Since it debuted in 2005, "The Ultimate Fighter" has allowed dozens of mixed martial artists to realize their dreams. The reality show launched the careers of future UFC champions Forrest Griffin, Rashad Evans, Michael Bisping and T.J. Dillashaw.
In May, the UFC announced a new format for its latest season: "The Ultimate Fighter: Tournament of Champions," or "TUF 24," invited flyweight champions from promotions around the world to enter a 16-man tournament. The winner would get a shot at UFC pound-for-pound king Demetrious Johnson (24-2) and his belt.
Johnson's title defense, his ninth, headlines the "TUF 24 Finale" on Saturday in Las Vegas. Former flyweight title challengers Joseph Benavidez (24-4) and Henry Cejudo (10-1), coaches of respective teams, serve as the co-main event.
The season hasn't been characterized by initial opportunities for the "TUF 24" class as in years past, but by the second chances it has provided. Tim Elliott (13-6), drafted first overall, was one of two former UFC fighters in the field and made the most of this unique moment in his career.
"I saw the opportunity and felt like it was maybe my last chance to get back in the UFC, so I jumped on it," said Elliott, ranked the No. 3 overall seed.
After a three-year stint in the UFC, Elliott was cut in the summer of 2015. Losses to title challengers Benavidez, Ali Bagautinov and John Dodson dotted a 2-4 record with the promotion. Seven weeks after his release, Elliott debuted with Titan FC and won its flyweight belt from Iliard Santos (30-11-1, 1 NC), another UFC vet. He made two successful title defenses before joining the "Ultimate Fighter" cast.
"When I got signed to the UFC, I wasn't ready," Elliott said. "I was green. I was just getting started. I was hired by the UFC and fired by the UFC before I ever even had any punching technique."
After a pair of first-round submission wins to start the "TUF" tournament, Elliott reached the semifinals. There he beat dark horse Eric Shelton by majority decision, a fight that aired Nov. 23, to earn a berth in the championship. He'll face No. 5 seed Hiromasa Ogikubo (15-3), Shooto's bantamweight champion (that promotion's 125-pound weight class), for the right to take on Mighty Mouse. The title eliminator between Elliott and Hiro, which took place in August, airs for the first time Wednesday night on FS1.
"I think my competition in Titan was as good as a lot of my competition in the UFC," Elliott said. "I think any of those guys could've been on the show and could've won some fights.
"I expected everybody in the house to be top-notch, and a lot of the guys really were."
There may not be a title opportunity on the line, but Brandon Moreno's fight on Saturday represents his dedication and passion to the craft. Moreno will make his second UFC appearance, this time on a full camp, opposite Ryan Benoit (9-4) on the undercard of Saturday's "TUF 24 Finale."
Moreno (12-3) had never experienced the Octagon before his invitation to join the "TUF" season. The World Fighting Federation flyweight champ was seeded dead last in the field at No. 16. That meant he had to face No. 1-ranked Alexandre Pantoja (16-2) of Brazil in the opening round. Moreno lost via rear-naked choke in the second round.
"I felt horrible when I lost that fight. My heart was broken," Moreno said. "In the first episode of 'The Ultimate Fighter,' I lost my chance. It was horrible for me. But I continued training, continued to learn with Benavidez and the other coaches: Danny Castillo, Robert Drysdale, Juan Archuleta. I continued with my experience on the show. I learned a lot."
The 22-year-old demonstrated flashes of potential, both in the loss to Pantoja and in those subsequent training sessions, but he was asked to fill in on eight days' notice to debut Oct. 1 opposite heralded prospect Louis Smolka (11-2). The widely held assumption was Smolka would roll through a comparatively inexperienced Moreno en route to padding his own title-contention résumé, but Moreno showed no signs of stage fright, tapping the 6-to-1 favorite in the first round with a guillotine choke.
"When I won the fight ... I don't have words for that moment," said Moreno, who has nine submission wins. "I feel really, really comfortable with chokes, with my guillotine, especially."
"I actually put on my Twitter account that I put $500 on him," Elliott added. "If my wife would've let me, I would've bet $10,000. I knew Brandon was going to win that fight. Brandon was one of the best guys in the house. ... I told my father as soon as I got home from the show, 'This guy is liable to be UFC champion someday.'"
The upset not only secured Moreno another bout in the promotion but vaulted "The Assassin Baby" to No. 12 in the UFC flyweight rankings.
"I know my next fight will be [a] really, really hard challenge," Moreno said.
Selection to any "TUF" season speaks to a fighter's potential. Nonetheless, longevity at mixed martial arts' highest level is determined by how that platform is utilized. Subjective factors like marketability may affect title shots or getting your headshot on a promotional poster, but MMA is a meritocracy at its core. With very few exceptions, wins mean stability.
To this point -- Elliott in exhibitions and Moreno in an official fight -- these two contestants have capitalized. Fighters in their position understand the hunger of regaining an opportunity lost. Redemption, it seems, motivates more than mere possibility.
"I've gone to different countries, different places to learn more," Moreno said. "This opportunity is unique in the world. I'll take the opportunity."
"I had success in the UFC in the sense that I came in and I made fights close," he said "I just didn't have the technique to really do damage. I've had those big fights. I've faced adversity. I went through the 'TUF' house, and I feel like I'm ready now."