With the retirement of B.J. Penn early last month–a mercy killing more than a beating by long-time rival Frankie Edgar–another season of The Ultimate Fighter has come and gone. With it, another TUF champion added to the ranks of the UFC – two, actually. Eddie “Truck” Gordon at middleweight and Corey “Beastin 25/8″ Anderson at light heavyweight. With the addition of these two TUF winners to the fold, two questions immediately come to mind (besides how Anderson thought that nickname, perhaps the worst of all time, was a good idea): what, if anything, separates these two men from the plethora of recent TUF champions who have struggled to make a name for themselves in their post-TUF careers and is there any chance that things will be different this time, or will this be another case of Ultimate Fighter winners being unable to deliver on the big stage?

To fully understand the situation, you have to consider the recent history of the struggling reality franchise. The Ultimate Fighter played a huge role in the Zuffa era. The first season of the show and its historical bout between Forest Griffen and Stephan Bonnar practically saved the company – something Dana White made clear when he elected both fighters to the UFC Hall of Fame. The first few seasons of the show produced a number of stars. A large chunk of the first season’s cast went on to successful UFC careers, Rashad Evans came in with the second season, Michael Bisping with the third, Matt Serra shocked the world after the fourth season when he upset Georges St-Pierre, Ryan Bader made his way into the UFC in season eight, and season 10, the last season to feature the heavyweight division outside the most recent season of TUF: Brazil, gave us the always entertaining Roy “Big Country” Nelson.

Since then we’ve been fed an assembly-line like stream of over-hyped, under-preforming Ultimate Fighter champions who have more or less washed out in the main show, or been relegated to preliminary and mid-card status. There are, of course, a few exceptions. John Dodson has been a fantastic fighter to watch at flyweight since winning the bantamweight portion of The Ultimate Fighter 14. The man he defeated to win the six figure contract at the TUF 14 finale, T.J. Dillashaw, surprised us all earlier this year by upsetting Renan Barao to become the UFC’s bantamweight champion. Kelvin Gastelum, winner of the most successful season of The Ultimate Fighter in years, season 17, has been solid thus far in his career minus some weight cutting issues. But the man Gastelum upset to take the TUF crown, Uriah Hall, is probably still the fighter with the bigger upside at this point.

Besides those names, Colton Smith was recently cut by the UFC after having gone without a win since taking the crown at the TUF 16 finale. The Ultimate Fighter 16 will likely go down in history as one of the worst seasons of the show in history (perhaps only the abysmal season 15, a.k.a. TUF: Live, and its brutal format change, can be considered worse), and Smith’s dismissal from the promotion simply highlights how bad of a season it was.

Smith struggled every time he set foot in the Octagon. He was finished on all three occasions outside of his TUF 16 finale win over runner-up Mike Ricci, losing twice by rear-naked choke. Sadly, despite having the first full training camp of his career entering his final UFC fight with the unknown Carlos Diego Ferreira, he continued to make rookie mistakes and put himself at risk. At 3-4 professionally, and with his other two losses coming to TUF winners from other seasons, the UFC had little choice other than to cut him as another loss would reflect even worse on their struggling, yet still profitable, reality show.

Ironically, the man who lost to Smith in the TUF 16 finale, Ricci, probably had the bigger upside. Ricci picked up a UFC win over Colin Fletcher at UFC 158, but was cut after suffering a second loss, exiting the UFC with a 1-2 record in the promotion. Ricci has since picked up a win in Titan FC over ex-UFC fighter Jorge Gurgel, and has a second bout scheduled with another familiar name to UFC fans, George Sotiropoulos. Should he continue winning and finishing as he did with Gurgel, you may still see Ricci back in the UFC. It’s doubtful Smith will ever be back. There’s a good chance his MMA career may already be over, as the active Army ranger’s reliance on wrestling alone makes him an extremely one-dimensional fighter.

Smith isn’t alone, though he is perhaps the most glaring example of a TUF winner who simply wasn’t ready for prime time. There are plenty of other names, however. Jonathan Brookins, winner of Season 12 of TUF, the St-Pierre vs. Koscheck season, went 1-3 in the UFC, being submitted twice before leaving the sport of MMA altogether and heading to India to study Yoga. Gone from the sport for over a year, he returned to MMA this past March with a win over Cody Fuller at Legacy FC 29, his first victory inside the cage since 2012.

Efraín Escudero, a relatively early example of a struggling TUF champion, has washed out of the promotion twice, exiting initially on a 3-2 record including his season 8 finale win after blowing weight in his final fight. Escudero then returned in late 2011 only to go 0-2 in his second run in the big show.

TUF 14’s featherweight winner Diego Brandao has had troubles of late, threatening to stab Dustin Poirier at their weigh-in at UFC 168, where he would later be knocked out. Brandao was then TKO’d in the first round of his fight against Conor McGregor at UFC Dublin last month. Brandao, who looked like a beast on the reality show, is 3-3 since his Ultimate Fighter finale victory over Dennis Bermudez, who is currently on a seven fight win streak.

Brandao is almost a stand-out on this list in that he has actually managed to headline an event, albeit as a short notice injury replacement against McGregor. Even when they’re sporting winning records, TUF winners just don’t seem to have the star power they once did.

If we’re to consider where Gordon and Anderson stand in all this, we need to examine why TUF champs are struggling. What is it that is preventing Ultimate Fighter winners – and many other TUF prospects – from succeeding, at least in recent years?

Your primary answer is simply that the talent pool of available fighters for the show is simply spread too thin. TUF is putting on two seasons a year, often with two weight classes per season. The only seasons of late that had real wealth of solid fighters were the the women’s bantamweight side of season 18 and the outstanding season 17, where everyone got a contract for at least one UFC fight. And while you would think that with nine weight classes the UFC could even things out a bit better, they’ve focused mainly on the mid-range weight classes, featuring lightweight six times in the show’s history, welterweight seven, and middleweight a full eight times in 19 seasons thus far. While this does reflect the fact that these weight classes are generally the most populous period (it’s hard to find, for example, a large number of talented heavyweights, as skilled big men don’t come along nearly as often as skilled welterweights), there’s an added problem compounding the situation: the best prospects, the ones who would be big stars on TUF, are bypassing the show altogether and signing directly with the UFC. The result is that The Ultimate Fighter has become a gateway into the UFC for fighters not good enough to make it in otherwise, with the exception of the women’s bantamweights and the upcoming women’s strawweight season, which are all about building new divisions. Of course a couple gems in the rough can always sneak through, and TUF 17 proved you can still have a fantastic season full of hot prospects, but the law of averages says that this is going to be less and less likely as the talent pool continues to be drained.

On top of that, those of us who watched the show from its early days have certain expectations: The Ultimate Fighter winner should, in theory, be the Ultimate Fighter. They should be able to enter the UFC and be relevant and make a difference. Rashad Evans, Nate Diaz, Diego Sanchez, Roy Nelson – those names are memorable. They can headline or co-headline events.

So are Gordon and Anderson – Truck and (shudder) Beastin’ 25/8 – gems in the ruff? Will they prove to be exceptions to the rule and wind up relevant in the middleweight and light heavyweight divisions?

That is a little tougher to say, especially in the case of Anderson, who had but two professional fights prior to appearing on The Ultimate Fighter 19. There is one positive to take from their TUF wins, however: both men finished strong at The Ultimate Fighter 19 finale.

Coming off a season that Dana White himself criticised for having some of the worst action in the show’s history, Gordon and Anderson put on near identical, fast, and brutal knockout displays to win their respective weight classes at the finale. Does that immediately make them stars? No, but it got fans talking and took some of the sting off an otherwise dull season. In any case, it’s much better than a blanketing Colton Smith-style decision, and perhaps at this point it’s the best the UFC can ask for.

The success of Gordon and Anderson isn’t something we’re going to be able to really gauge for at least a few more fights; it’s all up to how they preform from here out, whether one, the other, or both wind up on a tear knocking guys out left, right, and centre, and how they present themselves on the mic and outside the cage. That said, they’ve laid the groundwork with entertaining debut victories to have a shot at success, which other TUF champions before them have let slip through their fingers. There’s at least some hope that they can turn their initial momentum into successful UFC runs.

If they don’t, will anyone be surprised if another TUF champion fails to make it far in the UFC? Until the struggling franchise rights course and starts feeding top-tier talent into the show again, the answer to that will be a solid no.

About The Author

Senior Staff Writer

Covering the sport of MMA from Ontario, Canada, Jay Anderson has been writing for various publications covering sports, technology, and pop culture since 2001. Jay holds an Honours Bachelor of Arts degree in English from the University of Guelph, and a Certificate in Leadership Skills from Humber College under the Ontario Management Development Program. When not slaving at the keyboard, he can be found in the company of his dog, a good book, or getting lost in the woods.