It’s been over two and a half years since the most recent season of The Ultimate Fighter television series graced the screens in homes of MMA fans throughout the country. In 2018, UFC President Dana White announced the TUF gym, which played host to past TUF seasons and the first two years of Dana White’s Contender Series, would be shutting down.
At the same time, the UFC’s former United States television home, FOX Sports, which aired most televised events through its FS1 digital cable channel, was outbid for television rights by ESPN. With the closure of the TUF Gym, White assured the press that TUF would be brought to ESPN during the life of the current contract.
Enter The Contender Series
Subsequent to ESPN’s acquisition of both television and streaming rights to live and archived UFC content, Contender Series would move to ESPN’s subscription-based streamer ESPN+ inside the United States, with the series remaining on its original home of UFC Fight Pass internationally.
Notable UFC fighters who have graduated from Dana White’s Contender Series include Greg Hardy, Antonina Shevchenko, and Maycee Barber, just to name a few.
Unlike The Ultimate Fighter, fights on Contender Series are professional fights that count toward a fighter’s pro record. Further, multiple contracts can be given out on Contender Series fight nights, unlike the flat cap of one contract per tournament on The Ultimate Fighter, given out to each champion.
Ultimate Fighter bouts are taped in advance of the broadcasts, with the exception of the spring 2012 competition, The Ultimate Fighter: Live, and since the results can’t be leaked ahead of air, are exhibitions and thus aren’t recognized on a fighter’s record.
The Ultimate Fighter Returns
On Halloween, during UFC Vegas 12, The Ultimate Fighter was announced as returning for the first time since December of 2018 on ESPN+. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, all auditions for this season of The Ultimate Fighter, its 29th, were held virtually.
This season will feature competition in the bantamweight and middleweight ranks and will begin streaming on ESPN+ inside the United States this Tuesday, June 1, with episodes dropping weekly. This season of the program, dubbed The Return of The Ultimate Fighter, will feature Alexander Volkanovski and Brian Ortega as head coaches.
Notable alumni of the program include Kamaru Usman, the late Kimbo Slice, and Roxanne Modafferi. With both The Ultimate Fighter and Dana White’s Contender Series airing new seasons in 2021, this begs a big question.
Is The Ultimate Fighter Relevant Today?
This one is a question that has been weighing quite heavily on my mind. Ever since Friday night at the dinner table, I have been going back and forth on this issue time and time again. Both The Ultimate Fighter and Contender Series serve the same purpose, that of finding the next UFC champions.
In the most recent season of Contender Series, an all-time record number of UFC contracts were awarded by Dana White.
Between Aug. 4 and Nov. 17, 2020, 37 UFC contracts were secured as a direct result of a fighter’s appearance on the show, which proved to be a most vital, critical lifeline for these MMA fighters, as most regional promotions were forced out of action due to COVID-19 restrictions.
Contender Series was itself delayed from an original June 23, 2020 start date on ESPN+ for its fourth season due to the pandemic, with Dana White rescheduling the show’s opening night to Aug. 4, roughly a month and a half behind the originally-planned season premiere date.
Those fights on Contender Series put these men and women back in action during a year where a public health crisis would likely have otherwise made it impossible for them to compete inside an MMA cage.
At the same time, TUF more or less saved not only the UFC as a brand, but also mixed martial arts as a sport, when it first premiered on what is now Paramount Network 16 years ago following Monday Night RAW. Without TUF, there’d be no Contender Series to speak of in 2021, or MMA as a whole for that matter.
To put it succinctly, Frank Sinatra sang it best: “You can’t have one without the other.”
Thus, in the grand scheme, not only is TUF still relevant as its new season dawns this Tuesday, but it also coexists with Contender Series.
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