Perhaps the last "great" season of The Ultimate Fighter was season 5 in 2007. An overwhelming majority of the show's fighters went on to have at least some measurable levels of success whether in the UFC or the WEC. Two lightweights in particular stood out - season 5 winner Nate Diaz and semi-finalist Gray Maynard, who Diaz defeated by guillotine choke to advance to the finals. They both became title challengers, but after a combined 3 unsuccessful attempts, they find themselves in must-win mode this weekend.
Maynard paved his path towards the top by winning 7 straight fights, including over Frankie Edgar and Diaz, to set up a rematch with Edgar, this time for the belt, in 2011. Gray, who only has 2 stoppages in 11 career wins, was unable to put away the tough-as-nails Edgar in both the rematch (which ended in a draw) and the trilogy bout, and the latter fight saw "The Bully" knocked out in the 4th round for his first pro loss. Following an ugly mess of a split decision win over Clay Guida, Maynard was thrust back into title contention with a big fight against T.J. Grant at UFC 160. In a surprise result, Grant showcased superior striking and finished Maynard in the opening round, dropping him to just 1 win in his last 4 fights.
Unlike Maynard, Diaz had a few ups and downs in two different weight classes before hitting his stride. After a 4-0 post-TUF record, Diaz lost 3 of his ensuing 4, and immediately switched to welterweight after the Maynard defeat. His positive 2-0 start was quickly erased by Dong Hyun Kim and Rory MacDonald, with the latter throwing him around like a garbage bag. His mid-2011 return to lightweight sparked the best run of Nate's career. He dismantled Takanori Gomi standing before submitting him with an armbar, peppered Donald Cerrone's face to end the year, and became the first man to stop Jim Miller in the main event of UFC on Fox 3 in May 2012. Diaz rightfully earned his title shot against Ben Henderson, but the fight itself proved to be a rout. Henderson, not known for his power, was able to consistently hurt Diaz standing more than anyone he'd ever fought before. The lopsided unanimous decision was bad enough for Diaz, but the upset TKO loss to Josh Thomson in April gave him his 3rd two-fight losing skid in his 18-fight stint in the UFC.
As it stands, Maynard is ranked 5th and Diaz 8th in the latest UFC rankings. Perhaps the only reasons why Diaz isn't ranked lower are his wins over Cerrone (9th) and Miller (10th), and those two haven't been able to string together consistent performances lately. In a division as deep and talented as lightweight, falling too far back in "the mix" with inactivity and/or losses basically puts you a safe distance from a title shot. For the loser of Saturday night's fight, the figurative window could slam shut for good.
To me, the risk of falling off the map entirely is more serious for Maynard than Diaz. In addition to his 1-2-1 record since 2011, Maynard is 34 years old. The only other fighter in the top 10 over 30 years of age is Josh Thomson, whose spirited run towards a title shot (which he'll have to reclaim by beating Henderson) should be looked at as more of an exception and not something to expect from anyone else put in a similar position at 155 lbs. Maynard has taken some tremendous physical punishment in both Edgar fights and the Grant loss. His wrestling, which has long been his best asset, has been stifled since beating Kenny Florian. Maynard has completed just 4 of his last 28 takedowns, admittedly against excellent defensive wrestlers in Edgar and Clay Guida. It still doesn't speak well of his chances against someone like Anthony Pettis, whose takedown defense has undeniably improved, or the likes of Ben Henderson and Gilbert Melendez.
Diaz is only 28, but he's been in professional MMA a full two years longer than Maynard. Next year will mark his 10th as a pro, and after years of claiming one of the best chins in the sport, he was nearly TKO'd by historic non-finisher Ben Henderson and was actually KO'd by Thomson, who has just 5 KO/TKOs in 20 wins across a 12 year career. Diaz has also suffered early knockdowns against Marcus Davis and Melvin Guillard. Is it a bit too speculative to say that Diaz's chin might be eroding? I'm not so sure. Offensively, his long reach and boxing abilities propelled him to a title shot, but he's been shut down in his last two performances. His takedown defense sits at a pedestrian 45%, which is a nightmare trait to have in a division filled with skilled takedown threats. Henderson exploited that weakness to the fullest extent last December.
Maynard and Diaz are both highly skilled veterans with plenty to be proud of in their time with the UFC, but they've not performed well as of late. Saturday night is a chance for the winner to stay relevant in the top of the division, while the loser effectively confirms his status as a high level gatekeeper.