This is it – 15 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 Fab Five, 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, the headliner of two major shows, and a featured bout on many others, is in the top ten while other veteran performers are below him.
So with that out of the way, here we go with the final installment of the list…
5 – Gray Maynard – Season Five
Post TUF record: 6-0, 1 NC
A three-time All-American wrestler for Michigan State University, Maynard entered The Ultimate Fighter 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, and Roger Huerta. Should he keep his unbeaten streak alive, expect a lightweight title shot for the ever-improving ‘Bully’ in 2010.
DEFINING FIGHT – W3 Frankie Edgar – UFC Fight Night – 4/2/08
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.”
4 – Kenny Florian – Season One
Post TUF record: 9-3
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 finals 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 in August, there’s little doubt that the New England standout will be back in the mix sooner rather than later.
DEFINING FIGHT – Wsub1 Joe Stevenson – UFC 91 – 11/15/08
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.”
3 – Diego Sanchez – Season One
Post TUF record: 10-2
Take away 2007, and Diego Sanchez would be undefeated now, an amazing feat considering the journey he’s made since winning the middleweight division of TUF’s first season. But in 2007, Sanchez did suffer the only two defeats of his career to American Kickboxing Academy teammates Josh Koscheck and Jon Fitch. It could have been the nail in the coffin for ‘The Nightmare’, but instead, Sanchez has put together four straight wins since then, two in the lightweight division over Joe Stevenson and Clay Guida that have earned him a December title shot against BJ Penn. It’s a bout that has the potential to be a modern classic, and no one is counting Sanchez out of this one.
DEFINING FIGHT – W3 Karo Parisyan – UFC Fight Night – 8/17/06
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)
2 – Forrest Griffin – Season One
Post TUF record: 7-4
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 helped put the UFC on the mainstream map 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 has since lost the belt to Rashad Evans and was stopped in a single round by Anderson Silva, but a win over Ortiz in their UFC 106 rematch may be just what the doctor ordered to get Griffin back on track.
DEFINING FIGHT – W3 Stephan Bonnar I – TUF1 Finale – 4/9/05
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.”
1 – Rashad Evans – Season Two
Post TUF record: 8-1-1
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 would lose the title to Lyoto Machida in May, but he remains one of the top 205-pounders in the world.
DEFINING FIGHT – KO2 Chuck Liddell – UFC 88 – 9/6/08
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.”