The latest season of The Ultimate Fighter show is underway in Las Vegas. The 25th installment will pit bantamweight champion Cody Garbrant against former champion and ex-teammate TJ Dillishaw, in a coaching match-up that will likely garner as many on screen dramatics as their July title tilt promises.
The full roster was released earlier this week. Titled “Redmption,” the cast is made up of TUF veterans, including two former winners, and one who is currently on the UFC roster.
The fighters are a rangy lot in terms of experience, success, and size. Jesse Taylor and Joe “Big Daddy” Stevenson each have nearly 50 professional bouts to their name and have competed for world titles. Hader Hassan comes with just 9 fights under his belt and losses in both of his UFC appearances. Ditto for Mehdi Bahgdad.
Big Daddy Stevenson also highlights the size disparity we will witness in TUF 25. The show is slated to take place at 170 pounds, but Stevenson, who won the show at that weight, has competed as low was featherweight. Hector Urbina has fought as high as 205, as has former TUF winner Eddie “Truck” Gordon. One has to immediately wonder if making weight will be an issue for the larger fighters, while dealing with the size of some opponents will be an issue for the smaller cast members.
Age and mileage might also play a factor this season as well. The theme of redemption eliminates the TUF’s normal search for young, unknown talent, but at an average age of nearly 32 years old, some of these fighters are a bit long in the tooth. Age is not kind to fighters, and outside of the renaissance we’ve seen in some heavyweights careers recently, mid-tier middleweights don’t often find that same kind of second wind. Skill sets can see improvement well beyond an athlete’s physical prime, but we need to maintain realistic expectations for the show’s victor.
TUF has witnessed its share of long-shot winners, but as usual, the playing field can be narrowed down to a few likely candidates. Whatever the outcome, light beer and hollow-core doors should tread carefully for the next little while. Neither has ever been safe when the ultimate prize is on the line. For now, let’s take a look at the contestants.
Jesse Taylor- (30-15) Age: 33
Taylor has gone 24-12 since lone UFC appearance. Had he not fought a limousine window right after leaving the TUF house and lost his spot in the finale, Taylor had a strong chance at winning the show. He has been active since then, facing notable competition in the likes of Luke Rockhold, Jay Hieron, and David Branch, and has wins over TUF season three winner Kendall Grove as well as current UFC middleweight Chris Camozzi. A true middleweight, at 6’1” Taylor will be one of the bigger competitors, which should give him an advantage. But with 14 of his 15 losses coming by submission, one has to wonder if he can make it through the tournament without getting caught.
Joe Stevenson- (33-16) Age: 34
Every good story has an emotional center, and Stevenson is likely to be it for TUF 25. Winner of season two and long time fan favorite, Big Daddy saw his best days as a lightweight where he challenged BJ Penn for the 155 pound strap. He is 2-2 since last fighting for the UFC in 2011 and has only two fights after a three year lay off. His opponents in those have a combined record of 23-45, making an assessment of his current fighting abilities difficult. A dominant grapplers whose hands never really caught up with the rest of his skills, Stevenson is a natural lightweight and will suffer a significant size disadvantage if not given the right match-ups. Fighting a bigger man is nothing new to him, having started taking professional fights while still a teenager, but the game has changed; skill used to make up a size deficit, but the playing field has evened out and size does matter. Given his experience, it would not be a surprise to see him get through a fight or two if pitted against the other smaller fighters, but he’ll likely run into a wall with the bigger men.
Gilbert Smith- (12-6) Age: 35
Smith is 7-4 since losing his one proper bout in the UFC and currently on a two fight skid. “Chocolate Thunder” or “Midnight Madness” (depending on which website you consult) is a tough grappler, and as I recall from his original run on TUF, an all around good guy. Unfortunately Smith has never been able to string enough wins together over quality opposition to make a serious run an breaking back in to the ranks of the UFC, though he did hold an RFA belt for a time. He may not go far on the show, but look for him to be the voice of reason in the house and a team leader.
Julian Lane- (11-6) Age: 29
“Let me bang Bro! Let me Bang!” The drunk cry heard ‘round the MMA world. Lane’s antics on season 16 have become the stuff of legend, second only to Junie Browning lunacy. One would almost feel sorry for him had he not shown up looking like a caricature of an MMA fighter, compete with bad tattoos, pink mohawk, and sunglasses worn inside. He’s gone 7-5-1 since TUF 16, and lost to the only real name fighter he faced in Paul Felder. Lane has also struggled against bigger men, a fact that will limit his success in this run. Redemption won’t come for him by way of winning the show, but with a solid performance or two, and by avoiding any of the craziness that plagued him last time out, Lane has a shot to come away redeemed.
Eddie Gordon- (8-4) Age: 33
TUF Season 19 winner, Gordon dropped three straight after being victorious on the finale. Those included a highlight reel head kick KO to a resurgent Josh Samman, a split decision loss, and a submission at the hands BJJ World Champion Antonio Carlos Jr. Dropping a trifecta of fights is almost always a precursor to walking papers, but Gordon shouldn’t be judged too harshly. People get caught, with both strikes and submissions. At total of twelve fights, Gordon is relatively green for this group, but the lack of mileage might play into his favor, as should his size and strength. The Truck won his lone fight since leaving the UFC and though there are no guarantees, Gordon should go into the show a favorite, potentially becoming the first two-time TUF winner.
Dhiego Lima- (12-5) Age: 28
Lima is a well rounded fighter, but has not found the level of success that has graced his brother Douglas. He is 2-1 since leaving the UFC, dropping his most recent fight via TKO. Lima made it to the final of season 19, doing so at 185 pounds when he is a natural welterweight. That experience against larger opponents, combined with the fact he won’t have to manage his weight so carefully as others, could play into Lima’s favor this time around. Making it through at least the first round of competition is a good possibility, and the prospect of another Lima vs. Gordon finale would be very fitting given the theme of redemption.
James Krause- (23-7) Age: 30
Krause’s inclusion here is odd, given the fact he is already on the UFC roster, is 4-3 in the promotion, and has won his last two fights. Though the TUF Live alumnus has not stepped in the cage since February of 2016, one has to wonder what his existing contract is like for Krause to put himself in the TUF grinder again, and at a weight class above where he usually fights. 30 fights gives Krause plenty of experience, and he should have a sizable bag of tricks to pull from, but his chances here aren’t great. Come what may, Krause should get more fights in the promotion beyond this show.
Mehdi Baghdad- (11-5) Age: 31
Another natural lightweight who as fought as low as 145 pounds, The Sultan’s prospects here are not kingly. Baghdad dropped both of his UFC bouts after his appearance on TUF 22 and was dropped from the promotion after pulling out of a fight in October 2016 with an injury. Another fighter whose size will be a liability, Baghdad’s inclusion seems to be almost an apology from the typically cold-blooded UFC for cutting him when he was injured.
Justin Edwards- (8-5) Age: 34
After losing his lone fight on TUF 13, Edwards managed to stick around the ranks of the UFC for four years. He wasn’t the most active fighter on the roster in that time, averaging just one fight a year before losing three in a row and being cut. The majority of his fights have come at welterweight, so he should be comfortable there, but his loss to 170 pound monsters like Brandon Thatch speak once again to the difficulty in overcoming a size deficit. He dropped two subsequent fights at lightweight, including one to TUF 25 cast-mate Ramsey Nijem (there’s that potential redemption again), and has not taken a fight since June of 2015. Inactivity and being paired against more skilled fighters should create an early exit for Edwards.
Seth Baczynsky- (19-14) Age: 35
At 35 years old and with 34 fights behind him, The Polish Pistol’s odds of winning the show are narrowed by his mileage. He had notable wins over the likes of Tim Means, Matt Brown, and Neil Magney, but lost a very close decision to Thiago Alves, and came up short in his next two outings before being cut. That said, Baczynsky is a gamer and will be on the bigger side of the competitors, two things that should make him a factor on the show. He is 1-1 since leaving the UFC in 2015, the loss coming to Jesse Taylor. Once more redemption rears its head.
Hector Urbina- (17-10) Age: 29
Urbina turned pro at just 19 years of age and wasted no time stepping into the deep end of the pool, facing the likes of Tim Kennedy, Mayhem Miller, and Lyman Good. If you can say anything about El Toro, it’s that he will take on all comers. Sadly, that’s maybe the best that can be said about Urbina. His willingness to trade and get in wild exchanges leave him susceptible to getting knocked out; his fight with Bartosz Fabinski demonstrated an inability to negate superior wrestling skills. Though it’s not for lack of heart, Urbina’s chances of winning the competition are slim.
Ramsey Nijem- (9-6) Age: 29
Fighting out of John Hacklmans’ The Pit, Nijem is a strong grappler who found some measure of success in the UFC after losing his TUF finale bout to Tony Ferguson. Ramsey was able to stick around the UFC for a few years afterwards, putting three wins together to begin his run, before the slide that led to him being cut in 2015. He is still young and has not accrued the amount of damage that other contestants have. The time off since being cut might have done him some good and helped him shore up holes in his game. At at 5’11”, the 170 weight limit should also suit him better than some of the others who usually compete at lightweight. Not a favorite by any means, but if there is a dark horse pick, I think Nijem is it.
Hayder Hassan- (6-3) Age: 34
A big puncher who rightly earned his nickname “The Hulk” on TUF by fighting three times in 17 days, leaving no question about his heart or his desire to get in the cage and mix it up. Hassan was picked to fight in the camp vs. camp finale, losing by second round submission. HIs next bout, a rematch against Vicente Luque who he was victorious against on the show also ended via submission and he has not fought since. His power and willingness to engage make him a dangerous opponent, but unless his submission defense has tightened up in the time away, Hassan’s shot at making the final isn’t good.
Tom Gallicchio- (19-9) Age: 30
The hirsute Gallicchio is dangerous on the ground, with 13 of his 19 career victories coming by submission. The veteran grappler, however, lost his only fight in the TUF house and also dropped his lone fight since then, via TKO. Though tough as thy come, one has to wonder what kind of redemption Gallichio’s inclusion in the show offers, save for another shot at a dream for a hard-nosed, likable guy.