Big expectations follow Browning, Bader
It's a double-edged sword, this reality-show fame thing. For better or worse, "The Ultimate Fighter" puts its participants in the spotlight, sometimes at a very early stage of their careers.
For the ones who survive the experience, there are the expectations.
The expectations couldn't be more different for Junie Browning and Ryan Bader. Many fans expect Browning to fail and Bader to succeed. Those assumptions stem from the fighters' behaviors on TUF. Although Browning was a wild man seemingly intent on sabotaging himself, Bader was focused and businesslike.
Whatever their approach, it got them to the same destination as featured fighters on the April 1 "UFC Fight Night 18" show in Nashville, Tenn.
Although Bader looks to resume the success that earned him the TUF title, Browning continues to repair his reputation in the hopes of being taken seriously as a mixed martial artist.
Although it is true that reality TV can create characters on the whims of editors trying to generate drama, it's also true that Browning gave them no shortage of source material by throwing glasses at housemates, saying outrageous things and letting his temper run rampant.
Browning wound up losing by submission in his semifinal match, while Bader won a UFC contract by knocking out Vinicius Magalhaes at "The Ultimate Fighter 8" finale.
Since the show's end, Browning has taken steps to change his reputation. Two months ago, he moved to Las Vegas to train full time with the vaunted Xtreme Couture team. Before moving, he already had been working with Xtreme Couture and living with head trainer Shawn Tompkins.
Interestingly, it was Tompkins who insisted that Browning live with him, the better to keep an eye on his young charge.
"He's one of the best people I know right now," Tompkins said. "Growing up, he didn't get a whole lot of attention. It was the first time in his life he got attention, so he didn't care whether it was positive or negative. I think he understands the difference now. He's a talented guy who needed direction, and I was confident in what I could offer him."
Tompkins, who also trains Randy Couture and Forrest Griffin, among others, believes Browning will be a lightweight champion within three years and raves about his fighter's work ethic and dedication. Most days, Browning (3-0) has three workouts, one for pad work and wrestling, one for sparring and grappling and a third session of strength and conditioning.
Browning's opponent, Cole Miller (13-3), is best known for his excellent ground game, including a submission of Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt Jorge Gurgel in his last bout. In the lead-up to the fight, both fighters have exchanged verbal jabs, but Miller's have been a bit more pointed.
"I think his skill level is low, as well as his IQ," Miller told ESPN.com.
Although Miller also said he believed he had the advantage in every aspect of the fight, Browning says most have yet to see his entire skill set and that he is more than capable of hanging with Miller on the ground. In fact, he expects the fight to stay standing until he lands his first hard punch.
"Cole thinks he wants to keep it standing, but within the first three minutes, he'll be diving for my ankles," Browning said. "That's fine. People don't realize that I'm very well-rounded. I can change my style to whoever I fight. When they saw me against Dave Kaplan or whoever, that's not how I fight all the time."
At 25, Bader has been a success story from the beginning. He has managed to compile an 8-0 record despite training full time in MMA for only two years. Under the Lally brothers at Arizona Combat Sports, Bader is working to bring his stand-up game to the level of his All-American wrestling background, and he feels he has turned the corner on his striking.
"It's really about learning to relax and picking up the intricacies of the game," Bader said. "I feel great, like I can go out and stand with anyone. I'm not saying I'll go out there and knock out Chuck Liddell, but I can hold my own and feel confident."
His opponent, Carmelo Marrero, is a veteran who in his last bout won a tight split decision over Bader's ACS teammate Steve Steinbeiss. Bader was ringside for that match and got an up-close look.
Because Marrero also considers wrestling a strength, Bader could find himself in a grappling match or a stalemate. That could lead to a stand-up battle. Bader and his camp believe he would have the advantage in either situation. In fact, Trevor Lally thinks Bader is one of the most physically gifted fighters in the game.
"His potential is limitless," he said. "The physical skills he possesses, the strength, speed and agility he has are amazing, and he's evolving every day. On top of it all, he's been doing combative sports with wrestling since he was 6 years old. His body and mind are geared to fighting."
The expectations are there for both Bader and Browning. Whether they are good or bad is another story.
"Listen, I know I've had a lot of opportunities that people are angry I was given," Browning said. "I have to win some people over now. Everyone likes a success story. That's what I'm going to give everyone."
Mike Chiappetta is a freelance writer who has written for NBCSports.com and FIGHT! Magazine. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.