With the newest season of the UFC’s The Ultimate Fighter under way, the promotion’s reality fighting series has evolved well beyond the show’s history of a group of guys competing with each other for a contract and a nice payday. For the first time ever, there are women training and fighting against each other, not only for the aforementioned prizes but also for the recognition of being the first woman to ever win TUF, just as coach Ronda Rousey is the first woman to ever hold a UFC championship.
At the same time, Rousey’s opposing coach, Miesha Tate, seems to be the first female fighter to ever truly get under Rousey’s skin, as the two appear to simply hate each other. Only time will tell how that will translate into their training and the eventual development of the show’s winning fighters, but the fact remains that two of these eager and talented young male and female fighters will eventually join the ranks of the show’s greatest champions, and ultimately the UFC. (Hopefully, it won’t be Tim Gorman, who seems to be under the impression that Tate isn’t a professional fighter as much as she’s a trophy.)
In the meantime, I recently found myself wondering, “Who is the greatest Ultimate Fighter champion of all-time?” and since I love stirring up controversy by ranking people and things, I decided to make these power rankings of the best TUF champions. I fully expect and encourage you to disagree and argue with me, but just keep in mind that I am 100% correct.
Some people may roll their eyes as I kick this list off with Mac Danzig, the winner of The Ultimate Fighter: Team Hughes vs Team Serra (or TUF 6 for a conveniently shorter name), but he’s always been a personal favorite of mine because that was the first season of TUF that I watched in its entirety. I was a late bloomer in this MMA game. Danzig may have a lackluster, unimpressive 5-7 record since joining the UFC, but I decided to include him on this list, because his KO of fellow TUF champion Joe Stevenson is still one of my favorite UFC moments from the last five years.
Rony Jason was the featherweight winner on The Ultimate Fighter: Brazil, and while he hasn’t had many opportunities to prove himself as a contender just yet, he is 3-0 since joining the UFC, which includes his victory over Godofredo Castro to become a TUF champion, and a second round KO of Sam Sicilia at UFC 153. His most recent victory came in June at UFC on FUEL TV, as he choked out Mike Wilkinson for a first round victory. Again, there are TUF champs who have come and gone over the years, and they’ve had more fights and wins than Rony has, but I’ve got a gut feeling about this guy that we’ll be seeing him win for years to come.
You know what I just said about Rony Jason and my gut feeling? Multiply that times infinity for Kelvin Gastelum, the winner of The Ultimate Fighter 17. Gastelum has a long way to go in the UFC’s overly crowded welterweight division, and there’s a chance that Georges St-Pierre could be long gone by the time that Gastelum is ever even mentioned for a title shot consideration. But this kid has an incredibly bright future ahead of him, and we can only hope that his TUF 17 coach Chael Sonnen continues to coach him in personality so he can become the UFC’s next charismatic badass.
Prior to his loss to Stipe Miocic at UFC 161, Roy Nelson would have probably been higher on this list just for his notoriety as a fan favorite and the fact that he was climbing the heavyweight ladder. Now he’s just a fan favorite, which is still great in its own right, because who doesn’t love watching a guy with a beer gut and mullet kick some butt? Whether or not the 37-year old can battle his way back into title contention will be up to Nelson, but with a 6-4 record in the UFC and that classic first round KO of Brendan Schaub that won Nelson The Ultimate Fighter: Heavyweights championship, Nelson is truly one of the show’s greatest winners.
Perhaps better known as the younger brother of the bird-flipping, soccer mom hating Nick Diaz, Nate hasn’t exactly had the most stellar record since winning The Ultimate Fighter 5 back in 2007, but he’s been involved in and responsible for some instant classics. Despite the losses, Nate is still always in the UFC Lightweight title conversation, as he proved at UFC on Fox last December that he could hang with then-champion Benson Henderson for five rounds (despite losing in a unanimous decision), and if he can win his rematch against No. 4-ranked Gray Maynard at the TUF 18 finale in November, he’ll certainly start ascending the lightweight rankings again and gain some consideration for an eventual shot at the new champ, Anthony Pettis.
Michael Bisping has had a pretty great career in the UFC since his light heavyweight victory at The Ultimate Fighter 3 in 2006. The 34-year old Englishman is 14-5 in the UFC, including his TUF victory over Josh Haynes, and he most recently bounced back from his title eliminator loss to Vitor Belfort with a technical decision over Alan Belcher. That’s not exactly the most glowing endorsement, but a win’s a win, folks. Currently the 4th-ranked middleweight, a victory over No. 5 Mark Munoz would certainly put Bisping right back into title contention, right after Anderson Silva has his rematch, current champ Chris Weidman gets his rematch (I’m picking Spider all the way, obviously) and Belfort and Ronaldo Souza get their shots as well. He may have to wait a little while, but Bisping will get his shot at the gold eventually.
John Dodson originally competed as a bantamweight when he defeated T.J. Dillashaw to become one of the two champions of The Ultimate Fighter: Team Bisping vs. Team Miller, but he is now carving out a name for himself in the UFC’s incredibly exciting flyweight division. In fact, that’s why I have the 28-year old ranked so high despite the fact that he has only fought four times in the UFC. His last fight was a five-round championship match against the current UFC Flyweight Champion Demetrious Johnson, and that fight was not only the UFC on Fox Fight of the Night for that event, but also a contender for Fight of the Year. Dodson may have lost via unanimous decision to Johnson, but he proved that he’s going to be around for a while, and he will have another shot at the champ once he ruins the debut of Darrell Montague at UFC 166 next month.
A lot of people thought that Rashad Evans’ glory days were behind him after he lost his last title shot against Jon Jones at UFC 145 and then his match against Antônio Rogério Nogueira at UFC 156. But the 33-year old former UFC Light Heavyweight Champion showed there’s still some gas left in the tank when he defeated Dan Henderson at UFC 161 in June. In his prime, though, Evans was one of the UFC’s most exciting fighters, having won The Ultimate Fighter 2 as a heavyweight and then dropping down to light heavyweight to blaze a path to his eventual title win against Forrest Griffin. Granted, Evans would lose the title to Lyoto Machida just a few months later, but getting there was an absolute blast.
Winner of The Ultimate Fighter 4’s welterweight tournament, Matt Serra takes the No. 2 honor for one simple reason – he beat Georges St-Pierre. Call it a fluke all you want, but it happened and it changed GSP forever. In fact, only two men have ever defeated GSP, with Matt Hughes being the other, and that’s a feat greater than winning a Super Bowl or breaking Roger Maris’ home run record, in this hackey writer’s humble opinion. Serra’s overall record in the UFC wasn’t anything to raise a banner over, but even some of his losses could have been written as MMA legends. And, more than anything, I loved his trash talking. Hopefully, the state of New York wises up and gives us a UFC PPV at Madison Square Garden so Serra comes back and gives us one more fight.
The original light heavyweight winner of The Ultimate Fighter, Forrest Griffin was always one of my favorite fighters, solely because of his classic rivalry with Tito Ortiz. Their fight at UFC 59 is legendary, as it rightfully earned the title of Fight of the Year, and even as both fighters seemed past their primes when they met one final time at UFC 148, they still proved they could give us the Fight of the Night. Three years after his TUF victory, Griffin captured the UFC Light Heavyweight Championship from Quinton “Rampage” Jackson, but I’ll always argue that his crowning achievement was going out on top with that second and unanimous decision over Ortiz in 2012.