The UFC hosted their 17th finale for an Ultimate Fighter season this Saturday. It has been eight years since the dramatic first season, hosted by legends of the sport and filled with future title contenders. That provisional season had its problems, from fighters being eliminated due to Survivor style games rather than fighting, Sam Hoger being able to advance to the final four without actually fighting, and constant reshuffling of teams, but in the end the charming eccentricities of Forrest Griffin and Diego Sanchez, the made for TV conflict between Josh Koscheck and Chris Leben, and the quality of fights overcame it all to deliver an unforgettable season of reality television.
Now it seems that everything about The Ultimate Fighter is forgettable. Gone are the days of its champions challenging for titles, instead they are put into prelim "main events" on Fuel TV and often as not are fighting for their jobs. A modern season of the Ultimate Fighter produces two to three long term UFC fighters, while the rest washout within a year of leaving the TUF house.
But this season seemed different, there was some real buzz coming into this finale, all of it around Uriah Hall, who turned heads with his spinning hook kick knock out and continued to impress as the show went on. His style of fighting, the way he carried himself in the cage, the way he finished fights, everything about this kid screamed star, and then Kelvin Gastelum put a stop to all of it.
It is a reminder of one thing that is oft over looked when coming out of a TUF season, the fights on TUF are not MMA. Not true, professional MMA as fought at the highest levels of this sport, it certainly looks like it, but it is a different format. The fighters live and train in very close proximity to each other and work with the same coaches, they find out who they are fighting with only a few days to prepare, and then clash for only two rounds with all the other fighters watching live.
Hall seemed to develop a serious mental edge on the other fighters in the show due to his performances both in the fights and in practice, and his opponents stepped into the cage already beaten. But give a fighter a full training camp, with his own coaches, and things are very different. The ability for fighters to train specifically for things an opponent will be doing, drill the movements, gain confidence in their techniques, and then give them an additional round to implement their plan, and you get a very different fight.
And that finale fight was all about head space, and Gastelum won that battle. He came in determined and focused, while it seemed Hall seemed to have been reading his own press clippings. To Hall's credit he didn't come out throwing spinning kicks and trying to force a replication of the Adam Cella knockout, but he dropped his hands, put his back to the fence and allowed Gastelum to close the distance without consequence on several occasions.
Going forward will be a test of Hall's fortitude, does this become just a speed bump that he overcomes and on his way to bigger or better things, or does he become just another Ultimate Fighter washout?
Alright, that long thought is out of the way, on to the bullet point perspectives from last night:
- Kevin Gastelum was impressive. He was not intimated at all and there were several moments that provided "an out" or a chance for him to quit, and he chose to persevere. Gastelum is still very young in the sport, and is still developing. He just received his purple belt in 10th Planet Jiu Jitsu a few months ago, and if his grappling continues to develop down in Yuma he could turn into an interesting fighter, perhaps a lesser version of Chris Weidman, a wrestler with good no gi submission skills and striking. I doubt we will ever see him competing for titles, but solid UFC gate keeper could be in his future, which is nothing to scoff at when it comes to fighting careers.
- Uriah Hall is clearly gifted, both physically and in terms of acquired skills. He is a technical striker with a flair for the dramatic, and his grappling is improving. Hall's ground game right now is pretty clearly one of escape and return to the feet, and that makes good use of his explosive athleticism, but too much of that kind of grappling is draining. That was likely a key factor in Hall slowing down as the fight wore on.
- Clearly the biggest issue was that Hall seemed to think that his striking ability was far ahead of Gastelum's that he could afford to play with his food. How Hall behaved after the fight, embracing Gastelum and taking the loss in stride is a positive sign that Hall is going to learn from this and move on.
- The true main event, between Scott Jorgensen and the California Kid Urijah Faber was a little overshadowed by all the upset talk, but was a wonderfully technical match. Faber continues to build his resume and legacy, and at age 33 it appears he has one more run in him to try to get over this UFC Championship hurdle he is facing. Faber was king of the sub-155 lb divisions before the WEC merger, but his legacy will not be complete if he doesn't claim a UFC and he might get once last chance late this year or early next.
- The Fight of the Night was an excellent match between Cat Zingano and Miesha Tate. While not particularly technical on the feet, this fight featured some awesome grappling exchanges. Tate set a very fast pace at the start of the fight and showed off her excellent grappling, and about half way through the second round Zingano looked like she might be finished. Zingano had reportedly cried when she entered the Octagon, looked very upset at the start of the second round, and it really appeared the Octagon jitters were going to claim another victim. But Zingano found a second wind in that later stages of that second round, and while I scored it for Tate, the fight seemed to shift from there on out. At the start of the third it was Zingano who was the fresher fighter and she put the screws to Tate. It was an extremely impressive comeback win.
- For Tate, this is a massive disappointment. She was on the verge of becoming a main stream figure, playing the foil to Ronda Rousey on The Ultimate Fighter 18 would have been huge for her career, and likely for the UFC as well. Tate is still one of the better fighters at Bantamweight, but the clear difference in physicality between the two women gives me pause. As Women's MMA evolves I expect we will seem the same trend we saw in Men's MMA as larger and more powerful athletes begin cutting down, and I wonder if Tate will continue to thrive if that trend asserts itself.
- Zingano was impressive, but she still looked very raw in some ways. The way she froze up when Tate attack that heel hook shows her inexperience, there a great deal of time Zingano lingered in that position and a good leg locker would have been able to use that time. Zingano is still in her first 10 pro fights so it is expected she not look like a season veteran, but if she experiences a moment of hesitation like that against Rousey she will be headed home in a sling.
- The refereeing last night was not particularly good. Chris Tognoni allowed Travis Browne to unload a torrent of elbow strikes to the back of Gabriel Gonzaga's head for a quick knockout win. Yes the first two elbows appeared to be on the ear, but that doesn't excuse the several that struck Gonzaga flush to the back of the head and base of the neck. Tognoni also allowed Dylan Andrews to work a bit longer on Jimmy Quinlan than really necessary as well. Kim Winslow also gave endless warnings about grabbing the fence anytime a fighter touched the chain links, but never actually took any action. Warnings are meaningless is not back up with some form of punishment. It also appeared that one of Zingano's knee strikes to finish Tate might have been illegal by a finger tip on Winslow's watch, but it happened so fast and was so close I'm not sure she can be faulted for that.
- When it comes to TUF fighters clashing, I firmly believe we learn the most about this fighters once they begin fighting other UFC fighters. But I will say that Bubba McDaniel showed off some nice grappling ability and made Gilbert Smith look completely lost on the ground. And congrats to BE reader Josh Samman for surviving a pretty awesome chain submission attack by the Rickson Gracie devote Kevin Casey and fighting very smart, working the body of the cardio plagued Casey.
- Speaking of fighting intelligently, Cole Miller who has long been a "I'll go where the fight takes me" sort of guy shot for a take down late in the first round and the instant Bart Palaszewski touched the mat Miller's fortunes in that fight changed. The speed and ease which Miller took the back and choked out a Pedro Sauer black belt like Palaszewski should let fans know what kind of grappler Miller is, but he so rarely peruses grappling in his fights. Miller's job was on the line this time and it pretty clearly changed how he approached this fight and as a fan of his I hope we see him take that heart in his next fight.