Friends Season 3, Episode 24 “The One with the Ultimate Fighting Champion”
Written by Pang-Ni Landrum & Mark Kunerth (story), Shana Goldber-Meehan & Scott Silveri (teleplay)
Directed by Robby Benson
Aired May 8, 1997 on NBC
Friends‘s third season is the longest of its ten – the only other 25-episode season, its sixth, cheats its way to the full count with a clip show episode (as many of the remaining seasons of Friends do). And it’s been clear Friends has struggled to fill all of that space, especially without the gravitas of the Ross/Rachel relationship at its center, stumbling through stories for Monica, Joey, and Phoebe – all of which have failed to gain traction during this season’s meandering, underwhelming back half.
Given that, one might hope “The One with the Ultimate Fighting Champion” could reset things a bit before the season finale, and jumpstart Friends out of its recent creative rut. For the most part, it’s unable to (or with characters like Joey, unwilling to); the one place it does stick the landing, oddly enough, is with Monica, whose relationship with Pete comes crashing to a halt.
Now, some of this relief comes from this being the end of Pete Becker’s time on Friends; as a character, Pete was a vague sketch of random traits, grounded only in the show’s surprisingly realistic view of Silicon Valley tech bros (before that was a thing). His impact on the series itself was destined to be a wash, of course: but in recent weeks, Pete’s presence actively damaged Monica’s character, regressing her into some idealistic woman willing to forego actual attraction to a human being, for the benefit of being rich and having someone she can film sex tapes with? (I’m still not over that particularly odd, random twist from the extended version of “The One with the Screamer”).
Pete’s just been a giant bummer; so there’s a superficial satisfaction to seeing him continuously insists on getting the shit kicked out of him in the UFC octagon. But where this story really lands, surprisingly, is in recentering itself on the Monica we’ve come to know over three seasons (especially following “The One with Barry and Mindy’s Wedding” and “The One Where Monica and Richard Are Just Friends”). Monica’s spent so much time compromising herself for men; from dating an alcoholic to considering marrying a man with completely different goals for his life, Monica’s journey has been defined by her realization of her own worth, and not having to settle in life, personally or professionally.
In that context, her breakup with Pete couldn’t be more perfect; as she tries to convince Pete he’s never going to win a fight, she begins to see how much she’s compromised of herself to be in this relationship. Some of it, of course, we never return to (like how she forced herself into being attracted to him in the first place) – but it’s given such a resonant conclusion here, I don’t think it’s something Friends ever needed to return to. In her attempts to rebound from Richard and get her life back on its expected path, Monica was willing to make a lot of compromises; her recognition of that here is quietly powerful, even if the episode’s script buries it under a bunch of silly jokes about Pete getting the shit kicked out of him.
If only “The One with the Ultimate Fighting Champion” was part of the more consistent first half of season three; marooned in the salty nothingness of the season’s back half, and Monica’s decision feels untethered to everything happening around her. In an episode so focused on Monica and Rachel’s romantic lives, it’s odd not to see them interact at any point – a moment that may have provided some insight into Friends shifting its terrible energy from Monica to Rachel.
After Rachel mistakenly agrees to let Phoebe hook Ross up with her friend Bonnie (Christine Taylor), “The One with the Ultimate Fighting Champion” spends an alarmingly large portion of the episode trying to undo everything it has accomplished with Rachel in season three. Remember the woman capable of making difficult choices, and confident in her decisions? Well, the second Ross starts dating a woman who isn’t bald, and Rachel’s immediately falling apart, spending her evening outside Central Perk with Phoebe, freaking out over Ross and Bonnie’s second date.
(Not that she shouldn’t be concerned with Ross and jumping ahead of himself in relationships… but that’s a conversation for another season. Hint, hint.)
It’s not Rachel’s discomfort about the whole situation – in fact, when she tells Phoebe outside the coffee shop that it’s hard to think that he’s moving on so quickly, one can see Friends considering a more nuanced take on Ross and Rachel’s attempts to strike peace within the friend group, and the difficulties and sacrifices that come with that. But outside of that brief moment, that idea only manifests itself with Rachel complaining that Bonnie isn’t bald – which elicits some canned studio laughter, but thoroughly misses the point in giving this conflict a meaningful presence before it takes center stage in the season three finale.
Even stranger, perhaps, is how Rachel’s emotions seemingly take third billing behind Monica and Pete’s breakup and the episode’s other story: Chandler getting his ass smacked by his boss, a quintessentially 90’s plotline that would absolutely never appear in a sitcom today. Regardless of whether Chandler is being sexually harassed by his boss, it’s still entertaining to see Chandler squirm with the realities of trying to confront Doug (played by Sam McMurray), and ultimately realizing that he doesn’t actually mind the encouraging butt slap, as long as it’s something he’s consenting to.
And really, the entire point of this plot is just to make Chandler uncomfortable; seeing Mr. Bing awkwardly trying to confront the paralyzing fear of social conflict is always a highlight of Friends, even if its comes about in… not exactly the most carefully considered way (though as a reflection on the absurdity of boy’s club corporate attitudes of the 1990s, it’s certainly spot on).
“The One with the Ultimate Fighting Champion” is not exactly the most homogenous episode of Friends; in fact, two of its three stories are actively working against each other, while both are competing for space among one of the more ill-considered running jokes of the season. It’s uneven, sure, but compared to other recent entries, “TOW the Ultimate Fighting Champion” benefits from having a noticeable sense of purpose, resolving an underwhelming story with a bit of unexpected grace. It’s a small win, but an important one in restoring some hope for the season finale to come.
- There’s no talking about “The One with the Ultimate Fighting Champion” without talking about the appearance of Tim and Tomas, of course! While one’s mileage will vary on how funny the Billy Crystal and Robin Williams cold open cameo actually is, it’s a prescient reminder of what a unique, talented performer Robin Williams was, even in his silliest off-the-cuff moments.
- During the closing credits, Ross notes the irony of Monica’s relationships: “Richard didn’t want to have kids, and from the looks of it, Pete can’t have kids anymore.”
- I love Ross’s reaction to Phoebe’s comments while he’s cooking on the balcony (which, if I remember correctly, is the only time we ever see them cooking out there). You can see him reconsidering so many life choices as she rambles.
- Has anyone looked more “mid-90’s dude” than Chandler this episode?
- Sometimes I wish we got more of Chandler’s corporate life; Friends never really had a lot to say about capitalism in the late 20th century, but characters like Doug bring some fun personality to his rare office scenes.
- Extended thoughts: Not a lot of note between the two episodes, except for Chandler noting that age 12 was the best year of his life.
Up next: The gang heads to Long Island for a season finale in “The One at the Beach”.