't think they'd make poor choices.' It turned out we all made a poor choice."
To understand why, you have to know a little something about the available options for female fighters in 2010. The short version is there weren't many. This was before Invicta FC created a home for women's MMA, but after EliteXC had effectively shut its doors. Strikeforce offered the occasional female fight, but usually no more than one per card, and sometimes not even that.
Any hope of a women's division in the UFC was a dream so distant it bordered on delusional. The Ultimate Fighter had been around for 11 seasons by then, and still the closest women had come to the octagon was walking around it in bikinis with numbered signs over their heads.
Now that's all changed — and with the upcoming season of TUF, featuring dueling female coaches, it's primed to change even more — but if you wanted to make it as a full-time female fighter back in 2010, you had to seize your opportunities as they arose.
At the time, the Ultimate Women Challenge seemed like just such an opportunity to get exposure and get paid in the process. Instead it turned out to be a disaster resulting in lawsuits, broken promises, shattered friendships and scars of both the physical and emotional variety, as Yael Grauer first detailed in a series of stories for mmahq.com in 2011.
Or, as 125-pounder Colleen Schneider put it, "It was the most ridiculous clusterf--- of a show."
And in the end, it wasn't a show at all.
Early troubles, beginning in the kitchen
The warning signs were there from the very first day, and they didn't go unnoticed by the cast. It started the moment they arrived in the Las Vegas house where the bulk of the show would be filmed. Right away, the food situation was not what the women had expected.
"There was a pantry full of canned vegetables, and that was about it," Schneider said. "We were like, 'We don't eat this.' And then they didn't believe we ate as much as we did, so they wouldn't give us enough food, and we weren't getting the kind of food we needed. We'd get, like, the crew's leftover Baja Fresh."
"Not only was there not enough food, it was just a joke," Ould said. "It was canned food, processed stuff, not food for athletes. Not even food for people who are just slightly health-conscious."
Then there was the issue with the show's "house mother," who soon disappeared due to what the fighters were told was an extremely bad case of food poisoning.
"She was immediately replaced by a new house mother who was very young and very beautiful," Kedzie said. "And the original house mother, she was not unattractive, but it seemed like they were looking for a way to get rid of her."
That's what made some of the competitors suspect that the show might be looking to sell viewers on more than just their athletic talent, which was the opposite of what the show's creator Lyle Howry had told the women at the onset.
"They told us it wasn't going to be this sexy, running around in a bikini and partying kind of thing, and I trusted them that it wasn't going to be that way," Kedzie said. "Then it ended up being that way a lot."
A call for help
Things really got serious when the women finally made it to the gym. After being in the house for roughly three days, according to Kedzie, they'd only spent one day actually training. And when they did train, one competitor badly injured her knee. Instead of getting her medical attention, the producers brought her, along with all the other women, back to the house.
"You could see her knee retaining fluid," Ould said. "I was like, 'I just want to go home. I feel like we're getting Punk'd right now.' "
The way Kedzie remembered it, the other fighters took one look at the injured knee and knew it was worse than the normal bumps and bruises that come along with hard training.
"We were like, 'Can we at least get her some drugs or something?' " Kedzie said. "Clearly she's not going to be able to fight now. And Kaitlin Young, I really admired her balls. She just got up and walked out of the house and walked down the street — we were in, like, a little subdivision — and she walked up to someone's house and borrowed their phone and called her manager and said, 'Get on this. We need help.' Nobody was at the house to help us."
That move by Young not only resulted in proper medical care for the injured fighter, according to Ould, but it also briefly improved the situation for all the cast members.
"Kaitlin sure did walk right out the door and over to the neighbors ... and everybody was just stunned," Ould said. "I started packing up my stuff because I was going to leave. But Kaitlin went over there and used the phone and that made a lot of changes. After Kaitlin did that, that's when we got our signing bonuses. That's what made me stay, was getting paid. We also got our contracts. We got more food. It was a game-changer."
Before arriving in Las Vegas, the women had been promised a $1,000 fee just for showing up to begin filming, they said. After Young's mayday call to her manager, they finally received it. What they didn't know at the time was that, for most of them, that was all the money they'd ever see from their work on the show.
According to UWC creator Lyle Howry, the show was plagued with financial difficulties early on. He'd intended for it to be "more of an empowerment type show than just a women's fighting show," he said.
"What happened was, there was a problem with money," Howry said. "My investor basically stopped putting money in. We finished the show, and there was money owed. Everybody got money. It wasn't like nobody got any money, like it was portrayed. People made a lot of money on the show. The girls didn't get all their money, but they did get some money."
One of the groups that didn't get paid, according to several people familiar with the show, was the production crew.
"Our sound guys went on strike because they weren't getting paid, so then they stripped all (their equipment) and took off one day," Kedzie said. "That was hilarious."
The sound crew wasn't the only aspect of the production team who was upset about non-payment, according to several sources. Tapes began disappearing. So did other equipment. Just that quickly, the whole project was in peril.
"Because there were problems on the set, with tapes being sold and stuff like that, we fell behind on our delivery date for the airing deal we had," Howry said. "We were screwed at that point. The investor pulled his money, and we couldn't pay anyone."
Of course, no one told that to the fighters, who were expected to carry on through the entire six weeks of filming as if everything was still on track. When some of them wanted to leave early, according to Ould, they were threatened with lawsuits.
"They held that over our heads a lot," Ould said. "I was kind of torn. You had people who were actually concerned about the athletes, people who had worked on The Ultimate Fighter ... who knew what we needed. They were vouching for us. Then you had the producers who didn't get it at all, who knew nothing about MMA, and just knew about reality TV. They were basically calling us divas. We could hear them talking crap about us in the back. It was totally unprofessional."
Throughout the filming, fighters were expected to engage in various "challenges," many of which had absolutely nothing to do with MMA. They'd go skydiving one day, then spend days at a time locked in the house with no chance to train.
"We never knew when we were going to get to go to the gym and train," Kedzie said. "Sometimes we'd go two times a day. Other times we wouldn't go at all for three days at a time. We just sat in this house, unless we were doing challenges. I think it was because they didn't have the money in the budget to get us to the gym.
"There were people who obviously knew that this was in trouble, but they didn't want us to know it because we're the talent or whatever. They'd tell us, 'Hey, big things are in store. You guys are going to be made. You'll be on NBC, and you'll all make so much money off this.' But when they keep saying it over and over, you're like, 'Who are you trying to convince?' "
From reality show MMA to Lord of the Flies
As the situation in the house deteriorated, some of the women began to turn on each other. Cliques formed. Bullying ensued. According to Kedzie, that's one of the reasons she wasn't upset when the show never made it to air.
"I made some really great friends on the show because it's one of those things where when you're stuck in hell together, you really bond," Kedzie said. "Then there are girls who I'll never look at the same after this. ... I really hope that show never, ever airs because I really think it would set women's MMA back. I really do."
One source of conflict was the pay structure. Initially, the show called for a series of elimination fights leading to one eventual winner who would receive a $50,000 grand prize. The problem was, there was no tournament.
"We went into it thinking we'd all fight and people would be eliminated and then the winners would fight at the end," Schneider said. "Then they told us that we were going to do all these challenges, and the winners of the challenges would get to fight to win at the end. But then they didn't even do that. They ended up just looking at our records going into the show and deciding, 'OK, you two fight for first and second, and you two for third and fourth, and you two fight for fifth and sixth.' They based it on nothing that happened during the show. Only two people even had the opportunity to win the show."
Once the women realized that not all of them would even have the opportunity to fight for the $50,000, they sat down together to work out a more even distribution of the money that they could all agree on.
"We renegotiated that, so that the top person who won would get $25,000, and then their opponent would get $12,000, and then down from there," Kedzie said. "We divvied up the $50,000 so that it was more fair, so everybody gets something."
They took that new pay structure to the producers, who agreed to alter the plan as long as all the fighters would sign on to it. Initially, the women said they would, but later one fighter declined to sign on to the new agreement.
"Angela Magana caused the big uproar, the hissy fit, because she thought she should have gotten the $50,000," Ould said. "I thought, 'Let's at least get some money out of it after going through hell.' That's how everyone else felt, too."
In the end, the producers decided on a fairly arbitrary list of matchups for one final event — the one and only time the women actually got the chance to fight on the show. But since Howry and the UWC didn't have a promoter's license in Nevada, they had to drive the women to Utah in order to hold the event.
Fight night, at last
On Sept. 24, 2010, the Ultimate Women Challenge held its one and only event at the Dixie Center in St. George, Utah. The results were to remain a secret until the show aired, but that plan was scuttled by ensuing lawsuits over the lack of payment, according to Howry.
"We were actually dealing with the girls' attorney at the time, and he knew that we had another airing deal," Howry said. "But what he did was, when he filed the lawsuit, he disclosed the end of the show and ruined the show. I'm not involved in it anymore. The show doesn't belong to me anymore. But the show will never air because the results are out there already."
In the three years since taping wrapped, both sides have traded suits and countersuits, with one side alleging a breach of contract and the other side alleging an illegal disclosure that ruined any and all chances of selling the show. The women still haven't received the money they were promised, but most opted not to get involved in the legal battle.
"I knew it wouldn't do any good," Schneider said.
Ould echoed that sentiment.
"I would listen to these attorneys who wanted to try and represent us, and girls ended up spending so much of their money on it because they thought we could go after Lyle to at least get paid," she said. "I didn't even hire an attorney because I knew it would be a waste of money. And look, it's been, what, three years now? Nothing's happened."
Ould's fight on the show ended in a no-contest after opponent Karina Taylor poked her in the eye. Schneider lost a unanimous decision to Casey Noland, while Kedzie dropped a split decision to Young.
To this day, Kedzie still feels like she might have deserved to win that fight — which still stands on her record, despite the fact that she wasn't paid for it — but she can't be sure because she's never been able to see the footage. It's unclear if anyone has, though Schneider did see the first episode after someone sent it to John Wood, who coached the women on the show and later became Schneider's trainer.
"It was actually pretty good," Schneider said. "They had a good production crew (with) a lot of those people now work on TUF. So they had good people on it, but those people got f---ed over."
As for Howry, he said he "lost probably $700,000 of (his) own money" on the show he created. Still, he's considering filming other projects in the field of women's martial arts.
"But this time I know what not to do," Howry said. "I trusted in a lot of people, and I got screwed. When you're doing your first reality show and you have people who are supposed to be credible, you try to trust them. Unfortunately, I had the wrong people. That is what it is. You learn from your mistakes, get beat up, and hopefully you come back out."
The women who appeared on the show had to settle for hard-won experience in lieu of payment, but it's not as if that is completely devoid of value, in its own way.
"I learned not to be so naive and to trust my instincts," Ould said. "I didn't trust my instincts on that whole show, and everything I predicted ended up being right. When I thought I should have left, I should have left."
Schneider and Kedzie became close friends as a result of the show, they said, and remain so today. Still, the positives haven't erased all the scars.
"I really have no desire to ever do reality television again after that," said Kedzie, who is slated to make her UFC debut against Germaine de Randamie at the UFC on FOX 8 card in July.
The UWC experience was the main reason Kedzie was grateful to get the opportunity to join the UFC without being forced to try out for the first season of TUF to include female fighters, she said. Sure, that might be great exposure, Kedzie admitted, but after what she went through on the Ultimate Women Challenge it's hard not to wonder if the reward is worth the psychological toll.
"If (the UFC) would have told me that I had to do The Ultimate Fighter this season, well, let's just say I would have been really upset," Kedzie said. "Really, really upset."