20 Seasons of 'The Ultimate Fighter': Part I

An Institution Returns

By Ben Duffy May 31, 2021


Sign up for ESPN+ right here, and you can then stream the return of “The Ultimate Fighter” live on your computer, phone, tablet or streaming device via the ESPN app.

In June, “The Ultimate Fighter” will return to the small screen for the first time since 2018, with Ultimate Fighting Championship featherweight champ Alexander Volkanovski and presumptive title challenger Brian Ortega guiding a cast of bantamweight and middleweight hopefuls through the show’s now-familiar tournament format. Depending on how one chooses to count, it is either the 29th season of the venerable reality show, including only the flagship series; or the 39th, taking into account the international seasons.

Whether the return of “TUF” is a good thing or not is a matter of opinion. Certainly, the shtick of drunken frat house-style hijinks wore thin for many as the seasons went by, but even for those who “only tune[d] in for the fights,” the more significant problem was that the pool of available talent was drying up. The nearly three-year layoff may help in that regard, though Dana White's Contender Series has become the UFC’s new preferred gateway for up-and-coming prospects.

The impending return of the show that launched the UFC to its preeminent position in the sport — and helped elevate the sport as a whole into the global phenomenon it is today — seems like a perfect time to revisit some of the memories it has given us over the years. Sherdog’s “TUF Redraft” series, which ran last year, took the first 20 seasons of the show (the first 18 seasons of the main series, plus the UK vs. Australia “Smashes” and the first season of “TUF Brazil”) and ranked each season’s fighters based on what they accomplished on the show and afterward. On these lists as well as the original series articles, fighters are ranked according to the following principles:

1. Fighters’ pre-TUF accomplishments don’t count.

The whole idea, after all, is to compare what they went on to do on the show and for the remainder of their careers.

2. UFC wins are weighted.

While all accomplishments count, “The Ultimate Fighter” exists to keep its parent promotion stocked with future talent, so UFC wins go further towards determining how successful a fighter was as a “TUF” draft pick.

Sign up for ESPN+ right here, and you can then stream the return of “The Ultimate Fighter” live on your computer, phone, tablet or streaming device via the ESPN app.

3. Wins on the show matter.

While they’re technically exhibition bouts, and even the UFC itself doesn’t count them when announcing fighters’ records, performances on the show do matter. The show might exist to bring prospects into the UFC, but the coaches each season pick and nurture their fighters hoping to beat the other team.

4. Intangibles count.

After all, the difference between “TUF” and the Contender Series is that “TUF” gave us 90 percent character study and 10 percent combat, while on DWCS those ratios are reversed. If a fighter emerged from the “TUF” house as a star, a villain or even a source of forum memes, that represents a contribution to the show’s overall success as well.

With those formalities out of the way, let us dive into some of the best and worst “The Ultimate Fighter” has had to offer over the years.

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