Sherdog Redraft: 'The Ultimate Fighter' Season 17

By: Ben Duffy
Dec 3, 2020
Ben Duffy/ illustration

Hindsight is 20/20

For a certain type of sports fan, the draft is one of the most exciting events of the season, a chance to test their own scouting chops against the so-called pros or simply see how prospects pan out once they hit the next level. Decisions are made in the presence of unknowns, risks are taken or avoided, and plenty of picks look either inspired or ridiculous with the benefit of hindsight.

Since its 2005 debut, each season of the Ultimate Fighting Championship’s reality series “The Ultimate Fighter” has begun with a draft, as the two opposing coaches select fighters to represent them on the show, and much like an NFL or NBA draft, most of those drafts have had their share of steals as well as busts. Who are the Tom Bradys—or Sam Bowies—of “TUF?” Let’s find out, as we re-rank the draft picks for each season of “The Ultimate Fighter,” based on the fighters’ future achievements on the show and throughout their careers.

Season 17: Team Jones vs. Team Sonnen

Sometimes, whether through serendipity, timing or just plain old dumb luck, a terrible idea yields not-so-terrible results.

Season 17 of “The Ultimate Fighter,” which recorded from October to December of 2012 and premiered on FX on Jan. 22, 2013, was built around a light heavyweight title matchup between Jon Jones, arguably the most dominant fighter in the world at the time, and Chael Sonnen, a middleweight contender who had gone 2-2 in his last four fights. The genesis of the fight had been Sonnen’s offer to step in when his teammate, Dan Henderson, had been forced to withdraw from UFC 151 and his shot at Jones’ title, which Jones had refused at the recommendation of his team, resulting in the cancellation of the entire event. (Insert “f---ing sport killer” anecdote here.) That “The American Gangster” was one of the three biggest draws in the sport at the time, and had just finished helping Anderson Silva complete his transition to full-fledged stardom, may also have had something to do with it.

The Jones-Sonnen fight made no sense competitively, but the cynical decision to hype it with a season of “TUF” actually yielded a decent crop of fighters, at least compared to Season 16 and “The Smashes,” which had immediately preceded it. The 14 middleweights who worked under the direction of Jones and Sonnen yielded a future UFC title challenger and a handful of solid fighters. It also gave us what we had come to expect from the show: some hijinks, some highlights—including one of the scariest knockouts ever—and some delightful weirdoes. While Jones and Sonnen were both surprisingly engaged and competent coaches, and their eventual Octagon meeting was a predictable steamrolling by the champ, Sonnen won where it counts, as his draft absolutely trounced that of Jones. With the benefit of hindsight, however, we can do even better. And so we shall.

1. Kelvin Gastelum

Original Draft Position: 13 (Team Sonnen)
Pre-TUF Record: 5-0
Post-TUF Record: 10-6, 1 NC
Notable Achievements: “The Ultimate Fighter” Season 17 winner

The kid from Yuma, Arizona, was one of the smallest and least experienced fighters in the house, and the youngest by far, just a few days past legal drinking age when filming began. The show played up the idea that he was the youngest competitor in “TUF” history, a claim which apparently excluded the foreign editions, since “The Smashes,” featuring 19-year-old Patrick Iodice, was airing at that very moment. Unsurprisingly, he fell to the last round in the “TUF 17” draft, and Sonnen’s choice to take him over Dylan Andrews looks like pure genius in hindsight.

While the big story of the season tournament was the trail of destruction Uriah Hall left in his wake on the way to the final, Gastelum’s run up the opposite side of the bracket was every bit as dominant and actually took less total time. Nonetheless, Gastelum entered the all-Team Sonnen season finale as a 3-to-1 underdog only to prevail, making history as the youngest “TUF” winner ever.

Gastelum’s UFC career has been an inconsistent one, characterized by moments of brilliance as well as frequent foul-ups. On one hand, he has been a Top 10 fighter across two weight classes for most of the last eight years, fighting his way to an interim title shot, where he gave Israel Adesanya all he could handle for five rounds in a contender for “Fight of the Year.” On the other hand, his ultimately ill-fated run at welterweight resulted in him missing weight twice, and he had a TKO win over Vitor Belfort overturned due to a positive test for cannabis. While he is currently mired in the first losing streak of his career, Gastelum is still just 29 years old and appears to be fighting as well as ever. He is likely to build on his résumé, and he will probably need to, if he wishes to stay ahead of the suddenly resurgent Hall in this redraft.

2. Uriah Hall

Original Draft Position: 3 (Team Sonnen)
Pre-TUF Record: 7-2
Post-TUF Record: 9-7

Hall is the ultimate example of one of the rarest “TUF” archetypes: the fighter who, through no fault of his own, becomes a vehicle for runaway hype, and must therefore meet unrealistic expectations or be unfairly labeled a “bust.” (See also: “the next Anderson Silva,” Season 8’s Phillipe Nover.) The 28-year-old Jamaican-American was a solid prospect coming into the show, with two very understandable losses to UFC contenders Costas Philippou and Chris Weidman, who was about to win the middleweight title from the real Anderson Silva.

The hype started with Hall’s preliminary round fight, when he vaporized Adam Cella with a spinning hook kick for the ages, leaving Cella out cold on the canvas for what felt like a week. While Dana White’s characterization of Nover had been one of the UFC boss’ more unfortunate cases of hyperbole, his claim that Hall’s demolition of Cella was “one of the nastiest knockouts I’ve ever seen in the fight business” felt like straight reporting of fact. The hype train became more like a rocket when Hall followed the Cella knockout with an eight-second blitzing of Bubba McDaniel in the quarterfinals, then put an end to the Cinderella story of last pick Andrews in the semis.

Hall’s split decision loss to Gastelum in the Season 17 final is painted broadly as the scrappy underdog derailing the hype train, but the reality is more complex. The final was a fantastic scrap, perhaps the best since Forrest Griffin and Stephan Bonnar had kick-started the whole thing almost eight years before. Even the idea that it was a case of wrestler vs. striker was oversimplifying, as the best takedown of the fight had been Hall launching Gastelum with a belly-to-back suplex in the second round.

After the show, Hall embarked on a UFC career that, until recently, appeared to be trending in the direction of “entertaining knockout artist with a hard ceiling.” He was capable of breathtaking acts of in-cage violence—he is still the only man ever to finish Gegard Mousasi with strikes—but more often, tended to lose badly against the division’s elite. However, Hall seems to be entering a renaissance since joining Fortis MMA a few years ago, and even at 36, may still be improving. At the time of this redraft, he is on a three-fight winning streak—his first since 2015—with a chance to extend it to four in a rematch with Weidman next February.

3. Zak Cummings

Original Draft Position: 5 (Team Sonnen)
Pre-TUF Record: 15-3
Post-TUF Record: 9-4

Cummings had one of the better résumés of anyone entering Season 17, having beaten some very good fighters on his way up while losing only against much larger future Octagon co-workers such as Tim Kennedy and Ryan Jimmo. Combined with a nine-second destruction of Nik Fekete in his eliminator fight to get into the house, it was enough to get him drafted fifth despite looking like the borderline welterweight he was.

Cummings was eliminated in the first round of the tournament by the surprising Andrews, putting an end to his run on the season. He was not invited to compete at the finale in April, but debuted in the Octagon a few months later at UFC Fight Night 27 in August. That launched one of the more quietly successful UFC runs in “TUF” history. Cummings dropped to welterweight for his debut, racking up a 6-3 record, but increasing difficulty making the weight led him to move back up to middleweight two years ago. He has gone 3-1 since, and at age 36, remains a tough out and shows no signs of slowing. While his UFC record is mathematically superior to Hall’s, Hall can point to far better peak wins, stronger overall competition and a better performance on the show, so Cummings takes the No. 3 spot.

4. Luke Barnatt

Original Draft Position: 1 (Team Sonnen)
Pre-TUF Record: 5-0
Post-TUF Record: 10-9 (3-3 UFC)

Like Gastelum, Barnatt was one of the youngest and least experienced fighters on the show, having racked up his entire 5-0 professional record in a year. The similarities ended there, as the 6-foot-6 Brit was one of the tallest middleweights the sport has ever seen. He was no skeletal sideshow, either, but a strong, skilled and—despite the “Bigslow” moniker—athletic fighter, and Sonnen elected to take him with the first overall pick. (Turns out the “slow” part of his nickname was actually a reference to his wits rather than his movement, which isn’t very nice, but that’s neither here nor there.) In his preliminary round fight, Barnatt knocked out Gilbert Smith with a flying knee that would have been a “Knockout of the Season” contender in any season that did not include Uriah Hall. He was then bumped from the quarterfinals by Andrews in a historic upset. More on that later.

Barnatt returned at the finale and won a UFC roster spot by beating Team Jones’ Collin Hart. He went on to win his next two, over pretty good UFC middleweights in Andrew Craig and Mats Nilsson, and had all the appearances of a rising contender who would make good on his No. 1 draft pick promise. However, Barnatt then proceeded to lose three in a row, and despite all three having been decisions—only one of them unanimous—against good fighters including then 13-0 Sean Strickland, the UFC let him go. He then bounced around Europe for a couple of fights before finding a new home in Absolute Championship Akhmat, where he has had a solid run at light heavyweight. While he is on a two-fight skid and has clearly been, well...slowing, he remains active and is scheduled to compete again next month.

5. Clint Hester

Original Draft Position: 2 (Team Jones)
Pre-TUF Record: 7-3
Post-TUF Record: 4-3

Behold, Team Jones makes its first appearance in the Season 17 redraft. Hester had plenty to recommend him, as he was a physical freak with professional boxing experience and serious punching power, whose early losses had all been against next-level fighters including his future ATT Atlanta teammate, Douglas Lima. He also had some well-established issues on the ground, but “Bones” nonetheless took Hester with his first-round pick.

This is as good a place as any to mention that as bad as Jones was at drafting, it was made worse by his matchmaking. Any time Jones had control of the matchups, he was liable to make a pairing that seemed designed either to make a point, to net one of his fighters an easy win, or to troll and demoralize Sonnen’s team, but backfired hilariously. It was Jones who had chosen to pit Smith, a wrestler and one of the shortest fighters in the house, against the titanic Barnatt, leading to the least surprising knee knockout in the history of knee knockouts. It was Jones who had chosen to match up the most experienced fighter in the house, Bubba McDaniel, against Gastelum, earning his fighter a humiliating thrashing rather than the expected easy pickings. And it was Jones who matched up Hester against the ultra-green, 3-0 Jimmy Quinlan, a largely unknown quantity whose only standout qualities were his chin and grappling.

After the predictable submission loss, Hester was out of the Season 17 tournament, but returned at the finale to face Season 16’s Bristol Marunde. Hester got the better of a fun back-and-forth scrap for two rounds and change before smashing Marunde with a standing elbow for the TKO finish. Hester went on to win his next three in a row, earning him a contenders’ matchup with another Season 16 alum, Robert Whittaker. Whittaker crushed Hester, dominating in all phases on the way to a second-round TKO. That touched off a three-fight skid in which Hester was badly overmatched every time out, especially on the ground. After the last of those three, a first-round submission loss at light heavyweight against Marcos Rogerio de Lima, Hester was released from the UFC. He has not fought again since.

6. Josh Samman

Original Draft Position: 4 (Team Jones)
Pre-TUF Record: 8-2
Post-TUF Record: 3-2

Samman entered the Season 17 draft with a solid regional record and an effortless 90-second knockout of Leo Bercier in the elimination round. Combined with the admittedly unscientific eyeball test—Samman was one of just a handful of Season 17 fighters who presented as a plus athlete with true middleweight size—it was good enough to inspire Jones to take him with the fourth overall pick. The hits kept coming, as Samman smashed his way to the semifinals with two more first-round knockouts before running into Gastelum. Samman returned at the finale and survived the early submission onslaught of Kevin Casey to knock him out in Round 2.

That started off Samman’s UFC run, which on paper consists of three dominant stoppage wins followed by two deflating stoppage losses. Of course, that doesn’t come anywhere near telling the full story, in which Samman’s competitive highs and lows are intertwined with health issues and personal tragedy. A knee injury forced Samman out of his scheduled second UFC fight, followed soon thereafter by the death of his girlfriend, Hailey Bevis, who crashed her car while texting with Samman. Compounding his guilt and grief, injuries would continue to keep Samman out of competition for over a year and a half, time during which Samman’s lifelong struggles with depression and substance abuse, never far from the surface, took hold.

Samman returned to action in late 2014 and won his next two fights. In May 2016, he released the harrowing memoir “The Housekeeper: Love, Death, and Prizefighting,” which detailed his personal struggles, relationships and fight career in frank detail. On Sept. 29, 2016, just days after signing to fight Oluwale Bamgbose in December, Samman and a friend were found unresponsive in an apartment after a drug overdose. The friend, South Florida MMA fixture Troy Kirkingburg, died that day. Samman passed away six days later, on Oct. 5, 2016. He was 28 years old.

7. Bubba McDaniel

Original Draft Position: 6 (Team Jones)
Pre-TUF Record: 20-6
Post-TUF Record: 10-4 (1-2 UFC)

McDaniel came out of the Texas Panhandle with the most pro experience of any cast member, and while his 20-6 record featured a lot of fattening up on low-level competition in Texas and Oklahoma regional shows, he entered “TUF” on a six-fight winning streak against credible opposition. When his Jackson-Wink teammate Jones chose him sixth overall, it felt slightly early, but fighters being overdrafted on the show due to real-world team affiliations is a tradition that harks back to the earliest seasons.

After getting worked over by Gastelum in his preliminary fight, McDaniel was the beneficiary of Team Jones’ wild card spot—again, possibly due to personal loyalty, as Hester was also available. McDaniel rewarded Jones’ confidence in him, however, as he out-ground and outlasted Kevin Casey to a “no mas” TKO via retirement in the wild card fight. He then had to face Hall in the quarterfinals, immediately after Hall had scored the scariest knockout in “TUF” history. McDaniel—quite understandably—looked terrified when he heard, and looked terrified at the weigh-ins. He looked terrified on fight night as well, but only for about eight seconds, after which he looked dead.

McDaniel armbarred Smith at the finale to earn a spot in the UFC, but that was the last favor the promotion did him, as matchups with Brad Tavares and Sean Strickland were just too big an ask for a tough veteran journeyman. After his release by the promotion, McDaniel returned to the regionals and kept a busy schedule, racking up a record that looks great on paper, but features a whole lot of wins over fighters with losing records. He has not fought since April of 2018.

8. Gilbert Smith

Original Draft Position: 8 (Team Jones)
Pre-TUF Record: 5-1
Post-TUF Record: 8-5 (0-1 UFC)

Smith’s 5-1 record ahead of “TUF 17” was actually fairly strong, as he fought solid, much more experienced fighters from Day 1. As a short, burly grappler, however, he had a miserable matchup with Barnatt, as he was unable to get him down despite several attempts in the first round before running right into a crushing flying knee in the second.

At the finale, he was eliminated by a much more experienced grappler in McDaniel. Released back into the wild, Smith went on to compile an 8-4 record over very respectable competition including wins over UFC-level fighters in Marunde and Bojan Velickovic. He has not competed professionally since a win over Ben Smith in the Legacy Fighting Alliance cage in 2017.

9. Kevin Casey

Original Draft Position: 11 (Team Sonnen)
Pre-TUF Record: 5-2
Post-TUF Record: 4-4-2, 2 NC (1-2-1, 1 NC UFC)

Coming into Season 17, “King” Casey had quite the list of pros and cons. He was a legitimate black belt under the legendary Rickson Gracie who sported one of the most cartoonishly jacked physiques ever seen in high-level MMA. It had to have been a nightmare trying to get fights on the regional circuit. On the other hand, he had lost decisively to the only two good fighters he had faced, and that is by a definition of “good” that includes Ikuhisa Minowa. He even had a little built-in reality TV cachet, thanks to his relationship with reality star Spencer Pratt of “The Hills.” (That last one might be a pro or a con.)

Unfortunately, Casey just never quite completed the transition from great grappler and imposing athlete to great fighter. He has the dubious distinction of being the only fighter to go 0-2 on “TUF 17,” thanks to Sonnen choosing to use his wild card to bring him back. In the wild card match against McDaniel, he declined to get off the stool for the tie-breaking third round, giving McDaniel the TKO win. It also pointed the way towards the remainder of Casey’s extremely strange MMA career, where athletic talent and real skill have always been hampered by stunning lapses in fight IQ, endurance and gameness. His finishing run in the UFC and Bellator MMA features one win against two draws, three losses, one positive steroid test and about a dozen weird fouls—or pretend fouls. About the only bankable guarantee during that span was that if things went past the middle of the second round, Casey was probably in trouble. After a second-round TKO loss to Chris Honeycutt in August 2017, he has yet to fight again. Still a better fighter than rapper, but that’s neither here nor there.

10. Dylan Andrews

Original Draft Position: 14 (Team Jones)
Pre-TUF Record: 15-4
Post-TUF Record: 3-7 (2-3 UFC)

Andrews followed Robert Whittaker as the second New Zealand-born fighter to appear on “The Ultimate Fighter.” The similarities ended there, however. “The Villain” was picked last despite having an extensive record against credible competition, perhaps due in part to being the oldest fighter in the house. Andrews upset Cummings to advance to the quarterfinals, where he made history by knocking out Barnatt, becoming the first case in “TUF” history of a last pick beating a first pick. The Cinderella run came to an end thanks to Hall, and adding insult to injury, Hall literally kicked Andrews’ ass lying down.

Andrews knocked out Quinlan at the finale to earn a UFC berth, which kicked off one of the more mystifying post-“TUF” runs ever. On one hand, his 3-7 mark after the show belies the fact that he fought very good fighters, right up to the very end. On the other hand, his only victories in that time are over Quinlan and bizarrely, over musclehead Swedish judoka Papy Abedi…twice. Andrews, now 41, has not competed since December 2019, when he was guillotined by fellow Octagon expat Rob Wilkinson.

11. Collin Hart

Original Draft Position: 10 (Team Jones)
Pre-TUF Record: 4-1-1
Post-TUF Record: 2-3 (0-1 UFC)

The lanky 23-year-old from the North Bay provoked his way into a preliminary round matchup with Casey which—fair play to him—must have taken some cojones. He then proceeded to defeat Casey, paving his way to a quarterfinal matchup with Gastelum. Hart got his clock absolutely cleaned, putting an end to his tournament run. He returned at the finale, where he lost a very narrow decision to Barnatt, which then put an end to any UFC dreams as well. Hart fought a few more times, mostly in his native California, beating the bad fighters and losing to the decent ones. Aside from a one-off comeback fight last summer, he has been quiet since 2014.

I suppose this is as good a place as any to point out that Hart’s nickname was “The Dick.” Is it still? It feels as though that would be a handicap in just about any other profession.

12. Tor Troeng

Original Draft Position: 7 (Team Sonnen)
Pre-TUF Record: 14-4-1
Post-TUF Record: 1-3

Troeng, a Swedish part-time fighter and full-time Swedish chef—comedy gold was really there for the taking, bork bork—was eliminated by Samman in the preliminary round. He choked out Cella at the season finale, earning himself a shot in the UFC, but it was brutally hard sledding from there. Even in an era in which the UFC actively sought to build and keep a stable of fighters from continental Europe on roster, Troeng got no breaks from the matchmakers. “The Hammer” hung tough in back-to-back-to-back losses to Rafael Natal, Trevor Smith and Krzysztof Jotko before being released in late 2014. The 37-year-old has not fought since.

13. Adam Cella

Original Draft Position: 12 (Team Jones)
Pre-TUF Record: 4-0
Post-TUF Record: 6-10 (0-1 UFC)

“El Natural” arrived with by far the flimsiest résumé of any competitor. His 4-0 record included one win over a fighter with a losing record and three wins over fighters with a total of zero professional wins between them. There’s no pretty way to put it: The 27-year-old had been built up on jobbers. To his credit, he earned his way into the house with a win over a good fighter in Jake Heun, who would go on to a fairly respectable journeyman career, but it was apparently not enough to appease the gods, who rewarded Cella with a preliminary round matchup against Uriah Hall. That resulted, of course, in one of the most memorable and terrifying knockouts in MMA history. You remember it, even if he doesn’t.

Cella woke up in time for the finale, where he ran into Troeng, who tapped him out, putting a definitive end to any Octagon aspirations. Cella stayed busy for several more years, losing more than he won, primarily in the Midwest. He came back in a surprise appearance in October 2020—at heavyweight, no less—and evened up his record at 10-10, but nonetheless he remains behind Troeng here thanks to the head-to-head loss.

14. Jimmy Quinlan

Original Draft Position: 9 (Team Sonnen)
Pre-TUF Record: 3-0
Post-TUF Record: 0-1-1 (0-1 UFC)

Quinlan was a mildly promising wrestler-grappler from Massachusetts with the least professional experience of anyone in the cast. He bounced Hester in the preliminary round before Samman did the same to him in the quarterfinals. “Crash” got another chance at the finale, but Andrews made short work of him. He appeared once more a few months later in a show in Maine, fighting to a majority draw with Luc Bondole, before disappearing from the professional MMA map for good.

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