(I wanted to have this up no later than a day after the airing of the premiere, but problems with my internet arose. Apologies to anyone who is reading this. I’ll be better in the future.)
They finally did it. They stole my idea for The Ultimate Fighter meets Paradise Hotel. Sure, I would have gone for more freak show appeal with strawweight women and heavyweight men and I would have had the matches be for the right to have, er, relations with someone on the other team. I’m thinking the guys and girls would be put into pairs and...what’s that? You don’t care? I’ll just move on.
It’s no exaggeration to say that this could be the most memorable TUF cast since the original back in 2005 that gave us such luminaries as Josh Koscheck, Mike Swick, Stephan Bonnar, Chris Leben, Nate Quarry, Kenny Florian, Diego Sanchez and Forest Griffin. One of the reasons that cast was so strong was that there was still a dearth of unsigned fighters in North America at the time. All those names I just listed could have been competing in the UFC without winning a reality show, but the experience went a long way to making them stars. Drawing from a growing pool of high level female fighters, this cast has the same potential.
The show opens up with an amusing scene where the producers went out of their way to essentially "punk" Ronda Rousey. Unaware that opposing coach Cat Zingano had suffered a knee injury, Rousey is stunned to see Miesha Tate (repeatedly referred to in droll terms as Rousey’s "best friend") at the TUF facility. She understandably freaks out, though it’s less understandable that she assumed Tate had been brought in to take her spot instead of Zingano’s. That’s a surprising show of insecurity for Rousey, the undisputed face of the UFC’s women’s bantamweight division. It’s a funny moment and both Rousey and Tate share a laugh, something that won’t happen too often during the season.
I don’t claim to be an expert on any of these contestants; however, even the smallest amount of research would tell you that veterans Shayna Baszler, Tonya Evinger, Tara LaRosa and Roxanne Modafferi are favoured. They form a "big four" of women who have been carrying the banner for their sport since as early as 2002.
Women’s Bantamweight Fight 1
Duke reveals that she’d done some modelling in the past to make some scratch. I can see it. She’s pretty and her tall, thin build wouldn’t look out of place on a runway somewhere. Howarth is the only contestant with no professional experience, though she is 4-0 as an amateur.
Appropriately, Kim Winslow is in the house to officiate the first female fight in TUF history.
There is a clear height advantage for Duke, who shows crisp striking that forces Howarth to clinch to avoid getting jabbed into oblivion. Duke scores with a trip, but Howarth manages to scramble into Duke’s guard. For someone who is primarily a stand-up fighter, Howarth looks decent on the ground. She’s fighting to stay on top as if her life depends on it. Duke is more efficient and you can tell that Howarth is the one in danger, not the girl on the bottom. It’s only a matter of time until Duke locks in a triangle choke and makes history.
Men’s Bantamweight Fight 1
Danny Martinez (16-4) v. David Grant (8-1)
We get a bizarre battle here as Grant is guilty of two awkward fouls. The first is a downward elbow to the spine that temporarily halts the action, but doesn’t result in a deduction. The second is a disputed illegal knee that does cost Grant a point.
Martinez is a natural flyweight and it’s clear that the size differential is affecting his results. He’s got an intense pressuring style that isn’t quite as effective when your opponent is able to defend most of your takedown attempts and smack you from long distance. The extra weight also adds a lot to Grant’s punches. While Martinez might have the volume, he’s taking too much damage during the exchanges. The fouls might have slowed him down enough for Grant to perform a nice counter into a fight ending armbar.
Women’s Bantamweight Fight 2*
There’s a marked contrast in fighter backgrounds here as the 36-year old Rakoczy talks about doing this to provide a better life for a child while Berto has a more romantic view of things. She comes from a family of fighters, including her father, one-time UFC vet Dieusel Berto, and her brother, boxing champion Andre Berto.
This is the first fight to get the "highlights only" treatment (indicated with a "*" from now on). The coaches are surprised when what was expected to be a striking battle turns into a gritty grappling match. Rakoczy has better submission defence than expected, staying alive until she’s able to attack with a hold of her own. It’s funny looking, but Rakoczy manages to get a rare omoplata submission win.
I’m loving how they’re portraying Rousey as being stone cold to Tate in-between fights, but as soon as the action starts up again she gets all jumpy and excited just like any other fan. I find that endearing.
Men’s Bantamweight Fight 2*
Michael Wooten (6-0) v. Emil Hartsner (4-0)
Dana White notes that Wooten is the top bantamweight prospect in Europe. That’s about the only nice thing he has to say about this match. It turns into an ugly clinch-fest against the cage and White jokes that his allegiance kept switching between whichever fighter looked like they were actually going to do something. He despairs over the time in his life he’ll never get back.
Tate: Did he just slap him in the face?
Wooten swears he’s better than that performance suggests. Guess it’s important to guarantee a spot in the house, right?
Women’s Bantamweight Fight 3*
Peggy Morgan (2-0) v. Bethany Marshall (4-1)
Morgan and Marshall both have stories that are too charming for the manly-man world of MMA. Morgan says her son thinks his mother fights in a "lion’s cage"; Marshall smiles as she recalls her and her boyfriend having their first fights on the same night. This is about where the cutesy stuff ends.
Tate: (pointing to Marshall) This girl over here, she’s a ‘25er.
White: Oh, is she really?
White: (pointing to Morgan) And she’s a f**ing ‘55er.
This is a showcase fight for Morgan, who is hard to ignore with her red hair and enormous stature. She’s 6’1", the same height as George Roop. Might I remind you that she is a bantamweight.
Marshall is smothered from the get-go. Her takedown attempt is countered by Morgan falling forward on top of her, right into mount. Morgan dishes out a ton of punishment, whether it’s because she’s unwilling or unable to attack with a submission. The referee eventually calls this one off.
Rousey: Peggy don’t give a f**k.
Women’s Bantamweight Fight 4
Roxanne Modafferi (15-10) v. Valérie LeTournéau (4-3)
LeTournéau trains with Georges St-Pierre. As for Modafferi...
Modafferi: I first started martial arts as a middleschooler doing karate because I saw the Power Rangers and I wanted to be a good person and beat up the bad guys.
Advantage: Modafferi. That quote is only surpassed by her mother signing off from their phone call with "May the force be with you." Can I live with the Modafferis?
I suppose it’s also worth mentioning that Modafferi is one of the most experienced female fighters around and it shows when she imposes her will against LeTournéau. She takes her down with a single leg and barely takes any damage en route to winning via rear naked choke.
Modafferi: I feel outstanding! No stopping me. I’m happy...that was really lame. That’s okay! (dorky laugh)
Men’s Bantamweight Fight 3
Like previous TUF contestant Matt Hamill, Sandmeier is hearing impaired. He was worried kids would make fun of him for wearing a hearing aid, so he taught himself how to read lips at a young age. That’s determination right there.
Gorman is a tiny guy, just 5’4". He may as well wear a sign that says "future flyweight". White and Tate joke about how Gorman looks ready to bang and then he immediately shoots in for a takedown. Strategy or not, Gorman makes the most of his advantage and works to back control before getting full mount. There’s a prolonged beating and (surprise, surprise) Steve Mazzagatti probably waits a few seconds too long before shutting this one down.
Rousey thinks Gorman is "ballsy". White says he seems like a "nutball". Ladies and gentleman, we might have a pre-season favourite for the Chris Leben House Psychopath Award (other winners include Junie Browning and Julian Lane).
Women’s Bantamweight Fight 5*
Raquel Pennington (3-3) v. Tonya Evinger (11-6)
Before the fight, Tate dishes out some personal information about Evinger:
Tate: Always has too much drama going on with her girlfriends.
White: No s**t.
Tate: That’s the story of her life. All the fights she’s lost, she probably should’ve won.
That’s "Inside Baseball" right there. There must be some truth to it as Evinger becomes the first of the "big four" to get taken out. Pennington is down on the scorecards after one, but she takes advantage of a gassed Evinger and finishes her with a guillotine choke in the second round. Afterwards, Evinger mentions that she might have too many distractions in her life giving credence to Tate’s analysis. It would have been fun to see this woman in the house.
Men’s Bantamweight Fight 4*
It’s a shame that we don’t get to see more of this one as Beal seems to have a crowd pleasing style and Kakai is a highly touted bantamweight free agent. Beal’s past involves a serious battle with sarcoma of the leg. That ordeal must make a cage fight seem trivial. His perseverance shows as he’s able to take a decision with confident striking and good work from the bottom.
Men’s Bantamweight Fight 5*
Holohan is from "the ghettos of Dublin" according to White. Huh. As intriguing as that sounds, it’s not likely to do him much good against Hill, a top bantamweight prospect with elite wrestling. White is mortified by Hill’s indefatigable top game and makes sure everyone knows about it. Winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing, Dana.
And yes, my Canadian bias is showing.
Women’s Bantamweight Fight 6
Colleen Schneider (4-4) v. Shayna Baszler (15-8)
It would be a massive understatement to say that Baszler has a chip on her shoulder. It’s more like a nacho platter. She boasts that she is higher ranked than some of the women already fighting in the UFC and that she is "offended" by the whole situation. Arrogant? Maybe. I’m not sure she’s wrong though. She’s playing the grizzled veteran role to a tee.
Baszler: It’s easy to be hungry when...when the feast is at the table now. I was hungry when all we were being fed was crumbs. That’s hunger.
Schneider puts in a good effort, but Baszler is really f**king strong. She is in complete control of the clinches and winds up on top whenever the action hits the mat. This is what they call "walking the walk". An armbar makes it official and Baszler celebrates by playing some air guitar. Some Bachman-Turner Overdrive, perhaps?
Men’s Bantamweight Fight 6
I couldn’t be rooting harder for Fisette. He’s from Winnipeg and his storyline revolves around how much he mooches off of his father so he can follow his dream. Something I can relate to.
It’s a fast start for Fisette, who is annoyed that everyone underestimates him. He gets on top but he also gets lazy and nearly succumbs to a triangle. Holdsworth is only getting stronger as the match goes on. He has deliberate jiu-jitsu, constantly improving his position and eventually winning with an arm triangle. Tate, his fellow Alpha, er, Female, says that he has the best BJJ in the house. The hype train rolls on.
Random question: how does Gilbert Smith get front row seats to the TUF tapings? Is he the Damon "Basketball" Jones of the UFC?
Women’s Bantamweight Fight 7*
Gina Mazany (3-0) v. Julianna Peña (4-2)
Mazany is a former ballerina/figure skater, which makes for a mesmerizing beatdown. She’s not exactly a pretty picture with her dyed hair flying around as she’s getting her face smashed. Peña is presented as a monster, though you have to give Mazany credit for making it to a decision.
Men’s Bantamweight Fight 7*
Matt Munsey (4-1) v. Anthony Gutierrez (4-0)
Another fight that draws poor reviews from the coaches. Gutierrez takes the "better safe than sorry" approach, vowing to be smarter in his next appearance. Whether that means he’ll be any more exciting is unclear. It is cool that he skipped school to become a fighter and is now getting this shot at the UFC four years into his MMA career. Consider this his graduation.
Women’s Bantamweight Fight 8*
Tara LaRosa (21-3) v. Sarah Moras (3-1)
Up next is the last of the marquee names, Greg Jackson disciple Tara LaRosa. Even Moras is impressed by LaRosa’s reputation, recalling that when she started her training, LaRosa was arguably the best women’s bantamweight in the world. She also says that she’s "stoked" with a completely blank expression on her face.
Aside from Baszler, I would have said that LaRosa was the surest bet to get a spot on the show. Shows what I know. Moras is a whirlwind on the mat, constantly attacking whether she was on top or on her back. Add in some timely takedowns and Moras has the recipe for a decision win. You have to think LaRosa might have overlooked her opponent here.
Kelowna, B.C. is IN DA HOUSE!
Men’s Bantamweight Fight 8
Rafael de Freitas (6-0-1) v. Cody Bollinger (14-2)
Two of the more well known names are paired up to close out the elimination round. De Freitas is a renowned BJJ practitioner in Brazil, who has only dipped his toes into MMA until recently. Bollinger has been on the UFC’s radar for some time.
Freitas’ jiu-jitsu is as good as advertised, though he wastes a lot of energy going for submissions that just aren’t there. He and Bollinger are both gassed in the second. It takes Bollinger about sixty unanswered punches to finally do enough damage for a TKO. Sloppy finish, but that fight wouldn’t have looked out of place on an actual UFC card. Both De Freitas and Bollinger should have a future in this sport.
Right off the bat, I hate that Rousey won the coin toss and chose to pick the first fight instead of the first fighter. Why would you do that? Wouldn’t you always want to take the person with the best chance to win, regardless of match-ups?
Here are your teams (women were selected first, the men second):
1. Julianna Peña
2. Sarah Moras
3. Rocky Pennington
4. Roxanne Modafferi
1. Cody Bollinger
2. Chris Holdsworth
3. Josh Hill
4. Tim Gorman
1. Shayna Baszler
2. Jessamyn Duke
3. Peggy Morgan
4. Jessica Rakoczy
1. Chris Beal
2. David Grant
3. Anthony Gutierrez
4. Mike Wooten
Notes on the draft:
· Tate goes with Peña as her first pick. This isn’t the first time a coach has used a top pick based on friendship. It rarely goes well. Joe Scarola (with Matt Serra), Marc Stevens (with Josh Koscheck) and Bubba McDaniels (with Jon Jones) immediately come to mind. In the case of Scarola, his poor showing and subsequent request to leave the house so he could hang out with his girl ended up ruining a close relationship with Serra. He was the best man at Serra’s wedding!
· I’m surprised Holdsworth didn’t go first overall, though I wonder if Tate knew that Rousey wouldn’t pick him since Holdsworth and Tate are in the same camp.
· It’s a good thing that Rousey didn’t pick Moras. After winning her fight, Moras said she wanted to take the champ out.
· After being picked by Tate, Gorman endeared himself to her fans immediately:
Gorman: I got picked by Miesha Tate. Is that her name? Is "Miesha Tate" her name? I don’t even know what her name is so, really, I don’t even care that she picked me last ‘cause I don’t even know who she is.
This guy isn’t even pacing himself, bringing the a-hole attitude right out of the gate!
· Rousey’s girls look slightly stronger, with Baszler leading the way along with two giantess’ in Duke and Morgan. Tate’s guys look way better. Bollinger, Holdsworth and Hill are all UFC-calibre fighters, while Rousey’s males are mostly unknown properties. Then again, this is why they fight the fights.
It’s matchmaking time and Rousey goes straight BJ Penn on Tate, booking Baszler and Peña right off the bat. She’s not just going after Tate’s best fighter, she’s going after her friend. Tate was high on Peña’s ability to grow during her time on the show, but it won’t do her much good if she gets eliminated in the first week. Okay, maybe Rousey does know what she’s doing.
A decent first episode, though none of the fights were particularly memorable. Most of them got the highlight treatment, which is telling. Still, as I said before, the freshness of the female division and the genuine animosity between the coaches is going to go a long way towards continuing the TUF renaissance that started last year with the fantastic Jones/Sonnen season. If I had to pick, I’d go with Baszler for the women and Holdsworth for the men, with Hill, Morgan and, of course, Modafferi as dark horse candidates.
Who you got?