Following a three-year hiatus, the UFC’s reality series The Ultimate Fighter returns Tuesday night on ESPN and ESPN+.
No series has had a bigger impact on the company and the sport of mixed martial arts than TUF. UFC president Dana White has repeatedly said the show saved the company when it debuted in 2005, a time when the UFC was trying to find a steady footing on cable television.
This season, which is the 29th installment of the domestic version, features featherweight champion Alexander Volkanovski and top contender Brian Ortega as coaches, overseeing a bantamweight and middleweight cast. It’s the first season of TUF since the show went into hibernation in 2018 following a season with coaches Robert Whittaker and Kelvin Gastelum.
Ahead of the return of TUF, White spoke to ESPN about some of his favorite memories from the show, including Forrest Griffin winning the first season, coaches fighting outside of the Octagon and Nate Diaz making a name for himself.
Editor’s note: Answers have been edited for clarity.
Favorite fighter: I’m picking two. It would be hard not to say my favorite fighter is Forrest Griffin — obviously, because of what he did on the show, what he accomplished the rest of his career, the fact he’s still with us today at the Performance Institute [as the VP of athlete development].
And then my other one is Kelvin Gastelum. He was picked dead last back in 2013. The coaches evaluated him and picked him dead last, and then he made it to the finals and is still in the top 10 in the UFC now. Pretty impressive.
Favorite season: One. It’s so hard for me to look at it any other way or pick anything else because I know where we were financially and I know what was at stake — more than anyone else does. We needed that season to f—ing work, and it did.
Favorite coaches’ rivalry: That’s a tough one. There have been so many good ones. I thought the Conor McGregor and Urijah Faber season in 2015 was fun. The Rashad Evans and Rampage Jackson season was fun . That was when Rampage ripped the door apart. Rashad and Rampage might be the answer, because they hated each other so bad. Yeah, I’ll go with those two.
Favorite coaches’ challenge: It would have to be the pingpong game with BJ and Jens Pulver. I remember … it’s not like I’m some big pingpong fan, and I just remember it was so fun watching that and both teams were going crazy. It ended up being a really good game, a close match, those two are so competitive. [Spoiler alert: Pulver pulled out the victory.]
Favorite fight: Nate Diaz vs. Rob Emerson, Season 5, third episode, 2007. [Diaz won by rear naked choke in the second round and went on to win the season.]
Check out the best moments from Nate Diaz’s stint on The Ultimate Fighter: Season 5.
Favorite finale: Season 1. Everything is on the line. We’re with Spike TV at the time. Spike TV hasn’t told us we’re doing a second season and hasn’t communicated with us. The president of Spike TV got fired halfway through the season. It could not be a bigger disaster with everything we had riding on it. And when that fight between Forrest Griffin and Stephan Bonnar started, I literally didn’t care anymore if Spike TV re-signed us or not. I knew we had something. We were going to end up somewhere. And then literally after the fight, Spike TV executives walked into the alley with us and did a new deal for the next season.
What to expect from this season: You know how many people tell me they became a fan of the UFC through The Ultimate Fighter? I think this thing appeals to a lot of people, and obviously if you’ve become a fan of the show, this season is everything you’ve come to expect.
The one thing that’s the most important is there were great fights this season. That’s the one thing that will make me happy. Any time we have great fights, all the rest comes together. I also think the best rise to the top, and I think the two best guys are definitely going to the finale. I could not be happier with this season.