On July 5, 2008, Forrest Griffin validated The Ultimate Fighter.
A journey that began back in early 2005 with the inception of TUF’s first season came full circle for Griffin, as he out-hustled and out-worked then-UFC light heavyweight champion Quinton Jackson to a unanimous decision victory and captured the most prestigious 205-pound title in MMA.
It served notice for every aspiring mixed martial artist that a fighter can rise from the bottom to the top, and that any blue chip, diamond-in-the-rough prospect could one day achieve success on the grandest of fighting stages.
Season Two winner Rashad Evans would match Griffin’s accolade a little less than six months later with his third-round TKO win over Griffin. While DeMarques Johnson, James Wilks, Andre Winner and Ross Pearson will hope to take another step towards achieving that illustrious feat on Saturday night, the TUF 9 finale could also serve as a very crucial reminder to those same prospective fighters.
While one past TUF winner in Diego Sanchez will headline Saturday’s card in hopes of coming one step closer to a shot at the lightweight championship, another is fighting not just to stay relevant, but to maintain a job.
Enter Joe Stevenson, who on Nov. 2005, earned a unanimous decision win over Luke Cummo to win the welterweight bracket of the second installment of TUF. Stevenson won four of his next five fights and actually one-upped Griffin and Evans in that he was actually the first TUF alum to ever receive a title shot (excluding Season Four, where a title shot was a built-in stipulation for the winners).
Sure, Stevenson’s lightweight title bout with B.J. Penn is better known for the excruciating beating turned in by “The Prodigy,” but it’s been trying times for “Joe Daddy” ever since reaching the pinnacle of his fighting career.
Stevenson went on to drop his next two of his next three fights, albeit to a pair of staunch contenders in Sanchez and Kenny Florian, but a possible three-fight losing streak stands as exactly that, and less fortunate fighters have met the dreaded UFC chopping block for such efforts.
The pastures don’t get any brighter for Stevenson, whose future in the UFC may rest on whether the California native can outlast a hungry Nathan Diaz, who is coming off a loss of his own—a split decision defeat to Clay Guida that Diaz still feels he should have won.
Stylistically, Stevenson will have to weather Diaz’s 76-inch reach and use his wrestling to score points. It’s a notable tactic in Stevenson’s style that was absent against Sanchez, as Joe seemed content throwing the same failing combination, while getting picked apart in the standup game.
Diaz is a tier or two below Sanchez with his striking, but the fight’s seemingly inevitable battle on the ground could likely decide who has their hand raised. Guida’s control game was enough to keep the slick, wily Diaz at bay, but Stevenson has never been one to employ such a conservative gameplan.
It’ll be far from an easy go and most outlets will likely be picking against the UFC veteran, but a possible defeat for Stevenson will have more than a few fans curious for the TUF alum’s aftermath. In eight complete seasons, every TUF winner (excluding Season Four, of course) is still under contract with the UFC. That’s over four years of locking down prospective fighters for the long haul, with no blemishes falling in between the creases.
For marketability’s sake, it’s always reassuring to know that by winning TUF, you could one day hoist that prestigious UFC title belt above your head, but as Stevenson and even Mac Danzig have shown us, TUF could be anything but a blanket for job security.
After the dreams of Griffin and Evans were validated last year, could a fate of the total opposite come full circle for Stevenson?