And then there were two.
Tuesday night, Team Sonnen members Kelvin Gastelum and Uriah Hall advanced to the finals of Season 18 of The Ultimate Fighter. Saturday night, the Team Sonnen members will square off at the Mandalay Bay Events Center in Las Vegas, Nevada, where one of the middleweight hopefuls will be the next pledge to make it into the fraternity of Ultimate Fighter winners.
Winning a competition as grueling as The Ultimate Fighter is certainly an accomplishment, but over the last few years, the title has started to lose some of its shine.
The group is no longer an exclusive club; there have been a total of 27 fighters crowned “The Ultimate Fighter” beginning with Diego Sanchez and Forrest Griffin. Since Season 5, only two fighters — Nate Diaz and John Dodson — have climbed the ranks to compete for UFC gold, and Dodson had the benefit of dropping down in weight to the sparsely populated flyweight division.
On the whole, we haven’t seen the kind of development and performance from recent winners as we have seen from fighters like Griffin, Rashad Evans, and Michael Bisping, but that’s not to say it isn’t possible.
Back in December I wrote a piece saying that The Ultimate Fighter is still producing prospects, it’s just a different level of prospect now than it was in the early years. Guys aren’t coming off the show, making an immediate move up the rankings, and establishing themselves as championship contenders as readily as they did in the early seasons.
With one of Hall or Gastelum set to become the 28th entrant into the Ultimate Fighter Club this weekend, it seems like a fitting time to look back at the last three years and the winners of the seven North American seasons during that time in order to try to get a feel for if any of the latest group of fighters to be deemed “The Ultimate Fighter” is capable of following in the footsteps of TUF winners-turned-champions like Griffin, Evans, and Matt Serra.
Then on Thursday, I will look ahead to this weekend’s finale and address the future potential for each of the two finalists.
Fighter: Court McGee
Won: Season 11
Record: 14-3 (4-2 UFC)
Is McGee going to string together five or six consecutive victories and make an improbable run to UFC gold? No, he most likely is not.
Is he going to continue to be a highly conditioned, good everywhere, but not great anywhere addition to the welterweight division? Absolutely.
Moving on to the 170-pound ranks was the right decision for McGee, and I think he’ll continue to grind out wins and entertaining performances for the foreseeable future. He reminds me a lot of Jim Miller -- a scrappy, hard-nosed talent who wasn’t overly impressive early, but has started to put it all together and become a threat in his division after getting some seasoning.
While I’m not sure McGee is going to be a perennial contender like Miller is now in the lightweight division, it wouldn’t surprise me to see him “flip the switch” one day, put it all together, and go on a very good run.
Fighter: Jonathan Brookins
Won: Season 12
Record: 13-6 (2-3 UFC)
Brookins hasn’t fought since losing to Dustin Poirier back in December, and he doesn’t appear to be coming back to the sport any time soon. The enigmatic Season 12 winner has struggled to find balance between fighting and life outside the cage, and he wrestled with some personal issues since emerging from Team GSP as a promising new addition to the UFC roster.
Fighter: Tony Ferguson
Won: Season 13
Record: 13-3 (3-1 UFC)
It’s hard to really know where Ferguson stands and how to project his future potential because he’s been out of action since May 2012. Last time out, he was on the wrong side of a one-sided decision against fellow TUF alum Michael Johnson. That was Johnson’s second of three consecutive wins, but he’s since stumbled to back-to-back losses.
Ferguson showed good power and a throwback “sprawl-and-brawl” style in winning Season 13, and followed it up with a great performance against veteran Aaron Riley in his post-TUF debut before edging out Yves Edwards in December 2011.
Lightweight is a deep and talented division, and a year on the sidelines is rough to come back from for anyone. I can see Ferguson developing into a lightweight version of Chris Lytle -- a guy who lives in the middle of the pack, puts on a good show every time he steps into the cage, and could string together enough wins to hit the fringes of contention.
Fighter: John Dodson
Won: Season 14 (bantamweight)
Record: 14-6 (3-1)
As mentioned earlier, Dodson has already worked his way into a UFC title fight, coming up short against Demetrious Johnson in his quest to win the flyweight belt back in January.
The charismatic and frenetic fighter from Albuquerque, N.M., should remain a legitimate title threat in the division going forward. He won the opening two rounds from Johnson on most scorecards and has the kind of power that is often missing from the arsenals of fighters south of the lightweight limit.
Fighter: Diego Brandao
Won: Season 14 (featherweight)
Record: 17-8 (3-1)
Of everyone on this list, Brandao is the one with the most upside in my opinion, and the 25-year-old Team Jackson-Winkeljohn product showed that last Saturday with his win over Pablo Garza.
We saw Brandao’s ferocious striking during his time on TUF, and he teased his submission game when he tapped out Dennis Bermudez to win the featherweight competition in Season 14, but he hadn’t put it all together on the big stage until his win over Garza last weekend.
In his most recent appearance, Brandao showed that he’s starting to turn the raw talent that made him such a good prospect coming off TUF and putting it to use. He was far more patient and measured, and his transition into finishing position against Garza was tactical.
If he continues to progress the way he has during his first 16 months in the UFC over the next 16 months, Brandao will be a definite title contender in the future.
Fighter: Michael Chiesa
Won: Season 15
Record: 9-0 (2-0 UFC)
Chiesa is the Buckley’s cough syrup of the UFC, and I mean that in a positive way.
As much as you hate the taste of Buckley’s, you can’t argue with its effectiveness. "It tastes awful. And it works." Chiesa doesn’t look the part of a potential contender, but he has great finishing instincts and manages to always get the job done. It doesn’t look pretty, but it works.
It’s a little too early to say whether or not Chiesa will eventually taste gold, but I do believe he has the ability to become a contender down the road. You can’t teach the intangibles the Spokane, Wash., native has shown, and if he surrounds himself with the right team, he was the raw tools to develop into a very good fighter in the future, maybe even one that becomes a contender.
Fighter: Colton Smith
Won: Season 16
Record: 3-1 (1-0 UFC)
Smith was solid in claiming Season 16 of The Ultimate Fighter, but he profiles as a guy with limited upside to me. Admittedly, this assessment comes from a small sample size, but there just hasn’t been anything about Smith that has wowed me thus far.
I think he has the potential to improve, and could see him making the move down to lightweight in the future to be honest. Welterweight is stacked, and there are plenty of wrestlers, so he might gain a little added advantage by dropping a couple pounds and fighting at the 155-pound limit.
Smith profiles as a Mac Danzig type to me -- someone who can consistently compete in the middle of the pack, but never makes it beyond that point.
Thursday: Looking at the future potential of Saturday's TUF 17 finalists