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TGIFighting: Can The Ultimate Fighter's Big Comeback Succeed?

Scott Harris@ScottHarrisMMAMMA Lead WriterMay 28, 2021

Robert Whittaker was a TUF winner before capturing UFC gold
Robert Whittaker was a TUF winner before capturing UFC goldBrendon Thorne/Zuffa LLC/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images

Happy Friday and welcome back to TGIFighting. We'll get you set for this weekend's MMA action and react to the news of the day. Let's go.

       

The Ultimate Fighter: Can the UFC Reinvent the Wheel?

The Ultimate Fighter's greatest asset has always been its greatest weakness.

The recipe is simple: Put a bunch of fighters in a house together. Turn off the screens. Turn on the cameras (and the booze!). Live, train, haze, make smoothies, scuffle, repeat. And at some point you fight it out for that hallowed UFC contract.

It works right up until the moment it doesn't, right when the formula becomes formulaic. It was groundbreaking when it debuted all the way back in 2005, and produced UFC luminaries like Michael Bisping, TJ Dillashaw, Robert Whittaker, Nate Diaz and Tatiana Suarez, among many others.

Nate Diaz (bottom) defeated Manny Gamburyan (top) to win TUF season 5
Nate Diaz (bottom) defeated Manny Gamburyan (top) to win TUF season 5Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images

As the blueprint became stale, TUF began to lose steam. Showrunners tried various tweaks to keep it fresh—making it live, staging competition between fighters from different countries or training gyms, establishing a points system, battling for titles instead of contracts. Nothing stuck. To make matters worse, the show shuttled around the cable dial, and the ratings eventually cratered. No one put up much of a protest when TUF hit the deep freeze in 2018. 

On June 1, the show returns for a staggering 29th season. Now it has a steady broadcast partner in ESPN+, the streaming service with the seemingly bottomless appetite for UFC content. A total of 16 fighters—eight bantamweights and eight middleweights—will compete not just for the final prize but for the hearts, minds and eyeballs of UFC brass and the viewing public. (The UFC has been known to offer fights to non-winners after the show if they're particularly exciting or charismatic.) 

The season will feature two accomplished and likable coaches: featherweight champ Alex Volkanovski (22-1) and top contender Brian Ortega (15-1 1 NC), who will face each other at the end of the season. (They were originally scheduled to fight in March but that bout was rescheduled because of COVID-related issues.) 

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Featherweight champ and TUF coach Alex Volkanovski
Featherweight champ and TUF coach Alex VolkanovskiMark Metcalfe/Getty Images

Will ESPN+ subscribers seek TUF out every Tuesday? Volkanovski and Ortega are both great fighters and ambassadors of the sport, but can they break out of the bubble of bland cliches and forced antagonism? Intrigue doesn't create itself; will this season find a way to bring new drama to the equation, or is the expectation that this will suddenly seem like a fresh format simply by virtue of it not existing for three years?

Finally, do fans still care enough about the makeup of the swollen UFC roster—a necessary by-product of staging the weekly events needed to feed the ESPN beast—to tune in and root for people who may simply become another interchangeable part of a faceless whole? To put it another way, a UFC contract is certainly important to fighters, but how important is it to fans these days?

I don't know. But I'm willing to give TUF a chance. Maybe the time away was enough in and of itself to refresh the show's format. Maybe not. If it has the good fortune of finding likable personalities while avoiding tired tropes, it could be a good addition to the content stable. We'll weigh in here with updates as the season progresses.

Dana White
Dana WhiteGregory Payan/Associated Press

The Trench Warfare of Jon Jones and Dana White

When UFC prez Dana White once again asserted that heavyweight champ Francis Ngannou (16-3) would not face Jon Jones (26-1 1 NC) at heavyweight as the entire planet had hoped, but would instead run back his appallingly boring 2018 bout with Derrick Lewis (25-7 1 NC), the fight world did not exactly rejoice.

The backdrop to this is White's sputtering negotiations with Jones. The UFC, it seems, has done it again.

Per usual, "it" is the money. Jones has asked for a payday more in line with those found in pro boxing. The UFC isn't going to do it. But on further review, money's not the whole story. What it actually comes down to is ego. Who between White and Jones will blink? With both sides dug in, that's the real question.

And the trenches got even deeper this week when Jones announced his hire of boxing promotor and negotiator Richard Schaefer to serve as his "advisor."

For better or worse, a boxing-style payday is not the most realistic thing in the world to ask of the UFC, which notoriously and unapologetically underpays its athletes compared with those in other sports, combat or otherwise. Nevertheless, it does indeed make sense that Jones, arguably the greatest MMA fighter ever, has earned the right to ask for a bigger piece of the pie. 

Are they negotiating this in good faith? Not right now. White said he respects Schaefer, so Schaefer's presence could help shake things loose. As it is, the two sides have made things harder on themselves by negotiating through the media, both social and traditional. It's no longer a negotiation; it's a game of chicken. 

Jon Jones (right)
Jon Jones (right)Michael Wyke/Associated Press

It was in that spirit that White threw out Ngannou-Lewis 2, a fight absolutely zero people want to see after their staring contest for the ages back at UFC 226. Despite now having a combined 32 knockouts between them, they only landed a combined total of 31 strikes over five rounds, per UFC stats. That's three strikes landed apiece per round, not even one per minute. Not what you're looking for from a pay-per-view co-main event. Ugly doesn't do it justice.

Earlier this week Jones reiterated that he was willing to wait for the rest of 2021—and maybe longer—for the right opportunity. Maybe a cooling-off period is just what the doctor ordered. At the end of the day, these two sides need each other—Jones-Ngannou is the biggest fight the UFC can conceivably make right now, and Jones has properly cleaned out his native light heavyweight division. So here's hoping everyone takes their genitals off the table and lets the big heads get something done. As it stands, they don't know how weird they look.

Cris Cyborg
Cris CyborgJayne Kamin-Oncea/Getty Images)

Sorry, But Cyborg Is Not the GOAT

Last weekend at Bellator 259, fight fans saw a more measured, more patient Cris "Cyborg" Justino (24-2) break down Leslie Smith (12-9-1) brick by brick before bringing the building all the way down with a last-second TKO. 

The chorus began quickly in the MMA mediasphere: Is Cyborg the GOAT of the women's game? 

Even if the answer is no, which it is, asking the question is a little silly. These GOAT debates have gotten out of hand recently. They're a lazy way to fill a column or radio segment.

This time, Cyborg herself stirred the pot—but might have inadvertently disproven her own point. After defeating Smith, she called out Cat Zingano (12-4), saying "you cannot be a GOAT if you're scared of the cat." 

Cyborg might have said more than she intended. Because the real cat here isn't Zingano but The Lioness, aka Amanda Nunes (21-4), who blistered Cyborg with a 51-second knockout back in 2018 to win the UFC women's featherweight strap.

Amanda Nunes
Amanda NunesMike Roach/Getty Images

A rematch between Cyborg and Nunes seems unrealistic, to put it mildly, with Nunes still ensconced in the UFC. But as a kind of proxy, Cyborg surely sees a resume-building opportunity in a fight Zingano—the only woman to defeat Nunes in Nunes' 15-fight UFC tenure.

But this isn't Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon. Zingano was 31 years old when she beat Nunes back in 2014, and subsequently went 1-4 en route to her UFC release. This MMA math doesn't square in Cyborg's favor.

Cyborg is a champion and a first-ballot Hall of Famer. It's fun to engage in good-natured discourse. But unless the real alpha cat comes tumbling off her perch in the sun, everyone else is fighting for No. 2. 

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