The Fall TV programming is rolling out and The Ultimate Fighter reality show returns for its 16th season. Gone is the live format that debuted last season. In its place returns the familiar taped process that allowed the program to capture more drama for the 14 seasons before last. While the format may feel stale, there will still be good fights that will draw fans to watch the new season.
This time around, the new contestants will be coached by two heavyweights. Roy Nelson is the former IFL champion who faced top competition in numerous organizations before joining the UFC through The Ultimate Fighter vehicle. Nelson won season 10 of the show and has flirted with the top-10 rankings ever since. Nelson is known for his big belly, iron chin, strong hands and surprising BJJ.
The other coach is Shane Carwin. Carwin is the former UFC interim champion. He earned the belt from dominating Frank Mir. However, he is probably best known for his fight with Brock Lesnar where he completely dominated the first round to the point many fans thought the fight could have been called, only to gas and be submitted in the second. He has been sidelined with injuries since July 2011. The show will act as the commercial for his return.
However, the real stars of TUF are the contestants. Every year, 32 fighters are brought in to compete. They must win a fight to get into the house and then the final 16 will compete in a tournament with the winner getting a contract. This year, the contestants are welterweights.
Let’s meet the fighters. These are the 16 fighters that I am labeling “The Favorites.” If all else is equal, I believe these fighter’s skills make them the most likely to get into the house and possibly win the show. While it is fun to breakdown the fighters going into the show, styles still make a difference, especially in the fights to get into the house. The odds are some of these fighters will be matched up, eliminating one, or that some of the fighters will be put in a match-up with someone whose style is not favorable. However, read on to see why I believe these are the guys to beat.
Alvey has to be one of the biggest favorites heading into this season. He has a lot of experience and that experience has come against quality opponents like Karl Amoussou (W), Jason Guida (W), Vitor Vianna (L), and Paul Bradley (NC). Like most of Team Quest’s products, he has a strong wrestling background, but Alvey doesn’t just grind out decisions. The Bellator veteran has 11 KO victories. On a side note, Alvey also has been linked to dating America’s Next Top Model season 11 winner McKey Sullivan. So, many fans may already feel like he is the real winner regardless of what happens on the show.
My one concern is that Alvey has primarily competed at middleweight and even light heavyweight throughout his career, so it will be interesting to see how he handles the cut. If the weight cut doesn’t drain him, it is hard to imagine a way Alvey misses making the house.
Marunde may not have the best record out of the contestants, but don’t let that fool you. It is who he has fought that is impressive. He has been in the cage with notable fighters like Rich Attonito (W), Jay Silva (W), Benji Radach (L), Matt Horwich (L), and in his last fight he faced Ronaldo “Jacare” Souza (L). Marunde is also getting better with age. He started his career going just 3-5 in his first eight fights, but he has put together a 7-2 record since then. His toughest fight may not have even happened in the cage. Marunde gained fame when he apprehended a rapist lurking in his neighbor’s house. It turns out the criminal was wanted in five states for rape and burglary.
Marunde is another guy who has to make a cut. He has competed most of his career at middleweight.
Ricci is a guy who was tabbed to be the next great thing, but was quickly forgotten once he lost a fight. The skills that made him a top prospect have only gotten better with age. Also, in hindsight, the loss is nothing to be ashamed of. It was to Pat Curran, who went on to win the Bellator lightweight tournament and then turned around and won the featherweight tournament and title. Ricci holds a win over Jordan Mein and his other loss was to last season’s TUF competitor Daron Cruickshank. Ricci trains out of Tri Star Gym and is Georges St-Pierre’s protégé. Like St-Pierre, Ricci is a well-rounded fighter who can compete wherever the fight goes.
The concern with Ricci is the opposite as it was with the last two fighters. He is a lightweight going up in weight. This means at times he will likely be at a serious size disadvantage.
Legere Jr. is another veteran of the sport who has competed with some of the best. He has fought Waachim Spiritwolf twice (W,L), Quinn Mulhern (L), and Bobby Green (L). He is a Strikeforce veteran who is on a four-fight winning streak. Legere Jr. trains out of Millennia MMA and is a well-rounded finisher. He has finished 12 out of his 14 victories, seven by KO and another five via submission.
The biggest challenge for Legere Jr. will be his size. He stands just 5-foot-8. With most of his castmates standing between 5-foot-10 and 6-foot-3, Legere Jr. will be at a height and reach disadvantage in most of his fights.
I may be higher on Barrett’s chance than many others, but this is a vote in confidence for his camp as much as it is for him. He trains out of Arizona Combat Sports. The camp’s track record on TUF is pretty much unmatched: Ryan Bader won the whole thing, CB Dollaway was a finalist, and last season Jeremy Larsen took the eventual champ to overtime when many didn’t even think he would make it into the house. Barrett has finished every fight he has been in—three KO’s and five submissions. Six of those finishes happened in the first round and the other two ended in the second.
The reason Barrett is flying a little under the radar is that he took nearly a three-year hiatus and just returned in 2012. He has won two fights since his return against opponents with a combined record of 19-12, which is why I think he will be okay, but the long layoff is a red flag to some.
Lockhart doesn’t have that many fights for as long as he has been competing. He debuted in 2001. Throughout his career, he has faced solid competition like Edwin Dewees (L), Shonie Carter (L), TJ Cook (W), and castmate Cortez Coleman (L). The reason he wasn’t more active is that he was in the Marines, where he became a martial arts trainer. He was actually selected to TUF 9 and TUF 11, but the Marines would not allow him to participate because they were concerned the actions of participants may embarrass the military. Lockhart left the military to open a gym with Brian Stann where he is both a MMA trainer and a diet guru. He has four submission victories and another three knockout wins.
Lockhart last competed as a middleweight and is listed on Sherdog as a light heavyweight. The cut is a concern, but the fact that he is a diet guru does help mediate that concern.
South is another name that won’t be familiar to many fans. He has really only competed in regional events. However, he has faced great regional competition. Since the start of 2011, he has had three fights and his opponents’ records going into the fights were 10-9, 17-9 and 9-0. He does hold a victory over castmate Tim Ruberg in his last fight. South has finished every fight—seven submission victories and one knockout. He is strong, relentless and aggressive. South reminds me a lot of Matt Brown in his serious work ethic and intensity. He holds a purple belt in BJJ and has won several BJJ tournaments.
Like many of the competitors this season, he normally competes at middleweight and will need to cut down.
Rivera may have a small number of fights for his age, but that is because he is the owner of Apex MMA and has been busy training others. Now, he wants to step up and see how he does. He has finished all seven of his fights—five submissions and two KO’s with six first-round stoppages. He holds a victory over longtime MMA veteran Shannon Ritch and his first career loss came in his last fight. He is quick and athletic.
Rivera will be one of the oldest fighters on the show and has relatively few fights. The concern of wearing down and lack of experience are real, but I think Rivera can tough it out.
Kamaka is definitely a sleeper in this competition. He is young and relatively inexperienced. However, he reminds me a little bit of Kendall Grove and Amir Sadollah. He is tough, aggressive, and gets better every time out. Like those two other TUF champions, he has an amazing work ethic and learns quickly. If he can make it into the house, he is the type of fighter who could be a completely different and much better fighter by the time he gets out. Currently, he has finished three of his four fights.
Ellis is the most experienced fighter in this year’s field with 33 fights under his belt. The Strikeforce veteran has faced solid competition throughout his career including: Chris Wilson, Ryan Healy, Spencer Fisher, Ryan Schultz and a host of other names many fans would recognize. He is well-rounded with seven knockout victories and seven victories by submission. Ellis is currently on a six-fight winning streak.
The concern with Ellis is obviously his record. He has lost nearly as often as he has won. You can’t help but believe some of the fighters in the house have a similar skill set as some of those fighters that have defeated Ellis in the past.
Ruberg may be the most decorated wrestler in the house this season. He is a Division II All-American. However, despite his wrestling pedigree, he has finished eight of his fights. The Bellator veteran has collected five submissions and three knockout wins. His lone loss came from castmate Jason South.
Ruberg typically competes at middleweight and will need to make the cut down to welterweight for this season.
At just 3-0, Diffley may look like a longshot to be a contender in the house, but it his background that gives him insight and an advantage. This won’t be the first time Diffley has seen the TUF training center. He was Forrest Griffin’s BJJ coach for season seven. The BJJ blackbelt is the BJJ instructor at Throwdown Training Center, where he has trained such fighters as Griffin, Evan Dunham and Matt Riddle. All three of his wins have been first-round submissions. Diffley may be relatively new to MMA, but he has medaled at a long list of grappling competitions.
Diffley is definitely one of the best grapplers in the house, but specialists don’t always make it very far in TUF. Diffley will need to be sure his striking and wrestling are at least average to hope to win the contract.
Camacho is a mystery. The Team Lloyd Irvin fighter has only had one fight since 2007, and that was in 2009. However, he was a strong striker, collecting eight KO victories in his career. He was aggressive with strong ground-and-pound and Muay Thai. During his time away from the sport, he has reportedly been competing in BJJ tournaments to round out his game.
The concerns around Camacho are obvious. He spent a lot of time away from the sport. Will he have ring rust? Did he really round out his game enough to be a true mixed martial artist? If he has rounded out his heavy striking game, he could make some real noise in the competiton.
Araujo trains out of Jackson’s MMA, where he is actually Jon Jones’ BJJ coach. The Brazilian has finished every victory via submission. The most notable opponent he faced is Jim Wallhead, one of his losses. He may be the most dangerous fighter in the competition on the ground.
The concern with Araujo is twofold. As I stated earlier, specialists have traditionally not done great in TUF. And secondly, I’m concerned about the level of competition he has faced recently. Since the start of 2011, he has fought three times, and two of his opponents were not people someone of his stature should be competing against. One was a debuting fighter and the other had a record of just 5-7. I would expect someone of his stature to be facing better competition.
Awad is the second fighter training out of Millennia MMA to make this list of the top 16. The Bellator and Strikeforce veteran has faced solid competition in his career, including Nam Phan and Joe Duarte. The well-rounded fighter has collected four knockout victories and another five submissions.
I have a couple of concerns about Awad. He has competed most of his career at lightweight, which means he will probably be outsized at some point in the competition. I am also concerned about the level of competition he has recently faced. The records of his last three opponents were 0-2, 5-1 and 0-2. I would expect a veteran like Awad to be facing better fighters at this point of his career.
Herron-Webb has competed primarily in Alaska, but even being in an area with relatively little competition, he found the best. He fought both Rob Yundt and Julio Paulino. He has nine submission victories in his career and had a seven-fight winning streak snapped in November. He comes across as hungry and tough, but he has to prove that in this competition.
Catch all of these competitors on the new season of The Ultimate Fighter, which debuts on Friday, Sept. 14, at 9 p.m. ET on FX.
Photo: The cast of “The Ultimate Fighter 16″ (MMAJunkie.com)