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TUF franchise yields treasure trove of potential new stars

I had the pleasure of being a guest on Steve Cofield’s ESPN Radio show in Las Vegas last night following the live finale for The Ultimate Fighter.

One of the things Cofield and I discussed is the position of some pundits that TUF has lost its way and is no longer producing good prospects for the UFC.

While I believe that criticism has been valid in recent seasons, I think you need heed the advice of Dr. Phil McGraw and “wake up.”

As I told Cofield on the air, taking out pure fighting ability and looking at things strictly from a marketing perspective, TUF 8 is the show’s strongest season as far as creating stars with drawing power.

The strength of this year’s show was never more apparent during the post-fight press conference in which TUF 8 champions Ryan Bader and Efrain Escudero along with runner-up Phillipe Nover were on display.

Escudero, nicknamed “El Matador,” came dressed in colors honoring his Mexican heritage. Towards the tail end of the presser, he was asked a question in Spanish and responded in kind. While Roger Huerta might have a new five fight contract, the UFC has added another potential drawing card as it looks to increase its following amongst Latin fans. As boxing has taught us, a fight promotion can never have too many Latin American stars.

In Bader, the UFC has a former All-American wrestler who carries himself like a seasoned 35-year old despite the fact that he is only 25. While Bader wasn’t exactly a monk during this past season of TUF, he came off as a solid citizen and didn’t require a lecture about how to act like an adult.

During media interviews, Bader remained upbeat and despite having every right to have a chip on his shoulder having been counted out by so many people, he took everything in stride and never once lashed out.

The only concern about Bader coming into the fight was whether or not he could put on an entertaining fight. During his early tournament matches on TUF, Bader appeared to be the kind of fighter who relied heavily on his tremendous wrestling base. However, the Reno native proved that hard work pays off by showing noticeable signs of improvement at the finale. His fight vs. Vinicius Magalhaes was anything but boring.

Then you have Nover, who despite turning in a disappointing performance, still has a bright future ahead of him. Anyone who is writing him off based on last night’s effort really doesn’t understand the sport of fighting. A fighter is only good as his last fight but Nover is just one big win away from regaining much of the momentum lost as a result of his unanimous decision defeat.

With the UFC harboring hopes of conquering the Philippines in the coming year and Nover’s Filipino heritage has garnered him a strong following in a short amount of time. His ability to speak Taglog makes him an invaluable resource to the UFC.

But Nover’s appeal extends beyond the Filipino demographic. While Junie Browning managed to alienate fighters and fans with his crazy antics, Nover presented himself as the anti-Junie on the show and his classy demeanor was one that a fan of any heritage could appreciate.

But Escudero, Bader, and Nover are more than just marketable – these kids can bring it in the cage.

Aside from a few flashes of solid striking, Escudero appeared to rely heavily on his wrestling during TUF. However, during the finale, it appeared he made the most of his six months leading up to training. While Escudero utilized his shot to prevent Nover from getting into a rhythm with his standup, he still showed compelling reason to believe he will become a well-rounded fighter.

Bader showed decent striking on Saturday but is far from being ready to stand and trade with Quinton Jackson, Wanderlei Silva, or Chuck Liddell in the UFC’s stacked light heavyweight division. But Bader is a hard worker and is training under Trevor and Todd Lally of Arizona Combat Sports, who have a growing reputation for being able to turn standout wrestlers into actual mixed martial artists.

As for Nover, while he denied every question that insinuated the pressure of being labeled the “lightweight Anderson Silva” had a negative effect on his performance, I don’t see how it couldn’t have.

Coming into the show, Nover was a total unknown. While he possessed tremendous potential, he possessed it while flying completely below the radar. He became an overnight sensation and having worked with Phillipe on a weekly blog for this site, I can tell you he’s the kind of kid who doesn’t want to disappoint anyone.

Spike TV sent advanced copies of the show to fighters during the season so that they wouldn’t have to wait until Thursday in order to write their blogs. Towards the end of the season the episodes were coming in late and Nover actually traveled 45 minutes by train from Brooklyn to a Spike executive’s house so that he could retrieve an advance copy so that he’d be able to submit his blog in time to this site and so that he’d also be prepared for his weekly Thursday viewing party. I can’t imagine how he’s handling all of his media requests and requests from fans.

Seeing Nover’s performance in the first round, I couldn’t help but come away with the impression that he wasn’t fighting to win but was instead fighting not to lose. That’s what happens when everyone keeps telling you how good you are and how they expect you to win.

The crazy thing is that no sooner than the Silva talked began to subside during the post-fight press conference, a Filipino reporter asked him a question in which she compared him to Manny Pacquiao. The kid can’t catch a break. He just needs to be allowed to be Phillipe Nover and I believe the loss will actually help him in that regard. With Escudero having the title of TUF champion, Nover will now be able to enter the UFC with a little less of a spotlight on him.

But the depth when it comes to potential stars extends beyond the three aforementioned names. The biggest star of them all could be Junie Browning. Yes, Junie. We can sit here and complain about the kid all we want but there was a degree of method to the madness. When it came to Junie, there was a degree of Howard Stern syndrome in that everyone complained about his antics all season long yet still tuned in because they couldn’t wait to see what he was going to do next.

The biggest issue I had with Browning was that his performances in the cage were a tremendous letdown from his outbursts outside of it. However, even Browning’s harshest critics have to admit that he looked greatly improved during his fight vs. Dave Kaplan.

There also appears to be a lot of growth in regards to Browning. In deciding to be represented by Denaro Sports Marketing, the Kentucky native chose a management group in which active fighter Jake Hattan is a big part of. Hattan has been able to speak to Browning as someone who has lived the life and signs are that Browning has taken some of the life lessons he’s learned in recent months to heart.

Under Denaro’s guidance, Browning also relocated to Vegas where he prepared for his fight vs. Kaplan at Xtreme Couture. What you saw in the cage last night was not a mirage; it was the result of months of hard work with renowned striking coach Shawn Tompkins.

Browning no doubt made an ass out of himself on the show but if UFC fans have proven one thing over the years is that they can be won over. Chris Leben was a villain coming off his TUF 1 stint and now gets more cheers than boos. Fans will continue to respond to Browning if he keeps talking the talk, just as so long as he’s able to keep walking the walk.

Those quick to dismiss my assessment of Browning’s potential should realize that he was kept on the show not because White wanted to see him get his ass kicked, but because White liked him. Sources indicate to during the course of the weekend that since the end of TUF, White has remained in consistent communication with Browning.

Another fighter who shouldn’t be written off is Vinicius Magalhaes. The native Brazilian looks like he’s straight out of central casting and has the fighting credentials to back it up. Magalhaes fought poorly on Saturday but he’s still only 24 and his best years are ahead of him. If the four-time world jiu-jitsu champion is able to take his loss to Bader and use it to motivate himself then it’s not out of the realm of possibility that he emerges as a better fighter than Bader down the line.

Additionally, Kaplan, Krzysztof Soszynski, and Cofield-favorite Eliot Marshall all appear to be keepers as well.

While Kaplan may never be title contender material, he possesses solid submissions and standup and his colorful entrance alone likely earned him at least one more fight in the Octagon.

Soszynski is a former pro wrestler and understands the art of self-promotion. He has a marketable look but the concern was whether or not he was skilled enough to survive at 205 pounds in the UFC. But having watched him in the IFL, I can tell you he has made remarkable improvement over the past couple of years and while I don’t see him hanging with Silva, Jackson, Liddell, Rashad Evans, or Forrest Griffin anytime soon, I definitely believe he could be a legitimate mid-tier 205’er that will have enough name recognition to be featured on Spike TV events.

Marshall looked solid on Saturday and has yet to turn in a boring fight. If he makes it, it could potentially give the UFC as many as eight fighters that TUF will have produced for the promotion this past season. At a time where many are questioning the longevity of the TUF franchise, I don’t see it disappearing anytime soon after it just got done producing one of its strongest classes.

  • Toad says:

    I think both Nover and Magalhaes have so much potential and whether it be their next fight, or a few fights down the line, their skills will improve significantly and be showcased.

    As for the winners, I think light heavyweights will struggle with Bader, he is young and ever improving. And the man thats been overlooked this entire time, Efrain Escudero, will definitely have a bright future in the ufc’s lightweight division, especially with his wrestling background that he showed off last night.

  • ACK! says:

    Great article. I agree with almost everything you said and, has one of the few fans who apparently still enjoys TUF, I definitely believe in it’s potential for creating MMA stars… Actually, I don’t see how you could deny that fact with the recent success of winners like Griffin and Evans, and even losers like Florian.

    A couple things stuck out to me though, it’s all a matter of perception, but I felt like Nover was trying to run through Escuerdo like he was a paper thin wall. What I mean, is that he was loading up on every punch, every knee and that’s what allow him to be taken down with such ease. If he was fighting not to lose, my thinking is that he would have been more concerned with his takedown defense and probably wouldn’t have loaded up with his shots so much. I mean, I really felt like he could get a knockout at any point on his feet. Escuerdo was just too sly and elusive to allow him to connect.

    Another thing that really bothers me is how Leben is always mentioned along with Junie, because their experiences on the show weren’t really all that similar. What was the worst thing Leben did? He peed on someone’s pillow, but so did Magalhaes and no one mentions that. He blew up once and broke a window along with a door or two, but it’s hard to hold that against him considering that he had attempted to remove himself for a volatile situation by sleeping outside when two drunken idiots decided to spray him with a hose. Other than that, he was mostly guilty of being immature, somewhat egotistical, and emotionally unstable.

    The thing is, what made his story interesting is how he grew up while being on the show. He took the oppurtunity seriously and it inspired him to become a better person as a result. We watched that transformation take place during the entire season. Junie, on the other hand, seemed to become more erratic and childish as the season went on. He showed an utter lack of respect for his coaches, his fellow fighters, and even himself. In my mind, he experience on the show was dramatically different than Leben’s, to the point of being nearly opposite.

    I know my sentiments are tangential to your primary points, but for some reason they stuck out to me. Otherwise, it’s a fantastic article.

  • Ross says:

    I just dont think Junie is anything like Leben….for one Leben had lost his father and Southworth made it easy to feel for Leben……Also when Kos and Southworth poured water on hm but Leben walked away, you felt bad for the guy……Notice Southworth is not in the big show anymore and that it takes Kos fighting a Japanees guy on a night that was dedictated to us troops for him to get any applause…….Junie never made me feel anything excempt contempt….Mir has it right when saying it sends a bad signal……. many more have become stars based on their talent, than someone becoming a star with the ufc bc they were classless on the tv show. Jesus, I think Forbes must of banged Danas mom, he atleat waited for the show to finish taping, and Jeremy Stephens he just wanted some puss for gods sake.

  • Ross says:

    I didnt read akc response at first but wish I had, he said it much better than I……

  • darkmetal says:

    I agree that Junie was indeed obnoxious during his time on TUF. However, I always saw that he also seems to have that “Something” that makes a great fighter. His standup was probably the most accurate of the night. And then when he went to the ground, he subbed a BJJ black belt. Junie will be back, and he will be good.

  • Sergio Hernandez says:

    Junie definitely gave his detractors something to think about last night.

    And ACK! is totally right. Everyone thinks of Chris Leben as the original “TUF Bad Boy” but shit, coming from the same kind of background that he did, if someone had called me a “fatherless bastard” and I tried to remove myself from the situation only to have that person let a water hose loose over my head, I would have lost my shit, too.

    And going from Soszynski’s interview, it seemed Junie had a plan all along to get camera time.

  • Grappo says:

    Nice article and I agree with just about everything you said. One thing I disagreed with on a personal level was “When it came to Junie, there was a degree of Howard Stern syndrome in that everyone complained about his antics all season long yet still tuned in because they couldn’t wait to see what he was going to do next.” Speaking just for myself, I still tuned in because I’m a fan of the show and wanted to see how the others progressed, not because I wanted to see what Junie did next. The only thing I waited for with anticipation about Junie was his getting kicked out of the house. I can’t speak for the majority of Junie-bashers, but I’m not sure if you do either.

    I also think that Koscheck’s role as villain on TUF is being underplayed and Leben’s is being overplayed. I can still remember originally watching the Leben/Koscheck fight on TUF 1… I wasn’t a fan of Leben’s but I’d never rooted so hard against a fighter as I did with Koscheck.

    I’ve read comments by people saying that Junie was acting up on purpose to get camera time. I think that’s BS, at least partially. Trash talking and the like aside, on previous seasons some of his antics would have gotten him kicked out of the house 3 or 4 times over, no question, so why would he assume it’d be different this time? There’s not much camera time if you’re off the show. Unless Dana pulled him aside and told him to act the moron and there wouldn’t be any negative repercussions (which is not beyond possibility at this point.) As much as i dislike the guy i saw on the show, I hope his change is for real, and permanent.

  • Ric says:

    Man, I’m so tired of the Junie hype. Since when is it so fascinating to see a guy throw glasses, make an ass of himself, and sob himself into a stupor?

    When I watched TUF 1 I liked Kos because he could fight, he could focus, he was always in control of himself, and his taunting of Leben was something a man with some self-respect should have been able to take. Leben acted like a 5-year-old on that show and I felt like he deserved far worse than Kos gave him. Now Leben has much improved? Sure, with the help of steroids. Seriously, who didn’t see that coming?

    For some reason, TUF seems to have started low and sunk even lower. It’s less about mma and more about piss-drinking, spooge-eating, and drunken tantrums. Where does Dana find people like this? How many more qualified fighters do the producers have to turn down before they finally come up with a Junie Browning? I saw enough of Junie on TUF 8 to make me doubt, actually, that he has anything near Leben’s potential to become either a capable fighter or a mature adult. And I say that as someone who thinks steriod cheats don’t even deserve 2nd chances.

    That said, maybe Junie improved by the finale. I wouldn’t know. I didn’t see him in the finale, because who cares if he improved? I’m just sick of Dana foisting this guy on viewers who tune in to watch promising, serious, disciplined fighters, not punks. Sheesh.

    My opinion of Xtreme Couture as a quality school plummeted when I heard they agreed to train this guy. You can build your name training great fighters who give the sport a good name or by attaching yourself to PR disasters. One approach cashes in on the long-term admiration of real mma fans and the other cashes in on short-term, empty-headed attention from people who could care less about mma and just love a good train wreck.

    Just because Dana chooses to insult his audience by passing over better fighters in favor of casting idiots on TUF doesn’t mean anyone is obliged to play along. I don’t watch something just because it’s on TV and I don’t plan on following this guy’s career in the UFC. If and when he fights, I’ll channel surf until the next fight. I really don’t care if he’s successful, but am just sick of personality disorders being passed off as sports entertainment. I’m wWaiting for TUF to choose fighters for qualities that will make them great, not for qualities that will make for cheap bullshit drama. Junie got more than his share of chances already, I’d say. When the UFC gives exposure to guys who deserve it, like Escudero and Nover, that’s when I tune in. It’s just a shame the UFC kept Junie on the show in place of someone else. If Junie benefited, just think what a young fighter with way more character could have done with the same opportunity! That’s who we’re missing out on right now.

  • OZON3 says:

    Sam –

    Good article. Two corrections though….

    1. Efrain’s nickname is not “El Matatdor” like Roger Huerta. It’s “Hecho En Meixco” which means “Made in Mexico.”

    2. Probably just a typo but Philipe speaks Tagalog (pronounced ta-GA-log).

    I’m Filipino too so i was rooting for Nover all the way. But i noticed during the intros something was wrong. Efrain looked calm as can be coming into the cage. Nover had an anxious look in his eyes; also letting out deep breaths as if to try to calm himself down. i think the pressure of him being expected to win was definitely in his head. He didn’t look like the same animal in the cage as he did in his other fights, like he couldn’t flip the switch. I have no doubt that he’ll see future success in the UFC. Like you said, now he’ll be able to do so with a little less spotlight on him.

    Good luck Phillipe!

  • flassassin says:

    I think Delgado and Nelson will for sure get at least 2 more fights (Roop may even get another shot as well). All 3 of them show UFC potential for certain. I like Polakowski, but he is definately not ready at this point in his career.

  • ACK! says:

    Ric, you’re playing both sides, if you ask me. You criticize the show for being “less about mma and more about piss-drinking, spooge-eating, and drunken tantrums”, then you go and judge the fighters more on their actions on the show than in the octagon.

    And being that I, too, am a “fatherless bastard”, I can understand how a drunk Leben broke down the way he did. You have to imagine that emotions are already running high while being cooped up in a strange place with a group of strangers who you have to fight as cameras follow your every move. Eitherway, not having a father in your life is a significant hurdle to overcome and everyone deals with it differently. You can never underestimate the conditions of a person’s life… Even if you’ve lived it yourself.

    Moreover, just because he started crying doesn’t make it right for a couple of punks to spray water on him while he’s trying to sleep outside. That’s just plain wrong. (In my opinion it should be against the rules of the show to interfere with eachother’s sleep, food, and water because they are all essential to live and train at the best of your abilities, but that’s another story entirely…) Waking up in Leben’s situation after a long night of drinking to see the shit-eating grin on Southworth’s face (the man who had already shown an utter lack of respect for him) would drive many people over the edge. Just think about it.

    Regarding Junie, I certainly don’t agree with much of what he did on the show, but I don’t think any of it should prevent him from having the oppurtunity to prove his potential in MMA. And why on earth would you hold that against Xtreme Couture?

    Ultimately, I just think it’s sad that someone who condemns the show’s antics wouldn’t be able to see past the reality TV to the real people.

  • Mike Wolfe says:

    After watching the Nover/Escudero fight, I wondered what Nover’s corner told him. He kept going back to kicks even though Escudero used them as an opening for takedowns. Somebody should’ve told him to stay away from the kicks or to at least feint a few times.

  • Bullylover says:

    Hey Ric

  • Bullylover says:

    Hey Ric, I don’t remember KOs even knowing how to fight in TUf 1. I do remember the l&p tactics he used in his fight against Leben. It looked more like a wrestling match to me. Don’t get me wrong I’m a kos fan and was pleased with wednesday’s outcome However if you want to get technical Junie was a more well rounded fighter than Kos in their respected Tuf Era’s. I agree that Junie didn’t deserve the camera time he got but hey that’s reality tv & ratings for you. As far as Phillipe nover goes he seemed a bit over rated . But that is just my opinion. I mean he is nothing like GSP or The spider . He definately ain’t know Pacquaio as his hands are lightyears away from Manny’s. I also agree That Vinny will become a better & more well rounded fighter than Bader. After all Vinny utelizes kicks as well as hands were’s bader only uses boxing. I agree that all of these guys will become top competitors in their respected divisions. I have to say this is one of the best tuf seasons by far. 3bestTUF’s -1,5,8


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