The UFC's Ultimate Fighter (TUF) reality TV series returned to our screens last Friday night, but arrived with a twist -- as well as the fastest knockout in its history, at just eight seconds. While the show carried the same format and dangled the same prize at the end of it all, the action was, for the first time, live and pretty much uninterrupted and the season will, in time, be far more interactive than ever before, offering fight fans the opportunity to participate and dictate the fates of those inside the house.
A runaway success since its inception in 2005, this latest tweaking should ensure it remains as such, following the odd hit-and-miss season of late. With change comes a period for reflection, however, and now seems as good a time as any to remember and highlight some of the show's very best success stories, if only to provide inspiration for the sixteen fighters entering the house this year.
Here are ten of the very best:
10. Chris Leben
Post TUF record: 12-7
Kill-or-be-killed mentality, granite jaw and sledgehammer fists, Chris 'The Crippler' Leben has endeared himself to fans through years of Fight of the Night-type battles. An absolute pain in the backside on the inaugural season of The Ultimate Fighter, the one-time troublemaker has matured, got his act together and carved a niche as one of the most routinely exciting mixed martial artists in the sport's short history. After dropping down to middleweight, the ballsy southpaw defeated the likes of Wanderlei Silva, Yoshihiro Akiyama and Aaron Simpson, and showed a knack of securing victory when on the very brink of defeat. Unfortunately for Leben, he also has a knack for flunking the odd post-fight doping test, something which has blotted his copybook on more than one occasion in an otherwise admirable career.
9. Nate Diaz
Post TUF record: 10-5
Compared to brother Nick, this younger Diaz is a people person, someone every bit as comfortable at a dinner party as he would be rolling on a mat. That's not to say Nate Diaz is by any means soft, however. The leading lightweight contender, like Nick, is an ace talent in both the striking and grappling departments and is only ever seemingly troubled by sound wrestlers. Since winning The Ultimate Fighter season five, Diaz has proven his mettle with victories over fellow TUF standouts Josh Neer, Melvin Guillard and Marcus Davis, as well as Donald Cerrone and Takanori Gomi. He now seems to be perhaps just one or two wins away from finally earning and receiving the UFC title shot that has for so long eluded him.
8. Michael Bisping
Post TUF record: 12-4
Since winning season three of The Ultimate Fighter, ballsy Brit Michael Bisping has, in effect, had to carry an entire country on his broad shoulders. The first and most famous Englishman to ever compete in mixed martial arts, Bisping has been the go-to poster boy for all things British MMA post-2006. Thankfully, though, rather that being a mere media creation, Bisping can actually, genuinely fight, and has proven his worth as a top contender for many years now. Although his personality sometimes rubs people -- namely, Americans -- up the wrong way, it's difficult to argue against his track record. Only the likes of Dan Henderson, Rashad Evans, Chael Sonnen and Wanderlei Silva hold wins over him, and three of those decision verdicts weren't exactly beyond dispute. Furthermore, victories against the likes of Chris Leben, Yoshihiro Akiyama, Denis Kang and Dan Miller, suggest this Brit can fight a bit.
7. Diego Sanchez
Post TUF record: 12-5
He defeated Kenny Florian at middleweight to win season one of The Ultimate Fighter, and since that night at the Cox Pavilion, Diego Sanchez has gone on to excel as both a welterweight and lightweight. Once renowned for his spiritual approach to the sport of mixed martial arts, Sanchez has taken on a more visceral and highly-charged approach since leaving the shackles of TUF. Formerly nicknamed 'Nightmare', but now more commonly called 'Dream', Sanchez has got the better of a number of top contenders, including Nick Diaz, Clay Guida, Joe Stevenson, Martin Kampmann and Paulo Thiago. His most notable bout to date arrived in December 2009, however, when he unsuccessfully challenged BJ Penn for the UFC world lightweight champion. Bloodied and battered, Diego was eventually stopped on cuts in the fifth and final round.
6. Kenny Florian
Post TUF record: 12-5
Kenny 'KenFlo' Florian, MMA's Mr. Nice Guy, has long been a fan favourite and is often somebody fans choose to root for on the night of a fight. Perhaps that's because he's been an underdog pretty much all his life. Undersized and overpowered on season one of The Ultimate Fighter, Florian lost in the final to Diego Sanchez and then promptly dropped down the weight divisions, landing first at welterweight, then lightweight and now at featherweight. He strung together six straight wins as a lightweight, a run which eventually landed him a shot at BJ's UFC world title. Although unsuccessful that night against Penn in August 2009, Florian rebounded strongly with wins over Clay Guida and Takanori Gomi, before dropping down to featherweight and going the full five rounds with UFC world featherweight king Jose Aldo. Whether as a middleweight, welterweight, lightweight or featherweight, Florian has used well-rounded skills to survive at the very top of the sport since 2005.
5. Gray Maynard
Post TUF record: 8-1-1
Nicknamed 'The Bully', it's fair to say Gray Maynard isn't used to not getting his way. After leaving The Ultimate Fighter season five as a beaten semi-finalist, Maynard experienced as close to a perfect run as any fighter could hope to muster. He won eight bouts consecutively, collecting the scalps of future UFC champion Frankie Edgar, Dennis Siver, Nate Diaz, Jim Miller and Kenny Florian along the way. Those names represent a list of victims as good as anything achieved by a lightweight contender in recent times. Moreover, Maynard also hurt and knocked down Edgar in subsequent championship fights, drawing the first and then losing the second. That defeat -- the first of his career -- snapped a tremendous run of results for Maynard, and also went some way to shaping the legacy of a fighting champion from New Jersey.
4. Josh Koscheck
Post TUF record: 15-5
If this list was to take into account popularity and personality, Josh Koscheck may well find himself a few places further down. However, it doesn't, and, whether you like him or not, it's difficult to argue with Koscheck's post-TUF Octagon exploits. A one-trick pony wrestler during his time on season one of the show, Koscheck got as far as the semi-final stages, before losing a tight decision to eventual winner Diego Sanchez. Since that defeat, however, Koscheck has worked on his striking, revelled in unmatched athleticism and scored a number of victories at a world-class level. He avenged his defeat to Sanchez in April 2007, knocked out Matt Hughes, Dustin Hazelett, Frank Trigg and Yoshiyuki Yoshida in impressive fashion, and submitted fellow wrestler Anthony Johnson. While a UFC welterweight championship still evades the cocksure American, he has twice gone the distance with its current proprietor Georges St-Pierre and would be evens to defeat everybody else in the 170-pound division.
3. Matt Serra
Post TUF record: 3-3
He may have only had six bouts since winning season four of The Ultimate Fighter, and may have only won three of them, but Matt 'The Terror' Serra has packed a hell of a lot of action into a short space of time. In reality, it's been five and a half years since his TUF success, but, regardless, Serra has never been known for activity. Instead, he made his name with a stunning first-round knockout of Georges St-Pierre to lift the UFC world welterweight crown in April 2007. The result marked one the greatest upsets in mixed martial arts history and created 'The Terror' legacy in just three minutes and twenty-five seconds. Yeah, he may have lost to GSP in the return, and also suffered setbacks against Matt Hughes and Chris Lytle, but nobody can take away the UFC championship that proudly resides somewhere in Long Island.
2. Forrest Griffin
Post TUF record: 9-5
He may well have won a UFC world championship, but Forrest Griffin will always claim pride of place in the hearts of UFC fans the world over for pitching a stupendous finale with Stephan Bonnar to win season one of The Ultimate Fighter. Not only did his three-round victory secure a TUF trophy, but the fight, a ratings winner, also paved the way for the UFC to emerge as the fastest rising sport in the world. Consequently, Griffin is as important and valued as any fighter in UFC history. He's been a resounding success post-TUF, as well, defeating the likes of Mauricio 'Shogun' Rua, Tito Ortiz, Rich Franklin and Quinton 'Rampage' Jackson, to lift the UFC world light-heavyweight crown. Sure, there have been shocks and low points, but if anybody encapsulates the sheer up-and-down entertainment of mixed martial artists, both inside and outside the ring, it's Forrest Griffin.
1. Rashad Evans
Post TUF record: 12-1-1
Like Koscheck before him, 'Suga' Rashad Evans is the archetypal TUF contestant, a man who used the show to open doors and increase his profile, before eventually going on to improve his game, work on weaknesses and emerge as one of the best fighters in the world. As far as natural talent goes, Evans may well be the greatest physical specimen to ever appear on The Ultimate Fighter, such was the level of his skill-set demonstrated in season two, when he defeated an array of bigger heavyweights en route to taking the title. Upon winning the show, and dropping down in weight, Evans cemented his standing as one of the sport's finest by defeating the likes of Chuck Liddell, Forrest Griffin, Rampage Jackson, Michael Bisping, Tito Ortiz and, last time out, Phil Davis. In beating fellow TUF veteran Griffin in December 2008, the charismatic New Yorker lifted the UFC world light-heavyweight title, thus becoming only the third fighter in TUF history to go on and win a UFC strap.