For the most part, The Ultimate Fighter reality series has been a conglomeration of mediocre talent that has had the opportunity, once the show has ended, to become elite fighters. There's no surprise that most of the fighters on the show have went on to bigger and better things, and while some of those fighters have become highly successful in the UFC -- others have washed out of the UFC or have been stuck alternating between wins and losses in the lower levels of their respective divisions. There are exceptions to this theory obviously, most notably the first season of The Ultimate Fighter featured a laundry list of names that were some of the best of the up-and-comers in the sport. Later seasons were markedly weaker in terms of talent, but full of life when it came to the personalities that drew fans to the show and related events.
The lightweight tilt between Joe Lauzon (19-5, 6-2 UFC) and George Sotiropoulos (13-2, 6-0) at UFC 123 this Saturday will pit two reality show contestants against one another, and both fighters have had very different roads to where they are today with the common denominator of being successful in the Octagon outside of the show. Most notably, Lauzon had already had a taste of the UFC before entering season five of The Ultimate Fighter, spectacularly knocking out former UFC lightweight champion Jens Pulver at UFC 63. His run during the show ended in an unanimous decision to former WEC featherweight contender Manvel Gamburyan, but he went on to amass a 5-2 record in 7 appearances with the promotion.
Sotiropoulos had a similar experience in that he didn't make it to the final, but was favored to actually make it to the final when the show began. Unfortunately, he ran into Tommy Speer in the semi-finals, losing to the UFC washout in the first round via knockout. While Sotiropoulos may not have the title of The Ultimate Fighter season six champion, he has been tearing through the ranks with a 6-0 record since his appearance on the reality series. Both fighters are perfect examples of the theory that the show can open doors and improve performance considerably.
With success comes an eventual crossing of paths, and UFC 123 will act as the proving ground between these two TUF standouts. Lauzon has been strong against low-to-mid level talent in the division, completely crushing Gabe Ruediger at UFC 118, submitting Jeremy Stephens at UFC Fight Night 17, knocking out Kyle Bradley at UFC Fight Night 15, and defeating Jason Reinhardt at UFC 78. While those names don't truly stand out as exceptional challenges for Lauzon, former UFC lightweight contender Kenny Florian and Canadian striker Sam Stout provided tougher challenges. Florian proved that he was flat out better in all areas than Lauzon while Stout provided a rude awakening to the Lauzon's stand-up game.
Sotiropoulos has yet to falter, and he defeated Kurt Pellegrino via unanimous decision at UFC 116 to secure the biggest win of his career. Not only has he shown that he can strike from range and be effective, but his ground game has been impressive as well.
With both fighters improving considerably, it's tough to gauge exactly how this fight will go down. Lauzon's striking is solid, but against a pure striker like Sam Stout -- Lauzon was dominated. It was a bit of a surprising realization for 26-year-old, but age is on his side. Despite the loss, Lauzon remains a very good grappler in his own right, and he put those skills on display against a completely overwhelmed Gabe Ruediger.
Ultimately, I think Sotiropoulos has the advantage in this fight. His reach and improving striking skills should give Lauzon problems, but I also believe his grappling in tandem with the length of his frame present a challenge for Lauzon on the ground. Most notably, George's guard passing abilities have been exceptional, and that length allows him to pass guard effectively in most of his performances.
I think George's plan will likely focus on the stand-up aspect of the fight to start, and as Lauzon gets worn down from Sotiropoulos landing from the outside -- we'll see Lauzon shoot for takedowns. Once that starts, I think George has enough skill on the ground to defend and possibly put Lauzon in a bad situation. I'm not convinced he can finish here, but I think he beats Lauzon by decision.