UFC 78 marked a watershed moment for The Ultimate Fighter (TUF) as the pay-per-view card featured two TUF alums -- Rashad Evans and Michael Bisping -- in its main event. The reality show is universally credited for bringing the UFC to mainstream audiences. But now, almost three years since its debut, it is also beginning to pay dividends as a farm system for the promotion. The added depth to the UFC's ranks is most evident in the UFC's light heavyweight division, arguably the promotion's deepest division overall.
While none of the TUF light heavyweights is ready for membership in the division's elite, as a group they are progressing up the ranks and building up nice resumes with victories over elite fighters. So, how do the TUF light heavyweights stack up against each other? Here's my attempt at making sense of everything we've seen in the last three years.
1)Forrest Griffin (TUF 1 alum) 6-2 UFC record, 2-1 against TUF top 5
Griffin is one-half of the duo (along with Stephan Bonnar) whose fight at The Ultimate Finale One may have catapulted the UFC into the mainstream consciousness. Since that epic battle Griffin has benefited from the UFC hype machine. And while no one has ever questioned his work ethic, his passion inside the Octagon and his winning personality, he also didn't always have the skills to match.
Early in his UFC career, Griffin was primarily known as a brawler. His low point came at UFC 66 when he lost by first-round TKO to Keith Jardine. Rather than allowing the loss to bury him, however, Griffin appears to have used it as motivation. In the year since UFC 66, his training with Xtreme Couture has begun paying dividends and he has begun showing signs of an all-around game that separates him from the rest of the TUF pack.
In winning by unanimous decision over Hector Ramirez at UFC 72, Griffin displayed Octagon control and fought a smart fight. He then followed that up with a stunning third-round rear naked choke over one of the best in the world, Mauricio Rua, in a fight which he was already controlling. Griffin's victory over Rua is the most notable achievement by any member of the TUF light heavyweight crew.
Combine these accomplishments with his recent appearance on Law and Order SVU and Griffin is poised to break out both inside and outside the cage.
2)Keith Jardine (TUF 2) 5-2 UFC record, 1-1 against TUF top 5
Jardine comes in a close second to Griffin. The Dean of Mean sports the decisive UFC 66 victory over Griffin and he also won in convincing fashion over Chuck Liddell at UFC 76. But in between those fights Jardine suffered a mouthpiece-ejecting pounding to Houston Alexander at UFC 71.
Jardine's herky-jerky kickboxing style gives opponents fits and the UFC clearly believes that he, like Griffin, has graduated from TUF competition based on recent matchmaking. But unlike Griffin, Jardine hasn't shown much on the ground. The lack of a ground attack is the primary reason why Jardine sits at No. 2. But he does train with one of the best in Greg Jackson, so fans should continue to see improvement in his performance.
3) Rashad Evans (TUF 2) 6-0-1 UFC record, 2-0 against TUF top 5
Another Jackson disciple, Evans is at No. 3 by virtue of his unbeaten record and because he has already beaten the two guys below him. Evans fought Tito Ortiz to a stalemate at UFC 73 and, of course, defeated Bisping by split-decision at UFC 78. However, the problem with Evans is that he doesn't have a convincing victory over a top-tier fighter. His most explosive win came against a completely outclassed Sean Salmon earlier this year.
Evans also hasn't shown an ability to finish fights on the ground, where his wrestling background gives him an advantage over many opponents. Instead he grinds out boring decision victories.
4) Stephan Bonnar (TUF 1) 5-3 UFC record, 1-3 against TUF top 5
Bonnar has a losing record against the other fighters on this list and his one win(over Jardine) was close. He also tested positive for steroids after his UFC 62 loss to Griffin. So, why is Bonnar ranked No. 4 and moving up?
Because of the way he has rebounded from the adversity. Bonnar has relocated to Las Vegas and begun training with Xtreme Couture -- and the results are promising. Since coming back from his seven-month steroid suspension Bonnar has gone 2-0 with both wins coming on the ground. While he must continue working on all facets of his game, he appears ready and willing to do so and has already survived possibly the toughest test of his MMA career.
5) Michael Bisping (TUF 3): 4-1 UFC record, 0-1 against TUF top 5
The brash Bisping doesn't lack confidence, whether he wins or loses. However, his last two fights (against Evans and Matt Hamill) indicate that he has hit a ceiling in the 205-pound division and his stock is falling.
Persistent speculation about whether he is too small to fight as a light heavyweight and should drop down to the middleweight division doesn't help either. Regardless, Bisping hasn't shown a lot of firepower lately as a striker, which is worrisome since that's his strength. He has shown decent takedown defense and decent ground defense but he doesn't have an offensive ground game. And he has spent a large part of his last two fights retreating rather than attacking.
Maybe Bisping will benefit from more training with Juanito Ibarra (titleholder Quinton Jackson's trainer). If not, the Count's days as a viable light heavyweight may be numbered.