Sign up for ESPN+ right here, and you can then stream the UFC live on your smart TV, computer, phone, tablet or streaming device via the ESPN app.
Hindsight is 20/20
For a certain type of sports fan, the draft is one of the most exciting events of the season—a chance to test their own scouting chops against the so-called pros or simply see how prospects pan out once they hit the next level. Decisions are made in the presence of unknowns, risks are taken or avoided and plenty of picks look either inspired or ridiculous with the benefit of hindsight.
Since its 2005 debut, each season of the Ultimate Fighting Championship’s reality series “The Ultimate Fighter” has begun with a draft, as the two opposing coaches select fighters to represent them on the show, and much like an NFL or NBA draft, most have had their share of steals as well as busts. Who are the Tom Bradys—or Sam Bowies—of “TUF?” Let’s find out, as we re-rank the draft picks for each season of “The Ultimate Fighter,” based on the fighters’ future achievements on the show and throughout their careers.
Season 1: Team Liddell vs. Team Couture
In revisiting the landmark first season of “The Ultimate Fighter,” which aired from January to April 2005, the first thing that jumps out is the cast’s talent. That wouldn’t last, as the show’s own success, combined with the UFC’s development of other talent streams, eventually depleted the pool of available prospects, but of the 16 fighters from the original cast, half would log at least 10 fights in the UFC. Unsustainably high talent level aside, the debut season laid the groundwork for much of what viewers could expect from future iterations of the show: drunken hijinks, humorous non-MMA “physical challenges” and some surprisingly raw unburdening of personal issues from a house full of intense young athletes.
Season 1 is also interesting because it featured two weight classes, so its draft was really two eight-man drafts that were conducted simultaneously. Of course, those weight classes were loose at best; the “middleweight” final featured two men who would fight as low as featherweight in the UFC, while light heavyweight Stephan Bonnar looked two weight classes bigger than Mike Swick while mauling him because, well, he was two weight classes bigger. For that reason and because the show freely shuttled fighters between teams during taping, it feels simpler and fairer to treat them as a single group for the redraft.
Pre-TUF Record: 9-2
Post-TUF Record: 10-5
Notable Achievements: “The Ultimate Fighter” Season 1 winner (light heavyweight), UFC light heavyweight champion, member of the UFC Hall of Fame (fight wing)
Griffin is the shoo-in of all shoo-ins here, as one of the two season winners, the first “Ultimate Fighter” alumnus to win a UFC title and a member of the UFC Hall of Fame. He is still arguably the show’s greatest success story, especially considering that his tournament final is credited with launching the UFC to its current market position and that Griffin himself is employed by the organization to this day as vice president of athlete development.
In hindsight, the more interesting question is how Griffin slipped to ninth overall and fifth among light heavyweights. Despite being just 25 years old at the time, at 9-2, he was one of the more experienced fighters in the house that season; and he was a titanic 205-pounder, having spent much of his career at heavyweight. Part of it may have been that he was less of a known quantity than some of his castmates. Unlike the gangs from the American Kickboxing Academy or Team Quest, Griffin was a prospect from Georgia who hailed from a lesser-known gym and had actually walked away from the sport the previous year to begin a job in law enforcement. Whatever the reasons, Griffin allowing himself to be talked into filming this new reality show ended up being a huge turning point for just about everyone involved.
Pre-TUF Record: 11-0
Post-TUF Record: 19-12
Notable Achievements: “The Ultimate Fighter” Season 1 winner (middleweight), seven-time “Fight of the Night” bonus winner, member of the UFC Hall of Fame (fight wing)
If you had the second pick in the Season 1 draft and a crystal ball to see all 16 fighters’ future accomplishments, it would have taken you about two seconds to call Sanchez’s name. As the middleweight winner and with head-to-head wins over the season’s two other biggest finds in Josh Koscheck and Kenny Florian, it is hard to argue that Sanchez is not a lock for No. 2; and if there were any doubt after the show, his post-“TUF” career puts miles between himself and the pack.
The remarkable thing about his career is that it is still going. At 31 bouts and counting, Sanchez is the only contestant from Season 1 still on the UFC roster. While he is clearly in the final act of his career at age 38, he is still out there beating UFC welterweights and has never lost three fights in a row. Along with his lightweight title shot and trophy case full of seven “Fight of the Night” awards, Sanchez’s sheer longevity at the highest level of the sport certifies him as one of the biggest names and most accomplished fighters the show has produced.
Pre-TUF Record: 2-1
Post-TUF Record: 12-5
It is easy to understand why the skinny 2-1 kid from Boston was one of the last men picked on Day 1. Standing in a lineup alongside some very tough middleweights, Florian looked neither especially tough nor much like a middleweight. He had not even been scouted intentionally but had caught UFC President Dana White’s attention with a gutsy performance in a split decision loss in his hometown to Drew Fickett, the man White was actually there to see.
Once on the show, Florian carved up Chris Leben, literally—it was most fans’ first exposure to Florian’s lethal elbow strikes—to earn a spot in the final. While he was trounced by Sanchez at the finale, Florian walked out with a UFC contract in hand and made the most of it, establishing himself as a top contender and one of the promotion’s most venomous finishers. Florian’s UFC run includes 10 finishes in his 12 wins—he was at one time the promotion’s all-time leader in rear-naked choke submissions—and three title shots. While he was turned away all three times, two of the losses were against the greatest fighters those divisions had ever seen in B.J. Penn and Jose Aldo. When he retired in 2011, Florian was among the most accomplished UFC fighters never to win a belt.
Pre-TUF Record: 2-0
Post-TUF Record: 15-11 (15-10 UFC)
If it is easy to understand why Florian went 11th, it is equally easy to understand why the similarly inexperienced Koscheck went third. Though he was just 2-0 as a mixed martial artist, Koscheck was everything Florian was not: a former NCAA Division I wrestling champion with a burly physique, elite fast-twitch athleticism and a jock’s swagger. He was one of the most promising prospects for the show and beyond, and he was accordingly drafted early; and for the most part, he lived up to it.
Koscheck was eliminated in the house by the then-undefeated Sanchez but punched his ticket to the UFC at the finale by knocking out the woefully overmatched Chris Sanford. Koscheck then went on to spend most of the next decade as a Top 10 fixture at welterweight, avenging the Sanchez loss and handing him his first career defeat along the way. Though he fell far short in two attempts to solve the riddle—or handle the “riddum”—of Georges St. Pierre and though the wheels fell off at the end, as he lost his last six fights in a row after an acrimonious split with the American Kickboxing Academy, Koscheck remains one of the best welterweights of his era.
5. Chris LebenOriginal Draft Position: 4 (Team Couture)
Pre-TUF Record: 10-1
Post-TUF Record: 13-10
Picks 5-7 on this list were by far the most difficult to make. While the very top and bottom of the draft fall into fairly obvious order, the upper middle feels like a dead heat. If you want to argue for Leben, Swick and Quarry in a different order—or even pull Bonnar into the mix and reorder Picks 5-8—you will not get much argument here.
If someone did want to make the case for Leben to drop in the draft, the most obvious point to bring up was that his performance on the show was a disaster. Leben was chosen fourth, due in part to being the most experienced fighter in the cast along with Sanchez, and probably in part to his affiliation with Team Quest. By the end of the first episode, he had already gotten outlandishly intoxicated and picked on the worst fighter in the house, Jason Thacker, even urinating on his bed. In so doing, Leben set the pattern for his in-show persona and became the original iteration of the “unhinged drunken jackass” archetype that would add drama to most subsequent seasons. His in-cage performances were no better. When one of his drunken dustups led to a quarterfinal grudge match with Koscheck, he suffered a miserable manhandling at the hands of the wrestler. He received a second chance when teammate Nate Quarry was knocked out of the bracket with an injury, only to become the first famous victim of Florian’s razor-sharp elbows.
However, Leben received one last chance at redemption when he was matched with Thacker at the finale, and he did not squander it. After blowing out the overmatched “Strange Brew” in 90 seconds, Leben went on a five-fight winning streak that saw him beat solid contenders Patrick Cote and Jorge Rivera on his way to a middleweight title eliminator against new arrival Anderson Silva. A 49-second pasting at the hands of the future king was as close as “The Crippler” would get to UFC gold, but he went on to remain a factor for several more years. His 13-10 UFC record suffers from having hung on too long and losing five of his last six fights, but he saw the highest of highs and lowest of lows; his four “Knockout of the Night,” two “Fight of the Night” and two post-fight drug test failures make for some kind of hat trick from hell. In light of those struggles, it is a success story in itself that Leben appears healthy and happy today, working as an MMA referee, of all things.
6. Mike SwickOriginal Draft Position: 8 (Team Couture)
Pre-TUF Record: 5-1
Post-TUF Record: 10-5
Swick is a good indicator of how arbitrary the weight classes on the inaugural season were upon further review. He was brought in as a light heavyweight in spite of his last bout before the show having been for the inaugural World Extreme Cagefighting middleweight title against Leben, who joined the cast as a middleweight. The lanky Texan, whose best days were ahead of him at 170 pounds, looked ridiculously undersized in his semifinal, where he was muscled around on the ground by Bonnar.
At the finale, Swick blew away castmate Alex Schoenauer with a highlight-reel knockout in 20 seconds, the first of four first-round finishes to start his UFC career. Swick would end up knocking on the door of title contention in two divisions: After a five-fight winning streak at middleweight ended with a loss to Yushin Okami, Swick dropped to welterweight and promptly strung together four wins in a row before running into Dan Hardy. Ultimately, Swick’s legacy as a solid contender and dangerous finisher in two weight classes is hampered by the brevity of his injury-plagued UFC run.
7. Nate QuarryOriginal Draft Position: 8 (Team Couture)
Pre-TUF Record: 5-1
Post-TUF Record: 7-3
Quarry is the first example of what would become another common “TUF” archetype over the years. His natural temperament combined with his age—at 33, he was one of the older fighters on the show—to make him the original “fighter who’s just not here for the frat boy shenanigans,” a tradition carried on by later low-key competitors such as Mac Danzig and Roxanne Modafferi.
“The Rock” also had the most miserable run of luck of any fighter on the first season. Chosen second overall by his Team Quest mentor Couture, Quarry suffered a cut in sparring on the first episode, then a severe ankle injury a few weeks later when Couture, of all people, crashed into him in practice. Eliminated from the show by the projected six-week rehabilitation, Quarry tapped Leben to take his spot, then agreed to stay on as an assistant coach at White’s request—an invitation one imagines would not have been extended to Leben if the roles had been reversed.
After knocking out Lodune Sincaid to earn a UFC roster spot, Quarry followed it up with two more knockouts over solid veterans Shonie Carter and Pete Sell, earning a shot at middleweight champion Rich Franklin at UFC 56. It did not go Quarry’s way, as he was knocked out cold in a first-round finish that still crops up on UFC highlight reels. However, Quarry stuck around through increasing injury problems, at least long enough to make one more indelible mark in UFC history, and retired with a more than respectable 7-3 post-“TUF” record.
Pre-TUF Record: 7-1
Post-TUF Record: 8-8 (8-7 UFC)
How does one half of the most important bout in UFC history—a member of the UFC Hall of Fame—fall to the No. 8 spot when his opponent went first overall? It is a fair question. After all, Griffin-Bonnar needed two fighters willing to slug it out and tough enough to do it for three rounds. How different would UFC history be if Griffin had simply knocked out Bonnar in half a round? Ultimately, the finale classic against Griffin was the high-water mark of Bonnar’s career, both in terms of his public profile and his in-cage performance. His 8-7 UFC mark is an apt representation of his five-year status as just another light heavyweight. While he had the misfortune of running into the Jon Jones buzzsaw before we understood what that meant, he is also the last person a very dilapidated 44-year-old Mark Coleman managed to beat, and his run is further marred by two positive steroid tests.
9. Sam HogerOriginal Draft Position: 7 (Team Liddell)
Pre-TUF Record: 4-0
Post-TUF Record: 6-4 (2-3 UFC)
“The Alaskan Assassin” entered the house as a fairly interesting 4-0 light heavyweight prospect and managed to leave as even more of an enigma. His antics, which included petty theft and an apparent strategy to angle for a spot in the final without having to fight in the earlier rounds, left his housemates more confused and annoyed than anything. After eliminating Bobby Southworth at the finale, Hoger finished out a 2-3 run in the UFC, but in his defense, two of the losses were to future champs Rashad Evans and Lyoto Machida. After his release, he went on a modest four-fight winning streak before calling it a career in 2010.
10. Alex KaralexisOriginal Draft Position: 12 (Team Couture)
Pre-TUF Record: 4-0
Post-TUF Record: 6-6 (1-2 UFC)
There was always something of the scrappy underdog in Karalexis. At a stocky 5-foot-8, he was visibly the smallest competitor on the show, even compared to ersatz “middleweights” like Sanchez and Florian. He had the misfortune to draw Sanchez for his first-round matchup and was the recipient of a predictable mauling. He was invited back to fight at the finale against Josh Rafferty—who had been eliminated by Sanchez in almost identical fashion—at a more reasonable 170 pounds. By punching out Rafferty, he became the latest pick from the original “TUF” cast to earn a UFC contract, an underdog power move of the first order. Karalexis’ UFC run did not go well, as his next two fights saw him get savaged by Florian, then become the recipient of the original Jason Von Flue choke. After he was let go by the UFC, he landed in World Extreme Cagefighting, where he put together a 3-3 record against some future UFC talents, including Anthony Pettis and Bart Palaszewski.
11. Bobby SouthworthOriginal Draft Position: 1 (Team Liddell)
Pre-TUF Record: 6-3
Post-TUF Record: 4-3 (0-1 UFC)
Southworth is the first No. 1 pick in “TUF” history and the first draft bust, as well. As busts go, it is not that there were clear warning signs, so much as it is not obvious in hindsight why he was taken first at all. His 6-3 record was not especially impressive and had been accomplished against competition no more impressive than some of the other cast members had faced. At 34, he was the second-oldest fighter in the cast after Chris Sanford.
Whatever the reasons that Liddell chose him with the first pick, Southworth’s performance on the show was decidedly mixed. In the cage, he defeated Lodune Sincaid before losing to Bonnar, who had been chosen five spots after him. Outside the cage, he unfortunately became the first example of yet another “TUF” archetype, as the original house villain. That is saying a lot on a season where other fighters gained infamy for stealing each other’s possessions, urinating on each other’s beds and eating only the tops of the asparagus before putting the stalks back in the refrigerator. Even understanding that reality television is entertainment first, reality second, and that editing sets the tone for a reality show, Southworth came off as a mean-spirited bully, often pulling in future AKA teammate Koscheck as a wingman in a way that presaged Koscheck’s own role on his subsequent season of the show.
Southworth at the finale was placed in the featured preliminary bout opposite Sam Hoger, who prevailed in a three-round decision. We do not know whether his abrasive performance in the house played any part—or, perhaps, his prominent role in the mini-mutiny that led to White’s “Do you want to be a f---ing fighter?” speech—but Southworth was not among the several fighters to receive UFC contracts despite losing at the finale. Cut loose from the organization, Southworth headed home to the Bay Area in California and fought out the balance of his career with Strikeforce, where he won a light heavyweight title.
12. Lodune SincaidOriginal Draft Position: 10 (Team Couture)
Pre-TUF Record: 6-0
Post-TUF Record: 9-9 (0-1 UFC)
“The Vanilla Gorilla,” an undersized light heavyweight, was eliminated in the house by Southworth, who famously had to cut 20 pounds the day before weigh-ins. Perhaps in respect to that disparity, Sincaid was invited back to take on Quarry at the finale in a middleweight match. He was pounded out by Quarry in the first round, after which he went on a lengthy and respectable post-UFC run, primarily in the WEC—where he won the light heavyweight title—and its post-Zuffa successor, Palace Fighting Championships. He died tragically early, at just 45 years of age, in April 2019. While no cause of death was made known in the days and weeks that followed, Sincaid had long been open about his struggles with PTSD and bipolar disorder.
13. Alex SchoenauerOriginal Draft Position: 13 (Team Liddell)
Pre-TUF Record: 7-0
Post-TUF Record: 4-4 (0-1 UFC)
Sometimes, a draft pick is exactly right. Picked 13th despite a good-on-paper 7-0 record, Schoenauer had one of the tougher runs of anyone on the show, as he was traded to Team Couture, then pounded into submission by his much larger erstwhile teammate Griffin in his quarterfinal. Invited back to participate in the finale in a middleweight matchup with fellow undersized 205er Swick, Schoenauer was blitzed in just 20 seconds by the “Quick” one. From there, however, the Argentinean went on a nice 4-3 run, primarily in the International Fight League, where he beat decent opposition including Allan Goes and Travis Wiuff. Only a head-to-head loss to Sincaid the year after “TUF” separates the two in this pecking order.
14. Josh RaffertyOriginal Draft Position: 15 (Team Liddell)
Pre-TUF Record: 5-4
Post-TUF Record: 4-4 (0-1 UFC)
In many ways, Rafferty’s run on “TUF” is a blip in an otherwise respectable but fairly anonymous journeyman career. Before he was selected for the cast, he had amassed a 5-4 record in and around his native Ohio, and after a couple of lopsided losses to Sanchez on the show and Karalexis at the finale, he went straight back to the Midwest, where he went 4-3 over the remaining five years of his career; and for the rest of that career, he could bill himself as a UFC veteran and regale friends with stories of his part in making MMA history.
15. Chris SanfordOriginal Draft Position: 14 (Team Couture)
Pre-TUF Record: 4-0
Post-TUF Record: 1-1 (0-1 UFC)
Sanford had a rough time of it. He was the oldest cast member—37 by the time the show finished airing—and while he was a Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt, he was no more seasoned as an MMA fighter than many of the younger cast members. He was the second-to-last pick of Team Couture, and when a pair of lost challenges forced Couture to send two fighters home, Sanford was one of those who got the call. That would have been bad enough, but Sanford was called back to take on Koscheck at the finale in a fight that was a gross and obvious mismatch and, worse, was played up by the promotion as a chance for Sanford to get back at Koscheck for tormenting him during his brief tenure on the show. When the finale came and the bully was the one who ended up delivering the beatdown, nobody seemed to feel great about it. Sanford would only fight once more before retiring from competition.
16. Jason ThackerOriginal Draft Position: 16 (Team Couture)
Pre-TUF Record: 0-0
Post-TUF Record: 0-1
The final pick here could only be “Strange Brew,” and it is none of his fault. The unassuming young man from rural Canada had no business being on the show. Alone among the cast, he had no professional mixed martial arts experience, and even his kickboxing experience was greatly exaggerated by the writers and producers in order to make him sort of belong. Whether his presence on a cast with a future UFC champ and a half-dozen blue-chip contenders was a simple scouting mistake, an attempt to show how an “everyman” would perform against real fighters or just an investment in comic relief, nobody saw more clearly than Thacker himself what a bad idea it was. From literally the first episode, he was telling anyone who would listen—including his coach—that he did not think he could do this. Despite being sent home during the second episode, Thacker was in the house long enough to have his bedding urinated on by Leben, then much like Sanford against Koscheck, he was brought back and made to fight his tormentor at the finale. After that 90-second drubbing, Thacker never fought again. He has cropped up in MMA media periodically since then, a reminder of how little some fighters get in return from the sport that chews them up and spits them out.
« Previous Tyron Woodley Discusses Overcoming ‘State of Depression’ After Losing Title to Kamaru Usman Next Report: Robert Whittaker-Darren Till Middleweight Headliner Targeted for July 25 »