TUF 29: Few Changes, Fair Action On Display in “New Beginnings”

TUF 29 cast and Dana White
Credit: Zuffa/UFC

It feels reasonable to start this off with a disclaimer: I was never the biggest Ultimate Fighter fan. It’s not what got me into the sport of mixed martial arts, nor am I particularly fond of reality TV, given how little any of it resembles actual reality.

But through the years, various seasons have left an impression. GSP vs. Koscheck comes to mind. TUF Nations, if only because, as a Canadian fight fan, cheering on Team Canada against the Aussies felt like my patriotic duty. TUF 17, better known as the season Uriah Hall crushed absolutely everyone until running into Kelvin Gastelum in the finale, stands out in terms of fights. Season ten brought along the heavyweights, with Roy Nelson, Kimbo Slice, and Matt Mitrone. In terms of relevance, TUF 20 (which introduced the women’s strawweight division) and TUF 26 (which ushered in the female flyweights) were some of my favorites. Because they mattered.

But even by that point, The Ultimate Fighter format had grown stale. When the most recent season, until now, of the show aired in 2018 — that would be installment 28, not counting the international editions — it was well past its best before date. To be frank, Dana White’s Tuesday Night Contender Series had already come along and made it irrelevant. After all, why sit through a season’s worth of childish antics, one fight per episode, to see someone win a UFC contract when Dana White was handing out two or three a night on the Contender Series?

It’s been two plus years since The Ultimate Fighter went away. Tuesday night, it returned, with TUF 29 rather unimaginatively titled The Return of The Ultimate Fighter. Coaching the season are featherweight champ Alexander Volkanovski and challenger Brian Ortega, which isn’t exactly the Masvidal or Covington level of name fans were hoping for.

In the build-up to the show’s reemergence, the UFC and broadcast partner ESPN took the low road: controversy and confrontation. Everything, quite frankly, that had become stale about the show.

Luckily for those of us watching from home, the first episode of TUF 29, dubbed “New Beginnings,” left any such bad behavior on the cutting room floor. It was all business, and just an hour long — no two hour debut despite the show’s hiatus, another plus. Still, after two years to tweak the format, it seems as if the powers behind the show just couldn’t be bothered. New digs in the UFC Apex look great on camera, but it was the same old selection process, same old coin toss. The usual training snippets and clips from home from the fighters. TUF 29, through it’s first episode, didn’t look any different than TUF 16 to 28 in that regard — but it at least offered a decent fight, and a couple of memorable moments.

For starters, there was Kemran Lachinov being selected last. The 10-3 “middleweight” (at least on the show — of late, he’d been competing for Bellator MMA as a welterweight) was all ready to step towards Team Ortega when Dana White told him to slow his roll. He also reminded Lachinov that TUF 17 winner Kelvin Gastelum was selected last.

Very true. The selection process also saw Alexander Volkanovski pick the first fighter, meaning Brian Ortega was awarded the opportunity to choose the first fight, at both middleweight and bantamweight.

At least at middleweight, things went T-City’s way. Andre Petroski was the better man against Alaska’s Aaron Phillips, who fared rather poorly in our own preview of the new season. Petroski showed why in the opening episode, landing a high kick, a single leg takedown, and moving to mount to sink in a guillotine and force the tap. All within a round.

The fight delivered, but the more worrisome news is seeing The Ultimate Fighter repeating the same stale format yet again. The season preview promises plenty of “drama” and shenanigans, which is enough to make one check the calendar for the debut date of this season’s Contender Series.

If nothing else, hopefully we get a few more entertaining fights out of the deal, and maybe a real contender or two.

For those keeping track of such things, this season’s teams are below:

Team Volkanovski:

Mitch Raposo (5-0, 135lbs)
Ryder Newman (3-1, 185lbs)
Dustin Lampros (5-0, 135lbs)
Gilbert Urbina (6-1, 185lbs)
Ricky Turcios (10-2, 135lbs)
Aaron Phillips (5-2, 185lbs)
Brady Hiestand (5-1, 135lbs)
Bryan Battle (5-1, 185lbs)

Team Ortega:

Dan Argueta (5-0, 135lbs)
Andre Petroski (5-1, 185lbs)
Liudvik Sholinian (9-1-1, 135lbs)
Tresean Gore (3-0, 185lbs)
Josh Rettinghouse (16-5, 135lbs)
Miles Hunsinger (7-0, 185lbs)
Vincent Murdock (12-4, 135lbs)
Kemran Lachinov (10-3, 185lbs)