Imagine if, for a couple of days before every NCAA football game, the two teams of players were put into a massive mansion and made to live together with tons of booze and food everywhere. Actually, that's an odd idea and I have no idea whether it would make college ball better or not; too many variables.
It sounds like a mess, but that's essentially like what The Ultimate Fighter is. A bunch of guys who want to play for the biggest MMA promotion living and training together and eventually trying to beat the snot out of each other. While we all love NCAA football, amateur and semi-pro hockey, AAA and college baseball, college basketball and so on, no other sport, league or promotion has anything quite like The Ultimate Fighter (WWE's Tough Enough doesn't count because no matter how athletic they are, wrestlers are not competitors, they are performers).
The show occupies a grey area in which a professional league/promotion's feeder program meets reality TV. It's easily one of the best sports-related reality TV programs (and actually one of the greatest reality TV shows every produced, not that the bar is set very high) and usually features an amazing cast of talented people along with clashing personalities across the board.
One problem with TUF however, is that beyond a contract and some money, winning guarantees nothing. Winning this show may seem like a victory, the real fights happen after a winner has been declared and starts taking on real UFC talent. Many former winners have been released, while others have gone onto great careers. Here they are, all of the past winners of The Ultimate Fighter, ranked. Our ranking is based on their overall career, their records inside and outside the UFC, and of course, whether they have held or challenged for titles.
52 Travis Lutter: The Comeback
The first and therefore the lowest ranked on our list of TUF winners is Travis Lutter, the winner of the Middleweight tournament of TUF 4: The Comeback. For those who weren't following the sport/promotion/show back then in 2006, The Comeback
featured fighters who already had experience in the octagon but who had never held a championship belt. The prize was, on top of the money, a title shot. Lutter's first run in the UFC saw him go 1-2, and ending up back in smaller promotions.
He's by no means a poor martial artist and was an elite wrestler, easily submitting the tough-as-nails Patrick Cote to win his season of the show. Unfortunately, his BJJ experience translated to a 2-4 all time record in the UFC, while going 0-2 after TUF. Embarrassingly, that title shot he earned on the show turned into a non-title match when he failed to make weight. He lost to Anderson Silva in that fight and was released from the UFC after a beatdown at the hands of Rich Franklin in 2008.
51 Colton Smith: Season 16
While we ranked him among the lowest on the list, we have to offer our deepest respect for Colton Smith for his work outside of the cage. He's an active duty soldier who fights MMA when he isn't serving his country. Whether you're a fan of the military or not, holding these two jobs is enough for anyone to earn the title of "badass". He won the Welterweight season 16 of TUF back in late 2012, manhandling his competition throughout the show and beating Mike Ricci in the finals.
Unfortunately for Smith, his time in the UFC produced an unimpressive 0-3, getting knocked out by Aussie Robert Whittaker, before dropping to Lightweight and suffering to losses via choke to Michael Chiesa and Carlos Ferreira.
50 Efrain Escudero: Season 8
Dana White must be in love with Efrain Escudero (not that there's anything wrong with that, it's 2016) because he's been nothing but he's been minimally exciting in the UFC, but was somehow given a third contract with the promotion. He won season 8 after manhandling Phillipe Nover. He holds wins over experienced veteran Cole Miller, Dan Lauzon (not that beating the lesser of the Lauzon brothers is anything to call home about) but beyond that he's been a big, steaming pile of nothing special for the promotion. Why he's been taken back twice is a mystery. By the way, that third stint with the UFC ended back in June when he was released.
49 Eddie Gordon: Season 19
Jamaican Eddie Gordon won the Middleweight tournament back in mid 2014 at TUF 19. He quickly made a name for himself winning the Light Heavyweight belt in New Jersey based Ring of Combat, which earned him his place on the show. He beat Dhiego Lima in the finals, but that was the end of his success in UFC competition. He lost three straight to the likes of Josh Samman (the guy who died back in October of 2016), Chris Dempsey, and Antonio Carlos Junior. He was released back in late 2015 and started fighting again in 2016 with New Jersey based Cage Fury Fighting Championship. He won his return to competition.
48 Erick Montano: TUF Latin America 2
Fighting for Mexico City's Bonebreakers MMA, Erick Montano won the Welterweight tournament at TUF Latin America 2 by taking care of his two exhibition opponents in the first round and then winning a tight battle with Enrique Marin via split decision. Since this win however, he hasn't done much of anything worth talking about. He got choked out by Randy Brown early in the third round of a fight that he was winning at the time. That was his first post-TUF scrap, and took place back in September 2016. He fought again in November and got quickly knocked out by Max Griffin. Talk about a rough spot. Hopefully, he can bounce back and start gaining some momentum, but it's not entirely likely to happen at this point.
47 Mac Danzig: Season 6
Heading into the UFC, there was plenty of evidence to suggest that Mac Danzig would be a dominant force. A solid boxer and an even better wrestler, he won twelve straight between 2004 and 2006, and held the King of the Cage Lightweight belt for almost a year (four successful title defenses) and of course, he won TUF 6, locking in a first round choke to beat Tom Speer.
Unfortunately for Danzig, the most impressive part of his post-TUF record is the amount of solid fighters who made him look like a fool, including Clay Guida, Jim Miller, Takanori Gomi and most recently Joe Lauzon. Danzig is retired now, with the UFC record of 5-8.
46 Glaico Franca: TUF Brazil 4
The winner of the Lightweight tournament in spring 2015's TUF Brazil 4 is Glaico Franca, whose wrestling and submission abilities allowed him to manhandle his competition throughout the tournament. His four fights (elimination, quarter finals, semis and finals) were won via rear-naked choke. Unfortunately his striking is suspect and he has yet to win in UFC competition since winning on the show. He fought twice in 2016, and each of his bouts against James Vick and more recently Grego Gillespie, ended in unanimous decision losses. He will need to improve his striking if he wants to stay in the UFC, and with two losses on his record, his future is uncertain.
45 Zhang Lipeng: TUF China
A fairly well-rounded fighter with decent striking and a strong background in wrestling, TUF: China's Welterweight winner Zhang Lipeng won a very close battle with Wang Sei to win back in early 2014. He won his first fight after the show over Brendan O'Reilly, but lost his next two and was released from the promotion just over a year after winning his contract. He has continued fighting and returned to smaller promotions in Asia, submitting his first four opponents and winning the Chinese promotion Kunlun Fight's Lightweight belt.
44 Amir Sadollah: Season 7
Amir Sadollah is a very interesting case among the fighters to participate in The Ultimate Fighter and the UFC, as he never fought in any other professional promotions. He went straight from training with Combat Sports Center to TUF 7 and while on the show, he looked like something really special. He was a technical and controlled striker with a ground game that was awesome to watch. He won that season with four submission wins and a TKO; two of his submissions were against C.B. Dollaway, who would go on to have a lengthy career with the UFC.
Sadollah never really materialized into a top tier fighter though. He lost his second professional fight to Johny Hendricks, and throughout his career he'd have no problem putting away no-name fighters with ease, but would fold like a cheap suit against any decent talent. After a loss to Dan Hardy in 2012, he took two years off before his next fight, which he also lost to Yoshihiro Akiyama, and was released from the promotion, with Dana White implying that Sadollah didn't care about fighting enough to justify using a roster spot for him.
43 Antonio Carlos Jr: TUF Brazil 3
A highly accomplished jiu jitsu practitioner, Brazil's Antonio Carlos Junior entered the Heavyweight TUF Brazil 3 tournament after three professional wins and made quick work of his competition. All three of his first bouts on the show ended in the first round and on the finale, he bested Vitor Miranda with a unanimous decision victory.
Since then however, he's been about as average as a fighter can be, having won two and lost two, along with a no contest after he poked Kevin Casey in the eye a few seconds into their bout. He dropped down to Light Heavyweight following his TUF win, losing his one Light Heavyweight bout to Patrick Cummins, following which he dropped to Middleweight. He's looking to get his second straight win at the end of 2016, and is scheduled to face Italian fighter Marvin Vettori, a relative UFC newcomer with one win in the promotion.
42 Kendall Grove: Season 3
The winner of the third season of the show, Kendall Grove beat Ed Herman via split decision to win the tournament back in 2006. He'd win two after that and then lose two, which is a pretty accurate summary of his time with the UFC. He'd win one, lose one, win one, lose two, and after losses to Demian Maia and Tim Boetsch in late 2010 and early 2011, he was released from the UFC. Interesting to note is that Kendall Grove was the last opponent to face Evan Tanner, and did so in June 2008, winning, just months before Tanner, a former UFC Middleweight Champion, died in the desert in California. Grove would go back to smaller promotions and now fights for Bellator, where he is 4-3.
41 Jonathan Brookins: Season 12
Jonathan Brookins was the unwashed, hippy-looking gent who won season 12. That season produced Alex Caceres, Nam Phan, and Michael Johnson, all of whom went on to have better careers in the UFC than Brookins, not that any of them will be challenging for belts any time soon. Brookins actually beat Johnson in the finals of that tournament, relying on the ability to pretend to be a blanket (wrestling; boring but effective). After his TUF victory, Brookins went 1-3 in the UFC, retiring in 2012, hoping to move to India and be a hippy there. He returned to MMA in 2014 but hasn't come anywhere near the UFC since.
40 James Wilks: Season 9
Unfortunately, while extensively training in multiple martial arts is a good place to start in terms of prepping for a drive at greatness in the UFC, it guarantees nothing. James Wilks, who has multiple black belts in BJJ, kickboxing and taekwondo, is living proof that black belts don't equal MMA dominance. Granted, he won TUF 9: United States vs United Kingdom back in 2009. He defeated DaMarques Johnson to win that tournament, and did so with a first round choke, but his career after that was plagued with injuries that would see him retiring from the sport in 2012. While in the UFC, Wilks went 1-2 after his win in the season's finale. He ended his career early after doctors told him that continuing to fight may cause him increased chances of paralysis.
39 Norman Parke: The Smashes
The Lightweight winner of The Smashes, back in 2012, was "Stormin'" Norman Parke. The first five years of his career were spent in various promotions on the British Isles, and prior to entering the show, Parke won the Cage Contender (European promotion in which Conor McGregor used to fight) Lightweight belt. An accomplished judoka and Northern Irish wrestling champion, Parke's decent striking game was often overshadowed by his ground game and grappling. In the UFC he went 4-3, losing three of his last four fights, including a couple of close decisions against Gleison Tibau and Francisco Trinaldo. His losses resulted in a release from the UFC in early 2016.
In his return to competition at Absolute Championship Berkut in Russia, he won a unanimous decision.
38 Reginaldo Vieira: TUF Brazil 4
Like a few of the recent TUF winners from South America, Bantamweight Reginaldo Vieira has shown talent for wrestling and submitting in MMA competition but his striking seems to be lacking somewhat. Nine of his thirteen career wins have been submission victories and seven of those have been chokes (mostly guillotine). He has yet to knock out an opponent. His run on the show saw him wrestle and choke his way to the finals in which he defeated Dileno Lopes via unanimous decision. Since that victory he has only fought once: losing by unanimous decision to Mexican Marco Beltran. As with a few of the more recent season winners, we haven't seen enough good from Vieira to rank him higher, but we also haven't seen enough garbage in his game to rank him with the likes of...well...Lutter.
37 Tim Elliott: Tournament of Champions
The most recent on our list is Tournament of Champions winner Tim Elliott. This season of the show was to find someone to challenge Demetrious Johnson for the Flyweight title. He's tuned up just about everyone who has come after his belt and there is a reason he's the pound-for-pound number one these days. Mighty Mouse is something special to watch. The promotion selected Flyweight champions from other promotions for this season; the winner got a shot at the UFC belt. Tim Elliott was that winner.
Elliott is now in his second stint with the UFC and has a couple of solid victories under his belt, having knocked out former UFC Lightweight champ Jens Pulver and former UFC Flyweight Louis Gaudinot. Other than that however his first six fights in the UFC saw him lose four and win just two. He left for Titan FC and held the Flyweight belt for about a year before joining TUF. His title shot against Mighty Mouse was by no means close, but Elliott held his own against the best there is right now and almost locked in a guillotine in the first round; for a few seconds it looked like it may be an early finish, but Johnson is an elite wrestler and kept his cool long enough to escape. Elliott's 2-5 record in the UFC is pretty poor, but his performance against Johnson is why he isn't lower on this list.
36 Enrique Barzola: TUF Latin America 2
Peruvian figher Enrique Barzola won the Lightweight tournament back in late 2015 in TUF Latin America 2. He beat Horacio Gutierrez via unanimous decision and has fought twice since then, and has gone one and one in those two fights. He's demonstrated very solid wrestling and is not shy to try for takedowns, especially against fights whose ground game he doesn't respect, but his striking game doesn't look particularly impressive. His most recent fight saw him show a lot of promise however, picking apart Chris Avila; dominating him for three rounds, out-striking him almost three to one and landing several takedowns, nearly at will.
35 Joe Stevenson: Season 2
There are few fighters who have looked gnarlier after a fight than Joe Stevenson after his bout with B.J. Penn back in 2008. Stevenson got cut by a Penn elbow and the octagon ended up looking like the hallway from The Shining. Penn locked in a choke late in the second round of the fight.
A double black belt (BJJ and Judo) Stevenson looked very solid on TUF 2, he showed off good grappling and won the tournament with a unanimous decision over Luke Cummo. He won four of his next five, including wins over Kurt Pellegrino and Melvin Guillard before his bloodbath with Penn, but wasn't the same fighter after that loss. After that fight he went 3-6 before being released. He's currently on a two fight winning streak, working in regional California promotions.
34 Ning Guangyou: China
Ning Guangyou went 3-2-1 in a couple of Chinese promotions before being selected to TUF China a couple of years ago. He won the tournament finals via unanimous decision, and beat now-released Royston Wee a couple of months later via second round TKO, but hasn't won since, dropping decisions to Marco Beltran and Marlon Vera. Primarily a striker, Guangyou's power looks like it may be slightly below what is necessary for an elite fighter, given somewhat limited ground game. His most recent loss was in late November of 2016, and his next opponent is unclear. So far, he is looking unlikely to rise to the top of the Featherweight division anytime soon.
33 Tatiana (Suarez) Padilla: Season 23
A two time medalist in the World Championship of women's wrestling, Tatiana Suarez got into mixed martial arts after an injury and a fight with cancer ended her Olympic wrestling aspirations. Training in BJJ, she first competed in Gladiator Challenge in California back in 2014, compiling a 3-0 record before being selected to her season of TUF last year. She won her three fights during the season (two via chokes) and then beat Amanda Cooper at the finale to be named the winner. She looks great so far, but may lack the striking to compete against elite fighters in the Strawweight division. We couldn't rate her any higher, as we haven't seen enough of her fighting against solid competition but to rank her any lower would ignore the fact that she has impressively dominated what opponents she has faced, and remains undefeated.
32 Andrew Sanchez: Season 23
St Louis' Andrew Sanchez was on the 23rd season of TUF and made it to the finals after two unanimous decisions and a TKO in under a minute. In the finals, he took on Khalil Rountree, who was undefeated at the time. Showcasing solid, accurate striking and great wrestling, Sanchez spent most of that bout on top of Rountree, mangling him over the course of fifteen minutes. He won his next fight in early December against Trevor Smith in an almost as dominant performance. While he looks very good against undercard class talent, it will be interesting to see who he gets a shot at next. Right now it looks like this guy is on his way up, but we don't want to speak too soon, so we'll just leave it at: get some popcorn ready and enjoy.
31 Elias Theodorou: TUF Nations: Canada VS Australia
The Middleweight winner of 2014's TUF Canada VS Australia, Elias "The Spartan" Theodorou looks more like a European soccer player than a Canadian mixed martial artist, but we'd never say that to his face. He dominated small promotions and got some publicity in one Bellator event before being selected to the show, and won the Middleweight tourney with a decision win over fellow Canuck Sheldon Westcott. He won two more before losing to Thiago Santos at the end of 2015. He bounced back in mid 2016, beating Bellator and UFC veteran Sam Alvey; while the fight was boring, beating Alvey is no small feat.
30 Rony "Jason" Bezerra: TUF Brazil
Rony Bezerra is one of those highly trained, accomplished martial artists (in terms of belts and experience in BJJ and kickboxing) who was never able to turn his training into UFC dominance. With that said, he has some notable wins and is still signed to the promotion so we don't want to call the guy a complete dud too soon. He beat Godofredo Pepey to win TUF: Brazil and has gone 5-3 since then, but has yet to beat a ranked fighter. His only bout against a big-name fighter was against Dennis Bermudez, and he was basically manhandled for three rounds.
29 Chris Holdsworth: Season 18
Like a few other members of this list, it is difficult to the point of near-impossible to decide where to put Chris Holdsworth, the men's Bantamweight winner of 2013's TUF: Team Rousey vs Team Tate. The Californian Team Alpha Male member has yet to lose a fight, either professionally, or in amateur competition. Standing 5'11, he's a massive Bantamweight and his jiu jitsu belts have come from the Gracie family, hence his wins on TUF all coming via chokes. He has the range to strike against anyone in the division, and the wrestling to dominate any fight that goes to the ground. Of course, we haven't seen him against elite opponents. His last fight was in 2014 against Chico Camus. He won via unanimous decision but hasn't fought since, as he has suffered concussions in training that have kept him from doing so.
28 Ross Pearson: Season 9
Back before 2009, Ross Pearson was the Ultimate Force Lightweight champion and had one successful title defense. He won TUF: UK vs US in that year, beating Andre Winner via unanimous decision. He has some notable wins in his career, including Sam Stout, Grey Maynard, and Dennis Siver, and his reputation as a ruthless scrapper who can soak up a ton of damage is well founded. He's never really put together a win streak worth speaking of, and when faced with ranked fighters, he's usually lost. Pearson's been busy in 2016, having fought five times, and he rose up one weight class to Welterweight. Unfortunately, being busy and fighting five times in one year is far more impressive when you win more than once.
27 Court McGee: Season 11
Forget competing in martial arts, Court McGee is lucky to be alive, and has one of the most impressive stories of anyone in the sport. An addict earlier in life, he was an avid martial artist in his youth but developed some bad drug habits after an injury. He died briefly after overdosing on heroin in 2005. Five years later he won TUF 11, catching Kris McCray in a choke. He won his first two fights after that, but dropped two decisions to Costas Philippou and Nick Ring in 2012. Since then he's gone 4-2, including a win over Robert Whittaker. While not the greatest to ever win a season of the show, McGee is a warrior and has a versatile skill set. He's set to fight UFC and Bellator veteran Ben Saunders in January.
26 Martin Bravo: TUF Latin America 3
The most recent winner of the international series of The Ultimate Fighter is Mexican Lightweight Martin Bravo, whose one UFC fight ended in a nasty TKO of Claudio Puelles about a month ago at the season finale. He's been fighting professionally since early 2012, and hasn't lost yet, having compiled a record of 11-0, showing off solid striking. Like most of the recent winners of The Ultimate Fighter, it is too soon to say how his career will turn out, but so far, Bravo has shown enough to make us cautiously optimistic for his future. His win over Puelles came after a very dominant striking performance, showing patience, decent power and good timing. Bravo has good wrestling and can function on the ground, but on the show and in the UFC, we've seen him stick to striking.
25 Chad LaPrise: TUF Nations - Canada VS Australia
Tristar Gym's Welterweight Chad Laprise won the Welterweight tournament at TUF Nations back in 2014 in a tough split decision victory over fellow Canadian Olivier Aubin-Mercier. He won two decisions after his TUF win and then dropped two fights; a TKO at the hands of Francisco Trinaldo, and a decision to Ross Pearson. He bounced back in 2016, scoring an impressive first round TKO of Thibault Gouti back in August. He was originally supposed to fight at UFC 206 but the bout got rescheduled after Laprise injured himself while training.
24 Diego Brandao: Season 14
While not the worst thing to ever come out of The Ultimate Fighter, the Featherweight winner from Team Bisping vs Team Miller back in 2011 has been a huge disappointment. He looked like he was on another level when he was on the show, and finished all four of his opponents, including during the finale, in the first round: three knockouts (including Bryan Caraway) and one armbar submission over Dennis Bermudez.
Since that time, he went 5-4, beating Jimy Hettes and four other no-namers and losing to any decent fighter that got in his way, including Dustin Poirier, Brian Ortega and Conor McGregor. Earlier this year he was caught with marijuana in his system after fighting Ortega and he was ultimately released by the UFC after his arrest for allegedly threatening and beating up some people outside a strip club in early 2016.
23 Alejandro Perez: TUF Latin America
The winner of 2014's TUF Latin America's Bantamweight tournament, Alejandro Perez dominated his final fight of that season for the contract, he dominated fellow Mexican Jose Quinonez (who has gone 2-0 in the UFC since his time on the show). The fight ended via unanimous decision. Perez second official UFC fight ended when he embarrassingly got caught in a guillotine choke less than half a minute into his bout against Patrick Williams. He followed that up however, with a TKO win in November 2015 and a first round knockout victory in April 2016. He would have won a couple of months ago against Albert Morales, but a late punch cost him a point and the fight; which ended in a majority draw.
22 Warlley Alves: TUF Brazil 3
Brazilian Warlley Alves started competing in pro MMA at age 20 in 2011, and quickly started competing in Jungle Fight. After four wins in that promotion, he got his shot at the UFC on 2014's third season to take place with Brazilian fighters. After winning his first three bouts on the show, he tapped his opponent, Marcio Alexandre Jr (who went 0-3 in the UFC) early in the third round.
He went 3-0 after that, winning a unanimous decision and then two victories via chokes, before losing two. His losses were both unanimous decisions, and came at the hands of Bryan Barberena and TUF Season 21 winner Kamaru Usman.
21 Cezar Ferreira: TUF Brazil Season 1
We already talked about the Featherweight division's winner from the first of the international seasons of TUF, Rony Bezerra, and the winner of the Middleweight tournament was Cezar Ferreira of Sao Paolo. He's a capoeira and BJJ practitioner and showed impressive skills on the show, finishing his first three opponents (two chokes and a knockout) and winning the finals via unanimous decision. Since winning his season of the show, Ferreira has gone 6-3, and while he seems to have no problem beating new and unranked guys, his three fights against known and experienced fighters such as Jorge Masvidal and C.B. Dollaway have ended in quick knockouts. He's on a three fight win streak right now, but against guys new to the UFC, Jack Hermansson, Anthony Smith and Oluwale Bamgbose; all good fighters, but within three fights of their UFC debuts.
20 Ryan Hall: Season 22
Virginia's Ryan Hall looks like he may quickly claw his way into the elite among UFC Featherweights. We've only seen him fight twice in the UFC, including his TUF 22 win over Artem Lobov last year. More recently he took on UFC veteran and one-time Lightweight title contender Grey Maynard and dominated him for fifteen minutes. He's quickly getting noticed for his grappling, but training at Tristar Gym will likely benefit his striking. His wrestling credentials include a black belt in BJJ under former world champion Felipe Costa, and he has nine gold medals in jiu jitsu competition.
19 Kamaru Usman: Season 21
The Nigerian Nightmare Kamaru Usman, started wrestling in high school, continuing throughout college, competing for the University of Nebraska and moving to mixed martial arts in 2012. He tallied up a record of 5-1 in other promotions, including 3-0 (all convincing TKO's) in Legacy FC, before entering The Ultimate Fighter's 21st season representing the Blackzilians against American Top Team (season 21 saw the two south Florida gyms in competition). He won two decisions on the show and then tapped out Hayder Hassan via triangle choke to win the tournament. He's fought three times since and has won via unanimous decision each time.
18 Leonardo Santos: TUF Brazil 2
Brazilian Leonardo Santos started his mixed martial arts career back in the early 2000's, losing his first match to then-Shooto Lightweight champ Takanori Gomi. He returned to jiu jitsu after his loss and won four straight World Cup Championships before returning to MMA in 2006. He compiled a record of 11-3 before competing on TUF Brazil 2 in 2013. In that tournament, he actually lost the semifinal fight, but was allowed to advance when his opponent Santiago Ponzinibbio injured his hand during the bout. Santos won in the finals via arm triangle. Since then he's won four and fought fellow TUF winner Norman Parke to a draw. Among his wins are a TKO of Kevin Lee, and a unanimous decision win over former TUF winner Efrain Escudero.
17 Corey Anderson: Season 19
Now the number nine Light Heavyweight according to UFC's rankings (which mean next to nothing but look nice next to a fighter's name), Corey Anderson was persuaded to try MMA by current One Championship Ben Askren while he was wrestling in college. He won the LHW tournament in the 19th season of TUF with a TKO over Matt Van Buren in just over a minute.
Since then he's gone 5-2 with wins against Brazilian boxer Fabio Maldonado and "Filthy" Tom Lawlor, both of whom were defeated via dominant unanimous decision. He lost to Mauricio Rua in May but more recently won a great TKO over one of the UFC's Light Heavyweight whipping boys Sean O'Connell.
16 Yair Rodriguez: TUF Latin America
Right now there aren't many up-and-comers in the Featherweight division as exciting as Yair Rodriguez, who won the Featherweight tournament at TUF Latin America back in late 2014. He looked very sharp during his unanimous decision victory over Leonardo Morales to win the season and has gone 4-0 since. His head kick finish of Andre Fili was outstanding and his fight against Alex Caceres was more than worthy of being named FOTN, but how anyone could think Caceres took it is beyond us. Rodriguez' next test will be one of the best ever: B.J. Penn. Penn hasn't fought since 2014 and has pulled out of several fights in 2016 so get excited for him and Rodriguez, but not too excited.
15 Julianna Pena: Season 18
The winner of season 18, Julianna Pena, is currently clawing her way, fight by fight, up the Women's Bantamweight division. Her early MMA career took place in promotions along the west coast and Utah, with a 4-2 record. She got selected to TUF in 2013, and won her first three fights on the show, one of which was against Sarah Moras, who had knocked her out a year before. Pena went on to knock out boxer Jessica Rakoczy in the finale to win the contract. Since then, she's won three more fights, including Jessica Eye and former title challenger Cat Zingano. She is currently ranked third in the Bantamweight division.
14 Carla Esparza: TUF 29 - A Champion Will Be Crowned
The "Cookie Monster" Carla Esparza, is one of the best Strawweights out there; currently listed as the number three contender behind Claudia Gadelha and Karolina Kowalkiewicz. Esparza fought in Bellator and Invicta, holding the Invicta Strawweight Championship, before making the move to the UFC and TUF: A Champion Will Be Crowned. That tournament was of course, used to choose a first Strawweight champion. She beat Angela Hill (now back with Invicta), Tecia Torres and Jessica Penne before submitting Rose Namajunas in the finale to win the belt.
She held it for about three months, but lost it to the current champ Joanna Jedrzejczyk. She came back from the loss and beat Juliana Lima back in Arpil, but hasn't fought since. Given how good Joanna looks these days, her likelyhood of taking that belt back is slim.
13 Roy Nelson: Season 10
If you're a fan of fighters who don't look like fighters, Roy Nelson must be a favorite. Looking at him, he looks like the guy who should be showing up on Duck Dynasty with a keg and some pizzas. To watch the guy fight however, he's a vicious puncher, and has a strong background in wrestling that he rarely shows off. Despite the belly, Big Country actually has decent cardio (well...not great but better than he looks like he should have) and has gone the distance with Junior Dos Santos, Stipe Miocic, Josh Barnett, and Alistair Overeem; all very gifted athletes. Nelson has also beaten Bigfoot Silva, Matt Mitrione, Mirko Cro Cop, Stefan Struve and Brendan Schaub.
His career doesn't have the greatest numbers, but there are few fighters out there who are more durable and entertaining than him. We're not banking on him fighting for the belt any time soon, but Roy Nelson is a great athlete and puts on an entertaining show, which is what matters.
12 Kelvin Gastelum: Season 17
There is a lot of drama surrounding Kelvin "sure, give me two more burgers, it's not like I have to make weight" Gastelum. In case you're out of the loop with MMA news, Kelvin Gastelum, the winner of TUF 17, has a history of missing weight, to the point where Dana White announced he'd no longer be allowed to fight at Welterweight. Very recently he switched back to Middleweight and TKO'd Tim Kennedy, who isn't just tough, he's United States military special operator tough.
Along with Kennedy, Gastelum has also beaten Jake Ellenberger, Rick Story, Nate Marquardt, Johny Hendricks, and of course Uriah Hall to win TUF 17. He pledged after his most recent fight that he'd clean up his act and make weight and not disappoint fans and the UFC anymore. Hopefully he does just that, because he is one of the best fighters out there and needs to prove it.
11 Michael Chiesa: Season 15
If you ever have to describe the season 15 winner to anyone: "the beard with the fighter growing off it" should suffice. But more realistically, "the beard who submits everyone" might also be a good bet. He's one of those guys who flies under the radar, but may be one of the best grapplers in the game these days. He's beaten plenty of solid fighters, including Al Iaquinta for the TUF 15 win, veteran Jim Miller, and Beneil Dariush most recently. He's 7-2 in UFC competition and suffered his only two career losses to Joe Lauzon, a total warrior who is lethal standing up or on the ground, and seasoned veteran Jorge Masvidal, who can compete with just about anyone.
10 Robert Whittaker: The Smashes
Back in late 2012, TUF: The Smashes pitted fighters from the United Kingdom against a bunch from Australia. We already saw the Brit who won the Lightweight tournament; Norman Parke. Robert Whittaker, a New Zealander fighting out of Australia, took the Welterweight tournament back in 2012.
He's gone up a weight class, and now sits at number six among Middleweights. He has lost twice in UFC competition; once to Court McGee in a controversial split decision, and once to Stephen "Wonderboy" Thompson. Since then, Whittaker is 6-0, including wins over Uriah Hall, Rafael Natal and most recently, Derek Brunson.
9 Nate Diaz: Season 5
Nate Diaz' career pretty much speaks for itself. He and his brother Nick are the personification of the idea of the scrappy, foul-mouthed, not-a-care-in-the-world brawlers. The crazy part is that on top of all this, they're both BJJ black belts and are incredibly technical when they feel like it. Since he won TUF 5 back in 2007, Diaz the younger has fought at both Lightweight and Welterweight, he's beaten the likes of Donald Cerrone, Takanori Gomi, Jim Miller, Grey Maynard and of course, the current Lightweight champion: Conor McGregor. They are 1-1 right now, and a third fight between the Notorious and Nate, this time for the title, may be a great way to settle that rivalry once and for all.
8 John Dodson: Season 14
One of the most impressive punchers in the smaller weight classes, John Dodson has three losses in the UFC, but they have all been to top tier competition. Two came at the hands of Demetrious Johnson and the most recent came at the hands (of stone) of John "I eat too much Brazilian barbecue so I never make weight" Lineker (not his real nickname).
He beat T.J. Dillashaw to win TUF 14 in 2011, and that in and of itself is an impressive feat. He beat a few ranked fighters when he dropped down to Flyweight, but his return to Bantamweight has led to 1-1 in his last two fights. At just 32, the Magician isn't going anywhere soon, and we can expect John Dodson to remain one of the most exciting guys in the Bantamweight division for at least a couple more years. His recent loss to Lineker was a close fought battle and the split decision could have gone the other way.
7 Ryan Bader: Season 8
He uses the nickname "Darth" for the pun on his last name, but we think "Master" produces a much funnier pun, but probably not one that Bruce Buffer would be able to say on cable. On a PPV, that may be another story.
Bader convincingly won TUF 8 back in 2008 with a quick TKO of Vinny Magalhaes. His UFC career has seen fifteen wins and five losses, including victories over Rashad Evans Quinton Jackson, Ovince St Preux, and Antonio "Little Nog" Nogueira twice. His only loss in his last eight fights was to Rumble Johnson. He's had some decent winning streaks and has been arguing that he deserves a title shot for some time now, if he beats one of the top three LHW contenders (at the time of writing they are Anthony Johnson, Alexander Gustafsson and Glover Teixeira), hopefully Dana White just gives him a title shot to shut him up.
6 Tony Ferguson: Season 13
Here's one of the two guys who could possibly tear Conor McGregor a new one and take that Lightweight title. The other is Khabib Nurmagomedov, who, when and if those two enter the octagon, will take that belt. El Cucuy won TUF 13 back in 2011 and has lost a decision to Michael Johnson the following year, but has been perfect since; currently riding a nine fight winning streak. Among his recent victims are Rafael Dos Anjos, Edson Barboza, Abel Trujillo and seasoned veteran Gleison Tibau.
A thoroughly well-rounded fighter, Ferguson has one of the most complete games in the Lightweight division right now.
5 Diego Sanchez: Season 1
It should be noted that we ranked Sanchez above Ferguson because of Sanchez' title shot, his consistently entertaining and close fights, and his career longevity. A later edition of a similar list could easily have Ferguson (and possibly a couple of others above Sanchez.
There are few fighters out there who have put on more disgusting displays of heart in the octagon than TUF 1's Middleweight winner Diego Sanchez. Seeing "then and now" pictures of Sanchez shows the kind of hell he has gone through in his UFC career. Prior to the show, he was the King of the Cage Welterweight champion, and was undefeated. He beat Kenny Florian to win the tournament and the UFC contract in 2005. He'd make it to 17-0 before dropping his first two losses in 2007 to Josh Koscheck and Jon Fitch. He'd bounce back with four wins before challenging B.J. Penn for the Lightweight championship, where he was used as a punching back for just under 23 minutes before the ref took mercy on his brutalized face. Since then it's been a series of wars for Sanchez. Most of his fights go the distance, and he's a solid bet for FOTN every time he steps into the octagon. He's 2-1 in 2016, and 16-8 in UFC competition.
4 Matt Serra: Season 4: The Comeback
While Travis Lutter (the lowest rank on this list) did nothing after his win on TUF: The Comeback, Matt Serra made the most of his title shot, in a fight that will never be forgotten.
Matt Serra is a testament to what a black belt from Renzo Gracie can do for a short dude with no reach. Matt Serra spent his entire career fighting people bigger than himself and beat some big names. Among his victims are Chris Lytle (although Lytle beat him at the end of Serra's career), Yves Edwards, and of course Georges St-Pierre for the Welterweight title. He'd lose that title back to GSP a year later, and lose two of his last three, including a mangling at the hands of Matt Hughes, before retiring from the sport.
3 Forrest Griffin: Season 1
Heading all the way back to the first season of The Ultimate Fighter, Forrest Griffin had eleven professional fights worth of experience and got selected to the show. His fight for the contract against Stephan Bonnar was the best fight of that year and is still remembered as one of the greatest bouts ever. While it was a unanimous decision, Bonnar fought well enough that Dana White gave both men contracts.
Three years later, Griffin fought Quinton Jackson for the Light Heavyweight belt in a controversial war that he would win via unanimous decision. Although it looked like Griffin might get finished off early, he came back and took it to Rampage in later rounds, and took the belt. He'd lose it just a few months later to Rashad Evans, and got knocked out by Anderson Silva in 2009, but then ended his career going 3-1 in his last four fights, including two wins over Tito Ortiz and one over Rich Franklin. The amount of hard-fought battles in which Griffin participated is a fitting career for the first season's Light Heavyweight winner.
2 Rashad Evans: Season 2
"Suga" Rashad has had an incredible career with the UFC and no matter what becomes of his current medical status, being denied fights at both UFC 205 and 206 due to failing examinations, he's an incredible fighter and we hope he gets back in there soon. His illustrious career includes wins over Quinton Jackson, Tito Ortiz, Forrest Griffin, Michael Bisping, Dan Henderson and Chuck Liddell. Evans has also held the Light Heavyweight belt, which he took from Forrest Griffin in late 2008.
It is starting to look like his career may be nearing done. Along with his current medical concerns (brain problems, and even HIV have been rumored, but nothing has been proven yet) he is 2-4 in his last six fights. He's recently dropped down to Middleweight, so if he does get back into the octagon, we may be treated to an even quicker Jackson than we've seen, but his career looks like it is hanging in the balance these days.
1 Michael Bisping: Season 3
There are a few reasons we listed Michael Bisping as our number one, despite the fact that he was beaten by Rashad Evans early in his UFC career. The smack-talking Brit has had one of the most exciting careers of any mixed martial artist out there and now in his late 30's, he looks better than ever.
The fact that he holds the record for most UFC wins is one reason for his placement. He not only holds the Middleweight title, but is also the only one of the TUF winners to successfully defend a belt, despite that defense having been against an aged Dan Henderson. Regardless of age, Hendo was still an incredible competitor. Furthermore, Bisping beat Anderson Silva, widely considered the G.O.A.T. Granted, that victory was controversial, in part due to the late third round knockdown the Spider scored, but Bisping won at least three rounds, and MMA isn't about who looks ugliest at the end of the fight, it is who scores points. It is looking like he'll be taking on Yoel Romero next, and while we can't predict anything, it would be surprising to see the belt in The Count's hand at the end of that. But regardless of what happens in the future, Michael Bisping is our number one among The Ultimate Fighter winners. We should note; it took some time to decide on a number one and the choice between Evans and Bisping was not an easy one.