Dana White’s Tuesday Night Contender Series returned with a bang this week. Now in its third season, the show follows in the footsteps of ‘Lookin’ For A Fight’ as an introductory platform to the UFC for regional standouts looking to get ahead of the pack. Even more so than White’s previous vehicle, DWTNCS is the UFC President’s own personal playground, promoted under his own personal licence and as we learned last night, a troubling reminder of his own personal vision.
DWTNCS became a breakout hit for the UFC’s Fight Pass streaming service in 2017; a welcome change of pace from the drawn-out, ad-break heavy slog of televised fight nights. With its no-frills, stripped back production delivering a weekly dose of five, quick-fire fights between hungry up-and-commers itching to impress, fans lapped it up.
Dana White has never been shy about his passion for boxing, and many saw his Contender Series as a direct attempt to ape ESPN’s Friday Night Fights and its mid-week spin-offs, which ran from 1998 to 2015 and highlighted prospects and semi-professional hopefuls. It was perhaps destiny then that White’s brainchild would land on ESPN+, and perhaps inevitable that his shadow would loom larger than usual over proceedings.
Tuesday’s show was highlighted by a fight between domestic prospects Brendan Loughnane and Bill Algeo; a fight that seemed a little high-brow for such a platform. Algeo seemed tailor made for the UFC; an all-action striker possessing great charisma, with a 12-4 record and domestic titles to his name. While the Brit may lack his American counterpart’s charisma, his curriculum vitae does all his talking for him.
True to form, Loughnane vs Algeo was the stand-out bout of the four-fight bill, the only one that would have looked at home on a regular UFC card. The pair traded all manner of strikes for fifteen minutes, but it was the bloodied-up Loughnane getting the better of nearly every exchange and pouring it on in the final round. With ten seconds to go the Englishman demonstrated another string to his bow, executing a deft takedown to leave the result (and seemingly a contract offer) beyond all reasonable doubt.
But there was a problem. As the broadcast team poured over the post-fight replays, a telling shot of White and UFC matchmaker Sean Shelby filled the screen. The pair were visibly cringing with disdain and disbelief at the Brit’s decision to cut short his hail of punches in favour of the deal-sealing double-leg. By the end of the broadcast, the clip had already been gif’d and turned into a meme for wildly out of tune reactions.
Surely though, the performance of the night in the evening’s most evenly-matched fight wouldn’t be disregarded for a single late takedown?
Fast forward to the end of the show and Paul Felder was gushing over Loughnane’s efforts as though his signing was a foregone conclusion. White duly emerged to put us out of our misery and to the surprise of everyone watching, handed the first contract to heavyweight Yorgan De Castro, who had opened the show with a leg kick TKO of heavy favourite Alton Meeks.
Maybe they were going in bout order? No. The next contract went to Punahele Soriano, who after brawling it out for the first two rounds of his middleweight contest against Jamie Pickett, promptly shot for a takedown a minute into the final frame and proceed to stall out the remainder of the fight.
The devastation and realisation hung heavy on Loughnane’s face as White launched into a signature tirade.
“Let me tell you what you don’t do…” he barked, incredulity dripping from his words… “You don’t come here, you don’t fight that kinda fight and you don’t go for the double leg with 10 seconds left of the fight.”
Social media – as it is wont to do – exploded; only Greg Hardy had generated more chatter as a previous contestant, albeit for entirely different reasons. At the post event presser, White was asked to justify his decision.
“I’m looking for killers, man…” he mused. “If you make it to this show…and you want to get into the UFC, show me! Don’t shoot a double-leg with 10 seconds left…”
Looking for killers… If Loughnane seemed confused, it’s probably because he was, as were we all. Soriano had shot for a takedown with four minutes left on the clock, let alone ten seconds. De Castro had stopped a gassed, woefully out of his depth novice with a handful of leg kicks. If these men were killers based on those performances, the Brit must have channelled Hannibal Lecter.
Not hiring Loughnane is hardly the most egregious act of Dana White’s career as a promoter. It’d struggle to crack the top 20. What it is, however, is yet another timely reminder of his vision for the UFC and what it means to be an Ultimate Fighter.
Take the recent case of Elias Theodoru; Ultimate Fighter winner, 8-3 UFC record (17-3 overall), ranked in the top 15 of his weight class and cut following a single loss. Theodoru had a strong following on social media and was a self-starter when it came to marketing himself. You’d think he’d be employee of the month, but he was let go because the brass didn’t like the way he fought.
DWTNCS is White’s baby more-so than the UFC, so it’s no surprise that his influence and ideals are even more pronounced within its microcosm. It’s also no secret that he and his VPs have always favoured risk-takers over the conservative. With greater risks should come greater rewards though, and that’s frankly not the case with the UFC in 2019. As the case of Elias Theodoru – and countless others – shows, if anything opportunities and job security are as uncertain as they’ve ever been.
That’s why Dana’s snub of Loughnane seems to have hit such a nerve in the community. Ostensibly DWTNCS exists to reward the best performance(s) on the night. Season 3’s opener felt more like White taking the opportunity to deliver a 2019 remix of his “Do you wanna be a f**kin’ fighter?” speech at the expense of a man who’d done everything that had been asked of him. It felt like a warning shot, a reminder that White still wields the sword of Damocles.
MMA, in particular the UFC, has never been about wins and losses alone. Merit is only a small part of prizefighting and the game has always been rigged. However in an era where marks in the win column are increasingly the only leverage that a fighter has, the message that even victories don’t matter is further redefining what it means to be an Ultimate Fighter.