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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.

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