This is it – 17 fighters have been named already, and now it’s time to reveal the five best fighters to ever compete on The Ultimate Fighter. But before we get to the Elite Eight, just a note on the criteria used to determine the list.
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.
8 - Josh Koscheck
Post TUF record: 13-5
A non-nonsense competitor whose ‘tell it like it is’ attitude has made him a polarizing figure from the time he was on the first season of TUF, Josh Koscheck has basically grown up in the UFC, with 18 of his 22 pro fights taking place in the Octagon. Along the way, ‘Kos’ has battled the best in the game, from Georges St-Pierre and Diego Sanchez, to Thiago Alves and Frank Trigg, all the while adding new wrinkles to his world-class wrestling attack. Most potent of his new weapons is a devastating right hand, one he’s used to great effect over the last couple years, and as he continues to grow as a fighter, Koscheck will certainly remain entrenched among the best 170-pounders in the world.
DEFINING FIGHT – W3 Diego Sanchez
TUF TALK - “I get thousands and thousands of e-mails every day and it’s amazing what it’s done for my life. Most of the time, if you’re calling my phone in the last six months, it’s been ‘voice mail filled’. So it was overwhelming at one point. Now things are starting to slow down a little bit, but you really don’t picture yourself in that position - because I grew up in a blue collar, hard working family - getting to the point to where ‘okay, now you’re on a reality show.’ So I get on TV, and after the show it’s like ‘Oh my God, it’s crazy.’ I go into the UFC and they have to move my seat because fans are coming down to get autographs and pictures. So it is a bit overwhelming, but in another sense it’s good. It’s good for our sport and the fighters.”
7 – George Sotiropoulos
Post TUF record: 7-1
In MMA or any sport for that matter, it’s the squeaky wheel that gets oiled, and soft-spoken George Sotiropoulos is anything but a squeaky wheel. But when you win your first seven UFC fights after competing on season six of The Ultimate Fighter, it’s hard to be ignored, and in 2010, Sotiropoulos had a stellar year that saw him emerge as a true 155-pound contender as he defeated Joe Stevenson, Kurt Pellegrino, and Joe Lauzon in succession. 2011 got off to a rocky start as he lost his first Octagon bout via decision to Dennis Siver, but expect to see the Aussie standout back in contention sooner rather than later.
DEFINING FIGHT – W3 Joe Stevenson
TUF TALK –“Seeing different types of people and different traditions and different walks of life, I got to have a very open mind. I’ve seen what life’s about, I’ve seen good and bad in other things, and I’m grounded. For example, the kids in Thailand, in a lot of cases when they train over there it’s not really sport; they’re forced to do it because their families can’t afford to keep them. They send them to training camps and in a way it’s something they gamble on. So being in the (Ultimate Fighter) house was easy because it was my choice to be there and I wanted to be there because I love it so much. A lot of the guys were so miserable in there and they don’t know how lucky they were.”
6 - Diego Sanchez
Post TUF record: 12-4
It’s been a crazy career thus far for season one TUF winner Diego Sanchez. From his early days at welterweight, where he went 4-0 before back-to-back losses to Jon Fitch and Josh Koscheck, to a brief stint at lightweight where he challenged then-champion BJ Penn for the UFC crown, and then to his recent resurrection at 170, the man formerly known as “Nightmare” and now dubbed “The Dream” has always been exciting in the Octagon and nearly as compelling outside the cage. Needless to say, win or lose, odds are that we’ll be talking about him for a long time.
DEFINING FIGHT – W3 Karo Parisyan
TUF TALK – “In my mind all the TUF guys are gonna lose and I’m gonna be the only undefeated fighter and I’m still gonna be the only guy that went through the show, finished everybody, and I’m gonna be ‘The Ultimate Fighter.’ They’re gonna say, ‘that guy Diego Sanchez, he was ‘The Ultimate Fighter’ through all the seasons.’ They’re gonna say that he was the only guy that dominated it, came out after it, stayed undefeated, won the belt, and got out of his contract undefeated.” (Before his bout with Karo Parisyan)
5 - Kenny Florian
Post TUF record: 11-4
A fighter who actually caught the eye of UFC President Dana White in a losing effort against Drew Fickett in 2004, Kenny Florian entered the TUF1 house with little fanfare, but he defeated Chris Leben to make it to the middleweight final against Diego Sanchez. Sanchez pounded out a decisive victory over Florian in the finals, and many wondered where KenFlo fit in the great scheme of things. We found out soon enough as he dropped to welterweight and then lightweight, where, after a title fight loss to Sean Sherk in 2006, Florian put together a six fight winning streak with victories over Din Thomas, Joe Lauzon, Roger Huerta, and Joe Stevenson that earned him a second title shot. And though Florian was submitted in the fourth round by Penn and lost a 2010 bout to Gray Maynard, the New Englander may very well find his 2011 home in a new division – featherweight.
DEFINING FIGHT – Wsub3 Takanori Gomi
TUF TALK – “After experiencing the last Ultimate Fighter finale, I feel like I can really go through anything now. Just experiencing the craziness of everything that happens backstage prior to the fight, the interviews leading up to the fight, I’ve matured in a way that I’m gonna stay focused on the fight itself. Having gone through that before, I feel like I’ve definitely grown.”
4 - Michael Bisping
Post TUF record: 11-3
The man who put MMA on the map in the UK, Michael Bisping had little difficulty winning on the British circuit, and he continued his winning ways on TUF3 as he took out Ross Pointon, Kristian Rothaermel, and Josh Haynes to win the season’s light heavyweight title. His good fortunes continued in finishes of Eric Schafer and Elvis Sinosic, but his rep took a hit after a controversial decision win over Matt Hamill at UFC 75. Bisping would lose for the first time in his next bout, a UFC 78 loss to Rashad Evans, but his gutsy performance in the razor-thin decision defeat won back some of the fans he lost after the Hamill bout. Losing to Evans prompted Bisping to drop to 185, and three straight wins (Charles McCarthy, Jason Day, and Chris Leben) followed before a devastating knockout loss to Dan Henderson at UFC 100 in July. Eager to get back in the race, Bisping has won four of his last five, including Fight of the Night victories over Denis Kang and Yoshihiro Akiyama.
DEFINING FIGHT – TKO2 Denis Kang
TUF TALK - “You’re not gonna see me in any factories for quite some time.” (In the locker room after winning TUF3)
3 - Forrest Griffin
Post TUF record: 9-4
There’s probably no one in the game who would want to avoid the spotlight more than Forrest Griffin, but that became an impossibility when the former police officer won season one of The Ultimate Fighter with a stirring three round win over Stephan Bonnar that kicked off the MMA explosion in 2005. After that, it was a constant stream of interviews, appearances, and photo shoots for Griffin, who still found time to engage in a memorable war with Tito Ortiz, get upset by Keith Jardine, and rebound to shock Mauricio Rua and Quinton Jackson, the latter bout earning him the UFC light heavyweight crown in 2008. Griffin went on to lose the belt to Rashad Evans and get stopped in a single round by Anderson Silva, but consecutive wins over Ortiz and Rich Franklin have put the ever-popular Griffin back on track.
DEFINING FIGHT – W3 Stephan Bonnar I
TUF TALK – “I didn’t get here through all that hard work and winning fights nonsense; I got here through a TV game show, and I’m comfortable with that.”
2 - Gray Maynard
Post TUF record: 8-0-1, 1 NC
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 has not missed a beat since 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 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. Unbeaten slate intact, “The Bully” gets another shot at Edgar in May.
DEFINING FIGHT – DRAW 5 Frankie Edgar
TUF TALK – “To tell you the truth, I thought I looked like crap on the show. The one fight against Brandon (Melendez), I don’t know what happened there, and I just couldn’t wait to get back in the gym and train. I was back in the gym a couple days after the show ended, and it just felt good to be back training right, and I can’t wait to get back in there and prove that I’m a lot better than I was on the TV show.”
1 - Rashad Evans
Post TUF record: 10-1-1
An undersized heavyweight with little reputation to precede him, former Michigan State wrestler Rashad Evans wasn’t expected to do much with the giants on TUF2, but four wins later (Keith Jardine, Mike Whitehead, Tom Murphy, and Brad Imes), the New York native had won the show’s title. Evans continued to surprise in his post-TUF career, and though he received a reputation for putting on less than compelling fights early on, by the time he was blasting out Jason Lambert and Sean Salmon, that rep changed. Evans would then engage in two close battles with Tito Ortiz and Michael Bisping, decisioning Bisping and fighting to a draw with Ortiz. These fights were preludes to a spectacular knockout of Chuck Liddell and a decisive finish of Forrest Griffin that put the UFC light heavyweight championship belt around his waist. Evans lost the title to Lyoto Machida in his first defense, but rebound wins over Thiago Silva and Rampage Jackson have earned him a shot at the title belt held by former teammate Jonny “Bones” Jones later this year.
DEFINING FIGHT – KO2 Chuck Liddell
TUF TALK – “I surprised a lot of people, including (UFC President) Dana White. A lot of people thought that I didn’t have any talent at all. See, I always had confidence in myself, but the better I did, people would say ‘wow’ and they just couldn’t believe it. I knew my own potential, but they didn’t know, so it was a big surprise to them.”