Looking back almost nine years later, the cast of the first season of The Ultimate Fighter is quite remarkable. The list of fighters that competed on that inaugural season reads as a collection of some of the UFC’s biggest stars over the last decade and features a former UFC champion, along with a handful of others that worked their way to a title shot over the years. Forrest Griffin, Diego Sanchez, Kenny Florian and the rest of the star-studded cast of TUF 1 helped MMA grow from a niche sport to the rapidly growing spectacle that it is today, and one of the main reasons the UFC is where it is today is a result of that first season.

Ask a random MMA fan to name the event that sparked the UFC’s sudden rise in popularity in 2005, and the majority of them will point to TUF’s first-season live finale, and more specifically to the fight between Griffin and Stephan Bonnar to crown the show’s first winner at 205 pounds. There’s no doubting the significance of this fight, and it will probably forever be known as the bout that brought the UFC back from near death, but the groundwork laid by all the fighters on the reality show is what really got the ball rolling for the UFC.

Not only did the first season of TUF produce the most successful cast in the show’s history (which has now spanned almost a decade and features over 20 different winners), but it may have also produced the most interesting cast of characters as well. That combination of skilled fighters and natural charisma is what made the first edition of the show feel so special.

Whether it was the immensely entertaining fits of rage delivered by Chris Leben, or the cocky, frat-house-inspired attitude of Josh Koscheck, the cast had at least one fighter that every fan could get behind and even more that fans could choose to loathe.

Now, as the UFC prepares to launch the 18th edition of its reality show in the United States, it has the opportunity to try to relive the glory of the first season again, but this time with a female cast that could be the most talented since that extraordinary class of 2005.

When the UFC announced a women’s bantamweight division last year, the biggest questions involved two things: talent and marketability. For years, UFC President Dana White had said that he didn’t think the women’s divisions had enough good fighters to realistically compete in the UFC, and until the rise of Ronda Rousey, he never really softened his stance. However, when Rousey became the fastest rising star in the sport following a few big wins in the Zuffa-owned Strikeforce promotion, the UFC quickly jumped aboard the bandwagon, hoping that Rousey’s popularity would lead to other female fighters getting even a fraction of the attention as the champion.

Though we haven’t yet seen another breakout star since women started competing inside the Octagon, fans have been generally positive regarding female fights at the pinnacle of the sport, and with this upcoming cast of ladies preparing to compete on TUF, the door is open for the UFC to once again use its reality show to create new stars.

The quality of female fighters that auditioned for the upcoming season of The Ultimate Fighter easily surpasses the level of men that have tried out for the show in recent years. Much like their male counterparts from the first season, a lot of the women that attempted to make the reality show are already established veterans in the MMA scene, and the show is just a chance to showcase their skills to a larger audience than ever before.

By the time he joined the cast of TUF 1, Chris Leben was already a former Gladiator Challenge and WEC champion. Forrest Griffin had already been in the cage with top fighters like Chael Sonnen, Jeremy Horn and Dan Severn. These were fighters with big-time experience just looking for an opportunity, and if any of the high-profile women that tried out for TUF 18 make the show (rumors suggest many have done just that), we could see some of them have the same type of success.

Take Tara LaRosa, for example. LaRosa has been one of the most successful female fighters in history during the course of her career, but due to the ladies gaining little to no attention over the years, she still remains relatively unknown by the majority of fight fans. Despite a 21-3 career record and key wins over tough fighters like Alexis Davis and Julie Kedzie, LaRosa has never been given an opportunity to impress in front of a huge audience, but that could change if she appears on TUF. It must be noted, however, that the age restrictions for the show could be the one factor that excludes the 35-year-old from joining the cast.

On the flip side, this season of the reality series can also provide another shot at glory for women that have come up short on the big stage before. Shayna Baszler has been one of the most exciting fighters on the women’s side of the sport for a while now, but she struggled to showcase her skills the one time she was featured on a big-time fight card (an Elite XC event where Cris “Cyborg” Justino defeated her). A shot at TUF would provide a vital second opportunity for Baszler to prove her worth in front of a national audience, and her big-fight experience would instantly make her a favorite to win the show.

Along with LaRosa and Baszler, there are countless other female fighters looking for a chance at a big break by competing on the upcoming season of the show. Lesser-known fighters like Invicta veteran Bethany Marshall or Revelina Berto (the sister of WBC welterweight champion boxer Andre Berto) could easily come out and shock some of the established veterans by getting on a roll and winning the show. That’s what makes the next season of TUF exciting. The level of competition among the women is going to greatly surpass anything we’ve seen from the men in quite some time.

The original cast of The Ultimate Fighter was the perfect group of fighters, and that kind of magic is likely only going to hit a show once during its run. However, even if there is not a star like Forrest Griffin or Diego Sanchez in this upcoming group of female competitors, this season does provide the UFC with its best chance at making a few more female stars to bolster its roster. As long as the right fighters are selected, odds are that at least one star will be born from the female portion of the cast of TUF 18.

Photo: Tara LaRosa (Dave Mandel/Sherdog)

About The Author

Vince Carey
Staff Writer

Vince Carey has been writing about the sport of mixed martial arts since 2010. Although he is just 21 years old, the Omaha-based writer is looking to provide readers with interesting content on all things related to MMA.