After an absence of nearly three years, The Ultimate Fighter is set to return in 2021, airing for the first time on the ESPN+ network.
Over the years, we’ve seen some major rivalries between TUF coaches that have often led to some genuinely hilarious and dramatic moments on screen.
So with this in mind, in chronological order, here are the five best TUF coaching pairings to date.
#1 Tito Ortiz and Ken Shamrock – TUF 3
The first two seasons of TUF didn’t have much of a focus on their coaching pairings.
The inaugural season showcased Randy Couture and Chuck Liddell – as professional rivalry as you’d find in the UFC. And TUF 2’s coaches Rich Franklin and Matt Hughes were actually good friends and training partners.
That all changed when it came to 2006’s TUF 3.
The coaches for that season were bitter rivals Ken Shamrock and Tito Ortiz, who’d arguably saved the UFC with their feud a few years prior when their fight at UFC 40 popped an abnormally large buyrate. And despite the two men shaking hands after that fight, it was clear that the hatchet was not buried by any means.
The duo sniped at each other from the off during TUF 3, with Shamrock insisting he’d only lost the first fight due to a knee injury and Ortiz largely mocking his rival’s out-of-date ways.
Things came to a head midway through the season, when Shamrock – whose team were being whitewashed by Ortiz’s – decided to get his fighters fired up by confronting ‘The Huntington Beach Bad Boy’.
The two men went nose-to-nose and had to be pulled apart by the TUF contestants, with Shamrock promising to “smash (Ortiz’s) little head!”
The whole deal was classic reality show fare, and after two slow-burning seasons, sent TUF into the stratosphere. And when the season was done, Shamrock and Ortiz faced off at UFC 61 – drawing what was then a UFC record pay-per-view buyrate in the process.
#2 Quinton Jackson and Rashad Evans – TUF 10
Perhaps the bitterest coaching rivalry – on the US seasons of TUF at least – was showcased on 2009’s TUF 10.
The insults simply didn’t stop from day one, with Rampage claiming Rashad had a weak chin and making fun of his knockout loss to Lyoto Machida.
Evans in turn mocked Rampage for quitting against Mauricio ‘Shogun’ Rua, and even suggested that he was an ‘Uncle Tom’, playing a street caricature for fans.
There were numerous occasions during TUF 10 that the verbal sparring came close to getting physical, and the fighters were separated by their teams more than once.
But more than that, the season acted as a turning point for Rampage, who came across less as a funny guy and more of a mean-spirited bully – particularly when his team went on a losing streak.
As with Shamrock and Ortiz, the use of TUF to build to their fight worked perfectly.
There was actually a five month delay when Rampage stepped away from the UFC to film The A Team, but that didn’t matter.
The show they headlined – UFC 114 – ended up being one of the earliest UFC shows to break a million buys on pay-per-view.
#3 Chael Sonnen and Wanderlei Silva – TUF Brazil 3
When the UFC began to produce TUF Brazil in 2012, watching the show was essentially like stepping into a time warp back to 2005.
The first two TUF Brazil seasons followed the pattern of the first two US versions – largely friendly coaching rivalries with a focus on the way that the cast prepared for their fights and what they’d sacrificed to get there.
But as TUF 3 changed the face of the show in the US, so TUF Brazil 3 would do the same with probably the most explosive coaching pairing of them all.
At the time – 2014 – Chael Sonnen was despised in Brazil thanks to the somewhat xenophobic trash talk he’d aimed at Anderson Silva during their feud a couple of years prior. And once he’d finished with Anderson, Brazilian legend Wanderlei Silva ended up firmly in the sights of ‘The American Gangster’.
The UFC reportedly took risks even getting Sonnen into Brazil, and at first, even his team of fighters didn’t trust him.
However, as the season unfolded, something became clear. Sonnen was a genuinely good coach who cared about his fighters, and it was obvious that all of his anti-Brazil barbs were firmly tongue-in-cheek.
The only problem? Silva didn’t get that at all. And so we were treated to constant confrontations between the two – with Silva almost always the aggressor.
Eventually, we got the first outright physical fight between two TUF coaches, following a hilarious moment that saw Sonnen shove Silva away from him stating “I can’t let you get close!” The two were separated – but not until Sonnen had taken Silva down with a double leg as the two exchanged punches.
Unfortunately, the UFC were never able to get the duo into the Octagon for a proper fight due to issues with drug tests, but it didn’t make their TUF coaching rivalry any less entertaining.
#4 Ronda Rousey and Miesha Tate – TUF 18
Incredibly, these bitter rivals weren’t even initially supposed to coach against one another on TUF 18, but in the end, the UFC were probably glad they made it happen.
Sparks flew right away when bizarrely, Rousey assumed the UFC had brought Tate in to replace her. Quite why she thought that was the case is a mystery, but it was an early example of the chip that the UFC bantamweight champ carried on her shoulder at the time.
So the rivalry went on throughout TUF 18, largely following a similar pattern: Tate and her coaches would antagonise the more emotionally-charged Rousey, who simply couldn’t help taking the bait.
In the end, the majority of fans decided to side with Tate – despite her coming off like a schoolyard bully at times.
But overall, the UFC had once again struck gold with their coaching choice. When Rousey and Tate had a staredown on the final TUF 18 episode, it was hard not to be sucked into the rivalry.
It came as no surprise when UFC 178 – buoyed by the Chris Weidman/Anderson Silva rematch as well as Rousey vs. Tate – popped over 1m pay-per-view buys.
#5 Conor McGregor and Urijah Faber – TUF 22
By the end of 2015, the UFC recognised the kind of superstar they’d unearthed in the form of Conor McGregor, and were looking to ride the ‘Notorious’ train all the way to the bank.
Despite McGregor training to face off with Jose Aldo for the UFC featherweight title, they also brought in the Irishman to coach against longtime fan favourite Urijah Faber on TUF 22.
The show – which saw McGregor coaching a team of European fighters against Faber’s Americans – was a huge hit.
McGregor and Faber didn’t really develop a nasty rivalry, and you could see the mutual respect between the two men.
However, ‘The Notorious One’ definitely pushed a lot of buttons. He stirred the issue between Faber and his then-training partner TJ Dillashaw, and physically confronted Team Faber coach Cody Garbrandt in a classic TUF pull-apart.
Overall, while there was no bitterness between the coaches on TUF 22, McGregor and Faber made for a memorable combination that ensured the show was one of the best iterations of the reality show.