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 the