The Ultimate Fighter began as a breeding ground to find the next great mixed-martial artist. Sometimes, the victors went on to UFC glory. Other times, they faded into obscurity, while the runners-up experienced tremendous success. As the show inches toward its season 15 finale on June 1st, I thought it would be interesting to look back at the most successful alums from this ground-breaking program:
10. Stephan Bonnar. This was the toughest spot for me to rank, with several fighters experiencing similar levels of achievement in the UFC: Chris Leben, Joe Stevenson, Melvin Guillard, Keith Jardine, Matt Hamill, Tom Lawlor, Roy Nelson, Matt Mitrione, and Brendan Schaub. However, Stephan Bonnar gets the edge because of what happened on April 9, 2005. That was the night he and Forrest Griffin engaged in a stand-up war that many experts still refer to as the most important fight in MMA history. That bout laid the foundation for building the UFC brand to global proportions, and made Bonnar and Griffin stars. UFC light-heavyweight champion Jon Jones referred to his 2009 decision victory over Bonnar as the “toughest fight of my career.”
9. Ryan Bader. Though some of the shine came off of Bader’s promising career after back-to-back losses to Jon Jones and Tito Ortiz, the season 8 winner has bounced back with two straight victories (including a win over Quinton “Rampage” Jackson). The Arizona State All-American wrestler’s record now stands at 14-2, with notable wins over Jackson, Antonia Rogerio Nogueira, and Keith Jardine. He looks to take another step toward title contention when he faces Lyoto Machida on August 4th.
8. Diego Sanchez. Formerly “The Nightmare,” now “The Dream,” Sanchez has gained a reputation as one of the most exciting fighters in the sport. Displaying non-stop movement and incredible stamina, Sanchez has earned five “Fight of the Night” bonuses and two “Fight of the Year” honors (versus Karo Parisyan in 2006, and Clay Guida in 2009). Though he was unsuccessful in his only title shot (against BJ Penn in 2009), Sanchez has earned notable victories over Kenny Florian, Nick Diaz, Parisyan, Guida, Joe Stevenson, and Martin Kampmann.
7. Nate Diaz. In a year or two, Nate Diaz will be higher on this list. His stock is sky-rocketing after three straight victories over top contenders Takanori Gomi, Donald Cerrone, and Jim Miller. Diaz seems to have earned the next lightweight title shot, against the winner of Ben Henderson and Frankie Edgar. Diaz, the season 5 winner, punishes his opponents with his superior boxing, but can also put on a ground clinic with masterful jiu-jitsu.
6. Kenny Florian. Florian, the runner up (to Sanchez) in season one, gets the edge over others on this list for a few reasons. One, he made it to the finals of the show’s freshman season while competing at 185 pounds. Florian is regularly a 155 pound fighter, who has even challenged for the title at 145. Possessing razor-sharp elbows and the ability to finish fights (12 of his 14 wins were by stoppage), Florian has challenged for titles at lightweight (against Sean Sherk and BJ Penn) and featherweight (against Jose Aldo). Though Florian has never held a UFC crown, he has earned notable wins over Kit Cope, Joe Lauzon, Roger Huerta, Joe Stevenson, Clay Guida, and Takanori Gomi.
5. Josh Koscheck. The villain of season one, where he lost in the semi-finals, Koscheck has morphed into a force in the UFC welterweight division. An accomplished wrestler, Koscheck has grown into a devastating striker, winning 5 of his 17 triumphs by knockout. Koscheck has twice challenged Georges St-Pierre for the welterweight crown, only to lose by decision both times. However, wins over Diego Sanchez, Chris Lytle, Frank Trigg, Anthony Johnson, Paul Daley, and Matt Hughes have kept him in contention. His recent controversial split decision loss to Johny Hendricks on May 5th will not deter Koscheck from climbing the ladder at 170 pounds.
4. Michael Bisping. What else does Michael Bisping need to do to earn a title shot? The season 3 winner’s only four career losses are against top contenders, legends, and former champions (Chael Sonnen, Wanderlei Silva, Dan Henderson, Rashad Evans). The talkative Brit with the devastating standup has been a great company man for the UFC, answering all challenges. A controversial decision loss to Sonnen on January 28th denied Bisping his long-awaited (and thoroughly-earned) shot at Anderson Silva’s middleweight crown. With notable victories over Matt Hamill, Chris Leben, Yoshihiro Akiyama, Jorge Rivera, and Jason Miller, Bisping next faces Tim Boetsch on July 21st, hoping to earn that elusive title shot.
3. Gray Maynard. Maynard, the season 5 winner, has only suffered only defeat in his MMA career (a 2011 setback to Frankie Edgar for the lightweight title). After defeating a non-champion Edgar in 2008, Maynard went on to score victories over Jim Miller, Roger Huerta, Nate Diaz, and Kenny Florian. In his second matchup with Edgar, Maynard had the champ in trouble early before a five-round draw outcome. Maynard will next square off with Clay Guida on June 22nd, and looks to be only a win or two away from another shot at the title.
2. Forrest Griffin. After winning the inaugural season of The Ultimate Fighter (culminating with his classic bout against Bonnar), Griffin has grown into one of the most recognizable, and popular, fighters in UFC history. Griffin will never be confused as a technical striker, instead relying on unorthodox brawling and a lot of heart. After earning early career wins over Chael Sonnen, Bonnar (twice), and Mauricio “Shogun” Rua, Griffin captured the UFC light-heavyweight title in 2008 by defeating Quinton Jackson. After dropping the title to Rashad Evans later that year, Griffin has bounced back with victories over future Hall Of Famers Tito Ortiz and Rich Franklin. He will complete his trilogy with Ortiz on July 7th, and has hinted that this could be his last time in the Octagon.
1. Rashad Evans. Evans won the season 2 crown while fighting much larger opponents at heavyweight. After his feat, Evans dropped down to 205 pounds and went on a spectacular run. After defeating Stephan Bonnar and Michael Bisping, Evans rose to mainstream prominence with a devastating knockout victory over Chuck Liddell. This earned him a title shot against then-champion Forrest Griffin for the 205 pound crown. Evans would go on to easily defeat Griffin in December of 2008. Though he would lose the title to Lyoto Machida the next year, Evans bounced back with solid wins over Thiago Silva, Quinton Jackson, Tito Ortiz, and Phil Davis. Evans earned another opportunity to challenge for the light-heavyweight title, losing a decision to Jon Jones on April 21st. With only two blemishes on his record, Evans still maintains a spot among the top light-heavyweights on the planet, and remains in the hunt for the title.