Since its debut on Jan. 17, 2005, The Ultimate Fighter has become synonymous with the UFC. After over 20 seasons and counting, it has produced three champions, numerous contenders and countless stars. It is also considered one of the single biggest contributors to bringing the UFC out of obscurity and into the mainstream. But even after all that, the show has received massive criticism in recent years for its inability to produce the same level of talent as it did in its earlier years.

Some of the criticism is certainly justified. Aside from John Dodson, who lost in his bid to capture the UFC flyweight title from champion Demetrius Johnson, the last season to produce fighters who would go on to compete for a UFC title was season five, which included Gray Maynard and the season’s winner, Nate Diaz. The last season which included a fighter who would go on to win a title was season four, and the fighter was Matt Serra. Season four was unique in that it consisted of only fighters who had previously competed in the UFC and the season’s winner was guaranteed a title shot afterwards.

Of course, a closer look reveals a different picture. During the first few years of the show, there were fewer events, fewer fighters on the roster, and even fewer who were recognizable to the general public. So it was inevitable that some of the show’s early stars would quickly earn big fights and an eventual title shot. Nate Quarry was bested by then UFC middleweight champion Rich Franklin just seven months after the first finale, and Kenny Florian lost to Sean Sherk for the vacant lightweight title 18 months after his debut. However, these are the exceptions, not the rule.

Most of the other title challengers took several years to get their shot. While their popularity gained from being on the show helped to secure fights against established talent, there was less criticism about if they were deserving or not. Forrest Griffin and Rashad Evans each earned their title shots by besting two of the best light heavyweights in MMA history, and each would go on to capture the title. First Griffin from Quinton “Rampage” Jackson and then Evans from Griffin. Even Florian had to win six straight before getting another crack at the lightweight title, which is no easy task in any division.

The point is that while we may not have seen as much success from recent contestants as the early ones, the truth is the landscape has changed. The UFC is putting on more events every year and has seen its roster increase substantially over the years with the expansion of The Ultimate Fighter, the absorption of the WEC and with it the lower weight classes, and ultimately the acquisition and folding of rival promotions Pride, the WFA and, most recently, Strikeforce. This has all added to greater depth across the board in every division. Furthermore, it may still be too early to tell for some contestants, many of whom from the most recent seasons are still trying to find their stride and work their way up the ladder appropriately.

Some of these facts can equally be argued by detractors as reasons against the show. If there are already too many fighters on the roster, and the show is one of the chief culprits, then why add more fuel to the fire? At the very least, why not scale back the show to fewer seasons? Well, in addition to being the perfect vehicle for expanding into new foreign markets in an effort to educate the audience about the sport and build local stars, all the proof you need to justify the show is in the upcoming UFC 168 pay-per-view.

Historically, the end-of-year card is seen as one of the biggest shows of the year, right alongside the Fourth of July weekend and Super Bowl weekend pay-per-views. So it should come as an honor to be one of the fighters selected for that card. Given the nature of how many cards have been promoted, the fact that it is also showcasing two title bouts is nothing but spectacular. But what is also interesting is how many former TUF contestants will be showcased.

Of the 11 bouts scheduled for UFC 168, five will features at least one former TUF contestant. In fact, a total of six former contestants will be competing that night, including the marquee bout of the televised prelims between season-one contestant Chris Leben and season-17 finalist Uriah Hall. Finalists from three other seasons will also compete on the prelims—Michael Johnson from TUF 12, Manny Gamburyan from TUF 5, and William Macario from TUF Brazil 2. Macario’s bout will be on the non-televised prelims, but this will also only be his second fight inside the UFC and he faces a tough opponent in Strikeforce veteran Bobby Voelker. Opening up the main card on pay-per-view is Diego Brandao, who was the season-14 featherweight winner. He has so far compiled a 4-1 UFC record and is on a three-fight winning streak. His opponent is Dustin Poirier, who has a 7-3 UFC/WEC record, is currently ranked No. 6 and has already defeated one TUF winner.

It’s possible the presence of so many successful TUF contestants from a wide breadth of the show’s history on one of the biggest pay-per-view cards of the year is a fluke, but it’s also just as likely to become par for the course. Not because there are so many of them, but because the ones who end up sticking around are actually good enough to belong here and eventually get folded into the mold of the roster and become indistinguishable from the rest of the talent.

One of the biggest things to remember about MMA is that it’s not the people you know who surprise you, it’s the ones you don’t know that do. With so many seasons already complete and several more in various stages of production, there’s really no telling if the next pound-for-pound champion is among them or not. Although that’s not necessarily reason enough to keep the show around, it is food for thought, because sometimes you don’t know what you don’t know.

It’s possible the winners from the foreign editions don’t end up being as successful as their U.S. counterparts. Then again, it’s also possible the only reason Ronda Rousey vs. Miesha Tate II is interesting is because of their time coaching TUF, especially considering the first fight left no question who the better fighter was and Tate is getting a title shot after losing her last bout. So keep that in mind when you tune in to UFC 168. Also keep in mind that the next U.S. edition of TUF will have B.J. Penn as a coach, and the last time he coached was season five, which produced two title challengers as well as Manny Gamburyan and Joe Lauzon. And that’s the bottom line.

Photo: Ronda Rousey applies an armbar against Liz Carmouche (Esther Lin/MMA Fighting)