For the entirety of its era-bridging run as a reality TV show — 30 seasons over 18 years — “The Ultimate Fighter” has served dual purposes. Ostensibly, it is a talent search, sorting out mostly up-and-coming fighters in order to freshen the UFC roster and perhaps unearth a gem. But unlike the two other shows the UFC has utilized for that same function, “Dana White’s Contender Series” and “Dana White: Lookin’ for a Fight,” TUF has also served to hype up a fight between the season’s coaches.
Season 1, back in 2005, set the template in a big way. The all-action light heavyweight finale between future UFC champion Forrest Griffin and Stephan Bonnar is often lauded for saving the fight organization at a time when it was struggling to find an audience and stay afloat financially. Also among the talent that season produced were Diego Sanchez, Josh Koscheck and Kenny Florian, all of whom went on to compete for a championship inside the Octagon.
But the pièce de résistance of TUF 1 came after the season concluded, when coaches Randy Couture and Chuck Liddell met for Couture’s UFC light heavyweight title. Both were stars in the prime of their Hall of Fame careers. The UFC could not have booked a more appealing fight at the time, and the reality show became its built-in hype fest.
When Season 31 of “The Ultimate Fighter” gets underway on Tuesday (ESPN/ESPN+, 10 p.m. ET), the hype will be off the charts — because of one of the coaches. That is what happens anytime Conor McGregor is taking part (and taking over) in the MMA world. The UFC’s biggest star and its first fighter to hold championships in two weight classes simultaneously, McGregor is never understated. So expect a big splash befitting a massive reappearance, as the Irishman returns to the spotlight 22 months after breaking his shinbone in his last fight.
No date has been announced for a return fight at the conclusion of the TUF season, but what we do know about that fight — and what adds breathtaking anticipation — is that McGregor will be facing his coaching counterpart, Michael Chandler. The clash of the relentlessly forward-moving Chandler and the pinpoint, destructive striking of McGregor promises fireworks.
Will their fight at the end of the season surpass the TUF coaches fights that came before? That’s a high bar to clear, as there have been some great ones over the years, many with championships at stake. ESPN’s Jeff Wagenheim and Eddie Maisonet III looked back at 30 seasons of “The Ultimate Fighter” to rank the top 10 fights between coaches.
1. Randy Couture vs. Chuck Liddell 2
TUF Season 1, 2005
When they fought: UFC 52, April 16, 2005, MGM Grand Garden Arena, Las Vegas
Result: Liddell won by first-round KO to capture Couture’s UFC light heavyweight championship
Why the fight was notable: An iconic pair of future Hall of Famers authored the original, which set the tone for coaches fights to come and has never been surpassed. Couture already was a three-time UFC champ; he’d had a reign at heavyweight and was in his second at light heavy. He had knocked out Liddell nearly two years earlier. But “The Iceman” was coming off a pair of violent knockout wins, most emphatically one against archnemesis Tito Ortiz. And on this night, Liddell added Couture to his conquests, clipping him with a short counter right that launched Liddell’s run with the belt.
2. Stipe Miocic vs. Daniel Cormier
TUF Season 27, 2018
When they fought: UFC 226, July 7, 2018, T-Mobile Arena, Las Vegas
Result: Cormier, the reigning UFC light heavyweight champion, won by first-round KO to add Miocic’s heavyweight title
Why the fight was notable: Cormier became the UFC’s second champ-champ (after McGregor) with this knockout, which was a stunner. Miocic was coming off of three defenses of his belt, the most of any heavyweight champion in UFC history. His latest defense had come against Francis Ngannou, so the champ had faced bigger, tougher challengers than the light heavyweight titlist. But then, late in Round 1, Miocic and Cormier were locked in a clinch at center cage, and when they disengaged, DC clipped Miocic with a short right hand counter that buckled him and changed the balance of power among UFC big men. It also sparked one of the sport’s great trilogies.
3. Cody Garbrandt vs. TJ Dillashaw
TUF Season 25, 2017
When they fought: UFC 217, Nov. 4, 2017, Madison Square Garden, New York
Result: Dillashaw, the former UFC men’s bantamweight champion, won by second-round TKO to capture the belt from Garbrandt
Why the fight was notable: There are fights that play out as prizefights, and there are fights that just unleash all-out hostility. Matchups do not get more bitter than this pairing of former teammates. That Garbrandt’s title was on the line was no small detail, but the true narrative here was akin to estranged brothers duking it out. For Dillashaw, who had been vilified throughout the TUF season for leaving Team Alpha Male, the KO win evoked an explosive in-your-face celebration. He got right up in the grill of a dazed Garbrandt and let loose a scream that vented any residual nerves and frustrations. This was not a sporting event. This was a violent reckoning.
4. Cain Velasquez vs. Fabricio Werdum
TUF season: Latin America, 2015
When they fought: UFC 188, June 13, 2015, Arena Ciudad de Mexico, Mexico City
Result: Werdum, the UFC interim heavyweight champion, won by third-round submission to dethrone Velasquez and unify the title
Why the fight was notable: What an encore! Five years earlier in Strikeforce, Werdum had put a stunning end to the nine-year, 28-fight unbeaten run of Fedor Emelianenko. Now he was taking on the sport’s current embodiment of invulnerability in Velasquez. And once again Werdum and his jiu-jitsu pedigree of multiple world championships were up to the daunting task, getting the submission that earned him a UFC belt — and completed one of the greatest 1-2 punchouts (tapouts, actually) of MMA legends.
5. Quinton “Rampage” Jackson vs. Forrest Griffin
TUF Season 7, 2008
When they fought: UFC 86, July 5, 2008, Mandalay Bay Events Center, Las Vegas
Result: Griffin won a unanimous decision to capture Jackson’s UFC light heavyweight championship
Why the fight was notable: Three years after essentially saving the UFC as a fighter on the first season of “The Ultimate Fighter,” Griffin was back on the show as a coach — and eventually a history maker. By dethroning “Rampage,” Griffin became the first TUF alum to capture the ultimate prize, a UFC championship.
6. Dominick Cruz vs. Urijah Faber 3
TUF Season 15, 2016
When they fought: UFC 199, June 4, 2016, The Forum, Inglewood, California
Result: Cruz won a unanimous decision to successfully defend his UFC men’s bantamweight championship
Why the fight was notable: The rivalry between Cruz and Faber went back nearly a decade to their time in the WEC. They’d fought twice before (WEC in 2007 and UFC in 2011), and each owned a victory over the other. This rubber match was designed to settle the score. But really, will these two ever get enough of competing against each other? Decades from now, they’ll be in a retirement community going at it daily on the foosball table, cornhole, checkers, you name it.
7. Alexander Volkanovski vs. Brian Ortega
Volkanovski, Ortega put on Fight of the Year candidate at UFC 266
Alexander Volkanovski and Brian Ortega give the Vegas crowd its money’s worth and more with an epic clash at UFC 266.
TUF Season 29, 2021
When they fought: UFC 266, Sept. 25, 2021, T-Mobile Arena, Las Vegas
Result: Volkanovski won a unanimous decision to successfully defend his UFC men’s featherweight championship
Why the fight was notable: Ortega is one of the UFC’s most dangerous submission aces, so when he secured top position midway through the third round and locked in a tight guillotine choke, it appeared that the title was about to change hands. “I was just waiting for the tap,” Ortega said afterward, “and it never came.” Volkanovski somehow escaped the hopeless position, and later in the round got out of a triangle choke as well, on his way to a victory that left observers — and his opponent — shaking their heads in awe.
8. Ronda Rousey vs. Miesha Tate 2
TUF Season 18, 2013
When they fought: UFC 168, Dec. 28, 2013, MGM Grand Garden Arena, Las Vegas
Result: Rousey won by third-round submission to successfully defend her UFC women’s bantamweight championship
Why the fight was notable: Rousey was at the height of her mesmerizing dominance, but Tate did not back down an inch. After a full season of them snarling at each other, they fought a rematch of their bout less than two years earlier in Strikeforce. “Rowdy Ronda” had taken away Tate’s title that night — via first-round submission, naturally. All seven of Rousey’s fights had ended with tapouts in the first round. Five had ended in the first minute. Yet Tate went right at her nemesis, and she took the fight into the third round before finally, finally succumbing to an armbar. Just another Rousey win? Nah, this one tested her.
9. Dan Henderson vs. Michael Bisping
TUF Season 9, 2009
When they fought: UFC 100, July 11, 2009, Mandalay Bay Events Center, Las Vegas
Result: Henderson won by second-round KO
Why the fight was notable: A season’s worth of frustration from having to listen to Bisping blather on came exploding out of Hendo in the form of an overhand right that stiffened and silenced the Brit. It was one of the most iconic KOs in UFC history, punctuated by Henderson pouncing on a lights-out Bisping with an extra punch that put bad intentions on full display.
10. Joseph Benavidez vs. Henry Cejudo
TUF Season 24, 2016
When they fought: The Ultimate Fighter: Tournament of Champions Finale, Dec. 3, 2016, Palms Casino Resort, Las Vegas
Result: Benavidez won by split decision
Why the fight was notable: This fight was just part of a spotlight night for flyweights at a time when things were looking dismal for the weight class. Benavidez, the perennial No. 2 at 125 pounds behind champion Demetrious Johnson, put on a show with future champion Cejudo in the evening’s co-main event. The headline bout was a “Mighty Mouse” title defense against Tim Elliott, who had earned his shot by winning the TUF season. Among those who also competed that season: Brandon Moreno, who now owns the flyweight title, and Alexandre Pantoja, who will go for the belt on July 8 — and who choked out Moreno during that TUF season.