The odds of being a successful MMA fighter are pretty astronomical when you really think about it. There are thousands of athletes around the world who pass the hours with fantastical dreams of stepping into the Octagon and becoming a UFC champion.
Every fight consists of two individuals — each with a 50-percent chance of a positive outcome. Think of it as a coin flip. How many times can you get a coin to land on heads? Throw in a pair of four-ounce gloves and innumerable ways of winning, and you got odds that rival a winning lottery ticket.
The notion that success is a longshot never goes away in MMA. Even winners of The Ultimate Fighter, the UFC’s vaunted competition-based reality television series, sometimes find themselves back on the streets again. A recent example would be TUF 19 winner Eddie Gordon, who was axed from the UFC after three consecutive losses.
Gordon looked every bit the promising contender on the show, and then reality hit like a Mike Tyson left hook. The sink or swim standard in the UFC had Gordon out in the middle of an ocean doggy-paddling.
Something had to give.
Along with Colton Smith, Gordon has had one of the most underwhelming UFC runs after winning TUF, and there have been many others that went on to have mediocre fight careers after winning the six-figure contract as well. The career path of a TUF champion isn’t a linear one by any stretch of the imagination.
Some fighters win the show, lose a few fights and quickly fade into irrelevancy, while others go on to become household names. A select few reach the peak of the championship mountaintop.
Amir Sadollah, Court McGee, Jonathan Brookins, Kendall Grove, Mac Danzig and Efrain Escudero have all had relatively pedestrian UFC careers. Then there are fighters like James Wilks and Chris Holdsworth, whose careers were hampered by injuries. Wilks retired three years after winning the show due to nagging injuries, and Holdsworth has been stuck in concussion protocol for the last year.
Then there are fighters like Diego Sanchez, Michael Bisping, Nate Diaz, Ryan Bader, Joe Stevenson, Roy Nelson and John Dodson. While none of them have ever actually won a world title, you would be hard-pressed to find a single MMA fan who doesn’t know their name. Outside of Stevenson, all of these fighters are still perennial contenders in each of their respective divisions.
And then there are the TUF-born UFC champions. Rashad Evans, Forrest Griffin and Carla Esparza fall into this category. Matt Serra also won the UFC title after appearing on TUF, but he was already on the UFC roster well before that season aired.
Only four winners in 22 seasons have gone on to become UFC champions.
There are other young fighters still chomping at the bit to add to that number. Kelvin Gastelum, Julianna Pena and Tony Ferguson have all gone on to have bright careers in the UFC, and each is currently a contender in their division.
Remaining relevant for an extended period of time should be considered a successful career for a TUF champion. These aren’t the early days where one season had a world champion and hordes of legendary contenders. It’s still astonishing to see how many great fighters came out of the first two seasons.
Fighters like Evans and Griffin come from a rare breed. Not only did they defy the odds by becoming UFC champions, but they also did it arguably against the tougher opposition.
There is no surefire way of telling who will be successful after the show.
Gordon was a TUF champion, and he didn’t win a single fight in the UFC. Current bantamweight champion T.J. Dillashaw was defeated on the show, and now he’s one of the top-10 best pound-for-pound fighters in the world.
Being a TUF champion gets you into the club, but it doesn’t pay for your room and board.