Now approaching its 13th season, which begins on Wednesday, March 30th, The Ultimate Fighter has been the launching pad for some of the mixed martial arts world’s brightest stars, as well as three UFC champions. But after 12 complete seasons, who are the 25 fighters who have emerged as the cream of the crop from the Spike TV reality series? Today, we start the countdown of the TUF 25.
25 – Matt Mitrione
Post TUF record: 4-0
With no pro experience in mixed martial arts, former NFL lineman Matt Mitrione was expected to make some noise on season ten of TUF, and then go away. He had other plans though, defeating UFC vet Scott Junk on the show and then going on to compile a 4-0 record in the Octagon while amazing skeptics with the rapid growth in his technical game. Add in fight changing power and a healthy dose of athleticism, and suddenly the charismatic and popular Mitrione is a player in the heavyweight division.
DEFINING FIGHT – TKO2 Kimbo Slice
TUF TALK – “Verbally, I said I was done competing (after football), but internally, I was never ready to be done, and I think I knew that I had to find something else to do. Sales wasn’t it. I started my own company and that was part of it, but it wasn’t the physical part, and that’s what I missed most. My wife saw that in me and she said, look, you’re gonna be doing something stupid anyway, you might as well get paid for it (Laughs).”
24 – Roy Nelson
Post TUF record: 2-1
The most experienced fighter on TUF 10, former IFL heavyweight champion Roy Nelson showed himself to be a cut above his fellow competitors as he defeated Kimbo Slice, Justin Wren, James McSweeney and Brendan Schaub to win the season title. He didn’t skip a beat with an impressive 39 second TKO of Stefan Struve in his proper Octagton debut, and while “Big Country” lost a one-sided decision to Junior dos Santos last August, he showed his heart throughout the three rounder. Scheduled to face Frank Mir at UFC 130 after a prolonged layoff, Nelson will skyrocket up this list should he beat the former heavyweight champ.
DEFINING FIGHT – KO1 Brendan Schaub
TUF TALK – “I’ve never been in jail, but I could imagine jail actually being a little bit easier. And the way I always say it is that I can’t wait to do my Visa commercial – Gloves: $50, Tapout T-shirt: $28, Living in The Ultimate Fighter house: priceless.”
23 – Cole Miller
Post TUF record: 6-3
An ultra-talented submission artist with a finisher’s mentality, Cole Miller always brings it to the Octagon, and he’s got the wins to prove it. Yet he also has the losses, with his biggest enemy at this point being inconsistency. If Miller can string together more than two consecutive victories together, it may push him over the hump and lead him to the next level in the viciously competitive 155-pound division.
DEFINING FIGHT – Wsub2 Ross Pearson
TUF TALK – “Every guy that was on The Ultimate Fighter 5 that’s still in the UFC immediately got fights with guys that were fighting on the pay-per-views and the fight nights. We didn’t come out and fight each other. I don’t think the guys from TUF5 have anything to prove and I really don’t think we’ve got a lot of naysayers.”
22 – Kendall Grove
Post TUF record: 7-5
Heading towards journeyman status when he entered the TUF house for season three, Grove began taking his training and fighting career seriously under the tutelage of coach Tito Ortiz and ran the table en route to the season three middleweight title. What has followed since has been a mix of impressive wins over Alan Belcher, Evan Tanner, and Goran Reljic, and crushing KO losses to Patrick Cote and Jorge Rivera that have shown Grove to still be a work in progress. But like number 23 on this list, once he gets consistent and starts fighting like he’s 6 foot 6, then we’ll truly see what the Hawaiian can do in the Octagon.
DEFINING FIGHT - W3 Evan Tanner
TUF TALK - “Before the show I never had anybody come up to me and shake my hand and tell me that I was one of their favorite fighters. But after the show, it started to happen and it was just a mind trip.”
21 – Stephan Bonnar
Post TUF record: 7-6
Stephan Bonnar could fight for another 10 years and win multiple titles, yet to most fans, he will always be remembered for the fight he lost to Forrest Griffin at the TUF1 finale in 2005. It was the war that put the UFC on the map and made Bonnar a household name to MMA fans. Since then, “The American Psycho” has had his share of ups and downs, but midway through 2010, he bounced back, and with back-to-back wins over Krzysztof Soszynski and Igor Pokrajac, it will be interesting to see what Bonnar can do at 205 pounds this year.
DEFINING FIGHT – L3 Forrest Griffin I
TUF TALK –“I knew it (Griffin I) was a good fight when the final bell rang and the crowd was going nuts and yelling for another round. Just looking into the crowd and at everyone’s face, the energy level was so high, I said, ‘it must have been a good one.’”
20 – Joe Lauzon
Post TUF record: 5-3
After debuting in the UFC in September of 2006 with a stirring 48 second knockout of Jens Pulver, Joe Lauzon didn’t need The Ultimate Fighter as a springboard into the organization, but he took the opportunity to compete with one of the series’ most talent-rich casts anyway. And though he didn’t take the season five title, his post TUF stint in the UFC has been quite impressive in its own right as he’s won three of his last five bouts (all by TKO or submission), with his only losses in that stretch coming to Sam Stout and George Sotiropoulos.
DEFINING FIGHT - Wsub2 Jeremy Stephens
TUF TALK - “I got to train with such world-class guys like BJ Penn, Regan (Penn), and Tony (DeSouza), and even the other guys on our team. It was a great measuring stick. You think ‘I can do okay against this guy or that guy’, but until you actually get to do it, you really have no idea. I think being put up against the best was awesome for me because I know where I am and where I have to get and how I measure up against other people. It’s weird because when you train with ‘your’ guys, you really don’t have as much of a measuring stick to other people. When you get to go up against the best, it’s a much more accurate read.”
19 – Ross Pearson
Post TUF record: 4-1
DEFINING FIGHT – W3 Spencer Fisher
Almost universally seen as one of the lightweight division’s top prospects, aggressive battler Ross Pearson has only had one hiccup in the UFC since winning season nine of TUF, a second round submission loss to Cole Miller last September. Otherwise, he’s looked outstanding in beating veteran competition like Aaron Riley, Dennis Siver, and most recently, Spencer Fisher, and if he stays healthy, he should be a handful for anyone at 155 pounds.
TUF TALK –“Obviously I was very confident in me own skills and confident that I was going to go in there, do my best, and get to the finals, but no one ever really said to me, ‘oh, you’re the favorite to win’ or anything like that,” he said. “It was basically my own self-belief that I would do well.”
18 – Brendan Schaub
Post TUF record: 4-1
A former fullback for the University of Colorado, Brendan Schaub clearly had the athleticism and the power to compete in the heavyweight division in MMA, but after he was knocked out in the TUF10 finale by Roy Nelson, there were question marks. There aren’t really too many of them left anymore though, as Schaub dispatched Chase Gormley and Chris Tuchscherer in rapid-fire fashion before putting together back-to-back wins over veteran contenders Gabriel Gonzaga and Mirko Cro Cop, the latter win at UFC 128 earning him Knockout of the Night honors.
DEFINING FIGHT – KO3 Mirko Cro Cop
TUF TALK –“It’s kind of like the game’s changed. Now you’ve got to be athletic and you’ve got to have it all. You gotta be able to wrestle, you gotta be able to strike, so the game’s changing. You see guys like Cain Velasquez and Junior Dos Santos, guys around my size who are really athletic heavyweights, making a name for themselves and doing well. I think the day of the big, experienced guy who just gets by on his toughness, that’s not gonna fly anymore.”