The Ultimate Fighter (TUF) is responsible for producing many notable UFC alums, with several going on to accomplish great things within the realm of Mixed Martial Arts. From the show’s historic first season to its most recent in 2018, many moments resonate in the minds of fans, and this is exactly the case with season four.
The fourth season of The Ultimate Fighter, which aired in 2006, was branded as “The Comeback” due to it featuring UFC veterans only. Many of these welterweight and middleweight athletes had previously faced one another and even some of the coaches, which only added to the hype. Nowadays this is a fairly uncommon concept as TUF mainly presents fighters striving to attain UFC status, making season four a special one.
As each competitor had experienced combat at the highest level, more than just a contract was at stake – the two winners would receive a crack at the title. Most fans will be aware of this season’s welterweight winner, Matt Serra, who went on to dethrone Georges St-Pierre following the show; everybody remembers Serra, but how about the other winner?
Hailing from Chamberlain, South Dakota, 2006 saw gritty middleweight Travis Lutter grapple his way through the TUF house, ultimately claiming a contract and title shot with a first-round submission win in the finale. Not much has been said about Lutter since his release 12 years ago, yet he persists as one of the biggest what-ifs of his era.
He spoke exclusively to The Scrap about his UFC tenure, fighting the legendary Anderson Silva, and coaching the next generation of fighters.
Baddest man alive
The early UFC events opened the eyes of many when it came to what could and could not be done in hand-to-hand combat. The thought of an average, 170lb man from Brazil dominating much larger competition seemed alien until it wasn’t; Royce Gracie singlehandedly elevated Jiu-Jitsu’s pedestal, proving to the world that Karate and Boxing (among others) was inferior in a one-on-one fight.
Viewing this was a teenage Lutter, an accomplished high school wrestler who had attained All-State honors and added years of a collegiate career to his resume. In spite of being a wrestler with experience in a fighting scenario, Lutter found immediate interest in jiu-jitsu and sought to learn the discipline by any means.
“[The fact] that a guy was smaller than I was beating me up really bothered me, so I was like ‘I’ve got to learn jiu-jitsu’, and so I bought tapes,” he said. “I was living in South Dakota at the time and the closest jiu-jitsu school was very, very far away in Texas. I didn’t even know it at the time but I bought a Renzo Gracie VHS tape, which tells you how long ago that was — 1993.
“I started learning it off those and eventually went to Texas, started learning jiu-jitsu there, and all that stuff from Carlos Machado.”
After moving to Texas in order to elevate his game, Lutter began training under Carlos Machado, a prestigious BJJ black belt stemming from the pioneering Machado family. As one of the nation’s sole black belts at the time, Machado had plenty to offer the future UFC stablemate.
“I didn’t know anything different because I never knew anybody else who was a black belt,” explained Lutter. “At that time when I moved to Texas, there was Carlos Machado who was a black belt, with the next closest black belt being in California or New York. In the state of Texas, there was one purple belt, and there were some blue belts; I remember we would have the beginner, intermediate, and advanced [classes], and advanced was blue belt and up.”
It’s safe to say that the grappling-based sport has grown exponentially since the ’90s, with large numbers of people across the globe assembling at their local jiu-jitsu school to learn the art. Lutter, a full-time gym owner himself, has first-hand experience of this.
“It was just a different scene,” he explained. “Now it’s like, in my gym, we had seven or eight black belts there on Thursday night and on Friday we had X amounts of black belts, and there’s always multiple on the mat. [Compare that to] 1993 when I moved to Texas and there was one in the whole state.”
While on the hunt for his very own black belt, “The Serial Killer” earned multiple credentials on the mat in the heavyweight division, taking first place in Texas and second place at the Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu world championships, to name but a few. Jiu-jitsu had certainly given him the skills, work ethic, and attentiveness to succeed in sports, however, the switch to MMA was never influenced by money or a belt.
When many first enter the sport they dream of chasing down UFC gold, becoming the greatest, and cementing their legacy, but this more often than not is left as a dream. Lutter is one of the few who went into the sport for a different purpose: as he puts it, to be the “baddest man alive”.
“The original goal was to be the baddest man alive, and over time I wanted to be the toughest guy and win,” Lutter stated. “[Anything] to be considered that guy. Then eventually it became just to see if I was as good as I thought I was.
“I thought I was better than most those guys. Each guy presented different problems but I thought I could impose my will and beat most of those guys. I came close, but that’s fighting, you know?”
Skipping the amateur circuit and jumping right into the deep end, Travis Lutter made his professional debut in 1998, picking up his first win with four-ounce gloves. Following a four year hiatus, he would commit to the sport upon return and finish all of his wins, accumulating a record of 4-1. Then in 2004, he received the opportunity of a lifetime.
Fighting as a light heavyweight, Lutter was offered a short notice bout against the striking-heavy Marvin Eastman, a powerhouse in search of his first Octagon win.
He would go on to perform the most unlikely of circumstances, rendering Eastman unconscious in the second round with a big right hook. While the contest was dubbed as a striker vs. grappler matchup, Lutter had no doubt that he could score the KO.
“I was sparring with a bunch of pro boxers at the time, [so] I was fairly confident in my standup,” he shared. “I had knocked another guy down in a previous fight [with the same punch]. I had hit him with the same punch and we were fighting in a ring. So he goes through the ropes and I go through the ropes after him, pull him back into the ring, and finish him with a rear-naked choke.”
Fighting “The Spider”
Despite a great start to his UFC career, South Dakota-born Lutter was unable to keep the momentum going as he dropped results to Matt Lindland and Trevor Prangley respectively. Two first-round armbars on the regional scene had regathered his confidence and drive, and it wasn’t long before the UFC came knocking once more.
Lutter was offered a position on the fourth season of The Ultimate Fighter, a reality TV show kickstarted by the UFC as a means to turn over some profit. The show has been a platform used by many to get their careers going, albeit he wasn’t so keen.
“I didn’t want to go,” Lutter recollected. “They contacted me and asked if I’d do it, and I agreed to go out there and essentially audition. I got back from it and a couple of my buddies sat me down and said, ‘If they offer you this you have to take it,’ And I said how I really didn’t want to spend six weeks in a house because it sounded terrible. But ultimately they convinced me it was the right thing for my career, so I did it.”
The Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt would go on to win the season, defeating Scott Smith and Pete Sell before submitting future title contender Patrick Cote in the finale.
Winning the competition and growing as a martial artist were two positives Lutter was able to take with him for the future, but the overall experience was one to forget.
“The actual experience was terrible,” Lutter expressed. “I don’t deal well in that kind of situation where you’ve got a camera in your face 24 hours a day and constantly having people around you, I needed a little bit of alone time.
“There’s nothing to do [in TUF] besides go train, so it’s very boring. I like to stay busy; there was no TV, no magazines, no radio [or] no books. I was just bored more than anything and I like to be busy.”
As previously noted, the two victors from season four would secure immediate title shots — Serra’s being at welterweight against St-Pierre, Lutter’s against Anderson Silva, arguably the sports best pound-for-pound fighter. It was scheduled for February 3, 2007, and headlined the promotion’s 67th pay-per-view card; it’s first in high-definition.
But before clashing with “The Spider” under the bright lights, he had to face “the fight before the fight”, as many would say, this being the process of cutting weight.
Lutter had cut weight numerous times throughout his career, however, this experience would be like no other. To put it blatantly, he missed the contracted weight; when challenging for the title you must weigh in at the exact weight, no ifs or buts, in this case being 185 pounds. The then-33-year-old weighed in two pounds over the limit, thus making the bout a non-title fight.
Although missing weight is a regular occurrence in MMA, Lutter’s mishap was unlike any witnessed before, with many stating that he was on death’s door. UFC commentator Joe Rogan has spoken multiple times about the incident, claiming that his lips were bleeding and every droplet of water seemed to be gone from his body.
Lutter opened up about what went wrong and led to him missing weight prior to UFC 67.
“The actual weight cut was terrible,” he recalled. “I came in a little bit heavier [than usual] because I was trying to be as heavy as possible due to Anderson being a taller 185-pounder. He’s not necessarily heavy but he’s big for the division. I just wanted to be heavy.
“The other thing that happened is that was my sixth fight that calendar year. I had three fights on The Ultimate Fighter and two fights before that, so it was going to be my sixth fight in that calendar year. Plus I was running my gym and doing everything that was going on there so I probably should’ve been a little bit lower in weight. It was just a different time in my life.”
Since his first-hand encounter with the dire effects of weight cutting, Lutter’s opinion on the topic has changed dramatically, as he believes a new system must be implemented in order to protect the health of athletes.
“I’d prefer something that ONE FC was doing where they force a guy to move up a weight class,” Lutter said. “I think that’s a lot healthier. If everyone moved up a weight class, you’d still be fighting the same sized guys. It’s like, how much pain are you willing to take in terms of cutting weight instead of physical performance? I think guys would fight better and the chances of brain injuries would [decrease].”
The ever-present topic of fighters draining their bodies for nothing (seeing as they put the weight back on right after) is one that will not depart until serious action is applied. Whether you’re a fan, media member, or even a competitor, this issue is one of many that should always be prevalent in your mind when discussing the sport, as the consequences can often be long-lasting.
Remaining on the topic of his 2007 bout with Anderson Silva, the TUF 4 winner had lost his opportunity to become champion through a botched weight cut. Win, lose or draw, the gold would be staying with the Brazilian.
Entering a championship-level fight while knowing the belt isn’t at stake has proved to be difficult preparation for many, yet Lutter was not impacted by the circumstances.
“That didn’t bother me [as] it’s a fight,” he said. “I was excited to fight the toughest guy they could schedule me to fight and that was Anderson Silva, so it was still just business as usual. Regardless of whether the belt was up for grabs I just wanted to do what I was supposed to do.”
After a successful first round which saw him mount the champion on the ground, Lutter eventually tapped to strikes in the second, resulting in the contest being stopped. A horrific performance on the scale partnered with Silva’s offensive guard resulted in a harrowing outcome, despite the commentary team previously declaring him Silva’s toughest test.
“It showed me that I was definitely capable of winning that fight,” Lutter thought. “That was a situation where I was in the fight and won the first round; I hit him with a punch [on the ground] and I thought he was out. The second punch woke him up, that’s what it looked like. It was a good fight and it showed me that I belonged. I really thought that in a rematch I’d beat him.
“When I fought Anderson Silva I fought for $20,000. Back then there was no negotiating. They said take it or leave it, we’ll get someone else.”
Kevin Holland is “special”
After back-to-back losses to Anderson Silva and Rich Franklin, two championship-level fighters, Lutter became the first Ultimate Fighter winner to be cut by the UFC. The decision itself was a controversial one, yet the former middleweight contender soldiered on, picking up a win on the regional circuit before being finished by future UFC athlete Rafael Natal. This would serve as his last professional outing.
The defeat to Natal occurred over a decade ago, however, Lutter never officially retired until 2019.
“I never officially announced my retirement from fighting,” Lutter said. “I cracked a vertebrae in my neck the week before my last fight against Rafael Natal, so I ended up fighting with a technically broken neck, but I had other problems too with my neck. I ended up having a three-level neck fusion in 2012.
“My surgeon thought that I might be able to fight afterward and I figured that I could do a couple of fights, but I couldn’t train to fight. Wrestling is really, really tough [on my neck], so I could physically no longer compete. I still think I could beat a lot of the guys that are fighting, but I’m not going to be a contender or best in the world if I have no desire to fight.”
Now, at the age of 47, Lutter spends his days training the next generation of grapplers and fighters from his gym in Fort Worth, Texas, the most famed being surging UFC middleweight Kevin Holland, who has gone an incredible 4-0 in 2020 so far.
In his coach’s mind, Holland represents the new age of MMA fighters, and he believes his potential is endless.
“Kevin is a special fighter,” Lutter touted. “I’ve trained with a lot of guys and Kevin’s the most talented. I’ve trained with GSP, Randy Couture, a lot of guys and I have fought a lot of guys — Kevin’s more talented than [them all].”
Come December, Holland will be fighting for the fifth time this calendar year as he takes a short notice fight against ranked middleweight Jack Hermansson. A win over an opponent of this caliber will undoubtedly place him in title contention.
“This is going to be battle of styles as Kevin is going to want to keep the fight standing and [Hermansson] is going to be looking to take Kevin down,” the former title challenger assessed. “He does a good job with his striking, he comes forward and has a lot of volume, but when he gets in trouble he shoots. So I expect him to try and take Kevin down and do what he does best.
“The other thing is it’s a jump up to a five-round fight, and that’s going to be a new experience for Kevin in the UFC, so he’s going to have to be in really good shape. I wish we had a couple more weeks but we’ll see how Kevin does.”