Read on for a countdown of the top 30 fighters to emerge from The Ultimate Fighter. Will any of the competitors emerging from TUF 16 eventually join them?
This Friday night, September 14, The Ultimate Fighter begins its 16th season, and when the bell rings on FX at 9pm, 32 welterweight hopefuls will begin competing for glory and a UFC contract. Several of those who have come before them have gone on to become champions and contenders in the Octagon, and the best of the best are listed below in the updated version of the TUF 30.
So how did we determine the fighters chosen here? First is level of success. Winning a UFC championship is the obvious pinnacle, and only three TUF competitors (Matt Serra, Forrest Griffin, and Rashad Evans) have reached those heights. Fighting for a UFC belt is big plus in a fighter’s favor as well. Next up is quality of opposition. Fighting at the highest level of the game and losing a few fights will get you more points here than winning a bunch of fights at the prelim level. And finally, we’re looking at impact on the organization, which is a subjective call, but one that is necessary. Headlining pay-per-views and being in the public eye consistently adds a level of pressure fighting in non-televised bouts just doesn’t have. That’s why a Michael Bisping, who has been the face of UK MMA and the headliner or participant in a featured bout on many major cards, is in the top five while other veteran performers are below him.
With that said…
30 – Tony Ferguson
Post TUF record: 3-1
Tony Ferguson didn’t play around on TUF 13, knocking out Justin Edwards, Ryan McGillivray, and Chuck O’Neil on the show before winning the season title with a first round KO of Ramsey Nijem. In his post-TUF career thus far, he stopped veteran Aaron Riley, and won an exciting three rounder over another vet, Yves Edwards. A loss to TUF12 finalist Michael Johnson in May slowed him down a bit, but a strong return is expected from “El Cucuy.”
DEFINING FIGHT – W3 Yves Edwards
TUF TALK – “I wouldn’t give it up for the world. Even though I almost had a heart attack seeing myself on TV, I’m so happy that I had the opportunity to do that. At the time you’re in the house, it drives you nuts, but looking at it now, the whole experience was amazing and I miss the house.”
29 - Kendall Grove
Post TUF record: 10-7
Heading towards journeyman status when he entered the TUF house for season three, Grove began taking his training and fighting career seriously under the tutelage of coach Tito Ortiz and ran the table en route to the season three middleweight title. What has followed since has been a mix of impressive wins over Alan Belcher, Evan Tanner, and Goran Reljic, crushing KO losses to Patrick Cote and Jorge Rivera, and a two fight losing streak that prompted his release in 2011. “Da Spyder” has since won three of four outside of the UFC, and if he can find consistency, maybe we’ll be seeing him back here sooner rather than later.
DEFINING FIGHT - W3 Evan Tanner
TUF TALK - “Before the show I never had anybody come up to me and shake my hand and tell me that I was one of their favorite fighters. But after the show, it started to happen and it was just a mind trip.”
28 – Joe Stevenson
Post TUF record: 8-9
Joe Stevenson, a pro since the age of 16, was about to walk away from the game when he got the call to compete on season two of The Ultimate Fighter. Stevenson went on to defeat Jason Von Flue and Marcus Davis on the show before winning that season’s welterweight title in a three round war with Luke Cummo. Following his stint on TUF, Stevenson was upset by Josh Neer, a defeat which prompted a drop to 155 pounds. At lightweight, ‘Joe Daddy’ found his home, winning four in a row before getting submitted by BJ Penn in a 2008 challenge for the vacant 155-pound crown. Stevenson has hit a rough patch after that, losing six of his last eight, including a decision loss to Javier Vazquez that got him his walking papers last year. But given his history, it would be foolish to count him out just yet.
DEFINING FIGHT – Wsub1 Melvin Guillard
TUF TALK – “I probably wouldn’t have continued if it weren’t for the show. The show is such a springboard for the fight game, and for the athlete himself, that it was an opportunity I couldn’t pass up. There are things in your life you just don’t say no to.”
27 – Keith Jardine
Post TUF record: 8-10-1
Some will look at the five knockout losses suffered by Jardine since he left season two of The Ultimate Fighter and dismiss him, despite the fact that those defeats came at the hands of Wanderlei Silva, Thiago Silva, Houston Alexander, Ryan Bader, and Strikeforce champion Luke Rockhold. Yet we can’t forget that Jardine holds wins over a pretty impressive group that includes the names Chuck Liddell, Forrest Griffin, Wilson Gouveia, and Brandon Vera, and in 2009 he ate bombs from Quinton Jackson for 15 minutes before losing a hard-fought decision. So you can rightfully say that “The Dean of Mean” needs to find consistency, but you can’t question what he can do as a fighter. Just ask the men he’s beaten.
DEFINING FIGHT – W3 Chuck Liddell
TUF TALK - “Fighting is the apex of all competition, and there’s nothing harder than getting in the ring to fight. Actually, that makes it easier for everything else you do in life. Anything hard in life I might be doing, it’s just like, ‘this is nothing compared to fighting.’ I’ve conquered the demons from going into the ring and fighting, so everything else is easy after that.”
26 - Krzysztof Soszynski
Post TUF record: 6-3
If you said Krzysztof Soszynski’s career before The Ultimate Fighter 8 resembled that of a journeyman, he would probably agree with you. But that’s the life you lead when you’re learning on the job and running towards killer competition on a regular basis. What this education did for Soszynski was make him a dangerous fighter when it was time to step on the world stage, and since TUF, he has proven himself to be finally hitting his stride, as he’s won six of nine UFC bouts, with the only losses coming to Igor Pokrajac, Brandon Vera and Stephan Bonnar (in their rematch). And while he’s hinted at retirement, Soszynski probably still has a good amount of gas in his fighting tank.
DEFINING FIGHT – TKO3 Stephan Bonnar
TUF TALK – “People look at my record and they think ‘oh, he’s just a mediocre fighter and got into the show through The Ultimate Fighter. But to me, I work my butt off every day in the gym, I give everything I have to this sport and even though I have nine losses on my record, most of them were early on in my career when I really didn’t know any better and didn’t train with anybody who was top level and who could teach me the right way. It’s been a learning experience for the last six years, I finally made it, and I’m gonna stick with it and keep training my butt off.”
25 – Nate Quarry
Post TUF record: 7-3
For a long time, Nate Quarry may very well have been the most underrated fighter in the middleweight division, and that went back to what could be referred to as the first phase of his UFC career in 2005. That year, Quarry went from TUF to the Octagon, won three fights in a row by knockout, and was then given a shot at Rich Franklin’s middleweight title, which he lost by devastating KO himself. Following the defeat, Quarry underwent a serious spinal fusion surgery and few expected him to return to form when he came back in 2007. But come back he did, winning four of six bouts, including classic wars with Pete Sell and Tim Credeur. It was an amazing comeback, earning Quarry – one of the game’s good guys – some well-deserved accolades. And though a TKO loss to Jorge Rivera in March of 2010 prompted him to announce his retirement from the sport, “Rock” certainly made an impression on all who met him and watched him fight.
DEFINING FIGHT – KO3 Pete Sell
TUF TALK – “To be honest with you, sitting down and watching the show could be very disturbing at times. Especially the episode where Chris Leben had the problems with (Josh) Koscheck and Bobby Southworth. After I watched that episode, I had a hard time sleeping. I was up for three, four hours after the show and I had a hard time sleeping for the next couple of days because it just seemed so personal and so emotional, and now all of a sudden someone has seen those personal sides of me. Millions of people that I don’t know are seeing parts of myself that I don’t show to just anybody – things that don’t come up in everyday life.”
24 – Marcus Davis
Post TUF record: 12-7
One of the UFC’s most exciting fighters, pound for pound, during his nearly five year run, Marcus Davis made a successful transition from the pro boxing ring to the Octagon, but it wasn’t without some serious growing pains and soul searching. But once “The Irish Hand Grenade” realized that his fists alone would only take him so far in MMA, he began winning, and winning, and winning, even throwing in four submission wins in the UFC along the way. Owner of victories over the likes of Chris Lytle, Paul Kelly, and Paul Taylor, Davis hit a rough patch that saw him lose four of five, but Davis has won three of four since being cut from the UFC, proving that you can’t keep a good man down.
DEFINING FIGHT – Wsub1 Paul Taylor
TUF TALK - “In a lot of respects, I was a boxer who was trying to fight in mixed martial arts, somebody who was trying to pick up some of the tools and just use some of them in order to use my boxing game. And after being in the UFC and seeing that I can’t do that, I realized that if I wanted to be in the UFC and be a mixed martial arts fighter, that’s what I have to be. I can’t be a boxer who uses partial mixed martial arts techniques to box. So now I don’t look at myself as a boxer – I look at myself as a mixed martial artist
23 – Brendan Schaub
Post TUF record: 4-3
A former fullback for the University of Colorado, Brendan Schaub clearly had the athleticism and the power to compete in the heavyweight division in MMA, but after he was knocked out in the TUF10 finale by Roy Nelson, there were question marks. There aren’t too many of them left anymore though, as Schaub dispatched Chase Gormley and Chris Tuchscherer in rapid-fire fashion before putting together back-to-back wins over veteran contenders Gabriel Gonzaga and Mirko Cro Cop, the latter win at UFC 128 earning him Knockout of the Night honors. Losses to “Minotauro” Nogueira and Ben Rothwell were costly setbacks, but a win over Lavar Johnson in December will put the “Hybrid” train back on track.
DEFINING FIGHT – KO3 Mirko Cro Cop
TUF TALK –“It’s kind of like the game’s changed. Now you’ve got to be athletic and you’ve got to have it all. You gotta be able to wrestle, you gotta be able to strike, so the game’s changing. You see guys like Cain Velasquez and Junior Dos Santos, guys around my size who are really athletic heavyweights, making a name for themselves and doing well. I think the day of the big, experienced guy who just gets by on his toughness, that’s not gonna fly anymore.”
22 – Ryan Bader
Post TUF record: 7-3
This may be a little overdramatic, but Ryan Bader was about to become a cautionary tale of ‘too much, too soon’ heading into his UFC 144 bout with Quinton “Rampage” Jackson last month. Sure, Bader was talented, but after using his raw skills to pound his way to a 5-0 Octagon record after winning season eight of TUF, back-to-back losses to Jon Jones and Tito Ortiz in 2011 could have crippled him psychologically. Not “Darth” Bader though, and when the pressure was at its highest, he delivered with a shutout win over the former light heavyweight boss that resurrected the Arizonan as a light heavyweight contender. A loss in August to Lyoto Machida has slowed things down again for Bader, but he has shown resilience before, and you can expect to see it again.
DEFINING FIGHT – W3 Quinton “Rampage” Jackson
TUF TALK – “2011 was an interesting year, but I’m glad it happened because I wouldn’t have changed some things if those losses didn’t happen. That was the catalyst for great things this year. I’m gonna go out there and beat a legend of the sport and I’m gonna be a new fighter. Each fight I’m gonna get progressively better and I want to get up there in the upper echelon of the 205-pound division and stay there.”
21 – Ross Pearson
Post TUF record: 5-3
DEFINING FIGHT – W3 Spencer Fisher
Almost universally seen as one of the lightweight division’s top prospects, aggressive battler Ross Pearson had only two hiccups at 155 since winning season nine of TUF, a second round submission loss to Cole Miller, and a close split decision defeat against Edson Barboza. Otherwise, he looked outstanding in beating veteran competition like Aaron Riley, Dennis Siver, and Spencer Fisher, yet despite this, he decided a change of scenery was in order, and he moved to featherweight, where he debuted at UFC 141 with a win over Junior Assuncao and was stopped by Cub Swanson in June of 2012.
TUF TALK –“Obviously I was very confident in me own skills and confident that I was going to go in there, do my best, and get to the finals, but no one ever really said to me, ‘oh, you’re the favorite to win’ or anything like that,” he said. “It was basically my own self-belief that I would do well.”
20 – Melvin Guillard
Post TUF record: 12-7
Season two’s Melvin Guillard was always talented. The question was, could he keep his game together when dealing with a myriad of out of the ring issues and tragedies. Well, once he hooked up with the Greg Jackson team in Albuquerque, a new version of “The Young Assassin” emerged, and he was nearly unstoppable, going on a five fight winning streak before losing back-to-back bouts against Joe Lauzon and Jim Miller. Now training with the Blackzilians team in Florida (who he worked with part-time for the Lauzon bout and full-time for Miller), Guillard is looking to right his ship after an August loss to Donald Cerrone.
DEFINING FIGHT – TKO1 Evan Dunham
TUF TALK –“I’ve been through so many ups and downs in my career, and in my personal life, and one thing I always remember is that (UFC President) Dana (White) has always been good to me and he’s always been honest with me. And Dana sat me down one time a while back and he said ‘kid, you have all the talent in the world, and we like you. Don’t throw it away.’ And for my boss to come and tell me that they really care for me, that’s an honorable thing for me, and if my boss believes in me, why shouldn’t I believe in myself? I’m my own worst enemy. If I mess myself out of this, it’s because I did something. But I’m just so happy that I got to see what I was doing wrong.”
19 – Matt Mitrione
Post TUF record: 5-1
With no pro experience in mixed martial arts, former NFL lineman Matt Mitrione was expected to make some noise on season ten of TUF, and then go away. He had other plans though, defeating UFC vet Scott Junk on the show and then going on to compile a 5-1 record in the Octagon while amazing skeptics with the rapid growth in his technical game. Add in fight changing power and a healthy dose of athleticism, and suddenly the charismatic and popular Mitrione is a player in the heavyweight division.
DEFINING FIGHT –KO2 Christian Morecraft
TUF TALK – “Verbally, I said I was done competing (after football), but internally, I was never ready to be done, and I think I knew that I had to find something else to do. Sales wasn’t it. I started my own company and that was part of it, but it wasn’t the physical part, and that’s what I missed most. My wife saw that in me and she said, look, you’re gonna be doing something stupid anyway, you might as well get paid for it (Laughs).”
18 – Mike Swick
Post TUF record: 10-3
A rising star who had won five of six fights before appearing on season one of TUF, Mike Swick solidified his place as one of the game’s top prospects during the show, losing a tough bout to Stephan Bonnar, and then tore through his opposition in the middleweight division, winning four straight in the first round and then decisioning former title challenger David Loiseau. But after losing a three rounder to Yushin Okami, Swick resurfaced in the welterweight division. He looked to be settling in with decision wins over Josh Burkman and Marcus Davis, but it was in his next two bouts that he finally looked to be acclimated to 170 as he stopped Jonathan Goulet and Ben Saunders. Swick struggled in losses to Dan Hardy and Paulo Thiago, and after taking some time off to deal with an esophageal condition that had been plaguing him over the last few years and a knee injury, he returned in August of 2012 with a spectacular finish of DaMarques Johnson.
DEFINING FIGHT – TKO2 Ben Saunders
TUF TALK - “This is my job. I’m very passionate about it and I want to move up and be the best in the world. I’ve given up a huge portion of my life for this, and I didn’t do it for nothing. I’m taking it to the top, one way or another.”
17 – Chris Lytle
Post TUF record: 9-6
If you told me that there’s someone out there who dislikes Chris Lytle, I’d say you’re lying. Even the guys who threw hands with “Lights Out” for three rounds couldn’t say anything bad about him, and it’s why you wanted to see him go out with a Lytle-esque performance in his final bout against Dan Hardy last August. And that’s just what he did, showing off his striking, toughness, and finally, his submission game, as he finished “The Outlaw” in the third round. It was everything Lytle represented in 14 minutes and 16 seconds, and a fitting end to a career well fought.
DEFINING FIGHT – Wsub3 Dan Hardy
TUF TALK – “I don’t know if the word is that I’m addicted to it, but I just love to compete, and there’s nothing I’ve ever found to equal the overall feeling you get after you’ve struggled so much and put so much into something and then come out on top and achieve something. Most of the goals you have in your life never become tangible at one point, but this does. You put everything into this one fight that you’re training for, and when you win it, it’s like everything you worked for in your whole life has been successful. It’s a great feeling. So I’m kind of addicted to that feeling.”
16 – Chris Leben
Post TUF record: 12-7
Whether you loved him or hated him, Chris Leben always provoked strong feelings from MMA fans while being the poster boy for bad behavior on the first season of TUF. His post-TUF career has also matched his persona, thanks to an up and down journey that has always been compelling, regardless of the final result. And though Leben’s only .500 in his last eight, you can’t forget the 5-0 run that began his UFC career, and the back-to-back 2010 wins over Aaron Simpson and Yoshihiro Akiyama that came only two weeks apart, all moments that will forever keep “The Crippler” on fight fans’ minds.
DEFINING FIGHT - Wsub3 Yoshihiro Akiyama
TUF TALK - “I’m one of those guys that always thought they were gonna be famous. I thought I was somebody important before I was somebody important, I guess. In my mind, people should have always been pointing to me and saying, ‘hey, there goes Chris Leben.’”
15 – Stephan Bonnar
Post TUF record: 8-6
Stephan Bonnar could fight for another 10 years and win multiple titles, yet to most fans, he will always be remembered for the fight he lost to Forrest Griffin at the TUF1 finale in 2005. It was the war that put the UFC on the map and made Bonnar a household name to MMA fans. Since then, “The American Psycho” has had his share of ups and downs, but midway through 2010, he bounced back, and with three consecutive wins over Krzysztof Soszynski, Igor Pokrajac, and Kyle Kingsbury, it will be interesting to see what Bonnar can do when he faces Anderson Silva in the main event of UFC 153 in October.
DEFINING FIGHT – L3 Forrest Griffin I
TUF TALK –“I knew it (Griffin I) was a good fight when the final bell rang and the crowd was going nuts and yelling for another round. Just looking into the crowd and at everyone’s face, the energy level was so high, I said, ‘it must have been a good one.’”
14 – Matt Serra
Post TUF record: 3-3
How does Matt Serra, a guy who has a .500 record since winning The Ultimate Fighter get to this point on this list? Well, first, one of those three wins saw him take the UFC welterweight crown with a knockout of Georges St-Pierre, a man many believe will one day be seen as the greatest welterweight of all-time, and two, one of the losses (a close three round decision) came to the man who currently holds the title of greatest welterweight ever – Matt Hughes. Add in Serra’s TUF4 finale win over Chris Lytle (a loss Lytle avenged in 2010), his wins on the show over Shonie Carter and Pete Spratt, his UFC victories over Frank Trigg, Yves Edwards and Jeff Curran, and his memorable battles with Carter, BJ Penn, Din Thomas, and Karo Parisyan, and you’ve got a body of work that certainly warrants his place among the best fighters ever to appear on The Ultimate Fighter.
DEFINING FIGHT – TKO1 Georges St-Pierre
TUF TALK – “I was actually in Manhattan the other day and I got stopped like six times by people wishing me good luck and stuff like that. Then I was in 7-11 and this guy stops me and goes, ‘man, you look just like Matt Serra.’ It’s kinda surreal. But listen, that could be gone tomorrow, so I keep everything grounded. I’m not gonna let anything get to my head. I went in there thinking that if I put on a good performance and get to show some skill, it can really help out my schools. Of course I wanted to win the whole thing, but I knew there would be a bunch of tough guys in there and I didn’t want to get ahead of myself. I just said, ‘man, this could really do wonders for my school.’ This is how I make my living, teaching Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, and that’s what I’m sticking to. My school enrollments picked up a lot, it’s been a blessing, and I’m just keeping grounded with that. I’m not going Hollywood.”
13 – Roy Nelson
Post TUF record: 4-3
The most experienced fighter on TUF 10, former IFL heavyweight champion Roy Nelson showed himself to be a cut above his fellow competitors as he defeated Kimbo Slice, Justin Wren, James McSweeney and Brendan Schaub to win the season title. He didn’t skip a beat with an impressive 39 second TKO of Stefan Struve in his proper Octagon debut, and while “Big Country” lost decisions to Junior dos Santos, Frank Mir, and Fabricio Werdum, an impressive third round TKO of Mirko Cro Cop in 2011 and a 51 second blitz of Dave Herman shows that the iron-jawed Las Vegan is one big win over his Ultimate Fighter 16 coaching counterpart Shane Carwin away from being back in the title hunt.
DEFINING FIGHT – KO1 Brendan Schaub
TUF TALK – “I’ve never been in jail, but I could imagine jail actually being a little bit easier. And the way I always say it is that I can’t wait to do my Visa commercial – Gloves: $50, Tapout T-shirt: $28, Living in The Ultimate Fighter house: priceless.”
12 – Matt Wiman
Post TUF record: 8-3
With an exciting fight style, eight UFC wins, and an engaging personality, you have to wonder why Matt Wiman isn’t a bona fide star yet. But with his most recent win, a Fight of the Night victory over TUF6 winner Mac Danzig, Wiman should be in everyone’s consciousness. And if he hasn’t, you can be sure that a win over Paul Sass at UFC on FUEL TV 5 later this month won’t hurt.
DEFINING FIGHT – W3 Cole Miller
TUF TALK – “I don’t feel comfortable backing up and running around. I don’t feel comfortable if I’m not working hard for something, and if I’m playing it safe, I feel like the other guy is plotting and planning, so I want to put him on the defensive and I want to push the pace and bring the fight to him. I’ve tried fighting other ways and tried to be overly technical, and it just doesn’t work for me. I obviously practice technique and I have good technique, but that isn’t the most significant thing to me – I like going hard and pushing the pace and taking care of business, not in a reckless way, but in a smart way.”
11 - George Sotiropoulos
Post TUF record: 7-2
In MMA or any sport for that matter, it’s the squeaky wheel that gets oiled, and soft-spoken George Sotiropoulos is anything but a squeaky wheel. But when you win your first seven UFC fights after competing on season six of The Ultimate Fighter, it’s hard to be ignored, and in 2010, Sotiropoulos had a stellar year that saw him emerge as a true 155-pound contender as he defeated Joe Stevenson, Kurt Pellegrino, and Joe Lauzon in succession. 2011 was a rocky one, as he lost bouts to Dennis Siver and Rafael dos Anjos, but odds are that we will see the Aussie standout back in contention by the end of the year as he prepares to face fellow TUF Smashes coach Ross Pearson.
DEFINING FIGHT – W3 Joe Stevenson
TUF TALK –“Seeing different types of people and different traditions and different walks of life, I got to have a very open mind. I’ve seen what life’s about, I’ve seen good and bad in other things, and I’m grounded. For example, the kids in Thailand, in a lot of cases when they train over there it’s not really sport; they’re forced to do it because their families can’t afford to keep them. They send them to training camps and in a way it’s something they gamble on. So being in the (Ultimate Fighter) house was easy because it was my choice to be there and I wanted to be there because I love it so much. A lot of the guys were so miserable in there and they don’t know how lucky they were.”
10 – Matt Hamill
Post TUF record: 9-4
The raw talent of Matt Hamill was evident on season three of The Ultimate Fighter, but it wasn’t until he bounced back from a TKO loss to Rich Franklin two years after his Octagon debut that he began fulfilling his promise. After the Franklin fight, Hamill won five in a row, with only his DQ victory over Jon Jones being a less than stellar performance. And when Mark Munoz, Tito Ortiz, and Keith Jardine are the guys you’re beating, you’re a legit contender. In 2011, Hamill retired after defeats to “Rampage” Jackson and Alexander Gustafsson, but “The Hammer” will be back in action at UFC 152 against Roger Hollett.
DEFINING FIGHT – W3 Tito Ortiz
TUF TALK –“In wrestling, success came easy. It came so naturally, and the mat was my home. Joining this sport has been a challenge. I learn new things every day and others can knock me down, which they never could in wrestling. But I'm getting better and I’m still striving to be at the top in MMA also.”
9 - Joe Lauzon
Post TUF record: 8-4
After debuting in the UFC in September of 2006 with a stirring 48 second knockout of Jens Pulver, Joe Lauzon didn’t need The Ultimate Fighter as a springboard into the organization, but he took the opportunity to compete with one of the series’ most talent-rich casts anyway. And though he didn’t take the season five title, his post TUF stint in the UFC has been quite impressive in its own right as he’s won three of his last four bouts (all by submission), with his only loss in that stretch coming to Anthony Pettis. And let’s not forget all the post-fight bonuses he’s picked up, establishing him as one of the sport’s premier action heroes.
DEFINING FIGHT – Wsub1 Melvin Guillard
TUF TALK - “I got to train with such world-class guys like BJ Penn, Regan (Penn), and Tony (DeSouza), and even the other guys on our team. It was a great measuring stick. You think ‘I can do okay against this guy or that guy’, but until you actually get to do it, you really have no idea. I think being put up against the best was awesome for me because I know where I am and where I have to get and how I measure up against other people. It’s weird because when you train with ‘your’ guys, you really don’t have as much of a measuring stick to other people. When you get to go up against the best, it’s a much more accurate read.”
8 - Diego Sanchez
Post TUF record: 12-5
It’s been a crazy career thus far for season one TUF winner Diego Sanchez. From his early days at welterweight, where he went 4-0 before back-to-back losses to Jon Fitch and Josh Koscheck, to a brief stint at lightweight where he challenged then-champion BJ Penn for the UFC crown, and then to his recent resurrection at 170, the man formerly known as “Nightmare” and now dubbed “The Dream” has always been exciting in the Octagon and nearly as compelling outside the cage. Needless to say, win or lose, odds are that we’ll be talking about him for a long time.
DEFINING FIGHT – W3 Karo Parisyan
TUF TALK – “In my mind all the TUF guys are gonna lose and I’m gonna be the only undefeated fighter and I’m still gonna be the only guy that went through the show, finished everybody, and I’m gonna be ‘The Ultimate Fighter.’ They’re gonna say, ‘that guy Diego Sanchez, he was ‘The Ultimate Fighter’ through all the seasons.’ They’re gonna say that he was the only guy that dominated it, came out after it, stayed undefeated, won the belt, and got out of his contract undefeated.” (Before his bout with Karo Parisyan)
7 – Josh Koscheck
Post TUF record: 15-6
A no-nonsense competitor whose ‘tell it like it is’ attitude has made him a polarizing figure from the time he was on the first season of TUF, Josh Koscheck has basically grown up in the UFC, with 21 of his 25 pro fights taking place in the Octagon. Along the way, “Kos” has battled the best in the game, from Georges St-Pierre and Diego Sanchez, to Thiago Alves and Matt Hughes, all the while adding new wrinkles to his world-class wrestling attack. Most potent of his new weapons is a devastating right hand, one he’s used to great effect over the last couple years, and as he continues to grow as a fighter, Koscheck will certainly remain entrenched among the best 170-pounders in the world.
DEFINING FIGHT – W3 Diego Sanchez
TUF TALK - “I get thousands and thousands of e-mails every day and it’s amazing what it’s done for my life. Most of the time, if you’re calling my phone in the last six months, it’s been ‘voice mail filled’. So it was overwhelming at one point. Now things are starting to slow down a little bit, but you really don’t picture yourself in that position - because I grew up in a blue collar, hard working family - getting to the point to where ‘okay, now you’re on a reality show.’ So I get on TV, and after the show it’s like ‘Oh my God, it’s crazy.’ I go into the UFC and they have to move my seat because fans are coming down to get autographs and pictures. So it is a bit overwhelming, but in another sense it’s good. It’s good for our sport and the fighters.”
6 - Kenny Florian
Post TUF record: 12-5
A fighter who actually caught the eye of UFC President Dana White in a losing effort against Drew Fickett in 2004, Kenny Florian entered the TUF1 house with little fanfare, but he defeated Chris Leben to make it to the middleweight final against Diego Sanchez. Sanchez pounded out a decisive victory over Florian in the finals, and many wondered where KenFlo fit in the great scheme of things. We found out soon enough as he dropped to welterweight and then lightweight, where, after a title fight loss to Sean Sherk in 2006, Florian put together a six fight winning streak with victories over Din Thomas, Joe Lauzon, Roger Huerta, and Joe Stevenson that earned him a second title shot. And though Florian was submitted in the fourth round by Penn and lost a 2010 bout to Gray Maynard, the New Englander earned a title shot at 145 pounds with a win over Diego Nunes in June of 2011. That title shot against Jose Aldo ended in a decision defeat, and after retiring in May, Florian is doing excellent work as a studio and Octagonside analyst for UFC telecasts on FUEL TV and FX.
DEFINING FIGHT – Wsub3 Takanori Gomi
TUF TALK – “After experiencing the last Ultimate Fighter finale, I feel like I can really go through anything now. Just experiencing the craziness of everything that happens backstage prior to the fight, the interviews leading up to the fight, I’ve matured in a way that I’m gonna stay focused on the fight itself. Having gone through that before, I feel like I’ve definitely grown.”
5 - Nate Diaz
Post TUF record: 11-5
With the attitude of a true fighter and good bloodlines (brother Nick is a UFC vet), Nate Diaz was going to make it to the UFC with or without The Ultimate Fighter. But the reality series jump-started the Stockton, California native’s career, and he defeated Rob Emerson, Corey Hill, Gray Maynard, and Manny Gamburyan to win the season five title. He’s continued his run of success with 11 Octagon victories, including ultra-impressive wins over Takanori Gomi, Donald Cerrone, and Jim Miller in his return to 155 pounds after a brief stint at welterweight. In December, he challenges Benson Henderson for the UFC lightweight crown.
DEFINING FIGHT – Wsub1 Takanori Gomi
TUF TALK - “I talked to my brother and my manager, Cesar, and they were telling me that it would probably be the best thing for me. I was definitely not too excited about going. I wanted to, but at the same time I didn’t. I didn’t feel like I was too good on camera, and I’m not great at interviews, but I’m glad I did it the way it turned out. I thought I was gonna be one of the least experienced guys in the house fightwise, to be honest with you. “Once I was there, I realized there were people there with less fights than me, but there wasn’t any pressure. I thought I had a good chance, that’s for sure.”
4 - Michael Bisping
Post TUF record: 12-4
The man who put MMA on the map in the UK, Michael Bisping had little difficulty winning on the British circuit, and he continued his winning ways on TUF3 as he took out Ross Pointon, Kristian Rothaermel, and Josh Haynes to win the season’s light heavyweight title. His good fortunes continued in finishes of Eric Schafer and Elvis Sinosic, but his rep took a hit after a controversial decision win over Matt Hamill at UFC 75. Bisping would lose for the first time in his next bout, a UFC 78 loss to Rashad Evans, but his gutsy performance in the razor-thin decision defeat won back some of the fans he lost after the Hamill bout. Losing to Evans prompted Bisping to drop to 185, and three straight wins (Charles McCarthy, Jason Day, and Chris Leben) followed before a devastating knockout loss to Dan Henderson at UFC 100 in July. Eager to get back in the race, Bisping has won five of his last seven, including Fight of the Night victories over Denis Kang and Yoshihiro Akiyama, and a win over Brian Stann at UFC 152 will be a major statement in his quest for a title shot.
DEFINING FIGHT – TKO2 Denis Kang
TUF TALK - “You’re not gonna see me in any factories for quite some time.” (In the locker room after winning TUF3)
3 - Forrest Griffin
Post TUF record: 10-5
There’s probably no one in the game who would want to avoid the spotlight more than Forrest Griffin, but that became an impossibility when the former police officer won season one of The Ultimate Fighter with a stirring three round win over Stephan Bonnar that kicked off the MMA explosion in 2005. After that, it was a constant stream of interviews, appearances, and photo shoots for Griffin, who still found time to engage in a memorable war with Tito Ortiz, get upset by Keith Jardine, and rebound to shock Mauricio Rua and Quinton Jackson, the latter bout earning him the UFC light heavyweight crown in 2008. Griffin went on to lose the belt to Rashad Evans and get stopped in a single round by Anderson Silva, but consecutive wins over Ortiz and Rich Franklin put the ever-popular Griffin back on track before Rua got even with a first round TKO victory at UFC 134. Griffin bounced back in July of this year, decisioning Ortiz in their rubber match.
DEFINING FIGHT – W3 Stephan Bonnar I
TUF TALK – “I didn’t get here through all that hard work and winning fights nonsense; I got here through a TV game show, and I’m comfortable with that.”
2 - Gray Maynard
Post TUF record: 9-1-1, 1 NC
A three-time All-American wrestler for Michigan State University, Maynard entered The Ultimate Fighter’s fifth season with just a few fights, yet he quickly made his presence known among the talented cast with wins over Wayne Weems and Brandon Melendez. And though he lost his next bout to Nate Diaz, he didn’t miss a beat since the show ended, rapidly rising up the lightweight ranks thanks to big wins over the likes of Frankie Edgar, Rich Clementi, Jim Miller, Roger Huerta, Diaz, and Kenny Florian. In January of 2011, he got his long-awaited shot at the title against previous victim Edgar, and though he was seconds away from finishing the champ in the first round, he had to settle for a five round draw. “The Bully” got another shot at Edgar in October of last year, but after another near knockout win in the first round, he got stopped himself in the fourth, putting his title dreams on hold for the moment. And while a comeback win over Clay Guida in June was far from a barnburner, that’s not likely to happen in his next bout against Joe Lauzon this December.
DEFINING FIGHT – DRAW 5 Frankie Edgar
TUF TALK – “To tell you the truth, I thought I looked like crap on the show. The one fight against Brandon (Melendez), I don’t know what happened there, and I just couldn’t wait to get back in the gym and train. I was back in the gym a couple days after the show ended, and it just felt good to be back training right, and I can’t wait to get back in there and prove that I’m a lot better than I was on the TV show.”
1 - Rashad Evans
Post TUF record: 12-2-1
An undersized heavyweight with little reputation to precede him, former Michigan State wrestler Rashad Evans wasn’t expected to do much with the giants on TUF2, but four wins later (Keith Jardine, Mike Whitehead, Tom Murphy, and Brad Imes), the New York native had won the show’s title. Evans continued to surprise in his post-TUF career, and though he received a reputation for putting on less than compelling fights early on, by the time he was blasting out Jason Lambert and Sean Salmon, that rep changed. Evans would then engage in two close battles with Tito Ortiz and Michael Bisping, decisioning Bisping and fighting to a draw with Ortiz. These fights were preludes to a spectacular knockout of Chuck Liddell and a decisive finish of Forrest Griffin that put the UFC light heavyweight championship belt around his waist. Evans lost the title to Lyoto Machida in his first defense, but rebound wins over Thiago Silva, Rampage Jackson, Ortiz (in a UFC 133 rematch), and Phil Davis have earned him a shot at the title belt held by former teammate Jonny “Bones” Jones in April of 2012. Evans lost that bout via decision, but he’s far from done as a top-flight fighter.
DEFINING FIGHT – KO2 Chuck Liddell
TUF TALK – “I surprised a lot of people, including (UFC President) Dana White. A lot of people thought that I didn’t have any talent at all. See, I always had confidence in myself, but the better I did, people would say ‘wow’ and they just couldn’t believe it. I knew my own potential, but they didn’t know, so it was a big surprise to them.”
Just missing the cut - Patrick Cote, Tim Credeur, Court McGee, DaMarques Johnson, Kyle Kingsbury, Matt Riddle, CB Dollaway, Amir Sadollah, Mac Danzig, Matt Brown, Jorge Rivera