The Ultimate Fighter 20 will be the best season in years. No, really. Just stick with me here.

The UFC recently announced that it is plucking a handful of strawweights from Invicta’s ranks and putting all of the ladies in the TUF house. This comes on the heels of the success had by the women’s bantamweights on TUF as they consistently scored higher ratings than their male counterparts. The finale’s main card, sporting fights featuring women, save for the men’s final, scored surprisingly high ratings (even higher than that of Vitor Belfort vs. Dan Henderson). If the recent run of success is indicative of anything, it’s that the women of MMA are in high demand at the moment.

Looking to ride the wave of popularity, the UFC is set to feature a number of strawweight competitors who will compete for the promotion’s championship at the finale. This will also mark the first time The Ultimate Fighter will feature all women. Time will tell if an all-female cast can hold their own. There are still a number of prejudices and personal opinions to overcome, but there will be plenty of reasons to tune in for the best season of TUF in quite some time.

I know it’s become a bit of a cliché to say “the next season of TUF will be awesome!” or something similar, given how fans have been caught with the bait-and-switch tactic far too often recently. We thought making it a live show would help ratings. It didn’t. Then we thought maybe Jon Jones and Chael Sonnen could revive the series with their war of words. They kept it clean. Overall, fans have a right to feel jaded with the series, but the women will be bringing the electric excitement to shock TUF out of its funk.

The first reason is one of the main criticisms that TUF endures every season: talent level. Not since the first few years have we seen a cast filled with fighters who could easily be deemed “UFC ready.” Although not all the participants have been named, it’s very easy to see from the names that have been released that there will be plenty of quality action to be had each week TUF 20 is on the air. Claudia Gadelha, Joanne Calderwood, Carla Esparza, Tecia Torres, Felice Herrig and Bec Hyatt are all widely considered to be within the top 15 in the strawweight rankings. Esparza is the Invicta FC champion, Gadelha was scheduled to face Esparza until forced out of action but is still considered a top contender, Torres and Calderwood are among the most dangerous up-and-coming fighters in the division, and Herrig and Hyatt are two of the division’s most popular fighters. Emily Kagan comes from a great camp at Jackson’s MMA, Rose Namajunas has become must-see TV due to her flying armbars and Paige VanZant has the looks of a model but the toughness of a true fighter.

And that’s just the names released. There are a number of fighter who will attempt to get on the show at the tryouts, even if it’s not a weight class they normally compete in. There’s also consensus top women’s strawweight fighter Jessica Aguilar, who is linked with World Series of Fighting and is slated to fight Alida Gray to determine a WSOF champ, but could certainly land with the UFC if the two organizations are willing to work out a deal.

With these ladies already being active outside the Octagon, often times against one another, they’re already established names in the women’s MMA world. The UFC doesn’t have to waste a lot of production time on getting fans acquainted with the ladies, as many MMA fans already know them. There will of course be the usual backstory features that attempt to create stars, but there won’t be that immediate disconnect of having to watch a handful of prospects who either truly don’t belong in the UFC or are looking for their last chance at joining the big leagues. These women are established fighters with established followings and thus already have a contingent of viewers who will be engaged and willing to tune in.

Of course, with the ladies competing against one another, there are naturally a few rivalries that have developed, most recently between Gadelha and Esparza. The Invicta champ suggested Gadelha faked being sick to deal with a rough weight cut. Well, you can imagine how the argument went between these two feisty competitors. Herrig has become an immensely polarizing figure, and you can bet people’s true feelings will come out after having to live under the same roof. It’s also a safe bet that with such high stakes (UFC gold and the first women’s strawweight championship), the ladies won’t be as keen to play nice with one another.

A final point I’ll make about this season being the best in recent memory has to do with something that plagued the first batch of women on TUF. The women’s bantamweight division had already been an established division in the women’s MMA realm. The division was experiencing a bit of transition, with many big names in the division either failing to make the show or falling early. The division is starting to fill with up-and-coming fighters, but they struggle to get the same recognition of the older guard. That’s not the case with the women’s strawweight division, however. It’s virtually wide open. Esparza is the Invicta champion, but she hasn’t exactly been through a true gauntlet of title challengers (Gadelha would have marked Esparza’s first title defense, in fact). The division is also full of fighters who are either just coming into their prime or still have plenty of years ahead of them. Esparza is only 26, Gadelha is only 25, Herrig is 29, Torres is a youthful 24 and only four fights into her pro career, and VanZant, at 19, isn’t even old enough to legally drink. These fighters are young and represent the future of the women’s strawweight division.

Women’s MMA is becoming popular by the day, and although Rousey remains the sport’s biggest star, it won’t be long before other ladies step up to help shoulder the load. All the women competing on The Ultimate Fighter 20 have the opportunity to become a star, and given their penchant for putting on exciting fights, you can bet there will be plenty of “Oh shit!” moments. With a wide open division, fans should expect plenty of excitement with TUF 20. And if the ladies’ performances in the Invicta cage are any indication, we’re all in for one wild ride next year.

Photo: Joanne Calderwood (R) (Jeff Vulgamore/The MMA Corner)