In March 2021, the UFC reality-series franchise The Ultimate Fighter will finally make its return to the airwaves for its 29th season. This chapter of the show will feature bantamweight and middleweights. The show has yet to be assigned coaches, but speculation is running wild.
The show, which is set to air on ESPN+, will have the traditional single-elimination format. It’s not clear if there will be eight or 16 fighters per division to begin the season. If the number is 16, then the fighters will have to compete for a spot in the house. For the sake of this preview series, we will assume that each weight class will contain 16 fighters.
In addition, given the nature of the business right now and the many late-notice fights taking place, there is a chance that some of the fighters included here could sign with the UFC before TUF commences.
Meanwhile, there are some fighters or categories of fighters who will not be included. Fighters who do not speak English are not under consideration for this season of the reality show. In addition, Cage Warriors middleweight champion Nathias Frederick, 37, is old for the show and would more likely go directly to the UFC as a result of his title status with the British organization.
With all of that in mind, here are 16 middleweights currently not under UFC contract that could grace the halls of the TUF house early next year:
Teddy Ash (14-5, Shaved Bears MMA, Canada)
Fight fans might be familiar with Ash from his appearance on Dana White’s Contender Series, where he suffered a decision loss to Duško Todorović. Despite suffering a setback, Ash showed great heart and toughness against his opponent. He has a solid track record that includes wins over UFC veterans Dominique Steele and Seth Baczynski, as well as Contender Series alum Cameron Olson. He tends to finish fights and put on exciting bouts. Plus, he’s Canadian, so he would add international representation to the cast.
Calen Born (7-1, Chute Boxe, USA)
He reps the Chute Boxe gym in Kansas City. Born was within a finger tip’s reach of making his UFC debut on late notice against Dwight Grant, but the fight was canceled and he was not retained by the company. The welterweight could move up to 185 pounds for this show. Born is known for his first-round finishing rate. The UFC obviously already has its eyes on him.
Ozzy Diaz (4-1, California MMA, USA)
The Legacy Fighting Alliance roster member is early in his pro MMA career, but he’s already proven to be an exciting finisher. Diaz has taken fights in bigger organizations such as Bellator, the LFA and King of the Cage, and the bright lights do not appear to shake him. He has never left the first round, with two rear-naked chokes and two knockouts. He’s the type of guy that would benefit greatly from TUF, where he can bolster his training with high-quality coaches and teammates. Win or lose, he would also gain quality experience.
AJ Dobson (5-0, Carlson Gracie Team, USA)
Dobson had not fought in over two years coming into his November bout with top middleweight prospect Kailan Hill. He still managed to smash his way through the LFA and Contender Series veteran in just 35 seconds, though. Dobson is a big-time striker with power in his hands. He gets in his Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu training with Carlson Gracie Team, so he’s constantly getting better on the ground too. He would be a definite dark horse on the show.
Rico Farrington (8-3, MMA Masters, Bahamas)
Although his romp on the Contender Series ended with a dropped decision to current UFC fighter Daniel Rodriguez, Farrington remains one of the better welterweight prospects on the scene. He could easily move up to middleweight for the show, too. The 6-foot-4 native of the Bahamas is physically gifted with size and length, which is especially apparent in his 79-inch reach. Farrington is a strong boxer with good movement. He loves to stick and move on his opponent. He has some power as well. Farrington’s most recent win, a decision over UFC vet William Macario, got him back on the right track and could propel him to a TUF invite.
Isi Fitikefu (6-0, Gracie Jiu-Jitsu, Australia)
Fitikefu was an alternate who weighed in at UFC 254 in the event that Robert Whittaker or Jared Cannonier fell off the card. That did not happen. Like many of his Australian brethren, Fitikefu is a good striker with impressive kickboxing skills and big power. He also has some underrated submission skills, which will be overlooked by many in favor of his striking. He could be an underdog to take the season.
Josh Fremd (6-1, FactoryX Muay Thai, USA)
No middleweight prospect’s stock went up in 2020 as much as that of FactoryX’s Fremd. He hadn’t fought since taking a split-decision win over Travis Davis to close out 2018. In his return to action at LFA 89, Fremd scored an 86-second knockout of Lamar Gosey. He then blasted through Contender Series alum Antonio Jones at LFA 93 for the biggest win of his career. Those two first-round knockouts have established Fremd as a middleweight to watch, and he’s already expressed interest in participating on the show.
Ian Garry (4-0, SBG Ireland, Ireland)
How about some Irish representation on TUF? The 6-foot-3 Garry, who normally competes at welterweight, would be a good fit. The undefeated prospect has the size to compete temporarily at 185. The Cage Warriors staple has scored impressive finishes in his last three fights, with two knockouts and one submission. He isn’t the most experienced fighter, but he has shown promise despite the low amount of cage time. Garry has a December fight lined up with Cage Warriors, where he’s set to face Lawrence Tracey. If Garry succeeds, he should get an invite to the show.
Miles Hunsinger (7-0, Xtreme Couture, USA)
Hunsinger seems to have been forgotten as a top prospect. With just one appearance since 2018, he has not been very active. The Xtreme Couture fighter has appeared with the LFA and the Professional Fighters League, so he has big-fight experience. His wrestling and grappling form the best part of his game. He is well coached and disciplined in the cage. He normally competes at welterweight, but he is a big 170-pounder. A couple fights at middleweight shouldn’t be a big deal for Hunsinger.
Aaron Jeffrey (9-2, Para Bellum MMA, Canada)
After losing on the 2019 Contender Series to current top-20 UFC fighter Brendan Allen, Jeffrey has come back strong to become one of the top middleweight prospects outside of the big show. He is a strong, well-rounded fighter with a good fight IQ and instincts. Since the loss to Allen, Jeffrey has rattled off three wins, including knockouts of fellow Contender Series alum Bruno Assis and LFA main-event dance partner Andre Petroski. He has been confirmed as somebody interested in trying out for TUF.
Mariusz Ksiazkiewicz (8-1, Winnipeg Academy of MMA, Canada)
Ksiazkiewicz is coming off a loss in a recent main event of the Contender Series. However, Dana White said after the fights, when announcing contract signings, that he thought the Canadian athlete had actually won. The “Iron Pol” showed great toughness and a helluva chin in the fight, as he has in most of his career outings. He also showed great wrestling and grappling, which are significant reasons for his success. He would be a threat to go far on the show.
Yohan Lainesse (5-0, Brazilian Top Team, Canada)
The Canadian striker registered a highlight-reel knockout of Lirim Rufati on a Cage Fury FC event that aired live on UFC Fight Pass. It took just 14 seconds for Lainesse to destroy his opponent with a vicious flying knee. The finish got the immediate attention of fans on social media. Lainesse has shown good skills in his other four bouts across the Cage Fury and TKO promotions. He has a background in boxing, but has obviously expanded that with the use of his feet and knees. He works his ground with Brazilian Top Team in Canada, so he’s clearly rounding out his toolbox. Lainesse is a diamond in the rough, and a show like TUF could certainly help him shine.
Michael Lombardo (12-2, American Top Team, USA)
Lombardo, who has gone 1-1 on the Contender Series, should be a familiar name. After a loss to Kyle Daukaus on the 2019 edition of the UFC recruitment tool, he has gone on to rattle off three wins in four outings (the other fight ended in a no-contest). His win over Jose Caceres was a great way to start off 2020, but it was his Contender Series domination of Korey Kuppe that really put him on the right track. However, Dana White panned the win over Kuppe as boring and did not sign Lombardo. Perhaps White will give Lombardo another shot on TUF. He has fought at middleweight, and despite dropping to welterweight, he is large for the division and would still be large at 185. The American Top Team rep would be a tough out for anybody on the show.
Nick Maximov (6-0, Nick Diaz Academy, USA)
Maximov is all but confirmed for the show. The undefeated disciple of the Diaz brothers is just 22 years old and already has demonstrated great skills, especially on the mat. He is coming off a Contender Series win — at heavyweight! — in which he dominated Oscar Cota through the use of his wrestling and jiu-jitsu. Maximov is young, but he’s already very talented. He would thrive under the coaching on TUF.
Joe Pyfer (7-2, Team Balance, USA)
Despite losing on the Contender Series due to an injury from a slam, Pyfer garnered praise from Dana White. He is only 24 years old, but he is a rugged, tough kid who loves to engage in brawls and throw big hammers on the feet. His knockout power is apparent in his time with Ring of Combat. He is still working on his counter-wrestling and counter-grappling, but they are both coming along. With the right coaching, he could really develop, especially seeing as how he comes from a smaller gym.
Dante Schiro (7-2, Chosen Few Gym, USA)
A former middleweight who now fights at welterweight, Schiro is a name out of left field. However, his potential cannot be ignored. He’s a former top prospect who faltered in his only fight with ONE Championship and his subsequent appearance in Finland. Schiro is a finisher who can get it done on the feet or on the mat. He prefers the mat, though, where he can use his strong wrestling and control his opponent. He’d certainly still be a long shot to win, but he could surprise some fans with how well he performs.
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