Brad (Superman) Katona earned his way into the UFC by winning Season 27 of "The Ultimate Fighter" in 2018.
One win and two losses later, the Winnipeg bantamweight was released by the mixed martial arts promotion. In order to get back in, Katona has returned to the reality TV show for Season 31, which debuts Tuesday.
The show divides fighters into two teams living under the same roof in a Las Vegas mansion, isolated from the outside world as they train and fight. The last competitor standing wins a UFC contract.
The show, which premiered in January 2005, has produced 14 UFC champions.
Competing as a featherweight (145-pounder) on Daniel Cormier's team, Katona won Season 27, which featured undefeated featherweights and lightweights, by defeating Ireland's Jay (The Mellow Fellow) Cucciniello in the July 2018 finale.
Katona is not allowed to discuss what happened on the new season, which has wrapped up filming, until the episodes air. But he says he learned from the first go-round on the show, bringing some "small creature comforts" like his preferred pillow with him this time.
He also knew what challenges awaited, like the inevitable "hurry up and wait" moments of filming a TV show.
"When you need to leave and then maybe you're sitting in a van for 15 minutes before practice starts … I knew what hang-ups there would be and just accepted them," he said.
The 12-episode new season features bantamweights (135-pounders) and lightweights (155-pounders). A new twist has Katona and other veterans of the UFC pitted against prospects from other promotions.
"The competition was certainly stacked and everyone was hungry and wanted to be in the UFC in the house," said Katona, who is bidding to become the first two-time TUF winner.
After earning his UFC contract, Katona won a decision over American Matthew Lopez before losing to Georgia's Merab (The Machine) Dvalishvili and American Hunter Azure. He was released in February 2020.
"I got released going into essentially COVID which wasn't the best time to be a free agent," said Katona. "So there was year there where I was asked to fight anywhere."
The 31-year-old Katona subsequently signed with the Bahrain-based Brave Combat Federation promotion, winning three fights in Bahrain and another in Kazakhstan.
"I only fought killers," said Katona, whose Brave opponents had a combined record of 36-11-0 when they fought him.
"Now looking back on it, I'm very proud of what I had to endure to put myself in this position," he added.
In March 2022, he won a split decision over Bahrain's Hamza Kooheji to claim the vacant Brave bantamweight title. He defended the title with a unanimous decision over Bahrain's Gamzat Magomedov last time out, in October 2022.
The UFC still wasn't interested. And when he inquired about joining the cast for the new series of TUF, he was turned down again.
"That was probably my lowest moment in recent memory," he said. "I was released by the UFC and I was working my way back. I was fighting some of the best guys in the world. I won a world title. I defended it. I felt like I had made myself undeniable."
The choice of former UFC featherweight and lightweight champion Conor McGregor as one of the Season 31 coaches appears to have opened the door for Katona, who trains at McGregor's SBG (Straight Blast Gym)Gym in Dublin and shares his management.
"It was a hard 10 days of not knowing. And then all of a sudden I wake up … and got a message on Instagram from one of the (TUF) producers," Katona recalled.
Was he interested in being on "The Ultimate Fighter" again?
"I was like 'Man, give me 48 hours to get all my stuff (together).' He's like 'Actually can you leave tomorrow morning?' I said 'Absolutely.'"
Season 31 is likely to draw eyeballs given the return of McGregor. The volatile Irish star has not fought since July 2021 when he broke his leg in a loss to American Dustin (The Diamond) Poirier at UFC 264.
American (Iron) Michael Chandler, currently ranked fifth among lightweight contenders, is the other coach. McGregor and Chandler will fight later this year at a weight class yet to be announced.
McGregor (22-6-0) previously served as a coach on Season 22. Chandler (23-8-0) is a former Bellator champion and UFC lightweight contender, losing a title shot to Charles Oliveira at UFC 262 in May 2021.
Katona took his first karate class at five, then moved on to Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu and continued his MMA studies during high school and the University of Manitoba. His first pro fight was October 2014 so he was hitting both the books and his opponents.
After completing a mechanical engineering degree in May 2016, Katona decided the time was right to focus full-time on fighting. In November 2017, the five-foot-six 135-pounder moved full-time to Dublin to train at under coach John Kavanaugh, who coincidentally also has an engineering degree.
Katona was the first Canadian to win the show, other than “The Ultimate Fighter Nations,” which featured a Canada versus Australia format.
The Ultimate Fighter Season 31 Cast (with age, record and hometown/country)
Mando (El Toro) Gutierrez, 26, (8-2-0), U.S.; Trevor Wells, 27, (8-3-0), U.S.; Carlos (Pequeno) Vera, 35, (12-3-0), U.S.; Rico DiSciullo, 36, (11-2-0), U.S., Cody (The Renegade) Gibson, 35, (19-8-0), U.S.; Timur (Lucky) Valiev, 32, (18-30-0), Russia; Hunter Azure, 30, (10-3-0), U.S.; Brad (Superman) Katona, 31, (12-2-0), Winnipeg.
Landon (The Lone Wolf) Quinones, 27, (7-1-1), U.S.; Aaron McKenzie, 26, (11-2-1), U.S.; (Nasty) Nate Jennerman, 30, (16-5-0), U.S.; Lee Hammond, 26, (5-0-0), Ireland; Austin (Thud) Hubbard, 31, (15-6-0), U.S.; Roosevelt (The Predator) Roberts, 29, (12-3-0), U.S.; Kurt Holobaugh, 36, (19-7-0), U.S.; Jason (The Kid) Knight, 30, (22-7-0), U.S.
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This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 29, 2023.
Neil Davidson, The Canadian Press