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The Ultimate Fighter is all about redemption

 
For good or bad, one fight can change everything in the world of combat sports. It can make a journeyman a champion, or start a champion on a slide that he never recovers from. And for all the excitement of watching high-level athletes test themselves against each other, it’s really why so many of us watch the sport.

This isn’t baseball, where a pitcher can come back from a bad outing four days later, or football, which offers a seven-day wait before getting a shot at reversing a negative result. In the fight business, a loss can eat at an athlete, sitting him down for several months or maybe forever. And that athlete may never get his shot at redeeming himself.

Joe Stevenson knows this feeling better than most. When he stepped into the Octagon at UFC 80 in January 2008, he was one win away from being crowned the UFC lightweight champion of the world. It was the culmination of an unlikely journey that began in 2005, when he accepted a spot on the cast of The Ultimate Fighter’s second season.

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At the time, mixed martial arts was just starting to get some mainstream traction in the United States thanks to the first season of TUF and the unlikely winner and star of the show, Forrest Griffin. Griffin was a veteran of the sport heading into the show, with his 9-2 record hiding an experience level gained by fighting the likes of Dan Severn, Jeff Monson, Chael Sonnen and Jeremy Horn. But fighting that Murderers Row wasn’t exactly a lucrative endeavor, and Griffin was on his way to making law enforcement his sole source of income before his life changed with TUF.

Stevenson was in a similar place. Or more accurately, he was in no place when it came to the world of mixed martial arts. As 2005 dawned, Stevenson was 22 years old, going through a divorce and working in a tire plant. As a fighter, he already sported a ridiculous 23-6 record, but he hadn’t fought since submitting Joe Camacho in February 2004. That win was his eighth straight, but as far as he was concerned at the time, it was his last bout.

“I had quit fighting, and in my life a lot of things – such as a divorce and leaving my gym – were going on,” he told me in 2005. “I ended up working in a tire plant, shipping tires around. It upset me, all the stuff that happened.”

The Ultimate Fighter offered Stevenson a second chance. Move into a house with a bunch of other fighters in similar situations, and get a shot at winning a UFC contract.

“There are things in your life you just don’t say ‘No’ to.”



He said “Yes,” and after defeating Marcus Davis, Jason Von Flue and Luke Cummo, Stevenson had his UFC contract and a new lease on his fighting life. He then won four of his next five UFC bouts and was matched up with Penn for the vacant lightweight title.

This time, it was Penn getting his form of redemption, as he won the 155-pound crown on his third try. It was the feel-good story of 2008 for everyone except Joe Stevenson, who went 3-6 in his next nine bouts, with a four-fight losing streak garnering him his release from the UFC in 2011.

Still just 29, Stevenson was expected to fight on, and he did, but back-to-back losses to Dakota Cochrane and Dominique Robinson spaced nearly three years apart appeared to spell the end of his career.

Until they didn’t.

In 2016, Stevenson won back-to-back fights in his home state of California, and then he got a phone call. It was just like the one he got in 2005, and the one also received by fighters like Seth Baczynski, Jesse Taylor, Ramsey Nijem and Eddie Gordon. I wasn’t privy to those details, but I can guess the phone call went something like this:

“Do you want a shot at another UFC contract? All you have to do is win a 16-man tournament and stay in a house in Las Vegas for six weeks.”

As for Stevenson’s answer, I’m guessing he first thought the same thing that went through his head 12 years ago:

“There are things in your life you just don’t say ‘No’ to.”

So he said “Yes,” as did Baczynski, Taylor, Nijem, Gordon, and the rest of their castmates on season 25 of The Ultimate Fighter, aptly entitled “Redemption.”

On April 19, they begin to chase it. And it’s why we’ll watch.

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