The Ultimate Fighter (TUF): Season 31 debuted with a bang on Tuesday evening. This season features two-time UFC champion Conor McGregor coaching against three-time Bellator champion Michael Chandler.
The first episode has traditionally seen both coaching staffs meet the fighters of the season before picking their teams and beginning preparations for the first fight of the season at episode’s end. A lightweight bout between former UFC fighter and Dana White’s Contender Series vet Roosevelt Roberts and Nate Jennerman, a one-time veteran of PFL, will headline the show at its conclusion.
TUF 31 Episode 1 Introduction
Season 31 features a mixture of veteran competitors that have already competed for the organization and those looking to break into the UFC for the first time. “Vets vs. Prospects” is being billed as the theme for this season, with lightweights and bantamweights getting the spotlight (though it’s not as if the UFC are in any need of elite bantamweight prospects).
Coaches McGregor and Chandler meet in the Apex for the first time. The future adversaries shake hands, and so far tensions seem to be low between the two men. This surely will not last. This scene is also where the “you’ll do what you’re told” line Joe Rogan has repeated nine or 10 times on his podcast stems from. McGregor tells Chandler he’ll take the fight at 185 pounds if he wants to and that he will “pin him.”
“This is my game forever,” McGregor said.
With four veterans and four prospects in each weight class, this season’s fighters have been relegated to groups with the coaches instead deciding whether to coach the veteran or prospect group in each weight class. As a result, each coach will either have four veterans or four prospects. Team McGregor gets the first pick by way of a successful coin toss and selects the lightweight prospects, reiterating his confidence in young talent rising to the occasion. This means Team Chandler will handle the lightweight veterans. Conversely, Chandler selects the bantamweight veterans to his team, giving the two teams a hard split of prospects vs. veterans.
Lee Hammond (Lightweight)
Nate Jennerman (Lightweight)
Aaron McKenzie (Lightweight)
Landon Quinones (Lightweight)
Rico DiSciullo (Bantamweight)
Mando Gutierrez (Bantamweight)
Carlos Vera (Bantamweight)
Trevor Wells (Bantamweight)
Kurt Holobaugh (Lightweight)
Austin Hubbard (Lightweight)
Jason Knight (Lightweight)
Roosevelt Roberts (Lightweight)
Hunter Azure (Bantamweight)
Cody Gibson (Bantamweight)
Brad Katona (Bantamweight)
Timur Valiev (Bantamweight)
TUF 31 Episode 1 Recap
At a glance, it certainly seems like Team Chandler got the better end of the draft, even with a slew of UFC castoffs on the roster. However, many of the veterans this season are fighters who are absolutely UFC caliber, particularly in comparison to some of the raw fighters typically signed off DWCS. The pace of guys like Valiev and Hubbard should cause them to roll in their respective weight classes, and Katona, the current BRAVE CF bantamweight champion, being on Team Chandler is also interesting in that he is a training partner of McGregor’s at SBG Ireland.
With the teams selected, each coaching staff must now seed their fighters to decide the first-round matchups. Each team must rank their fighters 1-4, with the “No. 1” fighter on one team taking on the “No. 4” fighter on the other team, and so on.
As the fighters settle into the TUF House, Holobaugh echoes my sentiments of the team of veterans having a decided advantage on the prospects. Holobaugh predicts first-round finishes for himself against any of the prospects, though I would argue Holobaugh, himself, is at-best the third best lightweight on his own team.
While Team McGregor is backed by his coaches at SBG Ireland (John Kavanaugh, Owen Roddy and Phil Sutcliffe), Chandler is backed by a team consisting of Bellator heavyweight champion and former Ultimate Fighter winner Ryan Bader, grappling extraordinaire Robert Drysdale and striking coach Jason Strout. Katona, an aforementioned pupil of Kavanaugh’s at SBG Ireland and former TUF champion himself, reiterates his allegiance to Team Chandler for the integrity of the competition.
Back at the Apex, it is time to reveal the tournament’s opening matchup. Since Team McGregor got the first pick, Team Chandler will get to pick the first fight, but can only pick the fighter on his team he’d like to fight first since he is not privy to how McGregor ranked his fighters. Chandler reveals his No. 3 lightweight, Roberts, will fight first, triggering Jennerman, ranked No. 2 on Team McGregor, as his opponent.
The rest of the season’s matchups were also subsequently revealed:
- Nate Jennerman (2) vs. Roosevelt Roberts (3)
- Trevor Wells (2) vs. Timur Valiev (3)
- Aaron McKenzie (3) vs. Austin Hubbard (2)
- Mando Gutierrez (1) vs. Cody Gibson (4)
- Carlos Vera (3) vs. Brad Katona (2)
- Lee Hammond (1) vs. Kurt Holobaugh (4)
- Landon Quinones (4) vs. Jason Knight (1)
- Rico DiSciullo (4) vs. Hunter Azure (1)
Back at the house, Jennerman shows the cameras a picture he brought to the house of his wife and kids and immediately gets emotional upon looking at it. Isolation from friends and family has long been part of the TUF process, and the reality television process on a more macro level. However, Jennerman only just arrived in Las Vegas. If he misses his wife and kids now, imagine how much he’ll miss them in two or three weeks.
The viewers then get to learn a little bit more about Jennerman. He is a Sheboygan, Wisc. native and is married, with two kids, and a three-legged dog. He trains at Roufusport in Milwaukee, but also works part time at UPS and recently opened a gym with his wife in Sheboygan.
Jennerman took more than two years away from MMA, but has returned with a vengeance with three submission wins in his last three fights, including one under the PFL banner. He leveraged his success into a spot in the TUF House, where he will now take on UFC veteran Roberts, who will likely be profiled later in the episode.
Roberts opens up to fellow veteran and teammate Gibson about getting released from the UFC. He admitted he should have taken the experience more seriously and got too caught up with fighting for the money as opposed to fighting to take forward steps in his career. He also said he lost faith in himself and admittedly hit rock bottom, but also believes he now has his mind right to take a second crack at the UFC.
As Roberts begins preparations for his fight, Chandler attempts to psych him up about being selected first, citing his approach to preparation and effort level. He also believes his team hit the jackpot on the matchup, thinking Roberts matches up well to Jennerman. McGregor, meanwhile, is hyping his fighter up with similar verbiage. Jennerman believes he’ll only need one takedown to submit Roberts, but that he’ll just need to find a way inside first.
It is now Roberts’ turn to be profiled. The San Bernardino, Calif. native trains out of Adrenaline MMA / Carlson Gracie Jiu Jitsu. He says he took up the sport after the birth of his oldest child, his daughter. Roberts has two kids, and credits them for his desire to clean up his checkered past and fight for a better future.
When the time comes for the weigh-ins, Coach McGregor is noticeably absent, with Chandler openly questioning the kind of message it sends to his team. Both fighters successfully weigh-in and are rightfully confident in their ability to get the job done.
The time for talk is over. It’s time to fight!
From the very beginning, Roberts wasted no time taking the center of the Octagon. He quickly tagged Jennerman with combination, taking him by surprise. Relentless in his pursuit, Roberts followed up by unleashing a straight right hand that dropped Jennerman to the canvas, prompting referee Mark Smith to wave off the fight.
Team Chandler gets its first win in violent fashion, while Roberts is now the owner of one of the fastest finish in TUF history.
Chandler recaps his fighter’s performance, noting the fight went exactly how they envisioned it would. UFC President Dana White, who was cage side for the action, called the win a massive statement for the veterans. He calls this “their last shot to get into the UFC,” but we all know that’s not true. Nevertheless, a huge win for Roberts, and one that should aid him later in the competition having taken virtually no damage.
While Team McGregor consoles their fighter on the shocking defeat, Team Chandler celebrates with Roberts having taken a massive step forward toward securing a UFC contract for the second time. As an added note, if either or both of Roberts and Azure are able to win the tournament, they will become the first fighters to have earned their way into the UFC on both TUF and DWCS.
Tune in next week for our recap of Season 31, Episode 2 of The Ultimate Fighter!