This week is the week of The Ultimate Fighter. UFC Vegas 59 will see Jamahal Hill take on Thiago Santos in a Light Heavyweight contender main event, and will also feature this year’s Ultimate Fighter season 30 finale. The finale features two bouts, a Heavyweight fight between Mohammed Usman (undisputed Welterweight Champion Kamaru Usman’s brother) and Zac Pauga, and a Women’s Flyweight fight between Brogan Walker and Juliana Miller. Further down the card, last year’s Ultimate Fighter winner Bryan Battle makes his return to the Octagon to take on Takashi Sato. Time will tell whether any of these Ultimate Fighters will have the intangibles and skill necessary to become a champion, but for now, their efforts on reaching the finale and potentially winning the show should not be disregarded. All of this has laid the foundation for the theme of this article; the top 10 most successful Ultimate Fighter winners in the show’s illustrious history.
While Diaz never reached the summit in terms of a championship, his ceiling has reached a higher point than 99.9% of the UFC roster ever will. Not only is he a massive star within the MMA fanbase, but the Stockton, California native is one of the biggest pay-per-view draws in the sport as well, selling 1.5 million PPV Buys in his first match up with Conor McGregor, and 1.65 million in the rematch. Nate’s UFC run began with his run on The Ultimate Fighter which saw him defeat Manvel Gamburyan in the second round. From there Nate strung together wins along with losses, culminating in a title shot against Benson Henderson in 2012. He would lose the title shot but his star continued to rise as fans fell in love with the legend from the 209. Nate has not fought since June of 2021 when he fell to Leon Edwards, but the former Ultimate Fighter winner has a massive fight booked against Khamzat Chimaev in what would appear to be his last fight for the promotion. If Diaz can pull it off, well, I guess we shouldn’t be surprised.
Ryan Bader’s Ultimate Fighter dream was realized when he knocked out Vinny Magalhaes in the first round at The Ultimate Fighter: Team Nogueira vs. Team Mir Finale. After that, Bader had a very good run in the UFC, with wins over fighters like Rashad Evans, Rogerio Nogueira, and Quinton Jackson, but it was ultimately Bellator where he would see the most success. He became a Bellator double champion, claiming both the Light Heavyweight and Heavyweight titles. He defended his Light Heavyweight title once against Linton Vassell in 2017 but ended up losing the strap to Vadim Nemkov in 2020. Currently, Bader still holds the Bellator Heavyweight title and most recently defended it against Cheick Kongo earlier this year.
In an article about The Ultimate Fighter winners, Forrest Griffin has to make the list. He was a part of what many say is a fight that saved the UFC when he fought and beat Stephan Bonnar in The Ultimate Fighter’s first ever finale. The fight was a barnburner from start to finish and captured the imaginations and hearts of many MMA fans and casual sports fans alike, leading to the growth of the UFC. After his finale victory, Griffin had a tremendous run, losing only twice before he was selected for a title shot in 2008. Griffin made use of the shot, and defeated ‘Rampage’ Jackson to claim the UFC’s Light Heavyweight title and add his name to the impressive list of fighters to hold that belt. Unfortunately for Forrest, he lost the belt in his next fight against Rashad Evans but still managed to pick up wins over Rich Franklin and Tito Ortiz twice since losing the title. He last competed in 2012 but today serves as an ambassador for the UFC and the sport of MMA.
Speaking of Rashad Evans, he also is an Ultimate Fighter winner who made waves in the UFC. He won the show in 2005 when he beat Brad Imes in the Finale by split decision. He then went unbeaten in his first seven UFC appearances, only fighting to a draw against Tito Ortiz at UFC 73. He then violently knocked out Chuck Liddell to earn his title shot against the aforementioned Forrest Griffin. He captured the title with an undefeated record and one of the best reputations in the game. Like Forrest however, he was unable to defend the belt and lost it to Lyoto Machida in his first title defence. From there Rashad never found his footing quite the same way, but again like Forrest, he is an excellent ambassador for the sport of MMA and does analytic work for many publications and productions.
When the UFC elected to make the newest Ultimate Fighter season “The Comeback” with the winner getting a guaranteed title shot, not many fans thought that Serra would be able to get his big break. To the surprise of many, he won his way through the show, beating Pete Spratt, Shonie Carter, and Chris Lytle to become the Ultimate Fighter 4 Welterweight Tournament Champion. With the win, he earned himself a shot at the then seemingly invincible Georges St. Pierre. He not only beat ‘GSP’ but he destroyed him, knocking him out in the first round to secure one of the greatest upsets in the history of the sport. His next fight would be a rematch with St. Pierre a year later where he was knocked out in the second round. He may not have had the highest pedigree career, but he is a champion forever and beating ‘GSP’ is enough to earn him the number six spot on this list.
Julianna Pena has made waves recently with her massive upset win over Amanda Nunes, and her first defence of her title that saw her solidify her toughness and championship medal to all MMA fans in a losing effort to Nunes. Pena’s UFC run began under the supervision of Ronda Rousey and Miesha Tate on season 18 of The Ultimate Fighter. She flew through the competition, finishing all three of her opponents, two by sub and the last by knockout in the final. From there, Pena’s career took a while to get going; she won three straight fights but then lost to Valentina Shevchenko in early 2017. She then had to take two full years off due to injury, and won her return fight followed by a submission loss to Germaine de Randamie in her next outing. She then beat Sara McMann by finish which led to her getting the title shot against Amanda Nunes, and we all know where it went from there.
Michael ‘The Count’ Bisping is not only a legend of the Middleweight division, but a legend of the Ultimate Fighter as well. His first experience with the show came as a competitor on The Ultimate Fighter season 3, Team Ortiz vs. Team Shamrock. Like Pena, Bisping ran through the competition like a hot knife through butter, stopping all three of his opponents including Josh Haynes in the final. At this point in time, Bisping competed in the Light Heavyweight division and it was not until his loss to Rashad Evans that he would move down to Middleweight. Bisping’s next experience with The Ultimate Fighter would come as a coach opposite Dan Henderson. The two would fight at UFC 100 where Henderson would score one of the most iconic knockouts in the history of the sport. After the Henderson knockout, Bisping would end up coaching the show once again, opposite Jason Miller. This time he would get the better of his coaching counterpart, knocking him out in round three of their finale bout. During the next 5 years Bisping would trade wins and losses before putting together a three fight winning streak that he would parlay into a title shot on just 17 days' notice. Shockingly, he would knock out the then champion Luke Rockhold in the very first round, claiming the belt and becoming Britain’s first UFC champion. To make things even sweeter, ‘The Count’ would headline a show in his hometown of Manchester in his first title defence against a familiar foe–Dan Henderson. Bisping avenged his first loss to Henderson with a unanimous decision win. Today, Bisping does commentary and analysis for the UFC and has etched his name in history.
Carla Esparza’s Ultimate Fighter tenure is a little bit different than most, as she claimed the inaugural Strawweight Championship as a result of the show. Not only that, but her stoppage of Rose Namajunas in the show’s finale has aged more and more gracefully as time has gone on. After her Ultimate Fighter victory, Esparza was unable to defend her title as she ran into the buzzsaw that is Joanna Jedrzejczyk in her first title defence. From there, ‘The Cookie Monster’s’ career took a wild turn and eventually came full circle. She lost to Randa Markos, then rattled off wins over Maryna Moroz and Cynthia Calvillo. Then she lost two in a row to Claudia Gadelha and Tatiana Suarez by stoppage. When many fans were counting her out, she put together a miraculous run back to the title, winning five straight before challenging for the title against who else but her old rival–Rose Namajunas. This time Esparza was unable to secure the finish, but she did do just enough to take the title away from ‘Thug’ Rose to become a two-time Strawweight champion. Esparza is not only the second ever two-time female champion, but she also had the longest time between title reigns of any champion in the UFC’s history as well.
Robert ‘The Reaper’ Whittaker not only has one of the coolest nicknames in the sport, but one of the best Middleweight resumes ever as well. In 2012, Whittaker’s UFC dream was realized when he was casted for The Ultimate Fighter: The Smashes, which pitted eight Australian mixed martial artists against eight from the UK. He would win his first two bouts on the show by knockout, then won a unanimous decision in the final against Brad Scott to claim the show’s crown. To begin his UFC career Robert struggled, dropping two straight fights to Court McGee (another Ultimate Fighter winner) and Stephen ‘Wonderboy’ Thompson. After the losses Whittaker won a fight against Mike Rhodes in June of 2014, followed by a move from Welterweight up to 185 pounds. It was in the Middleweight division that he put together an epic run. He would win his first eight fights in the weight class with wins over names such as; Uriah Hall, Derek Brunson and Jacare Souza. Also included in the win streak were two EPIC fights with Yoel Romero in which Robert won both. Unfortunately for ‘The Reaper’, he ran into ‘The Last Stylebender’ in late 2019 and lost his title. He then put together three wins in a row over the top names in the division before losing a second fight against Adesanya in February of this year in a fight where some pundits thought he had done enough to win. Whittaker may not have had the championship reign that some thought he would, but he reached the title level and has been a part of some wars that fans will always remember.
Kamaru Usman is without a doubt the most successful Ultimate Fighter winner in the show’s history. He is currently scheduled to make the sixth defence of his heavily coveted Welterweight title and has only really had one or two tough fights in his UFC tenure. He’s finished three of his title victories and has never been knocked down or taken down in his UFC career. Not only that, but he has a chance to tie Anderson Silva’s win streak record of 16 should he defeat Leon Edwards at UFC 278 in August. With all of that said, Usman began his flawless UFC career in 2015 on The Ultimate Fighter: American Top Team vs. Blackzilians Finale. In the finale, he captured an arm triangle finish over Hayder Hassan, solidifying himself as the best the season had to offer. While he may not be on the level of George St. Pierre just yet as the greatest Welterweight to ever do it, he has big plans for the remainder of his career, and anyone who counts him out should remember–he’s made the walk 15 times, and all 15 times his bettors have cashed that ticket.
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