By Damon Martin – MMAWeekly.com
With the third season of The Ultimate Fighter about to come to a close this weekend, and another set of TUF winners about to be crowned, the question starts to come to mind of whether or not we will ever see a cast member from the show become a champion in the UFC.

To the credit of the show, Dana White, and all of the producers involved, they’ve always stated that they were looking for the next Ultimate Fighter, not the next great champion. But every fighter, at some point, wants to put a title around their waist and proclaim that they really are the best. While making it to the UFC is enough for some fighters, like a minor league baseball player finally making it to the pros, a great many of the competitors on the show undoubtedly desire that elusive championship gold.

While many people have complimented the selection of fighters chosen, just as many have been critical of the UFC for bringing in so many inexperienced fighters that just seem like stepping stones for the more experienced fighters on the show. The fact is, the mix has worked for the most part, and everyone has to remember that it is a reality show. Personalities sell on TV, and not every great fighter has a television side to them. That said, if we look at the finalists for each season, is there potential for any of them to become champions in the UFC now or in the near future?

Season 1 Light Heavyweight Finalists: Forrest Griffin and Stephan Bonnar

Much can be said about the fight between these two men in the TUF 1 finale, and both fighters have had a fair amount of success since the show. Stephan Bonnar has seemingly appeared on every Ultimate Fight Night broadcast since he left The Ultimate Fighter and has gone undefeated in those fights. The biggest knock on Bonnar is that while he is extremely well rounded with solid Jiu-Jitsu and boxing skills, he has only looked really good in one of his fights (a submission win over James Irvin) since his three-round war with Griffin.

Bonnar’s other fights were lackluster at best, as he most recently won a very controversial decision over Ultimate Fighter Season 2 competitor Keith Jardine. Bonnar has a lot of potential, but if you stack him up against someone like Tito Ortiz or Renato “Babalu” Sobral, it just doesn’t seem like he would be successful against them right now. More will be learned about Bonnar on June 28th when he takes on TUF 2 winner Rashad Evans in yet another installment of Ultimate Fight Night.

Forrest Griffin proved that he belongs with the top fighters after a three-round split decision loss to Tito Ortiz in April. Even though he lost, Griffin did get the win on one judge’s scorecard, and for much of the second and third rounds he was able to stuff Tito’s takedowns, which is not easily done by any fighter on the planet. The downside of that fight for Griffin is the fact that he lost the first round in one-sided fashion and was absolutely decimated by Ortiz in the round.

After the fight was over, it was discovered that Ortiz fought with two tears in his knee, which he favored for much of the bout. While Griffin was surely disappointed in the loss, it looked as if he was just content to gain the respect of Ortiz, and to show the world that he could last with one of the best in the UFC. Griffin’s championship hopes are pinned on the fact that he always wants to stand and trade with fighters, and if you put him in there with someone like Chuck Liddell, the fight would not likely go past the first round. Griffin is a very tough opponent for anyone, but his championship hopes are stifled until he polishes up his stand-up game so that he’s not allowing his opponents to tag him round after round, which only shows that he has a great chin.

Season 1 Middleweight Finalists: Diego Sanchez and Kenny Florian

The two middleweight finalists from the first season of The Ultimate Fighter may have the most championship potential of anyone. Neither of them have remained at 185 pounds, with Florian now poised to move all the way down to lightweight for his next fight against Sam Stout on The Ultimate Fighter 3 finale show.

Florian is one of the more interesting fighters on this list to examine. While he didn’t really dominate during his fight with Chris Leben on the show, he managed to stand with a much larger opponent who has big-time knockout power and a chin of granite. He won by doctor’s stoppage due to a cut, but he still looked good, even against a fighter who is now two weight classes above him. Florian did look very much overmatched against Diego Sanchez in their finale fight, but to his credit he admitted after the bout that he was extremely nervous and didn’t perform to the best of his abilities.

Since the show ended, Florian got another doctor’s stoppage win over former housemate Alex Karalexis and then submitted Muay Thai striker Kit Cope in November 2005. Florian was ready to make his debut at 155 pounds versus Sam Stout at UFC 58, but a back injury put Florian on the sideline temporarily. Now he will fight the Canadian in a lightweight bout this weekend, and the winner is rumored to be in line to receive a title shot at 155 pounds. If Florian does beat Stout, it’s likely that he will face Sean Sherk for the vacant UFC Lightweight Title, and if that’s the case, don’t bet on the Boston native to be the favorite against the much more experienced Sherk… but it would be a title shot, so anything can happen.

Diego Sanchez is one of the most interesting characters to come out of The Ultimate Fighter series and is also probably the most talented. He was undefeated coming into the show, and he is still undefeated after the show. He rolled through Alex Karalexis and Josh Rafferty on the show, as he should have, and then got a decision win over Josh Koscheck that put him in the finals. After thoroughly dominating Kenny Florian in the finals, he announced that he would move back down to welterweight, where he was much more comfortable.

Since then, Diego punished Brian Gassaway into submission and then in his defining bout, he beat Nick Diaz in a fight that many people expected Diaz to win easily. Diego struggled mightily in his most recent bout with John Alessio, which is somewhat scary because if he fought that way against any of the upper echelon of 170-pound fighters, he would lose. It’s likely that Diego will get his chance to prove that he really is a top-level welterweight when he faces Karo Parisyan in August. While a win would definitely show that he is a great fighter, it’s the top three guys in the division (Matt Hughes, Georges St. Pierre, and BJ Penn) that everyone will struggle to get past. Diego may have the most potential of any fighter coming out of the show, but he also happens to be in the absolute most stacked division in the UFC, and a championship doesn’t look to be on the immediate horizon right now.

Season 2 Heavyweight Finalists: Rashad Evans and Brad Imes

Season 2 of The Ultimate Fighter was a struggle from the beginning. While the UFC and the producers tried to focus more on the training and the fights, the show suffered because it is a reality show at the end of the day, and the driving forces behind the ratings are tension and the personalities in the house. The heavyweight competitors on the show were a mixed bag of fighters who were, again, out of their weight class or not that experienced to begin with.

Rashad Evans was not a favorite to win the heavyweight division when the show started, but he was able to endure three grueling match-ups during the season and pulled out another win over his opponent, Brad Imes, in the finale. While Evans never did anything flashy to win, he was able to pull out the victory each time. Since the show, Evans dropped down to 205 pounds and has only fought once. In that fight, he pulled out a split decision victory over TUF 1 competitor Sam Hoger at a recent Ultimate Fight Night event.

Evans’ biggest attribute is his wrestling skill, but his detriments could limit his chances of advancing in the division. Rashad has yet to finish any of his opponents since his first fight on TUF 2. Evans has the potential to learn and grow until he’s someone to fear in the light heavyweight division, but he needs to start taking more chances during his fights and get a finish. It has been proven time and time again that the UFC wants exciting fights, and whether Evans is the winner of the show or not, he may be looking for a new home after his original contract expires if he doesn’t start putting away some of his opponents. Rashad will get a tough test when he fights Stephan Bonnar next week at Ultimate Fight Night, but regardless of whether he wins or loses the fight, Evans doesn’t seem ready for top competition just yet.

Brad Imes didn’t have much experience going into the show, but got by well enough to make it all the way to the finals, where he lost to Rashad Evans by split decision. With his size and strength, Imes looked like an ideal candidate to start training with a top-notch team and work his way through a fairly weak UFC heavyweight division. But since the show, Imes has fought once, losing to former TUF 2 housemate Dan Christison by armbar. If Imes has the determination to get back to training full-time and work really hard, he could do fairly well in a UFC heavyweight division that is still lacking any real depth, but size and strength will only get him so far. He will have to develop a much better game if he wants to survive against any top-level fighter.

Season 2 Welterweight Finalists: Joe Stevenson and Luke Cummo

Of all the fighters on the show, Joe Stevenson was one of the most experienced guys to step into the octagon, as he held championships in other organizations prior to coming to the UFC. Stevenson’s wrestling and submissions are very good, and he was very strong in all of his fights before and during the show. Stevenson was undefeated for the last two years before the show started, and he dominated both of his opponents on the show to make it to the finals, where he faced Luke Cummo. In that fight, Stevenson still got his takedowns, but he also got caught afew times with some good strikes. For the first time since debuting on The Ultimate Fighter, he looked like he might have a few significant weaknesses in his game.

When Stevenson took on Josh Neer in his first fight after the show, he was dominant in the first round of the fight, almost winning by submission, but then he seemed to lose steam and got very winded in the second and third rounds. He lost by unanimous decision and then announced that he would move down a weight class to lightweight. Stevenson has not yet fought at 155 pounds in the UFC, so the jury is still out on how he’ll perform after cutting so much weight. Many fighters have excelled after dropping weight, but Stevenson has competed at welterweight for most of his career, and this sudden shift could either give him a new-found dominance or cause him to lose some of the strength that he was able to display while fighting at 170. Either way, Stevenson isn’t likely to hold a title just yet, but in a fledgling lightweight division, he may get a title shot sooner rather than later. He will find out just how good the 155-pound fighters are when he faces off against Yves Edwards at UFC 61.

Luke Cummo is another of the fighters who came into the show with little experience and is making the most out of the opportunity. He was the odd man out for much of the season with his strange behavior, but looks can be deceiving. While he may look like a bookworm, he has great skill, both on his feet and on the ground. He was definitely the underdog in his fight with Joe Stevenson in the finale, but he showed that he deserved to be there, and the UFC was smart to keep him around afterwards.

In his one fight since the show, Cummo defeated former housemate Jason Von Flue by decision, and Cummo will get another tough fight when he takes on Jonathan Goulet at Ultimate Fight Night on June 28th. No one is disillusioned enough to say that Cummo is even close to being ready for a run at the UFC Welterweight Title, but it’s still very hard to tell if he’ll ever be able to develop a game that will be able to compete with the top fighters in that weight class. Only time will tell.

The Future

One thing that should not be overlooked is the accomplishment of Nate Quarry, who got the first title shot of any competitor from The Ultimate Fighter when he took on Rich Franklin for the UFC Middleweight Title in November 2005. Unfortunately, the critics who said that it was way too much, too soon for Quarry were proven to be correct, as it was made apparent in the fight that he wasn’t quite ready for the level of competition that Franklin offered (though only a select group of middleweights are). To his credit, Quarry took his shot at the title, never wavered when asked if he deserved the championship bout, and stood up with arguably the best middleweight in the world.

In the TUF 3 finale on June 24th, Michael Bisping will face off against Josh Haynes in the light heavyweight division, while Ed Herman will take on Kendall Grove in the middleweight division. It will be interesting to see which of these fighters will eventually drop weight or get a top-level fight to boost their rankings in the division. It’s obviously way too soon to determine whether any of the season three finalists will be championship material.

The UFC has been able to make stars out of guys like Forrest Griffin and Diego Sanchez without ever even speculating about when or if they would be ready for a title shot, but it still must be asked whether or not competitor from the show will get a taste of championship gold. The easy answer is that we will probably not see an “Ultimate Fighter” win a title anytime in the near future, but the success of the show isn’t driven on champions. It’s driven on ratings, and that may be enough for any of the fighters who have succeeded on the show.