The current season of The Ultimate Fighter has been a breath of fresh air for a number of reasons. For starters, the coaches—UFC light heavyweight champion Jon Jones and former middleweight contender Chael Sonnen—are two of the most famous people in MMA. Their star power alone would be enough to propel this season of TUF beyond many of the previous editions in terms of quality, but their demonstrated commitment to the success of their teams, and the surprisingly friendly rivalry they’ve forged in the process, have made this version one of the best.

Of course, the season would be nothing without quality fights, and the middleweights selected for The Ultimate Fighter: Team Jones vs. Team Sonnen have delivered. From the first episode, when nine of the 14 preliminary fights ended inside the distance, fans got a good sense that this group of TUF contestants would be hungry for success. All but one of the next round of fights also ended with a stoppage, including a spectacular knockout from Uriah Hall, and Collin Hart’s lone decision victory over Kevin Casey came after a thorough domination by Hart that left no one doubting who was the superior fighter. Tomorrow’s episode will feature the final opening-round bout, and fans can expect the two participants to be more driven to win than at any other time in their careers.

Despite the high quality of this season’s contestants, the question of how the program’s eventual winner will stack up against more seasoned UFC middleweights remains to be answered. Some of the show’s past winners have quickly found themselves in title contention. John Dodson, who won the bantamweight edition of The Ultimate Fighter: Team Bisping vs. Team Miller in 2011, fought Demetrious Johnson for the promotion’s 125-pound title just a few months ago. Sure, that might have had just as much to do with the sparse flyweight roster as it does with Dodson’s considerable talent, but without winning his TUF season he probably would not have been so quickly considered for the opportunity. On the other hand, Tony Ferguson (the welterweight winner of the previous TUF season) dropped to lightweight and went 2-1 in the middle of three UFC cards. He lost his most recent bout to Michael Johnson in May 2012 and really hasn’t been heard from since.

The point is, emerging as the winner of a TUF tournament does not guarantee fighters a place at the top of their respective UFC divisions. Given the quality of this season’s fighters, however, it’s possible that the champion could find himself two or three fights away from a title opportunity. Beyond the belt, though, it might not be too much of a stretch to say that the winner of this season’s TUF tournament would have a claim to a top-20 middleweight ranking.

The enigmatic Uriah Hall, one of the presumptive favorites to emerge victorious, could be the most highly regarded TUF champion if he ends up winning the rest of his fights. The New York-based striker has a 7-2 pro record, including a win in Bellator MMA, and his only losses are to elite UFC middleweights Costa Philippou and Chris Weidman. If he’s able to survive this extremely competitive field, and perhaps score one more highlight-reel finish in the process, he’d certainly be a guy to look at as an immediate opponent for a middleweight higher in the UFC pecking order, if only to measure his skills against more experienced mixed martial artists. Luke Barnatt, Collin Hart and Jimmy Quinlan were also impressive in victory, though the sheer explosiveness of Hall’s wheel-kick knockout of Adam Cella has his name above the rest.

Someone like Hall might, in fact, be considered a more highly ranked middleweight than, say, the winner of Bellator MMA’s current middleweight tournament. Nothing against Brett Cooper or Doug Marshall, but winning a Bellator MMA tournament is sort of like winning the NIT—it’s great, but doesn’t carry with it the magnitude of a TUF victory. The winners of The Ultimate Fighter are typically not ready for immediate title contention, but they’re certainly better than the vast majority of the other fighters in their weight class, which is why they’re being considered for employment by the UFC and not a lesser promotion.

It’s always difficult to predict exactly how the winners of a season of The Ultimate Fighter will fare in their post-TUF fights. We’ve seen some become dangerous title contenders and a few have even become UFC champions. For others, however, their TUF wins represented the highlight of their professional MMA careers, and they faded from the spotlight after just a few appearances in the Octagon. There’s something special about this season’s crop of fighters, though, and we can likely expect the winner to remain a fixture in the UFC middleweight division for years after.

Photo: Uriah Hall (Keith Mills/Sherdog)

About The Author

Eric Reinert
Staff Writer

Eric Reinert has been writing about mixed martial arts since 2010. Outside the world of caged combat, Eric has spent time as a news reporter, speechwriter, campaign strategist, tech support manager, landscaper and janitor. He lives in Madison, Wis.