The Toughest of TUF
This Friday night, March 9th, a new era in the history of The Ultimate Fighter begins, as the 15th season of the reality series premieres on FX with a new twist: all the fights are live. And even with this exciting change in format, one thing remains the same, the fact that the show will be the launching pad for some of the mixed martial arts world’s brightest stars and perhaps a few champions. So after 14 complete seasons, who are the 30 fighters who have emerged as the cream of the crop? Today, we start the countdown to find out.
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 - Kendall Grove
Post TUF record: 9-7
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 two of three 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.”
29 – Joe Stevenson
Post TUF record: 8-8
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.”
28 – Mike Swick
Post TUF record: 9-3
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. In his last two bouts though, Swick has struggled in losses to Dan Hardy and Paulo Thiago, and after taking some time off to deal with an esophageal condition that has been plaguing him over the last few years and a knee injury, he hopes to return to action soon.
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.”
27 – Keith Jardine
Post TUF record: 8-9-1
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 – Tony Ferguson
Post TUF record: 3-0
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. He hasn’t stopped yet in his post-TUF career either, TKOing veteran Aaron Riley, and winning an exciting three rounder over another vet, Yves Edwards. Now slated for a bout with Dennis Hallman in May, “El Cucuy” (The Boogeyman) is certainly putting a scare into his fellow lightweights.
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.”
24 – 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.”
23 – 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
22 – Ryan Bader
Post TUF record: 7-2
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.
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 – Melvin Guillard
Post TUF record: 9-4
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 amped up for a strong return to form in the ever-crowded lightweight division.
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.”
20 – Brendan Schaub
Post TUF record: 4-2
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. A loss to the legendary “Minotauro” Nogueira last year was a setback, but a win over Ben Rothwell on April’s UFC 145 card 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.”
19 – Ross Pearson
Post TUF record: 5-2
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 late last year he moved to featherweight, where he debuted at UFC 141 with a win over Junior Assuncao.
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.”
18 – 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).”
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.’”
Just missing the cut - Patrick Cote, Tim Credeur, Efrain Escudero, Court McGee, DaMarques Johnson, Kyle Kingsbury, Matt Riddle, CB Dollaway, Amir Sadollah, Mac Danzig, Matt Brown, Jorge Rivera
~Thomas Gerbasi for UFC.com
The Ultimate Fighter Live airs Fridays at 10pm on FX