Amidst the pandemic, this past year has been an active one for UFC president Dana White.
White and his team continued to book fights throughout a very disjointed 2020, ultimately reshaping the model of a fight card and providing new opportunities for fighters to stand out. And the latest opportunity arises this week with the launch of the newest season of The Ultimate Fighter, as The Return of The Ultimate Fighter is now available on ESPN+.
This latest installment is led by featherweight champ Alexander Volkanovski and No. 2 contender Brian Ortega, who will each coach a team of men’s bantamweights and middleweights competing to make the UFC roster. Beginning this week, and running for 12 weeks, a new episode streams every Tuesday, with the added bonus of a Volkanovski-Ortega fight taking place in the near future.
Speaking with Sports Illustrated, Dana White discussed The Return of The Ultimate Fighter, as well as upcoming matchups for the heavyweight and bantamweight titles.
Sports Illustrated: Why is this the right time for the return of The Return of The Ultimate Fighter?
Dana White: The Apex was a huge part of this. That’s where I was planning on filming The Ultimate Fighter. Then the pandemic hit, and our focus was on how to keep fights going and doing it safely.
This past year was the hardest year. At the same time, it was fun, it was challenging, it was different. I loved figuring out how we could do this thing safely and who could fight, and once we got it dialed in here in the United States, then figuring out how to get our international fighters fighting. The way we went through it and did it, it’s taken our business to another level. Once that was dialed in, we really wanted to bring back The Ultimate Fighter.
SI: Outside of perhaps Kamaru Usman and Colby Covington, you made the most compelling combination in your choice of coaches with Alexander Volkanovski, who is featherweight champ, and Brian Ortega. There are so many pairings you could choose, but take us behind the scenes—why did you choose Volkanovski and Ortega?
DW: Every time we do The Ultimate Fighter, the focus is on giving all these kids the best opportunity to be successful. A big part of that is who is teaching them. Who can take these kids to another level and show them things they’ve never seen before? Alexander Volkanovski, who is obviously the champion, and Brian Ortega is the No. 2 ranked guy in the world; these two are extremely talented. These guys were lined up to fight next, and you couldn’t ask for two better coaches to mentor these kids.
SI: Personally, I found the fifth season to be the best. But there is no shortage of choices, and I can immediately think of parts of season three, season five and season seven of The Ultimate Fighter that were outstanding. Having been involved since the ground level, is there a season that is your favorite?
DW: It’s hard for me not to say season one. That season started everything. It built this brand and helped build this sport. It was a huge game-changer for us.
I remember sitting with my staff, and it was a small staff at the time, and we sat in my office until two in the morning and came up with the first layout of The Ultimate Fighter. Then we handed it over to [executive producer] Craig Piligian’s team, and they started to tweak it into a reality show. And the first day we started filming, it just all started to play out. We had an idea of the format, but it was even better once we started.
SI: A critical piece of the UFC’s success is its faith in the fighters. They are captivating, entertaining and have further elevated mixed martial arts as a worldwide phenomenon. To me, that’s the core of The Ultimate Fighter.
DW: From Day One, we always thought our fighters were very compelling. All of their stories are amazing, but no two stories are the same. So we have this incredible reality show. At the time, a lot of the reality shows were scripted. I would never do that. That’s what made The Ultimate Fighter so great. No one is told what to say; we’re not reshooting to make something sound better. The show is absolutely, positively real.
SI: Looking at the current landscape, Charles Oliveira just won the vacant lightweight title in a convincing manner against Michael Chandler. With three champions from Brazil in Oliveira, Amanda Nunes and Deiveson Figueiredo, is a super card in Brazil a possibility? And where else are you looking to run now that the world is beginning to reopen?
DW: Right now, we’re still waiting. We go to Arizona [for UFC 263], and then it’s Vegas in July for [Conor] McGregor-[Dustin] Poirier [for UFC 264]. Then we might end up in Houston in August. For September, we’re thinking Boston, Dallas, Anaheim, Fort Lauderdale or Newark. We are kicking around a lot of ideas, but right now, it’s still too early.
SI: Charles Oliveira was phenomenal in his victory against Michael Chandler, though that fight was nearly Chandler’s with his performance at the end of the opening round. Will the winner of McGregor-Poirier definitely fight Oliveira? And could the loser of the bout get Chandler?
DW: I’ve got to see how this McGregor-Poirier fight plays out. I’m also looking for a backup for that fight in case anything happens.
SI: There is so much interest in the heavyweight title. Who will be Francis Ngannou’s first opponent as champion?
DW: Derrick Lewis. Lewis and Francis Ngannou, that’s going to be the fight. This fight will be everything we thought their first fight was going to be.
SI: I know Jon Jones is still the top-ranked men’s fighter in the pound-for-pound rankings, but to me, that spot belongs to Kamaru Usman. He has been such an active, dominant champion. When will we see him back in action? And will it be against Michael Chiesa or Colby Covington?
DW: I agree with you, 100%. Kamaru Usman is the pound-for-pound best fighter in the world. We’re working on something for him, talking about September—but definitely in the fall. It will be against Colby Covington.
SI: I know that the UFC dominates your life. With such a limited travel schedule in comparison to other years, was there anything out of the ordinary you did over the past year?
DW: During the pandemic, I got involved with Howler Head, a whiskey company. I’ve been doing a lot of work with that. If it isn’t UFC, it’s Howler Head. Apparently, I didn’t have enough s--- to do. But I started drinking it during the pandemic and I fell in love with it.
SI: Finally, what will make The Return of The Ultimate Fighter stand out?
DW: We brought in the best kids in the world. They’re coming in and competing, and the fights are awesome. And I think the fight that made it to the final is going to be a damn good one. If you’re into fighting, there isn’t a better show. It’s perfect.
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