Going into this season of “The Ultimate Fighter” there were a lot of issues with the show. The format was still solid but felt shopworn. We’d seen it so long that it was more shrug worthy than anything else: TUF had become a repository for mediocre fighters the UFC were willing to take a risk on as opposed to putting in their best talent to become embedded in the casual fan’s eye sooner than later.
After the conclusion of this weekend’s TUF Finale fight there’ll be officially 27 winners of the UFC’s flagship competitive reality show including the first Brazilian season and the UK vs. Australia version entitled “The Smashes.” That’s a lot of fighters, a lot of shows and a lot of memories. Some winners you knew were going to do something special; others never really lived up to their potential they showed on the television program. Some have been good, some great, and some even hall of fame worthy. And some have wound up being anecdotes about the level of talent in the UFC not being up to par in past years because of the roster expansion.
As we look forward to seeing who’ll wind up becoming this weekend’s latest “The Ultimate Fighter” season winner, I thought I’d take a look back and rank each winner in terms of their historical importance. There’s always the argument about who has been the best fighter to ever come off the show, of course, but we always talk about the 10 best fighters to come on the show, et al, as opposed to going through and figuring out where everyone ranks in terms of quality. To that end I’ve used a handful of criteria to rank everyone who’s ever won “The Ultimate Fighter” or any of its variants:
—Championship performances – Did you fight for a title? Did you win one? Being good enough to fight for a title, even despite acknowledging that two of the fighters on this list explicitly won title shots by winning the show, means something important in terms of how we rank a fighter in quality. Working your way to a title shot means something still; not every fighter gets a chance to see if they’re the best in the world.
—Strength of schedule – When we look at a TUF winner’s career did they fight anyone of note or significance? Did they get a lot of fighters who had a cup of coffee in the big leagues or did they fight a lot of established top guys? Who you fought matters a lot, I think, and if you had a .500 record against an absolute cast of killer fighters it means more than having a winning record against subpar competition.
—Overall record – How have they done in the UFC, period? An overall record in the big leagues matters because every fighter in the UFC has stellar records in local competition before they make it to Zuffa. How have you done against the best matters a lot.
—Any historical factors – Being relevant from a grand picture schema in MMA and UFC history matters.
Unranked: Cezar Ferreira (TUF Brazil Season 1), Norman Parke (Lightweight – The Smashes), Robert Whittaker (Welterweight – The Smashes) and Colton Smith (Season 16)
None of these guys have yet to actually fight in the UFC outside of anything TUF related. Thus we can’t really rank them as of yet because all we’ve seen are fights on the show, fights in smaller companies and TUF title fights. We can’t rank them as of yet because they haven’t done anything in the UFC, properly.
22. Efrain Escudero – Season 8 (Lightweight)
UFC record: 2-4
Escudero came in with high hopes, beating Philippe Nover (who many had pegged for greatness coming in) and then really didn’t do much in two stints in the UFC. He was the first TUF winner to barely pass the eyeball test for being a UFC worthy fighter and never showed much inside the cage, either.
21. Mac Danzig - Season 6 (Welterweight)
UFC record: 5-6
Danzig looked like an elite talent on Season 6 en route to winning it fairly dominantly a weight class above where he normally fought at. And he started off strong, too, but has fallen into being a pedestrian level fighter. He’s a guy who looked insanely better because of how poor the group of guys in the house were outside of him. Danzig’s a fantastic interview and a first rate guy, of course, but in the cage he hasn’t been all that spectacular outside of an absolutely epic knockout of Joe Stevenson in Stevenson’s final UFC appearance.
20. James Wilks – Season 9 (Welterweight)
UFC record: 2-2
Wilks really should be incomplete, as injuries ended his career a year into a solid UFC run, but he was en route to a pretty solid career when his body gave out on him. But 2-2 in the UFC isn’t bad, actually, and he looked like he belonged there.
19. Amir Sadollah - Season 7 (Middleweight)
UFC record: 6-4
Sadollah came into TUF without any professional experience and ran through a fairly competitive season. A world champion in Muay Thai and an extensive Sambo background, which is how he got around the “has to have professional experience” requirement TUF usually comes with. He’s one of a rare handful of fighters to have all of his fights in the UFC properly, as well, and he’s been respectable in the UFC so far. His only bad loss has been to Johny Hendricks, who blasted him out cold, but other than he’s been a Stephan Bonnar type in the UFC welterweight division: never good enough to make it to the top but good enough to stick around.
18. Rony Jason – TUF Brazil Season 1 (Featherweight)
UFC record: 2-0
So far Rony Jason has been talented and exciting despite not fighting in the right weight class. He fought up on TUF Brazil, looking devastating in the process, and looked even better at featherweight. There’s always been talk of him going to bantamweight, because he could probably make 135 pretty easy, and being a force there. So far he looks like an intriguing and exciting prospect at 145, though, but the quality of competition hasn’t been especially high.
17. Court McGee – Season 11 (Middleweight)
UFC record: 4-2
McGee should be 5-1, really, after a ridiculous decision loss to Nick Ring, but so far he hasn’t looked like anything but a solid undercard fighter. He’ll be in the UFC a long time but don’t expect him to hit the Top 10, or anything close to it. It’s not a bad career path, as staying gainfully employed in the UFC is a good thing.
16. Diego Brandao – Season 14 (Featherweight)
UFC record: 3-1
Brandao is a handful of dynamite who has all the talent to be a world champion. He just hasn’t quite put it together yet. Everyone in his camp discusses how insanely talented he is, and you can tell the athleticism is there by watching him fight, but so far he hasn’t quite put it all together. Brandao’s an exciting fighter and potentially an elite level talent; he just has some growing pains to do first.
15. Kendall Grove - Season 3 (Middleweight)
UFC record: 7-6
Grove/Herman is a fight that doesn’t get nearly as much as it should in retrospect. It was probably a better fight than Griffin/Bonnar 1, though it didn’t have nearly as much historical significance, and both fighters had fairly strong careers as well. Grove started hot out the gate but never really had that next gear to become an elite guy. His losses are pretty good ones: Mark Munoz, Tim Boetsch, Demian Maia and Patrick Cote are nothing to sneeze at. He just became a victim of being on the down slope of his career at the exact wrong time a bunch of new contenders were making their way up.
14. Travis Lutter - Season 4 (Middleweight)
UFC record: 2-3
Lutter didn’t have a bad UFC career, not by any stretch of the imagination, as he did manage to get a title shot against Anderson Silva. He even took mount against the champion, which is an impressive feat, and had a fairly solid level of competition over five fights. Anytime you can count Rich Franklin, Silva, and Matt Lindland as your UFC losses against wins over Marvin Eastman and Patrick Cote you’ve done something right.
13. Tony Ferguson – Season 13 (Welterweight)
UFC record: 3-1
So far Ferguson has look fairly solid as an up and coming prospect, only losing to another highly regard prospect in Michael Johnson. That’s not bad, so far, and Ferguson is still really young in his career. But so far so good, especially now that he’s back at lightweight where he belongs, and Ferguson has a shot at becoming a contender down the road.
12. Joe Stevenson - Season 2 (Welterweight)
UFC record: 8-8
Joe Stevenson was an insanely talented guy who came to the UFC with nearly 30 fights at a really young age. I think if he hadn’t fought nearly as much, and against appropriate competition early on than he did, his career could’ve been better than it wound up. Sixteen fights in the UFC isn’t anything to sneeze at, though, and he did fight BJ Penn at the peak of his career. He just got shopworn pretty quickly soon thereafter and had an epic losing streak on his way out the door. Stevenson is a cautionary tale about managing your career before you make it to the UFC so that you have something substantially left if and when you get there.
11. Ross Pearson - Season 9 (Lightweight)
UFC record: 6-3
Ross Pearson has been developing fairly solidly since he won the “UK vs. U.S” version of “The Ultimate Fighter” with Michael Bisping as his coach. He’s bounced from lightweight to featherweight, finding he’s better being a bit undersized than making a hard cut to 145, and right now he’s starting to make his way up the card. He had a war with George Sotiropoulus most recently and he looks like he’s starting to find his groove. My guess is he becomes a top 10 fighter by the end of this year and will be the next Brit to contend for a title in the UFC; his hands have gotten better and his takedown defense has steadily improved.
10. John Dodson – Season 14 (Bantamweight)
UFC record: 3-1
Dodson in a couple years will be much higher on the list, considering he’s a top five flyweight and has shown he can hang with Demetrious Johnson for 25 minutes. There is not a huge difference between Dodson, Joe Benavidez, Ian McCall and Johnson in the elite of the division, either. He’s lost a title fight early in his career but Dodson is so insanely talented that I can’t imagine he won’t be competing for and probably holding the title at least once in his career. Probably sooner than we think, too; Malki Kawa once uttered around me and a number of other media members that Dodson is going to be a world champion and I believe him.
9. Jonathan Brookins - Season 12 (Lightweight)
UFC record: 2-3
Brookins has a less than stellar record in the UFC, admittedly, but here’s the thing: he got thrown to the wolves of the featherweight division and didn’t look too bad. He got no easy fights in the UFC, either, as he got two title contenders and Charles Oliveira at featherweight. Throw in Vagner Rocha (not an easy out) and Michael Johnson (a future world champion according to many) and that’s a murderer’s row for an opening five fight stint in the UFC. If he hadn’t retired I imagine he’d have gotten a couple of winnable fights, at least; Brookins got handed a lot of insanely tough fighters without a proper buildup.
8. Ryan Bader – Season 8 (Light heavyweight)
UFC record: 8-3
Once upon a time Ryan Bader and Jon Jones were both top prospects about to make the leap to contender. At UFC 126 it was a genuine toss up, too, as to who would win: Bader was the big powerful wrestler who steamrolled everyone in his path. Jones was this freak talent who had mercked everyone on his way up the ladder. Whoever walked out of that fight the winner would probably be in the mix to get a title shot against the winner of Shogun Rua vs. Rashad Evans.
And then Jon Jones came in and destroyed Bader and the rest is history.
Since then Bader has established himself quietly once more as a top ten fighter in the division. His only losses have been to guys who’ve held the UFC light heavyweight title (Machida, Jones, Ortiz) as well; he’s got some good scalps on his resume.
7. Nate Diaz - Season 5 (Lightweight)
UFC record: 11-6
He came in to the show as Nick Diaz’s little brother, almost an afterthought in a group on TUF that included some guys who were highly thought of (Gary Maynard, Matt Wiman and Cole Miller) and one (Joe Lauzon) who entered TUF after beating the brakes off Jenz Pulver (when that meant something, still). And Nate managed to go through and win the show on a fluke, as well, as Manny Gamburyan’s shoulder flew out of socket almost on its own early on in their fight. Yet through all this Diaz has steadily improved and now isn’t just Nick’s little brother; he’s a top five lightweight.
6. Roy Nelson – Season 10 (Heavyweight)
UFC Record: 5-3
Roy Nelson was the ultimate ringer on TUF 10: The Heavyweights, coming in as probably the best heavyweight outside of Zuffa or Strikeforce at the moment, but he proved why in devastating fashion. Since then he’s been a Top 10 heavyweight and has shown it fairly convincingly.
5. Michael Bisping – Season 3 (Light heavyweight)
UFC record: 13-5
When you look at Bisping’s record it’s almost amazing he’s never fought for a UFC title. He has five losses to legitimate elite fighters, three of which were razor close (Evans, Sonnen and Wanderlei Silva), and has beaten nearly everyone else that matters at both light heavyweight and middleweight. He might not get the respect he deserves because he’s kind of a dick on occasion but let’s face it: he wins against everyone he should and only loses to the best of the best (and even then very closely). Not a bad career.
4. Diego Sanchez - Season 1 (Middleweight)
UFC record: 13-5
Sanchez has been a Top 10 fighter at both welterweight and lightweight, which is incredibly tough to do, as well as has been one of the more exciting fighters in both division to boot. To be relevant in two divisions is tough, especially two of the toughest in MMA, and that counts for a lot. Throw in a tough loss to BJ Penn for the lightweight title, and being a fight away from GSP many moons ago, and Sanchez has been a relevant fighter since he came into the UFC.
3. Matt Serra – Season 4 (Welterweight)
UFC record: 7-7
Serra had a respectable career at 170 before winning TUF: The Comebacks, of course, but he deserves to be rated so high because he has the biggest upset in MMA history to his credit: knocking out Georges St. Pierre. Forget the fact that he got shellacked in the rematch; he’s one of two guys in MMA that can say that they finished one of the all-time greats. Holding UFC gold at any point in a career is insanely tough and the list of guys who didn’t is miles longer than those who have. His career may have been remarkably mediocre in the UFC but that scalp counts for more to an insane degree.
2. Rashad Evans – Season 2 (Heavyweight)
UFC record: 12-3-1
When Rashad Evans finally walks away from MMA he’ll have to be considered among the five best at light heavyweight, at a minimum. Fighting up at heavyweight against some respectable foes on the show, including future teammate Keith Jardine, Rashad has only lost to the elite of the division and beaten everyone else. He’s only lost to Diet Nog, Jon Jones and Lyoto Machida (and drew with Tito Ortiz) … and has a lot of great scalps on his resume including two of the best KO’s in UFC history (against Liddell and Sean Salmon).
1. Forrest Griffin – Season 1 (Light Heavyweight)
UFC Record: 9-5
Without Griffin-Bonnar 1 there is no modern UFC. It was the fight that jump started everything and without that fight we’re not talking about MMA in any meaningful capacity. It’s one of the highest viewed fights of all time and one that made Zuffa from a company about to be sold to one about to turn a profit overnight. Forrest Griffin would be in the Top 10 on this list with just that fight, of course, but he’s accomplished more than anyone thought he could’ve.
He has a light heavyweight title reign to his record and one of the best fight resumes of anyone in the division’s history. He’s fought Tito Ortiz three times, Anderson Silva, Rich Franklin, Rashad Evans, Quinton Jackson and Shogun Rua twice. Griffin means something and his submission victory over Rua gave TUF a sort of legitimacy it had lacked. No longer were the guys coming off it just “reality TV stars” and whatnot: they could be elite.
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