LAS VEGAS – Dana White has learned his lesson. The outspoken Ultimate Fighting Championship president once famously said he thought he'd found "the next Anderson Silva" when he saw Philippe Nover, a contestant on Season 8 of "The Ultimate Fighter."
Nover had plenty of technical skills but never came close to putting them together and was unceremoniously cut after three consecutive losses in the UFC – all without reminding anyone too much of the uber-talented middleweight champion. It turned out that the fighter with star quality on that season of the show was light heavyweight Ryan Bader.
So White has begun taking a more conservative approach toward talent evaluation on the UFC's highly popular reality series. Yet, week after week, he couldn't help but pay more and more attention to a guy he hadn't thought much of when the filming for Season 12 unfolded.
"Jonathan Brookins wasn't a guy who stood out to me right away," White said. "After we got them together, I thought that Michael Johnson and Bruce Leroy [Alex Caceres] were the two I liked. Every time I'd see Brookins, he was better than he was the day before."
And now, Brookins is a little better than a 2-1 favorite to defeat Johnson in the Season 12 finale on Saturday at the Palms Resort & Casino – and to win the six-bout UFC contract that goes with it.
In many ways, Brookins was like Georges St. Pierre, the UFC welterweight champion who was his coach on the show. Brookins didn't have a lot to say and avoided the hijinks which have derailed so many others who have lived in the TUF house. Brookins made like St. Pierre by keeping a low profile and trying to be the hardest worker on his team every day.
Both Brookins and Johnson fought for St. Pierre's team and benefited from coaching by the likes of Greg Jackson, Firas Zahabi, Phil Nurse, Freddie Roach and John Danaher, among others.
Most of all, though, they benefited by training every day alongside St. Pierre.
"The biggest thing is, Georges was actually training with us and we got a chance to see what he did and how he worked," Johnson said. "Obviously, we knew what a great fighter he was before we came to the show. But when we got here and saw him every day, the way he prepared, that leaves an impression upon you."
It also left an impression on Brookins, who submitted Sevak Magakian and Sako Chivitchian before winning a wide decision over Kyle Watson to make it to the finale. He was better in each fight than he was in the previous one, picking up on one of St. Pierre's primary lessons.
The soft-spoken champion emphasized to his team the importance of being open-minded and continuing to learn. Brookins, who calls himself "an avid seeker," said it was just what he needed.
"I haven't always done things the right way," said Brookins, who was stopped in the third round of a 2008 fight with current UFC featherweight champion Jose Aldo. "But life is a journey and it's important to take the lessons you've learned and apply them to your life. It was important to me to come in and take advantage of this opportunity. To me, that meant keeping my mouth shut and listening.
"Georges brought these great coaches in and it would have been a waste to have not taken advantage of the chance to learn from them. After six weeks, I wasn't going to have that chance again, so I wanted to make the most of every minute I was there."
The result, as even Johnson conceded, was immense improvement from beginning to end. Anyone who can hang for three rounds with Aldo, the third-ranked pound-for-pound fighter in the world, has to be pretty good in the first place. But Brookins managed to bump his game up a few notches during his time in the house.
So, too, did Johnson, who was St. Pierre's first pick and the second pick overall. Fighting four times in six weeks exacts a toll on a person, physically and mentally. Johnson, who said he is on a quest to silence the doubters in his hometown of Springfield, Mo., took it as a challenge.
He defeated Pablo Garza to get into the house, then reeled off wins over Aaron Wilkinson, Caceres and Nam Phan to make it to the finals. And he isn't at all surprised that he'll be standing across the cage from Brookins on Saturday.
"We built a very strong relationship because we trained together so much," Johnson said of Brookins. "I have a lot of respect for him and what he's done. There are no secrets between us. I know what he brings and he knows what I bring. It's about execution."
Johnson had plenty of talent when he arrived in Las Vegas for the filming, but he hadn't quite figured out how to put it all together properly. But watching St. Pierre daily and listening to the champion speak changed that.
St. Pierre helped him meld his individual skills together to become a complete mixed martial artist.
"I had pretty good wrestling, but Georges worked with me and helped me to make my wrestling more effective," Johnson said. "I learned how to use my striking to set up my wrestling. Pretty much every day, Georges would say something or show me something that made me a little bit better."
The result of that learning at the University of St. Pierre, if you will, will be on display on Saturday, when Johnson fights Brookins for that UFC contract. Given the improvements they've made, both figure to become mainstays.
"The great thing about 'The Ultimate Fighter' is that you can see guys like Johnson and Brookins mature and develop and really turn into pretty impressive fighters," White said. "We give them an opportunity and it's up to them what they do with it. This might not be the final I would have predicted at the start, but if you were there every day and seeing them, it's no surprise they're here."