Cutting Ultimate Fighter 16 Champion Colton Smith Shows How Thin Series' Talent Pool Really Is

By Jay Anderson
Josh Holmberg-USA TODAY Sports
Josh Holmberg-USA TODAY Sports

The Ultimate Fighter Season 16 winner Colton Smith has been cut from the promotion following three straight losses in the octagon. The news is anything but surprising, and it brings renewed focus on the struggling reality franchise, which has failed to produce many real stars in recent years.

In Smith’s case, the army ranger will go down in MMA history as perhaps the biggest bust in the show’s tenure, failing to win any fights following his win at the series finale to score a UFC contract. Smith was a winner in an extremely weak season, but he was still a champion. And his last outing, where he was choked out by the unknown Carlos Diego Ferreira, was particularly bad, with Smith practically giving up his neck in a very rookie mistake despite having what he claimed was the first full training camp of his UFC career. He looked like anything but a champion; he looked out of place in the octagon.

Smith’s release is yet another reminder of The Ultimate Fighter’s failure as a whole.

Name three Ultimate Fighter winners who are currently making an impact in the UFC. Having trouble? How about two?

If you named John Dodson and T.J. Dillashaw, well hold up – Dillashaw didn’t win The Ultimate Fighter. In fact, he actually lost in the finals to Dodson. Likewise Dennis Bermudez, who is coming off a seventh straight win this past Saturday at UFC on FOX 12 – he lost the Ultimate Fighter 14 featherweight tournament final, falling to Diego Brandao (who just dropped his second straight, to Conor McGregor). Kelvin Gastelum has been doing a solid job since upsetting Uriah Hall at the season 17 finale, but Hall is still the fighter to watch, with a greater potential upside.

So from this, we’ve learned a few things: one, it’s hard to even name TUF champions these days, let alone successful ones. Two, it’s often the runners up, or also rans, that wind up making a bigger impact (i.e. Dillashaw). And overall, in general, TUF just isn’t producing many stars of late. Why?

Too many seasons (twice a year, plus international offerings). Plus a talent pool that is spread too thin, with the best fighters bypassing TUF altogether. The Ultimate Fighter has basically become an elimination tournament for guys not good enough to make it into the UFC on their own.

Prior to Smith, Season 12 winner Jonathan Brookins was perhaps the biggest bust from the show’s postseason 10 offerings, going 2-3 in the UFC (and that includes his TUF final fight) before retiring from the sport and heading to India to study Yoga. Clearly not in the game mentally at that point as far as fighting goes, he had the following to say to Fightland back in 2012:

“I think I was ready to go to India and learn something else. Pursuing this sport with the mindset that I have is counter-productive. It didn’t make sense. Mindset is everything.”

Brookins returned to the MMA world this year, fighting at Legacy 29 in March, but he’s still far from the UFC. Smith, for his part, had the distraction of his other career, just as Brookins had the distraction of heading over the India and pursuing a new path in life. Which is part of the problem: many of the fighters who are turning up on TUF these days are not fighters who are fully focused on the MMA game, and that’s fully the fault of the UFC and their selection process.

At this point, the promotion would be better served to shelve the show (though they likely have an obligation to FOX that would prevent it), or at least redirect some of the talent they are signing directly to the UFC to The Ultimate Fighter, with the promise, perhaps, of multiple contracts being available, win or lose (most TUF fighters who put in a decent effort seem to get a shot in the UFC these days anyway).

There are a lot of other issues with the TUF format – the premise is stale, there has been but one heavyweight season, and the coach’s bouts only make it to the octagon about half the time – but the talent pool problem is the biggest for the show, and needs to be addressed if it’s to survive.

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