The 10 Best Pros the Ultimate Fighter Has Ever Produced
Three hundred and four MMA fighters have circulated through The Ultimate Fighter.* A few handfuls at a time, 19 seasons' worth of would-be professionals lived, trained, bro-hugged, cried, played pool, pulled pranks, cut weight, hung out by the pool, missed their kids, bared their souls, performed unspeakable acts on each other's snacks and blended approximately seven cubic miles of smoothie together.
In search of that six-figure UFC contract, these men and women left their homes and families for weeks at a time, foregoing contact with the outside world and surrendering their lives to the daily boom-and-bust cycle of world-class vocational instruction and a desert mansion full of medium-grade bourbon.
Of all those 304 who were skilled and lucky enough to make it to the house, 28 hoisted the glass winner's plaque at the season finale. But even that doesn't guarantee—or disqualify—real success on the sport's biggest stage.
Here are the best 10 (plus a few honorable mentions) to graduate from the show. Rankings based on record and level of competition.
*Domestic version only. What am I, a mathematician?
Listed in no particular order:
10. Nate Diaz
Season: 5 (lightweight winner)
Coach on show: Jens Pulver
Pro record: 17-9
I agonized over this one. I really wanted to put Myles Jury here. Self, I said, you can't be afraid to take risks in life. Jury is the man. You and everyone else will thank you three years from now, because you'll be right.
But at the end of the day, it's not about the future, is it, self. Judging on potential would stack the deck against the veterans. It's about the best of all time as of right now.
So I had to go with Nate Diaz. His wins over top guys like Donald Cerrone, Jim Miller and Takanori Gomi can't be ignored. I did the right thing here today. I did the right thing. Thanks for listening.
9. Diego Sanchez
Season: 1 (middleweight winner)
Coach on show: Chuck Liddell
Pro record: 25-7
Here's another guy who would fall off the list if potential was any part of it. Or if sanity or prudence were in the equation.
Diego Sanchez competed as a middleweight on the show but has mainly been a welterweight and lightweight in the UFC. Think about all the brawls this reckless bomber has waged over the years. Remember when he used to take people down and try to wrestle them? Yeah, me neither. You remember that time he blamed a loss on steak tartare? Yeah, me too, buddy! High five, up top!
Plus, that loss was to Jury. See how it all comes around? But I've made my decision. I just...I have to stick with it.
No doubt that Sanchez has given his all to the sport and with seemingly no hesitation. It will be interesting to see what might happen if the giving shoe was ever to wind up on the other foot.
8. Matt Brown
Coach on show: Forrest Griffin
Pro record: 19-12
I wouldn't be surprised if most fans didn't remember Matt Brown from TUF.
But the Ohioan was there, and he was the same damn concoction of twisted steel and black sandpaper that we all know and love today.
In fact, he's responsible for one of my personal favorite TUF moments. See, his season had a guy on it, and the guy realized he wanted to be on TV, right? But he also realized he wasn't a good enough fighter or person to get the face time he wanted based on those merits alone.
So he resorted to trickery. To playing the "prankster," if you like. So he put lime juice in one of his housemates' chewing tobacco. That prankster? One Jeremy May. That housemate? One Matt Brown. Matt Brown didn't like that very much. So what did he do? During their inevitable fight, Brown literally broke May's face with one kick. What a kick too. Pure shin-to-nose action.
7. Ryan Bader
Season: 8 (light heavyweight winner)
Coach on show: Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira
Pro record: 18-4
Ryan Bader has been pretty darn steady in his pro career. As steady as the ground-and-pound style he employs in the cage. Great analogy by myself. Just connecting the dots.
Aside from that stunning chokeout to Tito Ortiz, Bader hasn't really had any let-down kinds of losses in his career. In fact, he hasn't had many losses of any kind. After getting flattened by professional flattener Glover Teixeira, Bader has ripped off three straight. He now looks set to return to the division's top echelon.
6. Kenny Florian
Season: 1 (middleweight)
Coach on show: Chuck Liddell
Pro record: 14-6
This fact often gets lost in the shuffle, but Kenny Florian fought in the UFC in four different weight classes. There's one guy who did that in company history, and that's Florian.
He also fought for a belt three times, though famously he never came out with the strap. The seeds of that Dan Marinoness began on TUF, when he lost the middleweight final to Diego Sanchez.
As we know, Florian has now made a comfortable transition to the TV. Amid all the nifty ties and hair comments and such, we shouldn't forget that he was a very good fighter in his day, as much as he is a good ambassador in his current occupation.
5. Michael Bisping
Season: 3 (light heavyweight winner)
Coach on show: Tito Ortiz
Pro record: 25-6
After that utter (and utterly necessary) dismantling of Cung Le, it remains to be seen whether Michael Bisping is still a viable middleweight or a permanent addition to the UFC novelty circuit.
Either way, he's had a heck of a career, beginning with that knockout of the immortal Josh Haynes all the way back on TUF 3.
4. John Dodson
Season: 14 (bantamweight winner)
Coach on show: Jason "Mayhem" Miller
Pro record: 16-6
If you're old like me, you'll remember those made-for-TV competitions where different pro athletes competed against one another in different sports drills. So in order to win, you had to be good at dunking a basketball, running the bases, fighting through tackling dummies, hitting tennis balls and so forth.
If I had to pick an MMA fighter to do such a competition, I might just choose John Dodson.
The 29-year-old has certainly found a home in the flyweight division, where he's 4-1 in the UFC. The only problem is that his only loss comes to one of the few fighters who can rival his athleticism: champ Demetrious Johnson.
3. Forrest Griffin
Season: 1 (light heavyweight winner)
Coach on show: Chuck Liddell
Pro record: 19-7
Others might be able to claim this spot. But you know what? They can't show me a belt.
Forrest Griffin is one of three TUF alums to don UFC gold, and that means something. (I'm not counting Matt Serra, because he was a proven veteran before his time on TUF.) Griffin was also the first to do so, when he won a typically workmanlike decision over Quinton "Rampage" Jackson in 2008.
In recent years, it was sad watching Griffin fall out of love with the sport, watching his body grind down under the endless gym sessions. At his peak, he was a very good quote and an even better fighter, and the sport lost something when it lost Griffin.
Ah, well. We'll always have Griffin-Bonnar I.
2. Rashad Evans
Season: 2 (heavyweight winner)
Coach: Rich Franklin
Pro record: 19-3-1
The man who beat Griffin to become the second TUF-bred champion is still getting it done at age 34. Kind of.
Though his career has been (and currently is) hampered by injuries, when healthy he's still one of the top light heavyweights in the world and one of the few current fighters (in my opinion) with legitimate star power.
Despite his misfortune with injuries, Rashad Evans' wrestling base and powerful strikes have him ensconced in the No. 3 spot in the current UFC 205-pound rankings.
Will he justify that ranking when he returns? Will he return at all? Those answers will say a lot about his career, but no matter what, his TUF legacy is pretty secure.
1. T.J. Dillashaw
Season: 14 (bantamweight)
Coach on show: Michael Bisping
Pro record: 11-2
How could it be anybody else?
T.J. Dillashaw cemented his spot on this perch when, just last weekend at UFC 177, he became the first TUF alum to defend a UFC belt.
Of course, it came against a rather tidy underdog in Joe Soto. But that wasn't Dillashaw's fault, and Soto put up a good fight. There's also the fact that Dillashaw beat the then-consensus best bantamweight in the world, Renan Barao, to take the belt in the first place. Beat him handily, too.
In other words, Dillashaw and his evolving skill set have firmly established him as the best 135-pound fighter on the globe. There's really no arguing it. I don't think you could say that with such certainty about any other TUF alum, belt or no.
Scott Harris covers the serious and less-serious aspects of MMA for Bleacher Report. Follow Scott on Twitter if you feel so inclined.