Zuffa LLC’s The Ultimate Fighter reality show has launched some very formidable careers into the professional MMA spotlight. In fact, TUF alumni Forrest Griffin, Rashad Evans and Matt Serra were all eventually able to earn UFC championship titles.

Serra might be the anomaly of the bunch, because he had already established himself with eight fights in the Octagon prior to joining the TUF cast, but Griffin and Evans were relative unknowns with impressive records prior to their appearances on the show.

This Saturday brings the finale of the sixteenth installment of the TUF franchise. The Ultimate Fighter: Team Carwin vs. Team Nelson has showcased some up-and-coming talent, as has been the theme of the show and the reason fans keep tuning in. However, in this finale, there are four up-and-comers—three from previous TUF seasons—who are set to make big statements as future UFC contenders.

In the lightweight division, TUF 15 alum Vinc Pichel, with a 7-0 professional record, is set to face off against Russian Rustam Khabilov, who is 14-1 with his only loss being a split decision on the M-1 circuit, a circuit where he won a championship in 2009. Undercard or not, this is a fight that should be watched closely as Pichel and Khabilov both make their UFC debuts.

Pichel trains out of “Big” John McCarthy’s gym in California. The 30-year-old Simi Valley native is a tall lightweight at 5-foot-10, giving him a significant reach advantage over the Russian. Having only been fighting for four years, the rangy striker has racked up seven wins by TKO with no fights lasting past 2:52 of the second round. Pichel fights hard and mean, and looks to finish all of his opponents without question.

During the exhibition rounds on The Ultimate Fighter: Live, Pichel was a member of Team Cruz. In the exhibition bouts, he rolled through three opponents, two by submission and one by decision, before losing in the semifinals to season 15 runner-up Al Iaquinta.

The most important thing to point out about Pichel is that he is, according to his official record, a knockout finisher, but he had two submissions during the show, is still undefeated as a professional, and has a major advantage in his size. Pichel is set to enter UFC action with a big bang, much like that of Rashad Evans.

Pichel may have a significant size advantage over most of the division, but he only has a negligible height advantage over the 5-foot-9 Khabilov. The Russian is very much the opposite of a knockout artist. He is a submission master, literally.

Khabilov’s rank as International Master of Sports in Sambo pretty much defines his professional MMA career. The Russian has only one knockout by punches and one by a slam. The rest of his record reads five wins by submission and seven by decision.

Khabilov is a grinding distance fighter. He was never a contestant on TUF, but he is a stellar fighter who is now training with Greg Jackson in Albuquerque. One thing’s for sure, with the level of striking talent at Jackson’s MMA, Khabilov will be no slouch on his feet when he faces Pichel on Saturday.

The 26-year-old Russian is on a path to be the second coming of Fedor Emelianenko, only lighter and in the UFC.

The next fight on the card, in the bantamweight division, features TUF 14 alum “Brutal” Johnny Bedford fighting The Ultimate Fighter: Brazil alum Marcos Vinicius. While Vinicius and Bedford each have more blemishes on their record than Pichel and Khabilov combined, these fighters have much more experience.

Prior to joining the UFC, Bedford and Vinicius had a combined record of 36-12-2, dating back to the American’s first professional fight over six years ago. They both have a fairly even balance in wins between knockouts and submissions, but the biggest difference is Bedford’s eight submission losses.

Bedford and Vinicius were stopped in the semi-finals of their respective TUF seasons with fairly lackluster performances, which made them big-time sleepers.

The 29-year-old Bedford is a veteran fighter with a NCAA Division I wrestling background and a brown belt in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. The Ohio native currently trains out of Fort Worth, Texas. He has the most losses of the four sleepers, but he already has a fantastic third-round TKO against fellow TUF contestant Louis Gaudinot in his first Octagon appearance. Outside of his losses on the show, he has a 10-2 record in the last three-and-a-half years with a great mix of knockouts, submissions and decisions.

Bedford has a fiery attitude and is dangerous no matter where the fight goes. He is a career fighter who is looking to make his second splash on the big stage.

The Brazilian Vinicius, outside of his TUF fights, has only one loss in three years. Like Bedford, he is both dangerous on the ground and standing, but all of his recent wins have been by stoppage. Most of Vinicius’ fights end in the first round with his biggest danger in having a fight going to decision, where he doesn’t fare as well.

In his UFC debut, Vinicius faced Wagner Campos and won by an early third-round TKO.

Look for Vinicius to come out seeking an early finish to become one of the few Brazilian TUF contestants to make it big in the Octagon.

All four of these guys are sleepers, entering the UFC with a ton of momentum and even more fire in their bellies. While the main card brings an amazing lineup of guys who have already made a mark in UFC competition, these up-and-comers are looking to stake their claim on the big stage.

Photo: Johnny Bedford (Paul Thatcher/Fight! Magazine)

About The Author

Dan Kuhl
Interview Coordinator