The Ultimate Fighter Sweet 16

With the weekend’s card serving as the finale to the 29th instalment of The Ultimate Fighter, two more fighters will join the long list of esteemed winners before them. So far, The Ultimate Fighter winners have been responsible for 8 UFC championships and 9 UFC title challenges, with more on the horizon.

After such a lengthy break between series, we thought it important to look back at the long list of The Ultimate Fighter victors who made an impact on the world of MMA in general. We narrowed down the list of 58 TUF winners to a mere 16 of the most significant, and – in honour of the finale on the weekend – decided the only fair way to find out the number one was a knockout tournament.

We won’t be pitting them against each other in terms of ‘who would win if they fought’ (though that will play into it somewhat), but more evaluating the impact of the fighters at their peak (or potential peak, if we believe they might not have hit it yet).

Fighters were seeded into the tournament based on which season of The Ultimate Fighter they appeared on – for instance, Diego Sanchez and Forrest Griffin appeared on The Ultimate Fighter 1 and therefore were seeded at Number 1 and 2 respectively. The initial tournament appears below:

On the most recent episode of The Run It Back Podcast – They ran through the opening round of the tournament, with some surprising results. With a 4-man podcast, some results were decided by the roll of a die, with controversial results. As such, slight edits have been made to the one result likely to cause the most controversy (sorry Carla). Any other disagreements, listen to the podcast for a rationale or just feel free to hit the comment in the neds socials and we’ll tell you why we disagree next time out.

As it stands now, the tournament bracket looks like this:

Quarter Final 1

Yair Rodriguez (TUF: Latin America) vs. Ryan Bader (TUF: 8)

Despite an impressive UFC career, it became apparent early on that while Jon Jones held the UFC Light Heavyweight title, Bader was unfortunately not going to achieve those same heights. Despite significant wins over Rogerio Nogueira, Rampage Jackson, Ovince St Preux, Phil Davis and Rashad Evans, his losses almost always came as he was approaching the cusp of greatness.

With Rodriguez, we have perhaps not seen the peak of his career. Still only 28 and young in fight-years, he only has one lone loss in ten UFC bouts (against a legend in Frankie Edgar). Rodriguez seems is primed for a UFC title shot at some point in his near future and the issues with injuries and declining fights will hopefully be put to rest when Rodriguez does battle with Max Holloway sometime in 2021.

Winner: Yair Rodriguez

Quarter Final 2

Michael Bisping (TUF 3) vs. Nate Diaz (TUF 5)

There is no doubt this match-up is perhaps the hardest to pick from of all the semi-final bouts. On one hand, you have a 29-fight veteran of the UFC, a former UFC Middleweight Champion, a colour commentator with deep insight into the sport and an inductee into the UFC Hall of Fame. On the other, you have one of the top 5 biggest names in the UFC at the moment, a shoo-in for Hall of Fame, a former Lightweight title challenger, a relentless work horse who overwhelms opponents with pressure and a man partially responsible for some of the biggest PPV buy rates in MMA history.

When you look at legacy and you look at who has made the biggest impact, it would be ridiculous to not credit Bisping with the impact he had on growing the sport in the UK and Europe. However, with his ability to tap into the casual fan market, it’s a likely conclusion that Diaz has drawn more eyes to the sport than Bisping. Add into that the ‘must watch’ factor of a Diaz fight / interview / weigh in / anything, and Diaz gets the nod here.

Winner: Nate Diaz

Quarter Final 3

Robert Whittaker (TUF: Smashes) vs. Tony Ferguson (TUF: 13)

Another challenging one, for multiple reasons; it’s always hard to separate bias when talking about Australian fighters (especially Robert Whittaker), but it’s also difficult when it comes to Tony Ferguson to wonder what life would have been like if any of the five scheduled meetings with Khabib Nurmagomedov had gone ahead.

In many ways, the two fighters have a lot in common – impressive win streaks over incredibly dangerous opponents, losses to some of the absolute best their division has to offer and a reputation for violence and exciting fights (8 post-fight bonuses for Whittaker, 11 for Ferguson). Both fighters fought for and won UFC gold (both initially interim, though Whittaker was promoted to undisputed and Ferguson got stripped due to injury). In the end, it’s the record-breaking streak of Tony Ferguson that gets him over the line for me: 12 straight victories in MMA’s toughest division, 9 finishes and a laundry list of absolute killers (Tibau, Thomson, Barboza, dos Anjos, Lee, Pettis, Cerrone to name a few) is impossible to ignore. Whittaker is still in the prime of his career and is starring down the barrel of another UFC title fight, so we could see the scale slide back in his direction. But for now, Ferguson gets the nod.

Winner: Tony Ferguson

Quarter Final 4

Kamaru Usman (TUF: ATT vs. Blackzillians) vs. Matt Serra (TUF 4)

As tough as the last few contests have been for me to decide, this one is nice and easy. While I’ll always respect Matt Serra’s ability, his determination and his composure in his legendary upset victory over Georges St. Pierre, there’s not enough space on the internet for me to list all the reasons this one is a mismatch.

Winner: Kamaru Usman

Semi Final 1

Yair Rodriguez (TUF: Latin America) vs. Nate Diaz (TUF: 5)

With a difficult semi-final bout against Michael Bisping in the rear-view mirror, Diaz comes across last-seeded Yair Rodriguez, the man who had defeated Diego Sanchez and Ryan Bader to reach the semis. And while I mentioned earlier my confidence that Yair will go down as a top Featherweight in the record books, I just cannot pick Rodriguez over Nate Diaz in this bout.

Rodriguez has had a much-hyped run stalled by inactivity and will hopefully get the gears churning over the next few months, but Nate Diaz is very likely going to finish his career reaching peaks of popularity and impact that Rodriguez is unlikely to achieve.

Winner: Nate Diaz

Semi Final 2

Tony Ferguson (TUF: 13) vs. Kamaru Usman (TUF: ATT vs. Blackzillians)

Much as Ferguson and Whittaker stacked up against each other quite well, so too does Ferguson and Usman. Their achievements are similar, though there are differences: Ferguson won a title, though it was interim. Usman is the undisputed Welterweight champion. Ferguson’s 12-fight win streak is tied with Khabib for the longest in the Lightweight division, whereas Usman’s 14-fight win streak is the second longest win streak in UFC history, and still on-going. Ferguson has likely reached the peak of his MMA career since suffering losses to Justin Gaethje, Charles Oliveira and Beneil Dariush, whereas Usman is still undefeated in his UFC run and seemingly improving the danger he poses to his division with each fight. In this bout, I think Usman has El Cucuy figured out.

Winner: Kamaru Usman

Grand Finale to Crown the Ultimate Fighter Champion

Nate Diaz (TUF 5) vs. Kamaru Usman (TUF: ATT vs. Blackzillians)

It seems unlikely that the finale would be between a fighter with a 15-11 record in the UFC against a fighter who is 14-0, and even more unlikely that the answer wouldn’t be as clean cut as we maybe would like.

If you look at the design brief for the article, it’s not exactly measuring ‘which fighter would beat which fighter’ (because if Nate Diaz vs. Rory MacDonald taught us anything is that a grapple heavy Welterweight is the worst possible match-up for Diaz) – it’s about measuring the legacy and the impact that fighters will have on the game.

With Nate Diaz, you have one of the most popular competitors in the game today, who’s unconventional skills on the microphone have helped make him such a draw. With the right opponent (McGregor or Masvidal), Diaz transforms from a Top 10 Lightweight contender into a legitimate global superstar.

‘Legitimate global superstar’ is a superlative that has evaded Kamaru Usman, though his two victories over Jorge Masvidal and his war with Colby Covington has absolutely done a lot to increase his profile. As far as legacy goes with Usman, with two more victories, Usman is primed to match Anderson Silva’s record of 16-straight victories in the UFC, a feat that for many years has felt unassailable.

The other factor into my decision is that we have a rough idea on the peak of Nate Diaz. At 36 years old and with just 3 fights in the last 5 years, a career resurgence seems unlikely. The possibility of a future war with Conor McGregor to settle the trilogy will always exist (and likely do insane numbers once more), but as far as legacy or impact, for the most part Diaz has hit the high notes.

With Usman, it’s almost impossible to tell where his trajectory might take him. With two more victories over the elite of the Welterweight division, Usman will have matched Silva’s record as well as cleaned out the division. Would he then attempt a move to Middleweight to capture double gold? And then there’s the question of will he match Silva’s record in the first place? Up next is the man who gave Usman the most trouble in his UFC career – Colby Covington, who (on most scorecards) was level with Usman heading into their fifth and deciding round.

Some guesswork needs to go into the final pick, and please sound off if there’s disagreement, but if Usman can continue on his streak – particularly if it’s with the same violence as his most recent fights – he will eventually break into the rarefied air of the calibre of fighter such as Georges St. Pierre and Anderson Silva. We can see the visible peak of Nate Diaz from a few years ago, but Usman’s peak is potentially in the future, shrouded in clouds. With full knowledge of the risk of the unknown, the winner is Usman.

Winner: Kamaru Usman

Bryan Battle, Gilbert Urbina, Ricky Turcios and Brady Hiestand will do battle to determine which of them will become the 59th and 60th Ultimate Fighter champion. With that comes the heavy burden of expectation. Will any of the victors from this season appear on future lists as some of the most impactful and era-defining talents? It seems impossible, but stars are born and built each day. When Usman won his season of the Ultimate Fighter, it would have taken a mad man to envision he would one day be 14-0 in the UFC, but here we are.

Tune in this weekend to watch the finale of TUF 29, as well as a hard-kicking, highlight-worthy bout between Edson Barboza and Giga Chikadze.

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