On April 20, the newest season of The Ultimate Fighter will premiere on FOX Sports 1, with UFC strawweight champion Joanna Jedrzejczyk and number one contender Claudia Gadelha coaching a host of male light heavyweights and female strawweights vying for a UFC contract and a win in the toughest tournament in sports.
Graduating from the TUF house has been the catalyst for several notable fighters to have success in the UFC Octagon, but who are the best to emerge from TUF? You’re about to find out.
30 – Keith Jardine
Some will look at the five knockout losses suffered by Jardine after 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 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” may not have been the best, but on any given night, he could beat the best. Just ask the men he’s beaten.
29 - Julianna Pena
The first woman to win The Ultimate Fighter, season 18’s Julianna Pena is now a legit bantamweight contender, with back-to-back wins over Milana Dudieva and Jessica Eye following her season-winning victory over Jessica Rakoczy in 2013. A serious knee injury kept “The Venezuelan Vixen” sidelined after the Rakoczy fight until early 2015, but now it’s full speed ahead for one of the most intriguing fighters in the women’s 135-pound weight class.
28 (Tie) – Al Iaquinta
A standout from the Serra-Longo fight team in Long Island, New York, Iaquinta earned his stripes in the respected Ring of Combat promotion on the east coast, and while he made the finals of The Ultimate Fighter 15 before losing to Michael Chiesa, it was his post-TUF bouts that truly put him on the map. Winner of seven of his last eight, “Raging Al” started blitzing the top 20 in late-2014, stopping Ross Pearson and Joe Lauzon and decisioning Jorge Masvidal. And it only gets bigger from here.
28 (Tie) – Michael Chiesa
Winner of season 15 over Iaquinta, Chiesa seems to be getting better with each passing fight, and with a 6-2 Octagon slate that has seen him defeat the likes of Francisco Trinaldo, Mitch Clarke and Jim Miller, Chiesa is starting to hit his stride at the right time in the talent-stacked lightweight division.
27 - Joe Stevenson
Joe Stevenson, a pro from 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 that 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 hit a rough patch after that, losing seven of his next 10, including a decision loss to Javier Vazquez in 2011 got him his walking papers from the Octagon.
26 – Myles Jury
One of the rare fighters to appear on two seasons of TUF, Myles Jury didn’t strike gold on TUF 13 or 15, but once he brought his unbeaten record into the Octagon in 2012, he quickly became a fighter to watch in the 155-pound shark tank, winning his first six UFC bouts, including victories over Michael Johnson, Ramsey Nijem, Diego Sanchez and Takanori Gomi. In January of 2015, Jury lost for the first time via decision to Donald Cerrone, and his featherweight debut in December was a disaster as he was submitted in the first round by Charles Oliveira. But in 2016, Jury hopes a new year will mean a fresh start for his career.
25 - Kelvin Gastelum
An underdog throughout season 17 of The Ultimate Fighter, Kelvin Gastelum disregarded the odds every time the Octagon gate closed, and by the time the smoke cleared, he had defeated Uriah Hall for the season crown. Five more wins and just a single loss to Tyron Woodley have followed, and while the scale has been his toughest foe to date, he was back on his game in his return to welterweight last November, even though he lost a Fight of the Night split decision to Neil Magny.
24 - Matt Wiman
With an exciting fight style, ten UFC wins, and an engaging personality, you have to wonder why Matt Wiman isn’t a bona fide star yet. But injuries and long layoffs have kept the TUF 5 competitor from capitalizing on his signature wins over Mac Danzig and Paul Sass.
23 – Matt Hamill
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” returned in 2012, defeating Roger Hollett and losing to Thiago Silva, the latter bout prompting his release from the UFC.
22 – Mike Swick
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 he 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 before getting upset by Matt Brown in December of that year. In July of 2015, Swick gave it one more go, losing a decision to Alex Garcia at UFC 189, before retiring after the bout.
21 – Ross Pearson (Watch Pearson's Octagon interview after his win last Saturday)
Almost universally seen as one of the lightweight division’s top up and comers, aggressive battler Ross Pearson had only two hiccups at 155 after 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. In response to the Swanson defeat, Pearson moved back to 155, coached the first season of TUF: The Smashes, then smashed opposing coach George Sotiropoulos in their December 2012 bout. “The Real Deal” has had his ups and downs in his subsequent ten bouts, but a win over Chad Laprise earlier this month has the Brit headed in the right direction.
20 – Gray Maynard
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 after 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. A comeback win over Clay Guida in June of 2012 was a positive step, but four consecutive losses have Maynard looking at an uncertain future.
19 – Chris Leben
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 matched his persona, thanks to an up and down journey that was always compelling, regardless of the final result. And though Leben only went 4-5 in his final nine bouts before retiring in 2014, 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.
18 – Chris Lytle
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 in August of 2011. 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.
17 – Patrick Cote
A pioneer of Canadian MMA, Patrick Cote showed who he was in his UFC debut in 2004 when he agreed to move up the card on short notice to face former light heavyweight champion Tito Ortiz in the main event of UFC 50. He lost that bout, but his willingness to fight all comers was established right then and there. After some rocky moments in those early years, Cote got a second chance to establish himself through The Ultimate Fighter’s “Comeback” season, and while he didn’t earn a middleweight title shot then, he did in 2008, losing via injury to Anderson Silva. Nearly eight years after that bout, Cote is a contender again, this time at 170 pounds, where he has won five of his last six, most recently a second-round TKO of Ben Saunders in January.
16 – Ryan Bader
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. After beating Jackson, Bader has gone 6-3, with notable wins over Rashad Evans, Phil Davis and Ovince Saint Preux.