A year ago, Nate Diaz was on a three-fight winning streak -- with two of the wins coming by submissions over relatively high-profile opposition, the other being worthy of a Fight of the Night bonus -- and was preparing to challenge for the UFC lightweight championship. Gray Maynard was working his way back to the top after two oh-so-close attempts at wresting the 155-pound belt away from the champ.
Now, as they prepare to meet Saturday night in Las Vegas (10 p.m. ET, Fox Sports 1), Diaz and Maynard are setting their sights on something a bit less majestic than a crown. They're aiming for survival.
That modest goal, more than any upwardly mobile ambitions, makes each of these veteran mixed martial artists an inspiration for the cast members of The Ultimate Fighter, who'll also be competing on the fight card at the Mandalay Bay Events Center. The reality show's 18th season will conclude this weekend with finale bouts in both the men's and women's bantamweight divisions. Expectations are not so lofty.
There was much more expected of TUF fighters back when Diaz and Maynard were on the show back in 2007. So many hopes and dreams resided in that raucous house in Vegas for weeks of TV taping. This weekend's main eventers even competed against each other on the reality show, with Nate earning a spot in the final -- which he would win -- by submitting Gray via guillotine in the Season 5 semis.
That was when the reality show was making a realistic difference in the UFC. In 15 seasons since the Diaz win, including two in Brazil and one in Australia, there have been 20 competitors who've earned the right to be called "The Ultimate Fighter" and been awarded a UFC contract. Only one, flyweight John Dodson, has gone on to challenge for a championship. Few have made any waves at all in the fight promotion.
Contrast that with the show's early seasons, which produced several legitimate stars. Season 1 light heavyweight winner Forrest Griffin went on to become UFC champion, and both he and the man he beat in a finale widely credited with saving the flagging fight promotion, Stephan Bonnar, are in the company's Hall of Fame. That same season also featured a middleweight competition, whose winner, Diego Sanchez, went on to challenge for the UFC lightweight belt, and whose runnerup, Kenny Florian, made three title challenges, two at lightweight and the other at featherweight.
Perhaps the best TUF fighter of all came the next season, when Rashad Evans competed at heavyweight. He went on to beat Griffin for the light heavyweight championship, and later tried to regain the belt from Jon Jones. At 19-3-1, and coming off victories over Dan Henderson and Chael Sonnen, "Suga Rashad" is poised to make another run at the top of the mountain.
The other TUF season to produce a UFC champion was Season 4, dubbed The Comeback because the field of competitors was made up of veteran fighters attempting to resuscitate their careers. That's exactly what Matt Serra did, in a big way, winning the finale and then producing the biggest upset in UFC title fight history, knocking out Georges St-Pierre for the welterweight belt.
That seems so long ago. Nowadays, the reality show's stars operate under a dimmer spotlight. The most successful recent winners have been Season 15 lightweight Michael Chiesa and Season 17's Kevin Gastelum, a middleweight, both of whom have looked good since joining the big show, but neither of whom is a Top 10 competitor. At least not yet. Since the days of Diaz and Maynard, the only Top 10 UFC fighters who came out of TUF are Dodson (Season 14, 2011) and heavyweight Roy Nelson (Season 10, 2009).
That's a lot of history to overcome for Chris Holdsworth and David Grant, who'll compete for the men's title, and Juliana Peña and whoever will be facing her in the women's finale. (We'll find out if it'll be Raquel Pennington or Jessica Rakoczy on Wednesday night's reality show episode on Fox Sports 1.)
But the truly harsh reality is the one being jointly lived by Diaz (16-9) and Maynard (11-2-1, 1 NC). Despite past glories, both are living on the edge.
After being thoroughly dominated last December by then-champion Benson Henderson, Diaz was knocked out by a Josh Thomson head kick in April. Less than a month later, Nate took a hit to his wallet, as the UFC fined and suspended him for using a homophobic slur. When you're winning and looking like a contender, you might get away with that nonsense. When you've lost two in a row, you need to learn to be a choirboy.
Maynard's problem has been that he's become a bit of a forgotten man. After being knocked out by Frankie Edgar in their October 2011 title rematch, Gray was inactive for seven months, and his return turned out to be dreary, through no fault of his own. His opponent that night in the summer of 2012 was Usain Bolt -- no, wait, it was a different runner, Clay Guida, who floated like a butterfly for three rounds but forgot the sting-like-a-bee part. Criticism of the bizarre fight didn't rub off on Maynard, but it didn't exactly elevate his profile, either. And when that "fight" was followed by nearly a year of inactivity, because of a knee injury, Gray really needed to make a statement when he finally returned back in May. But it was TJ Grant's fists that did all the talking, knocking out Maynard in a little over two minutes.
Now it's time to put up or shut up. That goes for Diaz. That goes for Maynard (who evened the score with Nate when they rematched in 2010, taking a split decision).
It's also time for The Ultimate Fighter to show it belongs. With so much UFC action on TV these days, is the reality show even necessary in keeping the fight promotion in the public eye? The show seems to be a success for Fox, but what does it do for the UFC? It's clearly lost its mojo as a breeding ground of top contenders, so its main function today seems to be in building up some heat for the eventual fight between the coaches, in this case potty-mouthed women's bantamweight champ Ronda Rousey and archnemesis Miesha Tate, who meet Dec. 28 at UFC 168. Couldn't a UFC Primetime preview series provide much the same hype?
I suppose it's all about diversification. Fox has the recurring preview series, a weekly UFC news show, an interview show and regular rebroadcasts of great fights from the archives. Reality television presents the UFC from another angle. It's just not an angle that has the appeal it once did.