The Ultimate Fighter still producing prospects

December 19, 2012, 11:12 PM

After three new members joined the fraternity of Ultimate Fighter winners on the weekend, opinions on the long-term prospects of the UFC’s latest crop of reality TV competition winners came swiftly, and they were not positive.

The general consensus is that Norman Parke, Robert Whittaker, and Colton Smith aren’t going to develop into much more than middle-of-the-pack additions to the roster, not like the good ol’ days when The Ultimate Fighter was churning out championship contenders left, right, and… hang on.

We need to pump the brakes on burying the last few TUF winners, and stop clinging to the romanticized notion that the first few seasons of the show delivered nothing but top-end talent.

Comparing fighters coming off the most recent installments of The Ultimate Fighter with those who emerged from the earliest seasons is unbalanced. They’re emerging from a completely different regional fight scene and the landscape of the UFC today looks nothing like it did when Forrest Griffin, Rashad Evans, and Michael Bisping arrived off the first three seasons of the seven-year-old show.

Let’s dispel a myth real quickly before we continue: none of the aforementioned trio of TUF winners came off the show as a fully formed contender.

It was 29 months after he first beat Stephan Bonnar that Griffin upset Mauricio (Shogun) Rua at UFC 76. During that time, his biggest victory was a second win over “The American Psycho.” Evans was two years removed from beating Brad Imes on TUF 2 before he headlined opposite Bisping at UFC 78, and while “The Count” has been in the thick of the chase at both light heavyweight and middleweight during his career, he’s yet to really ascend to that championship level.

While the early seasons of the show also delivered title challengers Kenny Florian, Josh Koscheck and Diego Sanchez, the majority of the talent to emerge since Season 5 — including winners — have landed in the middle of the pack themselves. Now that “tenured veteran graduate of The Ultimate Fighter” appears to be the best-case scenario for many of the show’s recent participants, achieving that ranks has been deemed insufficient, and those coming out of the Ultimate Fighter house are instantaneously being labeled “not good enough” to make an impact on the biggest stage in the sport.

Rather than writing off Smith, Whittaker, or Season 15 winner Michael Chiesa before they’ve even set foot in the cage for their post-TUF debuts, we should be looking at a fighter like former runner-up Michael (The Menace) Johnson as the new prototype for the talent being produced by the show.

Johnson showed promise as Georges St-Pierre’s first pick on Season 12, but stumbled to a 1-2 start to his UFC career, losing to Jonathan Brookins in the finals, and getting submitted by Paul Sass in October 2011, with a win over the forgettable Eddie Faaloloto in between.

Two years removed from his loss to Brookins, Johnson is poised to square off with unbeaten TUF 15 (via TUF 13) product Myles Jury at UFC 155. “The Menace” has won three straight heading into the bout, and climbed to the fringes of contention, and is only now starting to tap into the potential he first exhibited as a member of Team GSP.

Johnson, who trains alongside Evans as a member of “The Blackzilians,” has steadily worked his way up the lightweight rankings in the last year, and could put himself in a position to challenge some of the bigger names in the division next year with a victory next weekend. His timeline for reaching this point is not unlike those of Griffin or Evans; the only difference is that his has come outside of the spotlight and minus the elevated expectations that winners have been saddled with in the past.

“In those first few seasons of The Ultimate Fighter, the UFC didn’t have as deep a talent pool (as they do now),” TUF 15 winner Michael Chiesa suggested when we spoke last month, and I tend to agree. Divisions weren’t stocked with contenders, so Ultimate Fighter alumni were able to stand out, earn more wins, and be featured more prominently on fight cards.

Things have changed a great deal since then.

Divisions are much deeper, and the contestants on the show have far less experience. As such, the timeline for the talent emerging off The Ultimate Fighter has to be adjusted accordingly.

Johnson has arrived at the gates of the top 10 in two years, but could take another year or more before he actually takes the next step. With a win over Jury next week, he’ll earn a step up in competition, but that could be a “one step forward, two steps back” scenario waiting to happen.

The Ultimate Fighter is a fast track to the UFC for developing talents, not a factory that churns out instant superstars and championship contenders season after season. Fighters from the first two seasons on FX aren’t ready to take on the best in their respective divisions, and probably won’t be for another two years, but that doesn’t mean they won’t be somewhere down the line.

It just means we have to be patient when it comes to grading these fighters and assessing their potential.

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