01/22/2013 10:06 EST | Updated 03/24/2013 05:12 EDT

New 'Ultimate Fighter' season starts with promise, shines spotlight on fighters

With 16 seasons and several regional spinoffs, "The Ultimate Fighter" has been showing its age of late.

Locking fighters up together in a house and denying them access to the outside world other than to train and fight is a limited scenario. Pranks, shenanigans and tantrums within the gilded cage of the reality TV show have grown old.

A tired format and lack of sparks between rival coaches — Shane Carwin versus Roy Nelson was like watching paint dry— and the show badly needed an injection of life.

It gets just that in Tuesday's two-hour opening to Season 17, which features light-heavyweight champion Jon (Bones) Jones and Chael Sonnen as coaches.

Instead of trying to focus on the fights or the coaches, the show shines the spotlight on the 28 middleweights trying to make the 14-man final cast via elimination bouts.

Through the simple device of allowing the fighters to bring in friends and family, the fighters' stories are told in the leadup to their qualification bout.

"I've lost pretty much everything to the sport of fighting — job, house, my wife left me. I've got nothing left, I honestly don't," says Eric Wahlin.

"I use fighting as a means to escape that pain ... I have my son, I have my church and my God and I have fighting. So it's time for this sport to start giving back," he adds.

Sadly his luck does not change.

"I grew up on food stamps and powdered milk and Spam. I don't want my kids to ever have to deal with that," says Kito Andrews, a father of two.

Andrews loses and is shown afterwards, being consoled by his son who tells him how proud he is of his Dad's effort.

"I'm terrified, we all are, but it's how you control that," says fighter Urijah Hall, who does just that in posting a convincing win.

"The Ultimate Fighter" works when you are invested in the characters on the screen. Season 17 manages that, at least in its opening chapter.

Coaches Jones and Sonnen have history in the wake of UFC 151. Jones was slated to meet Dan Henderson in the main event last fall but the UFC was left scrambling for an opponent after Henderson blew out his knee.

UFC president Dana White says Sonnen was the only fighter to step up and agree to fight Jones in Henderson's place — even if it meant moving up a weight class. But Jones refused to face Sonnen on eight days notice and the UFC ended up cancelling the card.

Sonnen, a former NCAA All-American wrestler who has lost twice to UFC middleweight champion Anderson Silva, will finally get his chance against Jones in April in Newark.

The 35-year-old Sonnen has a tough task against the light-heavyweight title-holder.

"As long as he can keep it together, this kid could go on to become maybe the greatest ever," White says of Jones.

The champion is a polarizing figure. Physically gifted, he is dominant in the cage. But outside it the 25-year-old is perceived as a phoney by some who try to reconcile his penchant for religious quotations with a drunk driving charge and seemingly large ego.

To others, he is just a young man making his way through life— but doing it in the public eye.

The talkative Sonnen (28-12-1) has shown a pro-wrestler-style persona in the past. But he comes across as a personable, solid pro in the opening to Season 17 even if he can't resist a mild opening shot at Jones as the two meet at the UFC training centre.

A reserved Jones (17-1) makes his opinions known non-verbally as he shakes his head at the camera and points to Sonnen, who is chatting away out of the shot. Jones also makes a throat-slitting motion.

Then it is off to the elimination fights and the sub-plots that surround each one.

Because of time restriction, most are shown via highlights. One literally is just a highlight as Zak Cummings KOs Nik (The Machete) Fekete at the opening bell. Fekete misses with a kick and Cummings floors him with a right to the chin. His family erupts, his wife screaming, while Fekete's horrified wife looks on in silence.

"That was quick. Good job brother," says White.

"One punch, one KO. Pretty nice," adds Jones

Other winners are Australia's Dylan Andrews, Kevin Casey, England's Luke Barnatt, Adam Cella, Clint Hester, Collin Hart, Bubba McDaniel, Kelvin Gastelum, Jimmy Quinlan, Josh Samman, Gilbert Smith and Tor Troeng of Sweden.

Hall, Hester, Hart, Quinlan and Barnatt impress in their wins.

When it comes to team selection, Sonnnen wins the toss and elects to pick Barnatt first followed by Hall, Cummings, Troeng, Quinlan, Casey and Gastelum.

Jones takes Hester, Samman, McDaniel, Smith, Hart, Cella and Andrews.

The champ then selects the five-foot-nine Smith to face the 6-6 Barnatt in the opening fight, reasoning Smith wanted to fight again immediately and that taking out Sonnen's first overall pick would be a morale-booster.

"About a good a matchup as we could ask for," says an unconcerned Sonnen.

White, meanwhile, tells the fighters the wild card is back on the show, meaning a lucky loser will get a second chance.