A small tidbit to start off: during last Sunday’s NFL games, Fox Sports ran a commercial advertising this weekend’s Ultimate Fighter 18 finale. I noticed that they showed Gray Maynard, Nate Diaz and four finalists...with Raquel Pennington being left out. Did they inadvertently spoil the results? I only saw the promo once, so I could be mistaken. Did anyone else catch this?
At last, we’ve come to the end of a perversely enjoyable season. This is the second season since they overhauled production and I think the product has shown improvement. It’s pleasing to the eye and they’ve put the focus back on the fighters themselves rather than in-house stupidity. This season is definitely in the best 9 seasons rather than the worst 9 I can tell you that much.
In celebration of your American Thanksgiving (and as a weak segue into recap territory), I offer a brief list of TUF 18 features that I am thankful for:
· The women! I said at the beginning of the season that this roster of females could go on to be as successful as the very first TUF contestants and I stand by that. I see the majority of them panning out like Josh Koscheck or Kenny Florian, though there will likely be at least one Jason Thacker in the bunch.
· Chris Holdsworth. The show gave him plenty of camera time and for good reason. I would have been satisfied if every episode had at least one segment featuring his dorky brand of cool.
· Speaking of dorky cool, there has to be a place for Roxanne Modafferi in the UFC. I know she’s not exactly a "cover girl" and she’s too small for the 135 pound division and too big for the upcoming 115 pound division. I don’t care. She has a wicked personality and she knows just about everything there is to know about the women’s MMA scene. Give her and Shayna Baszler a YouTube show and I’m good
· "Nice shoes. Wanna f**k?"
· LIVES WITH PARENTS
· Jessamyn Duke v. Rocky. Personally, I didn’t think this fight was that great but it seemed to gain decent traction in social media and that can only be good for women’s MMA. It was a gritty battle with a high output from both fighters and it’s something they’ll be able to look back on with pride long after they’ve retired
· Sarah Moras’s shorts
· Michael Wootten’s weight cut penis
· Harley Davidson camp. Just kidding. That sucked
· The delightful insanity of both Cody Bollinger and Anthony Gutierrez missing weight. Consider that this was a dual weight season so they mucked up what was an already small bracket
· And of course: "...I just drank the bathwater."
There’s a lot on the line in tonight’s episode. Not only is Jessica Rakoczy one step away from having a shot at being the first female Ultimate Fighter winner, she would also be the first Canadian to win the show. That matters to folks like me. The only other Canadian finalists were Patrick Côté (who I don’t count because of the unique makeup of the comeback season) and Mike Ricci (who I don’t count because he is terrible). She would also be the first fighter chosen last overall in their division to claim the title. On TUF 17, Kelvin Gastelum was the last pick of Team Sonnen but Dylan Andrews was the last pick overall. No pressure.
We find out that Pennington was a solid amateur athlete who lost her scholarships after breaking her back in a snowboarding accident. This lead to her to getting into MMA, which means we have her love of shreddin’ the gnar to thank for her career change. That actually explains a lot as she’s been the most chill person in the house, even making cutting weight look like a vacation.
I’d probably be sweating a lot around Jessamyn regardless of the situation.
Rakoczy’s path to MMA is hazier. Did she make the move because it was a fresh challenge or to take advantage of the increasing interest in women’s MMA? Regardless, I give her a ton of credit for having made the move as effectively as she has. Ignore her pedestrian 1-3 (1 No Contest) record. Having won 8 world titles in boxing, it was difficult for her to find opponents so she had to step up fast. Her losses are to Michelle Ould, Zoila Frausto Gurgel and Felice Herrig who have a combined record of 28-10 (2 NC). It would have been unbelievable if she had actually beaten any of them.
There’s a pall over this week’s match-up as both girls are nursing injuries. Louis Fisette accidentally crunches Pennington’s hand during a scramble and Ashy Chris rocks Rakoczy in practice. The Beal hit aggravates a pre-existing shoulder injury. That’s something Manny Gamburyan knows all about. He lost to Nate Diaz in the TUF 5 tournament final when his shoulder popped out of place in the second round. She also gets some striking advice from Edmond Traverdyan...Tarverdyan...hey, wait a second...
Step up your game, production team!
Leading up to the fight, there’s a few cute moments to ease the tension. At the weigh-in, they laugh about Rakoczy gaining a pound (she’s a small bantamweight). David Grant and Rakoczy bond over bacon and syrup. So Canadian. Pennington has a strange dream that seriously messes with her. We see the hairdresser again. Okay, after seeing how long it takes to do proper cornrows, I can finally accept that they hired a hairdresser for the show.
I’m still not happy about it though.
When you’ve seen one TUF story, you’ve seen them all. Still, I’m a sucker for Rakoczy talking about how she had to let her son go back to Canada while she was on the show. She looks deathly serious when she says she’s afraid her son might be mad at her even though he’s only 4 years old. These are the moments that stick in people’s minds and lead to fighters being able to stick with the company for years. Nate Quarry was a decent fighter who came off as incredibly intelligent and thoughtful during his time in the house and that played a part in his being booked for 10 UFC appearances. I see similar things in Rakoczy’s future.
Rakoczy is eager to box, mentioning that Pennington claims to get high from pain and that she’s going to make her high.
Pennington on the other hand is just...off.
Pennington: I’m so relaxed, it’s f**ing weird.
Closing out the season, it would be hard for this fight to live up to the hype and frankly...it doesn’t. Whether it’s the dream or the injury or her rows are just too tight, Pennington is shows little of the confidence and aggressiveness that won her the Duke fight. That is not to take anything away from Rakoczy, who fights like what she is: a world champion boxer. She looks so light on her feet and she is able to land her jab whenever she wants. Pennington manages to score a trip, but she does almost nothing when she gets there. Rakoczy goes for an awkward leg grab counter, so Pennington just falls on top of her. Even with those takedowns, I gave the first round to Rakoczy (10-9).
The corner calls for Rakoczy to double up on the jab and hit the body. They may as well be using a video game controller because she follows their instructions to the letter. The strategy makes Pennington impatient and she ends up eating a hook. Rakoczy is in complete control of the octagon and she comes forward with combinations. Pennington uses the classic tactic of shooting late to steal a round, but it won’t be enough. Another 10-9 for Rakoczy, even more decisive than the first.
It is astonishing how crisp Rakoczy’s boxing is. She looks like she’s back between the ropes with 10 oz gloves on. A sloppy takedown attempt by Pennington results in her taking another big hook as they break apart. Rakoczy knows she has this one. I gave her all three rounds and the judges agree.
Everyone is also in agreement that Pennington didn’t fight anywhere near her potential. Dana White, Baszler and Miesha Tate all say something to the effect of "she can do better". I thought it was a great effort from both girls, especially considering their injuries. Let’s not bury the headline here. That was 15 focused and consistent minutes from Rakoczy.
MILF = Mother I’d Like to Fight
We close with the long awaited face-off between Rousey and Tate. There’s one last prank up Tate’s sleeve (er, down her shorts): a sock with the middle finger on it, a fitting response to Rousey’s usual antics. The poor sock gets tossed away and it is on!
Last year I had the brilliant idea to compare two seasons of TUF that were running concurrently: TUF 16: Team Carwin v. Team Nelson and TUF: The Smashes (the UK/Australia edition of TUF). It was just my luck that the US edition happened to be worthless while The Smashes was too obscure for anyone to care about on this side of the pond. I bring this up because I had the rare chance to pick three winners (a welterweight for TUF 16 and a welterweight and a lightweight for The Smashes).
I picked Ricci, Brad Scott and Colin Fletcher. All three lost. When you think about it, getting all three wrong is almost as impressive as getting them right, isn’t it? I followed that up by willingly piling on to the Urijah Hall bandwagon and we all know how that went. I’m currently on a four finale losing streak. This ends today!
Chris Holdsworth (4-0) v. David Grant (8-1)
Is there any question who I’m picking here?
Even if I wasn’t fond of the young man, I’d be hard pressed to bet against him considering his pedigree and his performances on the show. Getting into the house, he struggled for a couple of minutes against Fisette. Other than that, he’s rolled through the competition. He came in with the Alpha Male association, a spotless 4-0 record and some serious grappling credentials and he didn’t disappoint. I’ll admit that my lack of knowledge when it comes to Grant and the UK MMA scene in general means I could be making a mistake here. I have to go with what I know.
The pick: Holdsworth
Julianna Peña (4-2) v. Jessica Rakoczy (1-3 [1 NC])
Rakoczy is the sentimental favourite and were this a question of who I want to win, I’d pick her without hesitation. She is proof that someone with a strong background in a single discipline can make the leap to MMA late in their lives with hard work and commitment to studying other styles. She’s like a more attractive James Toney.
Unfortunately, the octagon cares not for who you are or where you come from.
I can’t say I’ve been overly impressed with Peña, but I agree with the notion that she’s a budding star waiting to erupt. At only 24, she’s 12 years younger than Rakoczy. She is at the point in her career where every action is a rising one while nature dictates that Rakoczy must be on the decline. In her three fights (including the elimination round), Peña has shown she has another gear that her opponents haven’t been able to keep up with. From a mental standpoint, her unique mix of arrogance and paranoia might actually serve her well under the bright lights of the UFC. It’s hard to get distracted when you’re so focused on your own world.
Should Rakoczy pull off the upset, I’ll be happy to be wrong.
The pick: Peña
With that, I’m signing off for the season. I never thought I’d have this much fun writing about The Ultimate Fighter. The show itself was spectacular and the feedback I got from you all every week made it even better. I might take a week off from posting content just to recharge, sort out some ideas I have bouncing around in my head and make more time to read posts from other wonderful contributors. If you like what I do, then keep an eye out for my posts. Otherwise, I’ll see you next season!