The Ultimate Fighter
With a new season of The Ultimate Fighter about to hit the airwaves on June 1, setting a course towards a finale where two more competitors will join the illustrious list of past winners, there is no better time to comb through the archives of the 28 domestic seasons and 10 international editions of the reality TV competition in order to assemble a collection of the best fights to take place between contestants battling it out on the season-ending fight card.
There are some obvious candidates and probably a few fights you’ve forgotten about over the years, so settle in, buckle up, and get ready to fire up your UFC FIGHT PASS subscription as we dive into the history books to deliver a chronological look at some of the best TUF Finale fights of all time.
Forrest Griffin def. Stephan Bonnar by unanimous decision (TUF 1 Finale)
The Ultimate Fighter® 1 Season Finale: Forrest Griffin vs Stephan Bonnar
The Ultimate Fighter® 1 Season Finale: Forrest Griffin vs Stephan Bonnar
One of the most important fights in UFC history, this back-and-forth clash between Forrest Griffin and Stephan Bonnar would still rank highly on a list of the best fights to ever take place inside the Octagon even without all of the Ultimate Fighter intrigue; that’s how entertaining this fight was at the time and remains today.
For 15 minutes, these two light heavyweight hopefuls beat each other up, trading punches and kicks in a grueling, back-and-forth affair where each man was absolutely spent by the time the final horn soundhttps://ufc.com/athlete/scott-smithed. But it wasn’t just a tremendously entertaining scrap designed to set the table for the main event — it was the culmination of several months of sacrifice, hard work, and focus with one goal in mind: to earn a UFC contract.
The anguish on Bonnar’s face when Griffin’s name was announced as the winner tells you all you need to know about what these two gave that evening at the Cox Pavilion and why UFC President Dana White gave each man the opportunity to compete inside the Octagon going forward.
It would turn out to be a catalyst for the company’s rise and usher in a host of new talents that became staples in the promotion for the next several years, but as it was happening on April 9, 2005, it was just an outstanding fight and a fitting climax to a wild, entertaining season on The Ultimate Fighter.
Kendall Grove def. Ed Herman by unanimous decision (TUF 3 Finale)
This one always felt like the sequel to Griffin-Bonnar in that it came a year later, didn’t generate as much attention, but was still really good even though the lead characters had changed.
Both men scored consecutive submission wins in their first two fights to advance to the middleweight finals against one another, and the action and excitement escalated the longer the fight progressed.
In the first, Herman took Grove to the canvas, but got trapped in an armbar and was forced to defend. It was ground-and-pound versus submission attempts as they battled on the canvas, with Herman looking to get off damage and the lanky Grove throwing up submission attempts whenever opportunities arose.
They were back on the canvas early in the second and the pattern persisted, with Grove attacking with triangle chokes, getting bloodied by the defending Herman in the process as he worked himself free. Late in the round, as Grove settled into top position, Herman locked up a deep triangle choke of his own, reversing the momentum, only for Grove to wriggle free and look to land to close out the round.
Grove came out looking to strike and the exhausted Herman managed to secure a takedown, passing to side control as the long-limbed Hawaiian tried to find an opening off his back. Midway through the final stanza, Herman dumped Grove to the canvas again and took his back, flattening Grove out and landing punches before switching to an armbar attempt.
But Grove escaped, passed, and took Herman’s back in return, fishing his arm under Herman’s neck. As the final seconds ticked off the clock, Herman’s face continued turning a deep shade of red before the final horn brought the bout to a halt.
Just like with Griffin and Bonnar, UFC President Dana White wasn’t going to allow Herman to leave empty handed after a fight like that, awarding the Team Quest representative a contract as well.
Scott Smith def. Pete Sell by KO (TUF 4 Finale)
Free Fight: Scott Smith vs Pete Sell | TUF 4 Finale, 2006
Free Fight: Scott Smith vs Pete Sell | TUF 4 Finale, 2006
Scott Smith and Pete Sell were veteran middleweights that had each had a cup of coffee in the UFC when the company decided to flip the script heading into Season 4 of The Ultimate Fighter. Instead of casting upstarts, the teams were comprised of established names looking to get another shot, and instead of simply getting a new contract, the winners of the middleweight and welterweight competitions would earn championship opportunities.
While everyone remembers the season because it eventually led to Matt Serra shocking the world at UFC 69 in Houston, Texas by stopping Georges St-Pierre to claim the welterweight title in what remains a pantheon-level upset, the night Serra punched his ticket to his future showdown with the French-Canadian superstar also featured one of the best comeback finishes in UFC history.
Smith and Sell each lost to eventual middleweight winner Travis Lutter during the competition, but their fan-friendly approach made them obvious candidates to bring back on the finale and pair off against one another. They both liked to bang it out and for a little over eight minutes, that’s precisely what they did.
Late in the second, Sell dropped down and hit Smith with a left hook to the body that immediate prompted “Hands of Steel” to double over and retreat. As Sell raced forward looking to capitalize, Smith lunged forward with a right hand that connected with Sell’s chin that sent him crashing to the canvas in a heap.
While referee “Big” John McCarthy explained to Sell what happened, Smith resumed writhing in pain as a result of the hellacious body shot he’d taken moments earlier.
If you haven’t seen this fight, I implore you to take eight-and-a-half minutes out of your day to enjoy it because it is a fun scrap and one of the wildest comebacks you’re ever going to see inside the Octagon.
Diego Brandao def. Dennis Bermudez by submission (TUF 14 Finale)
Diego Brandao and Dennis Bermudez were the first two featherweight selections on Season 14 of The Ultimate Fighter, Brandao representing Team Bisping and Bermudez representing Team Mayhem, and each handled their business in impressive fashion during the tournament, finishing three consecutive opponents each to land opposite one another at the finale.
This was nothing but action from the outset, each man looking to land big shots early, having positive moments in the striking exchanges before Brandao blasted Bermudez with a big overhand right that put him on the deck. The Long Island MMA representative recovered well and avoided any real immediate follow-ups, getting back on the offensive before eating a flying knee that resulted in the pair hitting the canvas.
Once on the mat, Brandao went to work, transitioning to Bermudez’ back, elevating him for another takedown, only to lose control of his body as they returned to the ground, allowing Bermudez to scurry away. As Brandao charged forward with a minute remaining, Bermudez connected with a short right hand that stopped him in his tracks.
Bermudez swarmed, looking to finish, brushing aside Brandao’s attempts to defend and cover up, only to get a little too aggressive and leave his arm exposed, giving the Brazilian the opening he needed to snatch up an armbar and secure the late submission win.
This was a solid back-and-forth fight for four minutes and a wild sprint to the finish from there, and it remains one of the most entertaining TUF Finale fights of all time.
Kelvin Gastelum def. Uriah Hall by split decision (TUF 17)
These two took very different roads to the finale on Season 17.
Uriah Hall had shown promise on the rugged East Coast regional circuit before being the second pick of Chael Sonnen when the teams were being selected. He kicked off his run to the finals with a devastating knockout win of Adam Cella that remains the scariest finish in TUF history, and followed it up with two more finishes to reach the point everyone seemed to expect throughout the entire season.
Kelvin Gastelum was just 21 years old and the final pick of Team Sonnen, leaving Dylan Andrews remaining as the last man standing when sides were being drawn. He was pudgy and raw, positioned as an underdog at every turn, but each time out, the scrappy kid from Yuma, Arizona found a way to win, securing submission wins over Bubba McDaniel, Collin Hart, and Josh Samman to reach the finale.
We saw a little bit of everything from each man as they battled tooth-and-nail for three rounds, Gastelum gaining an edge early and Hall drawing level in the second before they went toe-to-toe over the final five minutes for all the marbles. The way the fight ended was a fitting finish to this hard-fought back-and-forth, as both men emptied the tank, attacking through to the horn.
Two of the three judges saw the final round in Gastelum’s favor, making him the youngest Ultimate Fighter winner.
A fun note coming out of the season and the finale is that to this day, Gastelum and Hall remain extremely close, having trained together and lived together in the years since sharing the Octagon together eight years ago.
Jessica Penne def. Randa Markos by split decision (TUF 20)
The road to Jessica Penne and Randa Markos meeting in the “bronze medal matchup” at the end of Season 20 was comparable to that of Hall and Gastelum three seasons earlier.
Penne was the No. 4 seed, a former Invicta FC champion, and one of the more established names in the competition; someone who was expected to advance, much like Hall. Markos was the No. 14 seed, a scrappy grinder from Windsor, Ontario who orchestrated a surprising run to the semifinals by upsetting Tecia Torres and Felice Herrig, similar to the way Gastelum kept defying the odds during his victorious turn on the show.
The duo kicked off the main card of the December 2014 finale and it was a scrambly, all-action affair from the outset, with Markos sustaining a cut less than 30 seconds in as the pair hit the canvas and began their cat-and-mouse grappling battle in the first round.
They stayed on their feet for the majority of the middle stanza, with Markos countering the advancing Penne, driving home right hands and circling out before the tandem returned to the canvas in the final 90 seconds, once again working through a series of scrambles and sweeps before Penne finished in top position.
Round 3 was comparable to its predecessor, with the first half of the round being contested on the feet, with Markos getting the better of the exchanges before Penne put her on the deck and kept her there for the remainder of the round, advancing positions and attacking without ever putting Markos in serious danger.
One judge had it 29-28 for Penne, another scored it 29-28 for Markos, and the deciding tally came in at 30-27 for Penne, giving her the victory that would earn her a title shot six months later.
Carla Esparza def. Rose Namajunas by submission (TUF 20)
The main event of the TUF 20 Finale was a clash between Carla Esparza and Rose Namajunas to crown the inaugural UFC strawweight champion.
Esparza was the No. 1 seed, entering off a successful run atop the 115-pound weight class under the Invicta FC banner and having used her dominant wrestling chops to work her way to the finals. Namajunas was the No. 7 seed, a precocious upstart with an abundance of potential that pulled off an upset win over Joanne Calderwood in the semifinals and earned finishes in each of her three bouts to hit the finale with a ton of momentum and buzz.
Namajunas came out aggressively, taking the fight to Esparza on the feet, attacking with kicks and punches from range and successfully scrambling to safety after getting taken down early in the first. To her credit, Esparza acquitted herself well in the striking exchanges, and timed her entries exceptionally well, putting Namajunas down in the center of the cage twice in the final minute of the first.
In the second, Esparza did a better job of maintaining top control once she got the fight to the ground, working to advance and land blows as Namajunas looked to create space and get back to her feet. The more she kept Namajunas on her back, the more the energy seemed to drain out of the 22-year-old, as Esparza spent the final two-plus minutes of the second round pummeling Namajunas, finishing the round unloading punches from mount and closing in on a finish.
Early in the third, Esparza caught a kick that allowed her to put Namajunas on the ground once more, and from there, it was academic. The Team Oyama representative climbed onto Namajunas’ back, softening her up with short shots before clamping onto a neck crank and drawing out the tap to close out her march to history.
Six and a half years later, a championship rematch between the two seems like a real possibility, as Namajunas claimed the title for a second time last month with a first-round knockout win over Zhang Weili while Esparza extended her winning streak to five with a second-round stoppage win over Yan Xiaonan last weekend.
Demetrious Johnson def. Tim Elliott by unanimous decision (TUF 24)
Okay, so I’m deviating from the parameters here, but hear me out:
The whole set up to Season 24 of The Ultimate Fighter was that a collection of regional champions were brought in to do battle against one another, with the winner earning the opportunity to face flyweight champion Demetrious “Mighty Mouse” Johnson at the finale. So while Johnson wasn’t in the cast, he was the specter that loomed over the entire season, and then headlined the finale, so it feels fitting to include this bout.
Tim Elliott had been in the UFC prior to landing on Season 24, posting a 2-4 record in six starts that included bouts with divisional standouts John Dodson, Ali Bagautinov, and Joseph Benavidez. He won his first two matchups in the house by submission and then pounded out decisions over Eric Shelton and Hiromasa Ogikubo to land opposite Johnson, who entered on 10-fight winning streak, having successfully defended his title eight times.
A massive underdog, Elliott came out attacking, threatening Johnson with a choke almost immediately and putting the champion down a round after five minutes, the first time in ages that “Mighty Mouse” had been on the wrong side of things. While the champion rebounded and ran the table on the scorecards from then out, Elliott never stopped moving, with Johnson saying it was akin to “wrestling a damn muskrat trying to neutralize him.”
Elliott remains a fixture in the division to this day and an always entertaining addition to any fight card he’s on, while Johnson’s name is etched all over the UFC record books following his historic reign atop the flyweight division.
Lauren Murphy def. Barb Honchak by split decision (TUF 26)
Lauren Murphy and Barb Honchak were the third and second seeds, respectively, in the 16-woman tournament to crown the first women’s flyweight champion in UFC history, but they weren’t initially scheduled to face one another at the finale.
Murphy got bounced in the opening round of the tournament and was initially expected to face promotional newcomer Priscila Cachoeira, but the bout never materialized, while Honchak was slated to face Roxanne Modafferi in a “bronze medal matchup.” Murphy kept herself ready, weighing in as an alternate, and when finalist Sijara Eubanks was forced out of the championship main event at the 11th hour, the deck was reshuffled, with Modafferi elevated into the title fight and Murphy tabbed to fill the void opposite the former Invicta FC champion.
It was a strange setup that the two acknowledged with a shared smile and laugh before business got underway inside the Octagon, but then they got after it.
This was an entertaining, back-and-forth battle between two high-level, veteran competitors that were happy to trade blows, mixing it up on the feet for the majority of the contest, with Murphy wearing it a little more while also being the one to initiate the grappling exchanges both late in the second and 90 seconds into the third.
Although Murphy was the one in top position, Honchak was the one threatening, attacking an armbar and transitioning to a triangle midway through the third round, shifting to a belly-down armbar once Murphy popped her head out. After escaping, Murphy countered, immediately climbing on Honchak’s back, spending the final 45 seconds fighting the hands, trying to find a way to secure a choke.
It was 29-28s across the board in one of those rare instances where the judges were not unanimous in how they saw any round, but two of the three seeing the bout in Murphy’s favor.
Nicco Montano def. Roxanne Modafferi by unanimous decision (TUF 26)
For the second time in seven seasons, the main event of an Ultimate Fighter Finale would crown the first champion in the history of a new division, as Nicco Montano and Roxanne Modafferi squared off with the women’s flyweight title hanging in the balance.
Montano was the season’s Cinderella, entering as the 14th seed before registering upset wins over Murphy, Montana De La Rosa (nee Stewart), and Honchak, the Nos. 3, 6, and 2 seeds respectively, to reach the finals. Modafferi was the top seed and the sentimental favorite all season long — a pioneer on the female side of the sport who had previously competed on the first TUF season featuring female competitors and was in the midst of a renaissance when this second opportunity presented itself.
Though she lost in the semifinals, Modafferi was tabbed to replace the woman that beat her, Sijara Eubanks, when “Sarj” was forced off the card the day before the event, creating a situation where regardless of the outcome, a really cool story would be written in the championship finale.
Montano would cruise to victory, sweeping the scorecards by dictating the terms of engagement and outworking Modafferi throughout, capping an incredible run from relative unknown to UFC titleholder.