Is the UFC Letting too Many Prospects Slip Away to Bellator?

via sportsnickel.com

After watching two Ultimate Fighter winners get pasted last night at UFN 22, I have to conclude that the show is not producing UFC caliber prospects.

Cole Miller punched a fist size hole in season 9 winner Ross Pearson's hype bubble. Charles Oliveira choked out season 8 winner Efrain Escudero after flummoxing him with unconventional strikes for 2.5 rounds. 

Looking at the cast for this season's The Ultimate Fighter, I see some interesting fighters, including one that I'm genuinely interested in -- Sako "The Chainsaw" Chivitchyan -- but that's just because I'm a sucker for Armenian Judokas. But what I don't see are any red hot prospects. 

This has been the case for season after season. The jury is still out on season 11's Court McGee and Kris McCray, but I think I'm not alone in having very low expectations for them. Season 10 gave us one prospect in Brendan Schaub and one already proven veteran in Roy Nelson. 

The only rapidly emerging contender to come out of TUF in years is Esudero's cast-mate Ryan Bader who is co-headlining UFC 119 against Antonio Rogerio "Little Nog" Nogueira. 

Frankly it hasn't been since 2007's season 5 that the series produced a real bumper crop of UFC caliber fighters. That season gave us Gray Maynard, Nate Diaz, Joe Lauzon, Cole Miller, Matt Wiman  and Manny Gamburyan. 

Josh Gross and Jordan Breen commented last season on the limitations of TUF as a talent finder on the SI Podcast (transcribed by Fight Opinion):

Jordan Breen: "When you think about what the show was originally designed for, if you re-watch the first season the intimations and the implications being made about what it means to be The Ultimate Fighter is the idea that you go on to be a Forrest Griffin or a Rashad Evans or whatever. These guys don't have that kind of potential. I think Kris McCray, if he can work on the cardio a bit get kind of a strategic element to his game, he can stick around the UFC. And I think Court McGee will be there for a while, but neither one of these guys, I mean... we're waiting for a Middleweight title fight coming up between Chael Sonnen & Anderson Silva. The gulf between Court McGee & Kris McCray and Chael Sonnen & Anderson Silva is an ENORMOUS one and far more dramatic than the gulfs we've seen in the past between guys coming off the show and the champions that happen to rule in the division at that point in time."

...

Josh Gross: As far as like identifying prospects, guys with five fights and under, I mean I don't think this show's delivered in any kind of way in terms of fighters on that level. The UFC does a much better of finding prospects and putting them directly into their shows than filtering them through The Ultimate Fighter, don't you think?"

Breen: "I absolutely agree. The only kind of guy The Ultimate Fighter serves a purpose for at this point in time is guys who just don't actually have experience but for whatever reason their learning curve is a bit screwed. A guy like Amir Sadollah for instance, who had basically no MMA experience but had enough skills and had enough requisite toughness to be able to take out guys like Gerald Harris and CB Dollaway and Tim Credeur and guys who actually had considerable experience or relatively talented and belonged on the show. Apart from unearthing guys like that, it really doesn't serve a whole lot of purpose which now when they go into these tryouts, they're telling guys you got to have at least three fights, you've had to had at least four fights, they're actually kind of undermining the most effective guys that they were getting out of it. If a good guy already has three, four, five fights, he can just get signed already. We know this. We know that these guys aren't going to pass on the potential Next Big Thing as a talent to put them on The Ultimate Fighter, so I do think that it's kind of weird that really now they've really narrowed the margins and pigeon-holed themselves into taking a specific kind of guy, a guy who has enough experience but in that experience hasn't really been so impressive that he gets signed in the first place, so yeah I'm definitely with you. The way that The Ultimate Fighter's being cast now definitely undermines the ability to find really those sorts of Rashad Evans, Forrest Griffin type characters."

With the exception of Bader and arguably Matt Riddle, the red hot prospects in the UFC right now -- Cain Velasquez, Junior Dos Santos, Jon Jones, Phil Davis, Charles Oliveira, Mike Pierce, Rick Story, Johny Hendricks, Evan Dunham, and John Hathaway -- did NOT emerge via the reality show. 

Then I take a look at Bellator. Just check these headlines:

Now obviously, there's no one in Bellator that would be more than an entry-level prospect in the UFC due to the lessened level of competition. But all the same, Bellator is signing away guys that are clearly hot MMA prospects. 

And the problem with viewing Bellator as a feeder league for the UFC is this: once a fighter gets into Bellator's clutches, they don't get out. Whether it's Hector Lombard trapped by an onerous champion's clause or Dave Herman stuck in a nasty legal battle, Bellator's clutches are not easily escaped.

I'd mention Strikeforce, but their talent development system is just dreadful despite having the Challengers series on Showtime. 

The UFC is dependent on The Ultimate Fighter to anchor their relationship with SPIKE TV, but they've long since reached a point of diminishing returns with the show as a talent producer. Their relationship with Versus precludes using the WEC as a feeder league. 

Based on their terrible live gates and awful TV deals Bellator may go out of business very soon, but then again they may not. As long as they're out there competing for prospects with the UFC, Zuffa needs to get a bigger, better pipeline for developing talent.

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