ESPN's "The Ultimate Fighter" is back, as the reality show returned Tuesday in dramatic fashion with two polarizing fighters in the sport, Conor McGregor and Michael Chandler, taking over to coach the two teams for Season 31. (Watch the replay of the first episode of TUF 31 on ESPN+)
While the final result will still be the same as any other season of TUF, a UFC contract for the winning bantamweight and lightweight fighters, the process to get there will be a bit different. During the episode, it was announced that this season would consist of UFC veterans taking on prospects.
In the first episode, Roosevelt Roberts beat Nate Jennerman with an impressive first-round knockout. Roberts, a UFC veteran with seven fights (4-3) in the Octagon, made an immediate impression on his teammates and coaches with the finish.
ESPN's Andres Waters breaks down the first fight of the show, the intriguing storylines to watch for during Season 31 and looks ahead to the next fight on Episode 2.
Editor's note: The matchups for this season are determined by seeding. This season, the coaches ranked their competitors in each division first through fourth. After the seeding was determined, the matchups were made in a tournament-style bracket.
Lightweight: (3) Roosevelt Roberts, Team Chandler vs. (2) Nate Jennerman, Team McGregor
Roberts puts everyone on notice with first-round KO
Roberts needed only eight seconds to show why he was Chandler's selection to kick off this season, knocking out Jennerman to secure his spot in the second round. The win also gave Roberts a spot in the TUF history books as he tied Sam Sicilia (TUF 15) and Uriah Hall (TUF 17) for the fastest knockout in the history of the show. Roberts had such an impressive performance that UFC president Dana White reacted like many of us at home.
Roberts, who last fought in Khabib Nurmagomedov's Eagle FC before competing in this season of TUF, first earned a UFC contract on "Dana White's Contender Series" in 2018. Roberts' three losses in the UFC were to well-respected fighters Jim Miller, Ignacio Bahamondes and Vinc Pichel -- those three have a combined record of 34-19. Also, Roberts fights in arguably the deepest division in MMA, 155 pounds, so it's understandable to struggle early.
Now fighting under Chandler, Roberts could benefit from working with an accomplished wrestler who developed an impressive stand-up game over time. Roberts will likely have to face more grapplers during the show, so working on his takedown defense with Chandler could yield significant dividends.
Storyline to watch: Chandler's veterans vs. McGregor's prospects
During the first episode, both coaches selected their teams via coin flip. McGregor won the first choice and chose the lightweight prospects, leaving Chandler with the veterans in that division. With Chandler's selection, he picked the bantamweight veterans, leaving McGregor with the prospects in that division. With these selections, every match will feature a prospect coached by McGregor taking on a veteran coached by Chandler. This format makes for an interesting fan experience and sparks some good questions.
The veterans entered this season with a combined 43 fights in the Octagon -- so how will someone like Chandler, who spent all but three of the first 26 fights of his professional MMA career in Bellator -- relate to his team while helping them fill the holes in their games to hopefully make the UFC roster?
Also, how will the prospects benefit from working with the sport's biggest star in McGregor? At his best, McGregor is an all-world talent with elite stand-up and ground game, but we last saw that guy years ago. Also, where is McGregor psychologically? Could the prospects coached by McGregor have their growth stunted? McGregor already missed the first weigh-in of the season; could this be a theme that continues throughout the show?
Best MMA fighter tweets from Episode 1
"Sometimes you gotta hit rock bottom - rock bottom is a place where you start to recognize everything" - great line by Row.— Michael Chandler (@MikeChandlerMMA) May 31, 2023
Roberts' rock bottom
Chandler appreciated the thoughtfulness of Roberts' journey from fighting in the UFC to fighting to get back into the top promotion in MMA. For Roberts, he delivered his own version of the 'Rock Bottom' to Jennerman on Tuesday night with his eight-second knockout.
TUF 29 vs. TUF 31 beef?
Bryan Battle, the winner of TUF 29 middleweights, wasn't impressed with the first episode of TUF 31. The former champs are clearly a tough crowd.
Next week's matchup
Bantamweight: (3) Timur Valiev, Team Chandler vs. (2) Trevor Wells, Team McGregor
Can Team McGregor find a way to get into the win column next week? Or will Chandler's veterans take a 2-0 lead over the prospects?
Here's everything we know about these two bantamweight fighters who will step into the Octagon for next Tuesday's episode.
UFC record: 2-1, 1 NC
Fighting out of: Republic of Dagestan
Lost to Shore at UFC Fight Night in March 2022
UFC win over Raoni Barcelos
Competed in the first PFL season in 2017
Fought in World Series of Fighting from 2014 to 2016
Went 1-1 against UFC fighter Chris Gutierrez in WSOF
UFC record: N/A
Fighting out of: Murrieta, California
Last fight was with Urijah Faber's A1 Combat
Riding a three-fight winning streak