It may seem like a lifetime ago sitting here on the cusp of 2014, but there was once a time when Ultimate Fighting Championship's (UFC) long-running reality series The Ultimate Fighter (TUF) was a can't miss show.
After all, it was the first season of TUF that brought in the scores of new fans who led to UFC's comeback from the brink of financial ruin circa 2005. That season also gave the resurgent mixed martial arts (MMA) promotion a number of fighters who would go on to become legitimate stars in the eyes of this new generation of fans -- men such as Kenny Florian, Chris Leben, Josh Koscheck, Diego Sanchez, and Forrest Griffin.
Subsequent seasons also offered viewers a chance to get in on the ground floor with competitors like Rashad Evans and Michael Bisping while watching them take the first steps on their storied careers as UFC fighters.
But somewhere along the line the pool of available prospects began to dry up, leaving us with numerous TUF winners who could never quite put together the win-streak necessary to make it out of the prelim-purgatory so many lower tier UFC fighters find themselves relegated to.
And with that, suddenly bearing witness to the fitness of the modern warrior didn't seem like such a pressing concern.
Sure, there were seasons of TUF that were more compelling than others, but these fluctuations in fan interest had more to do with the dynamics between opposing coaches than any legitimate stars emerging from the shows' cast. With the exception of former Flyweight challenger John Dodson, who won the Bantamweight tournament on the all lighter weight season 14, no TUF winner since season five's Nate Diaz has ended up challenging for a title in UFC.
That may change though with the current eighteenth season of TUF, which wraps up this Saturday, Nov. 30 from the Mandalay Bay Events Center in Las Vegas, Nevada. The addition of female fighters to the cast, many of whom are well known names on the women's mixed martial arts (WMMA) scene, has provided a shot of adrenaline to the once flatlining series.
While whoever comes out on top the Davey Grant vs. Chris Holdsworth men's tournament final probably won't be causing the winner of the upcoming Bantamweight title unification match between champ Dominick Cruz and interim title holder Renan Barao to be reaching for a bottle of Ambien in the foreseeable future, the women's field has produced a few fighters who show the potential to eventually make waves in the division.
With the season 18 finale just days away, let's take a look back at past TUF winners and see how they fared in UFC after winning their six figure contract and cut glass trophy.
Note: This list focuses exclusively on the American seasons of TUF that aired on Spike TV and FX. Why? Well, if my copy of "A Dude Who Chants 'USA' at Combat Sporting Events' History of the United States" has taught me anything, it's that we didn't whip them Brits and Brazilians ferrin' asses back in Dubya Dubya Two just so one day I'd be forced to write about editions of TUF geared toward people who don't speak 'Merican. Plus, this is already going to be long enough as it is.
Luckily for MMA fans, Sanchez isn't "ex-girlfriend insane" -- which if your exes are anything like mine ranges anywhere from 11 to 11,000 on a ten point scale -- he's "friend you want on your side when you're getting mugged by a gang of armed thugs" insane. Simply put, if Sanchez is in a fight he's going to either knock someone's head off or go down swinging.
He may not have lived up to his initial proclamations that he was destined to retire undefeated -- in fact Sanchez has tasted defeat six times in the Octagon to date, and got roughed up something fierce by BJ Penn in the lone title shot of his career -- but the man once known by the fitting nickname "Nightmare" has made a mark for himself as arguably one of the most exciting fighters in UFC history.
In fact, Sanchez has racked up seven fight of the night bonuses for his epic battles against fighters like Clay Guida, Martin Kampmann, Jake Ellenberger, and most recently Gilbert Melendez at UFC 166.
It was the Melendez fight, an instant classic that many called the best fight in UFC history after it was over, which saw Sanchez cement his legacy as a fighter who never walked past a barn he didn't feel an irrepressible urge to burn to the ground.
Sanchez is still actively competing, although considering the damage he has taken in his past few fights, one wonders how many more back and forth slugfests he has left in him before he begins to break down.
Whatever the case may be, over the course of his UFC tenure Sanchez has established a body of work he will be able to look back on with pride whenever he does decide to hang up his gloves and stop doing Yes Cartwheels inside the Octagon.
Forrest Griffin (Light Heavyweight): Like Sanchez, Griffin's UFC career was that of a serial overachiever who, despite having less than elite athletic gifts, pushed his body to the absolute limit in his quest to be best fighter he could possibly be.
Griffin's hard work paid off. Not only did the scrappy, self proclaimed "dog" end up making life-altering amounts of money as one of UFC's top stars during the company's initial boom period, but in 2008 Griffin won the company's Light Heavyweight championship from Quinton "Rampage" Jackson.
Although Griffin lost the belt in his first attempted defense of the title, it was his next fight, a Light Heavyweight bout against long reigning Middleweight kingpin Anderson Silva, that signaled the beginning of the end for him. Silva toyed with a humiliated Griffin before finally knocking him out cold at the end of the first round with an innocuous looking step away jab.
After the loss to Silva, Griffin went on to win on to win three of his remaining four fights before retirement. However, something was missing. The man who, after dropping a decision to Tito Ortiz at UFC 59, once remarked how he wanted to go three more rounds after losing a fight was suddenly admitting that then-up and comer Jon Jones would "whoop [his] ass."
Simply put, after getting knocked out by Silva, Griffin was no longer a dog.
Griffin's UFC 148 victory in a rubber match with Ortiz ended up being both men's swan song in the company. Although Griffin had plans to continue fighting, he decided to take UFC President Dana White's advice to retire after suffering a string of injuries in training.
Joe Stevenson (Welterweight): With Joe "Daddy" Stevenson we now come to the first TUF winner whose UFC career fell short of expectations. After winning the season 2 Welterweight field against piss-drinker Luke Cummo, Stevenson went on to drop a decision against Josh Neer before going on a four fight win streak.
That was enough to earn him a shot at the vacant UFC Lightweight championship in a match against former champ BJ Penn. That bout saw Stevenson get mercilessly beat down by "The Prodigy" like the victim of a gang initiation.
From there he went on to win a few and lose a whole lot more. Stevenson hasn't fought since getting choked out by former porn star Dakota Cochrane back in June, 2012, and considering the fact the 31 year old is currently riding a five fight losing streak, it's probably for the best Joe Daddy has seemingly called it a career.
Rashad Evans (Heavyweight): There's a case to be made that the former Light Heavyweight champion and one time nipple tweaker Evans is the most successful of any TUF alumnus. Although, like Griffin, he never defended the title after winning it, at one point in time Evans was also a blockbuster pay per view (PPV) draw when slotted against the correct opponent.
Along with his TUF 10 coaching rival Rampage Jackson, Evans is responsible for the highest non-title PPV number in MMA history, with approximately 1,050,000 buys for their grudge match in the main event of UFC 114.
Although Evans fell on a rough patch, dropping consecutive losses to Jon Jones and Antônio Rogério Nogueira, he appears to be back on track now with a pair of victories over Dan Henderson and Chael Sonnen in his past two outings.
Something tells me Evans getting his grove back as of late may be due to an increased regimen of surreptitious prefight nipple tweaking in the locker room. Either that, or his Blackzillians camp is finally firing on all cylinders and Rashad has his head on straight after going through a trying time in his personal life over the past couple years.
Nah, it's gotta be the nipples.
Kendall Grove (Middleweight): Grove was another TUF winner cut from the same quickly fraying cloth as Joe Stevenson. He had a checkered career in UFC, before getting cut following a unanimous decision loss to Tim Boetsch at UFC 130.
Since then "Da Spyder," who evidently didn't get the memo that exchanging an "i" for a misplaced "y" still isn't an excuse to jack the nickname of one of the most recognizable fighters in the sport, went on to continue his reliably uneven ways on the regional circuit before making it back onto national TV with a win in his promotional debut at Bellator 104.
Somewhere out there that magical night back in October, Grove's "Team Dagger" compatriot Solomon Hutcherson was doubtlessly shedding tears of joy, all the while making a hand gesture suggestive of either puncturing flesh with a knife or catching a particularly quick beat while cooped up in a house with sixteen other dudes for five weeks.
Michael Bisping (Light Heavyweight): Although Bisping has made a habit of losing whenever he appears to be on the cusp of a title shot, the outspoken Englishman has had a more than respectable career. He has 14 UFC victories to his credit over some legit names and, thanks to his often brash interviews, has carved out a niche for himself as one of the TUF generation's foremost heels.
Bisping's future remains in some doubt following a recent surgery to repair a detached retina, but if "The Count" is to believed, the injury won't prove to be career threatening. However, with Bisping turning 35 in just two months, time may be running out on him ever getting a crack at the belt if he doesn't soon put together a series of solid wins in rapid succession.
Matt Serra (Welterweight): If Disney ever decides to cast a bald, f-bomb dropping dude from New York in a live action remake of Cinderella, Matt Serra would be perfect for the role. After winning the Welterweight field in the comeback-themed fourth season of TUF, Serra recorded perhaps the single biggest upset in UFC history when he knocked out the best Welterweight in UFC, Georges St. Pierre, in the first round, thereby capturing the 170-pound title.
Of course, the clock soon struck midnight on Serra's Cinderella tale. "GSP" whooped that ass in their rematch and left most observers feeling like the result of their first go round was a fluke.
Serra went on to amass a 1-2 records after his loss to St. Pierre, and hasn't stepped in the cage since 2010. These days his focus is on the fighters he trains along with partner Ray Longo, the most successful of whom is current UFC Middleweight champ Chris Weidman.
Travis Lutter (Middleweight): If Matt Serra is UFC's equivalent to Cinderella, then Travis Lutter is the company's answer to former WWF jobber The Brooklyn Brawler. Although Lutter defeated Patrick Cote by armbar in the season four finale to win a shot at champ Anderson Silva's 185-pound title, Lutter only has one other UFC win on his record -- to Marvin Eastman way back at UFC 50.
What makes Lutter's UFC tenure even more ignoble is that he flushed his hard earned shot at Middleweight gold down the toilet by failing to make weight before his UFC 67 bout with Silva.
After getting submitted in the second round by Silva in their non-title main event, Lutter sat out for a year with a neck injury before getting TKO'd out of the company by Rich Franklin at UFC 83.
No word on whether WWE wanted to bring Lutter in for a "J.O.B. Squad 2K" faction, but he would have been perfect for the role.
Nate Diaz (Lightweight): Judging from that pungent aroma assailing my nostrils and the sudden desire to scarf down an entire bag of Doritos-shell tacos that is storming the Bastille of my willpower like a mob of Rastafarian revolutionaries, it's safe to say our little trip down TUF memory lane has just made a stop under the perpetually cloudy skies of the 209.
No matter what he accomplishes in his career, Nate Diaz will likely be forever in the smokey shadow cast by his older brother, the one man train wreck known as Nick Diaz. Whatever that X-factor is that makes it impossible to look away when the elder Diaz goes off on one of his nonsensical tirades, Nate just doesn't have it.
What he does have though are some legit skills in the cage. Although Diaz has recorded more than his share of losses inside the Octagon, he also has a number of impressive wins over legit competition like Jim Miller and Donald Cerrone.
Assuming Diaz can get the time off from his impending high school reunion, he is set to face Gray Maynard at this Saturday's finale in the rubber match of a series that goes back to their days in the TUF house together.
Mac Danzig (Welterweight): Danzig, a former King of the Cage and Pride vet, was brought into season six as something of a ringer. As expected the peace loving vegan ended up winning the tournament, but post TUF things ended up not going so well for him.
In fact Danzig is currently the owner of a 5-7 record in the Octagon, which means his upcoming UFC on FOX 9 fight against Joe Lauzon may very well be his last in the company unless he can pull of a win.
Maybe eating a steak or two in training and squashing some bugs with his fist will help the mellow Danzig cultivate the killer instinct necessary to smash Lauzon in the cage?
Amir Sadollah (Middleweight): If you wanted to point to a particular season where the drop off in quality of TUF contestants began, the obvious place to start would be season 7, which saw an amateur with no professional fights to his credit run through the field and win the tournament.
This isn't a knock on Sadollah, who has had a decent little run as a lower card fighter, but his win in season six begs the question why fans should invest in three months of programming just to watch the emergence of a fighter destined to serve out the majority of his UFC tenure on Fight Night cards and PPV prelims? After all this is supposed to be The Ultimate Fighter we're talking about here, not "The Perfectly Respectable Journeyman."
Efrain Escudero (Lightweight): Speaking of future journeymen winning TUF, Efrain Escudero encapsulates that as well as anyone with his Season 7 tournament victory at Lightweight. "Hecho en México" seemed like a good enough prospect at the time -- he was 11-0 after his victory over "The Next Anderson Silva" Phillipe Nover at the TUF 7 finale (don't even get me started on that debacle) -- but after that he fizzled out faster than a fart in a jacuzzi.
In fact, Escudero has the ignominious distinction of being the only TUF winner to find himself bounced from UFC on two separate occasions thanks to his nasty habit of turning in loses after winning in the type of boring, wrestling-centered performances that drive Dana White nuttier than a judge appointed by the Nevada State Athletic Commission.
Ryan Bader (Light Heavyweight): Like Escudero, Bader also came into his stint on TUF 8 undefeated. What's more, as a former Pac 10 champion in a sport where wrestling is the most desirable base for a beginning fighter, the sky appeared to be the limit for "Darth" Bader.
Ever since losing to Jon Jones at UFC 126 however, the former Sun Devil's career arc has resembled less that of a horizon-challenging skysrcraper and has instead looked more like a two or three story suburban office complex. Bader is a beast against the Vladimir Matyushenko's of the world, but put him in against a legit top five opponent -- or a washed up Tito Ortiz for that matter -- and he's going to get blasted like a frat pledge playing his first game of beer pong.
Or to put it another way, when Bader got TKO'd the fuck out by Glover Teixeira this past September, nobody was talking about how Teixeira presented a legit threat to Jones' 205-pound title. Instead they were casting an aspersion-laden finger in Teixeira's direction and questioning how a man who got rocked by a fighter like Bader before eventually getting a first round TKO victory could pose a challenge for Jones.
That just about says it all concerning where Bader stands right now.
Ross Pearson (Lightweight): For a lifelong Midwesterner like myself, attempting to penetrate Pearson's thick working class English accent is a bit like trying to navigate though the London fog while wearing a pair of Ray Bans. It's possible, but not easy going by any means.
Pearson seems like a relatively likeable chap from what I can tell of him, but he's just not an elite fighter by any stretch of the imagination. Since winning TUF, the immodestly named "Real Deal" has gone 6-3-1 NC, which is a perfectly fine record, but Perason just hasn't been able to put together a sustained win streak or a breakout performance in his UFC career.
However, if Peter Jackson ever decides to make a movie about pugilistic orcs descending upon the Shire and whooping all sorts of Hobbit ass, the -- to American ears at least -- elfin sounding Pearson may be perfect for the role.
James Wilks (Welterweight): I'm not going to lie, Wilks is one of those guys whose name I never remembered before I decided to start covering this sport for a living.
A quick look back at his UFC record reveals why he was among the less memorable TUF winners in history. After defeating DaMarques Johnson -- who at least had something of a personality that stood out -- Wilks went 1-2 in the Octagon before being forced into a premature retirement due to severe spinal problems that put him at a high risk for paralysis if he continued fighting.
Poor guy. I like to crack jokes to keep things interesting in a column this long, but there's nothing funny about the condition of Wilks' spine. Here's hoping he's able to live a relatively normal, pain-free life from hereon out.
Roy Nelson (Heavyweight): The aptly nicknamed "Big Country" may look more like a "Duck Dynasty" super-fan or a potential contestant on "The Biggest Loser" than a badass cage fighter, but Nelson can crack with the best of UFC's Heavyweight division.
That is if he catches you early. Get Nelson out of the first round, and more often than not his cardio starts to resemble that of a guy who gulps down glasses of used deep fryer grease after training instead of protein shakes.
As a result, Nelson has amassed a record spotty as the coloring in that tumbleweed he calls a beard. Just recently he went on a three fight win streak -- all by first round knockout or TKO -- only to drop unanimous decisions in his past two at bats in the Octagon at the hands of opponents who were able to outwork him in the cage.
Like a more colorful version of Bader, "Big Country" is one of those guys who will likely be around UFC's heavyweight division for a long time to come, but he's never going to fight for the belt.
Court McGee (Middleweight): McGee has an inspirational story of battling back from drug abuse and he also rocks a giant goatee. He wins more often than he loses, but his loses are to names like Costa Philippou and Nick Ring. Which isn't meant as an insult to Philippou or Ring -- both are good fighters -- but neither are exactly knocking on the 185-pound title's door either, which makes one question what McGee's upside is.
Johnathan Brookins (Lightweight): Brookins looked good during his time on TUF, using a grappling centered game to shut down all his opponents, but after that he fizzled out under the big lights of UFC. Going 1-3 in his post-TUF career, Brookins retired from MMA in 2012 and decided to move to India to shore up the holes in his yoga game. Perhaps if India has a reality show called "The Ultimate Yogi," Brookins can win that and get a cut glass trophy of himself in Downward-Facing Dog.
Tony Ferguson (Welterweight): Although, due to injuries, Ferguson has only fought five times since winning TUF 13 back in June 2011, he has looked pretty respectable so far. Like many TUF winners before him, he dropped down a weight class after winning the show, and is currently 3-1 as a Lightweight in UFC. At 29 years old, "El Cucuy" still has a little time to put it all together as long as he can stay healthy. Based on what we've seen of him it's doubtful he'd have anything for the Anthony Pettises and Benson Hendersons of the world, but it's not outside the realm of possibility he could one day climb into the top 10 if he can keep stringing wins together.
John Dodson (Bantamweight): The perpetually grinning Dodson is the most successful TUF alumnus in years, having amassed a 4-1 record inside the Octagon, with his lone loss coming in a title match against Flyweight champ Demetrious Johnson. At just 125 pounds, Dodson may bounce around the cage like a super ball that just got done being experimented upon in Walter White's lab, but all that frenetic energy belies the fact that Dodson is the rare pint-sized fighter with legit one-punch knockout power.
Dodson currently finds himself embroiled in a contendership triangle at 125-pounds featuring himself, the champ Johnson, and Joseph Benavidez. All three men appear to be a step above everyone else in the division at the moment, so expect them to keep fighting one another in various combinations over the coming years.
Diego Brandao (Featherweight): Brandao cut an amazing broken English promo about wanting to win TUF to buy his mom a house and get his little brother "away from the druggers" (sic) in his hometown favela, and ever since I can't get that endearing interview out of my mind whenever Brandao fights.
So far Brandao has shown flashes of brilliance inside the Octagon -- see his phenomenal victory over Dennis Bermudez in the TUF 14 finale -- but has also displayed a tendency to tire out in later rounds. However, in his most recent fight, Brandao won a three round decision against Daniel Pineda and appeared to be still relatively fresh in the third round.
Brandao may not ever wear UFC gold, but at just 26 years old he is still improving and has yet to reach his athletic peak. As the case of that other TUF winner named Diego has shown us, sometimes leaving behind a legacy of great fights over the course of a career is an even more noteworthy accomplishment than winning a title and losing it in short order like many former UFC champions have.
Season 15 (AKA TUF: Live)
Michael Chiesa (Lightweight): With his scruffy beard and scraggly hair, the Lightweight Chiesa looks kind of like Big Country's health conscious little brother.
Chiesa was a huge sentimental favorite, if not a betting one, during his time on TUF 15, thanks to the heartbreaking story of his father passing away in real time while the show was filming. What made the story of Chiesa eventually winning of the show all the better was that he was the underdog in every fight he had during the competition and he still found a way to win each time.
So far Cheisa has done a much better job parlaying this success into the Octagon than many observers initially predicted, going 3-1 in UFC and getting stoppages in all three of his victories.
Colton Smith (Welterweight): Colton Smith is a wrestler. Colton Smith serves in the U.S. Army. Colton Smith wants to take you down and smother you from the top. Colton Smith is 0-2 in UFC since defeating Mike Ricci at the TUF 16 finale. Colton Smith's fights are about as exciting as the repetitive style I have adopted for this paragraph. Colton Smith may want to begin buttering Bjorn Rebney and Ray Sefo up now.
Kelvin Gastelum (Middleweight): Like Cheisa, Gastelum was a huge underdog in the TUF 17 tournament, but he ended up winning the whole thing due to his indomitable heart and determination. In the finale Gastelum faced a man in Uriah Hall who had been built up as a killer during the show, thanks to a steady series of brutal knockouts. Gastelum wasn't rattled by the hype, and instead took the fight to a very gun shy Hall in the season 17 finale, eventually winning a split decision over his heavily favored opponent.
At just 22 years of age and with only two UFC fights under his belt, we haven't seen much of what Gastelum's potential upside may be, but he looked great in his first round rear naked choke submission over Brian Melancon back in August. Considering how huge his heart is, if Gastelum can stay healthy and keep improving, there is a chance that he could go on to have a much better career than most TUF winners of recent vintage.
Well folks, that just about does it for our long and circuitous stroll down TUF memory lane. Time will tell how this coming Saturday's winners will fare in UFC, but if past precedent is any indication, winning TUF is far from an indicator of future success these days. Oh well, at least the winners get a sweet custom Harley, albeit one they would be well-advised to stay off of while still competing in the Octagon if the cases of Frank Mir and Jose Aldo are any indication.
Well, that beats winning a 2005 Scion at any rate.
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