T. J. Dillashaw (Esther Lin/MMA Fighting)Back to Basics: ‘The Ultimate Fighter’ Producing Contenders Once Again Vince Carey May 16, 2014 Spotlight The importance behind the first season of The Ultimate Fighter has been beaten into the ground. The UFC would have been all but out of business, MMA on a channel like Fox would still be a pipe dream and it’s highly possible that fight fans would still be stuck watching only a half dozen pay-per-view events a year (or far less). We’d be trading .zip files of fights in Japan back and forth instead of tapes, but outside of that we could easily still be stuck in the early Zuffa days where 99 percent of the population thought that fighting in the UFC was a half step above barroom brawling. Without The Ultimate Fighter, it’s likely that The MMA Corner wouldn’t exist right now and I’d be writing for some WWE blog about 27-time WWE champion Brock Lesnar. The first season of TUF was lightning in a bottle in a lot of ways, but outside of bringing legions of new eyes to the product, the best thing about that season was the all-star cast that came with it. Names like Forrest Griffin, Stephan Bonnar, Kenny Florian and Diego Sanchez became synonymous with the UFC almost instantly. Chris Leben and Josh Koscheck became two of the most hated and beloved fighters in the sport during their time on the show, and neither guy even made the finals. Nate Quarry didn’t even fight on the show, but he ended up fighting for a UFC title less than a year after it ended. The UFC didn’t just stumble upon a groundbreaking reality show, it ended up with an influx of groundbreaking talent as well. For a few years, the TUF talent boom continued in a big way. The promotion was gifted with future title contenders Rashad Evans and Joe Stevenson from season two and bombastic Brit Michael Bisping in season three. The unique “Comeback” format in season four brought about the career resurgence of fan-favorites Matt Serra and Chris Lytle. The fifth season added so much talent to the lightweight division that a half dozen cast members are still under UFC contract. Whether or not you felt the show started to feel a bit stale over those first few years, you couldn’t deny that the reality series had a knack for finding high-caliber talent. After season five, the talent level on TUF decreased dramatically. Season six and seven winners Mac Danzig and Amir Sadollah never made it past the middle of the pack in their respective divisions. Seasons eight and nine both featured a champion that ended up being cut from the promotion after a handful of fights. Even season 10, which featured a huge rivalry between Rashad Evans and Quinton “Rampage” Jackson in the head-coaching spots and ratings monster Kimbo Slice among the contestants, only produced one fighter that has spent significant time in the top 10 of his division. To date, not a single fighter from TUFs 6 through 13 has been able to work their way to a title shot. To tell the truth, none of them have really come all that close. When season 14 of TUF was announced with a cast that was to feature 145- and 135-pound fighters for the first time, it felt like a breath of fresh air to every fight fan that had begrudgingly stuck with the show over the years. After countless seasons filled with middleweights destined to drop down a weight class after the show and lightweight seasons with less talent than the average 155-pounder debuting on Spike, this was a chance to dip into a sea of untouched talent. The reason that the first few seasons of TUF had so much talent was due to the fact that everyone that wanted a UFC contract was clambering to get on the show. But after casting new fighters every six months for a few years, the well had to eventually dry up and the promotion was forced to start settling for fighters that were far less talented than their predecessors. TUF 14 was a fresh start, and it didn’t even take until the first commercial break of the premiere episode to realize that the talent level on TUF had been taken up a notch. The 14th season of TUF ended up being the most fruitful season the UFC had experienced in years from a talent standpoint. Almost three years later, an impressive 11 of the 16 fighters that made it into the house on that season are still competing inside the Octagon, and over half of those fighters are ranked in the top 15 of a UFC division at the moment. Still, the most impressive thing about the cast of TUF 14 is that, as of next weekend, it will have produced two fighters that made it all of the way to a UFC title fight. Those two men are John Dodson and T.J. Dillashaw. Dodson had a chance to try to capture flyweight champion Demetrious Johnson’s belt early last year, and now the man he defeated for the TUF 14 bantamweight championship is set to get a shot at breaking Renan Barao’s 30-fight winning streak next week. Dodson and Dillashaw may be the standouts, but since season 14 of TUF, the number of talented fighters coming out of the reality show has improved quite a bit. Myles Jury rebounded from a brutal split decision loss on TUF 15 and entered the Octagon on a tear, winning his first four UFC bouts, including a recent outing against TUF 1 winner Diego Sanchez. With his streak, Jury earned himself a spot in the top 10 of one of MMA’s deepest division. The season-17 champion, undefeated Kelvin Gastelum, has launched himself into the No. 11 spot in the welterweight rankings after just three fights in the UFC. Heading into his second UFC bout later this month, TUF 18 winner Chris Holdsworth may be the most highly regarded bantamweight prospect since Dillashaw, his teammate, came out of TUF three years ago. Almost out of nowhere, TUF has started producing winners again. High levels of success were expected for the stars of TUF 14, but the sudden ability of the reality series to produce contenders in the heavier weight classes again has been a pleasant surprise for TUF fans over the past couple of years. After watching guys like Jon Jones and Chris Weidman skip the TUF process altogether and become champions within just a few years inside the Octagon, most fighters don’t want to put themselves through the physical and emotional gauntlet that comes with living in the TUF house. Guys like Gastelum have proven that there is some definite value in going on the show and making a name for yourself in front of at least some portion of the UFC audience instead of just showing up on a Fight Pass card at 5 a.m. Although the format of the show is undoubtedly stale and the ratings seem to hover somewhere south of a million viewers these days, the UFC still values The Ultimate Fighter tremendously. The show is not going away anytime soon. With the huge TUF 20 season for the inaugural women’s strawweight title set to kick off later this year and highly touted prospects like Ireland’s Cathal Pendred opting to compete on TUF 19 (check out his blog right here on The MMA Corner), it feels like the show has gained a bit of it’s mojo back, at least from a talent standpoint. It may never produce a cast with a half dozen fighters that earn title fights, but the series has quietly started to come out of its slump over the last few years. Reality-show veterans are becoming contenders again.