At this Saturday's Ultimate Fighter 16 Finale, the UFC crowns their latest TUF champion. Representing Team Carwin is Shane's #3 pick, Canadian Mike Ricci (7-2). His opponent will be Team Nelson's #4 pick Colton Smith (3-1). The issues with this season have been well documented, but now that we're down to the finals, it's time to focus on one thing - the fight. Let's see if we can figure out what to expect on Saturday night, and who will walk away the Ultimate Fighter.
Ricci came into the show as one of the more big fight experienced fighters. Though he only has 8 pro fights, he's a 4 year pro, and has been competing at a notable level right from his 2008 debut for the TKO organization. His only loses come against Pat Curran in Bellator, and last season TUF fighter Daron Cruickshank. His last fight was a win over Bellator fighter Tony Hervey, and he also holds a win over noted Strikeforce fighter Jordan Mein. Ricci trains with GSP at Tristar Gym in Montreal, which right away tells you something about his skill level. On the show, he defeated Dom Waters and Michael Hill by decision, and Neil Magny by KO in the semi-finals.
Smith is a 3 year pro, but has a considerable experience gap when compared to Ricci. Of his 4 pro fights, 3 came against fighters making their MMA debut, and one came against a 1-1 fighter. That 1-1 fighter was Steve Montgomery, who KO'd Smith in the 2nd round in his last pre-TUF fight. Interestingly, all 3 of his pro wins come via first round submissions, while his fights on the show (Eddy Ellis, Igor Araujo, Jon Manley) were all decisions. Smith trains at the unknown Vanguard gym in Virginia, and is an active Army Ranger. He got off to a bad start on TUF by faking the glove tap and shooting a takedown in his fight to get into the house, but didn't show that kind of side again.
On the show, Ricci came across as a very cerebral guy, and that is reflected in his style. He's well rounded to the point that he can strategically attack an opponent's weakness, out wrestling the bad grappler Hill, and out striking the less advanced striker Magny. Left to his own devices, he prefers the stand-up game though, where the southpaw has shown good technical skills. His elbow KO in the semi-finals was gorgeous. Ricci is normally a Lightweight, where he often has a height and each advantage. He has had problems in the past with being too tentative, and I could see that hurting him in such a high pressure fight. That's what cost him against Pat Curran in Bellator.
Smith is the kind of fighter who, so far, offers no surprises. He is a straightforward wrestler who takes his opponents down, rides them, and controls his way to a win. He won every one of his TUF fights with this strategy. It's an impressive display of control, both on the mat and in the clinch, but not of damage, as Smith never seems to actually fight with much aggression (though he does like knees from the Thai clinch). On the feet, his striking is very rudimentary. He almost always sets his takedowns up with a simple 1-2-1-2 combo, charging in with those punches, then changing levels and driving through with a double leg for the takedown. From there, opponents find themselves having a surprisingly tough time escaping.
For Smith to win this fight, he'll need something new. Ricci is too smart of a fighter and at too good of a camp to get easily taken down and controlled. He's had time since the show ended, and since Smith is such a one discipline fighter, all Ricci needs to do is work his takedown defense and his escapes. If he has those tools down (and I suspect he does), he'll be able to keep the fight standing, where he will hold a significant advantage. This is Ricci's fight to lose, and as long as he doesn't hang back and let the fight get away from him, he will indeed become the first ever Canadian Ultimate Fighter champion.
Prediction: Mike Ricci by KO, round 1