UFC President Dana White on TUF, Future for Conor McGregor and Plans for 2021
Season 29 of The Ultimate Fighter, the UFC's long-running reality television show, will debut on June 1 on ESPN+.
The upcoming season—the first since 2018—will see UFC featherweight champ Alexander Volkanovski and his next challenger, Brian Ortega, coach a collection of middleweights and bantamweight prospects through a six-week tournament, with the last man standing in each weight class earning a lucrative UFC contract.
Ahead of The Ultimate Fighter's anticipated return, B/R spoke with UFC President Dana White to discuss the show, its continued importance to the promotion and a handful of other topics.
Keep scrolling for the highlights of B/R's exclusive chat with the UFC boss.
The Ultimate Fighter Isn’t Going Anywhere
The first season of The Ultimate Fighter debuted way back in 2005 and concluded with a historic fight between Forrest Griffin and Stephan Bonnar—both of whom earned UFC contracts for their efforts.
Twenty-nine seasons and almost 20 years later, White is still as big a fan of the show as ever.
"I'm excited," White told Bleacher Report ahead of Season 29. "This is a great season. If you're a fan of The Ultimate Fighter, this season has everything that you expect, but what makes me happy—and what's most important—is that the fights are really good, and I believe the fight that's going to go to the finale is going to be a good one."
While The Ultimate Fighter was the UFC's first talent-scouting series, the promotion has created several others since, most notably Dana White: Lookin' for a Fight and Dana White's Contender Series.
Despite the creation of these newer programs, White believes The Ultimate Fighter is as valuable as it's ever been—both for the UFC and for its fans.
"I just think that The Ultimate Fighter is a deeper dive into who these guys are—their personalities, where they come from, what they're all about, how they train," the UFC boss said. "So many people have become fans of the UFC through The Ultimate Fighter.
"Now, I feel like we give you everything you need. We have Fight Nights. We have pay-per-views. We have the Contender Series—four or five fights in a night with the best unsigned talent available. We've got Lookin' For a Fight where we go to small shows and there's some fun stuff to watch, and we get to watch these guys fight and see if they can make it into the UFC. Then you have The Ultimate Fighter for people who like to dive into an hour-long show and learn more about the characters."
Since its inception, The Ultimate Fighter has produced a long list of successful fighters, from legends like Forrest Griffin and Michael Bisping, to current champions like welterweight king Kamaru Usman and strawweight queen Rose Namajunas.
White can't say whether the upcoming season will produce any future champs, but he noted that it's often the least-suspecting competitors who make the biggest splash—like middleweight contender Kelvin Gastelum, who was famously picked last on Season 17 of the show.
"The most amazing thing about The Ultimate Fighter is the best always seem to rise to the top, no matter what," White said. "If you look at Kelvin Gastelum's season, he was picked dead last, and look what happened? The coaches evaluated everyone and they didn't see [the potential] in Kelvin Gastelum and he rose to the top, and look how long he's been here.
"My point with this whole thing is that I believe we got some good talent on this season," he added. "I'm not saying we've got the next Kamaru Usman, but we got kids that are going to be talented, and who knows? We take them through this process, and if they have what it takes, they end up shining."
Needless to say, The Ultimate Fighter isn't going anywhere so long as White's at the helm.
"The Ultimate Fighter is here to stay," he said. "I don't know when it will ever go away. I don't think there's ever a day when the show isn't relevant."
Don’t Like It? Don’t Watch
While White and many fight fans are excited for the upcoming season of The Ultimate Fighter, not everybody is on board with its return.
Some members of the MMA community feel the show has run its course. The UFC boss welcomes those fans to refrain from watching.
"Don't watch it," he said with a laugh. "Like I said, we have a little bit of something for everybody. You know, maybe next Saturday's main event isn't for you, but I bet [UFC 263 on] June 12 is, right? We've got [Israel] Adesanya and [Marvin] Vettori [fighting for the middleweight title].
"Not everything and every weekend is going to be what you're into, but we have a big enough menu that you're going to find something you like around here."
Dustin Poirier, Conor McGregor and the Lightweight Title Picture
The imminent return of The Ultimate Fighter is consuming a lot of White's bandwidth at present, but that's certainly not all that he and the UFC have on the go.
On July 10, the UFC will promote arguably its biggest event of the year. The card, titled UFC 264, will be topped by a tiebreaking trilogy fight between lightweight contenders Dustin Poirier and Conor McGregor.
The expectation ahead of that blockbuster fight is that the winner could be granted the next crack at newly minted lightweight champion Charles Oliveira. White, however, isn't certain that's the way things will shake out.
"I don't know," White said of granting the Poirier-McGregor winner a title shot. "I gotta watch this fight and see how it plays out."
The UFC boss also divulged that he's currently seeking a backup fighter for the UFC 264 main event, should either Poirier or McGregor fail to make it to the cage—though nobody has offered to fill that role thus far.
"I'm actually looking for someone right now to be the backup on that card," he said. "Nobody's jumping out. Nobody's kicking down my door."
Francis Ngannou vs. Derrick Lewis and the Heavyweight Title Picture
The UFC heavyweight title is now owned by Cameroonian knockout artist Francis Ngannou, who usurped the throne with a second-round stoppage of Stipe Miocic in April.
For a significant period, the expectation was that Ngannou's first challenger would be beefed-up former light heavyweight champion Jon Jones. With Jones and the UFC currently at odds, however, it's looking increasingly likely that Ngannou will first defend his title against surging contender Derrick Lewis at UFC 265 in August.
Ngannou and Lewis have fought once before—though nobody can be blamed for suppressing the memories of that matchup, as it was easily one of the most disappointing in UFC history.
Despite the tepid nature of the pair's first fight, however, White has high hopes for their planned rematch. In fact, it's one of his most anticipated bouts of the year.
"The fight I want to see most in 2021? S--t, that's such a tough question," he said. "I don't know why, after their first one, but I'm excited for Francis Ngannou and Derrick Lewis.
"I just can't see it playing out the same way."
As for Jones, White had no updates on when the light heavyweight champion will make his long-awaited heavyweight debut.
The Rest of the UFC’s Schedule for 2021
Despite the challenges of the pandemic, the UFC has managed to promote a long list of events in 2020 and 2021, most of them inside the Apex facility in Las Vegas and on "Fight Island" in Abu Dhabi. That being said, the promotion recently promoted a pair of full-capacity shows in Jacksonville, Florida, and Houston, Texas, and White is hoping to bring pay-per-view events to other cities in the near future.
"We're sort of kicking things around," he said of the UFC getting back on the road. "I think I told you guys at the last press conference, I'm going to keep the Fight Nights here at the Apex in Las Vegas, and we're looking at new places to open up for pay-per-views.
"In September, I'm looking at Boston, Dallas, Anaheim, Fort Lauderdale, Newark—places like that. I don't know what's going to open up or what's going to work or fit for us, but we'll see."