While I still have to catch up with TUF: Brazil 2 and only realized today that TUF: China has been going on since mid-December, there was no way I was going to pass up on watching the first edition of TUF filmed in Canada. In the interest of full disclosure, I should tell you that I am both Canadian and a lover of Australian accents.
If this is anything like TUF: The Smashes, then the rest of you should be in for a treat. Smashes was essentially the precursor to this season, matching up fighters from the UK with fighters from Australia. For what they lacked in skill, the cast more than made up for with natural charisma. The show ended up producing two solid additions to the UFC roster, lightweight winner Norman Parke from Ireland and welterweight winner Robert Whittaker from Australia. While recent TUFs have featured some of Canada’s top prospects, I’m confident that they were able to scrounge up enough unsigned talent to produce a legitimate, UFC-caliber fighter (whatever that means these days) from this season. As for the Aussies, your guess is as good as mine.
There is minimal pomp and circumstance to begin, other than a short hype video to establish the atmosphere of the UFC and the national pride at stake. It is not all that different from how the other international editions of TUF usually start. Oh wait, there is one key difference:
Patrick Côté opens with some gamesmanship, deferring the ritual tossing of the coin to Kyle Noke. It turns up red, meaning Team Canada is going to start off with control of the fights. It seems somewhat unfair to me that the winning team maintains control because that coin toss may have decided the whole competition from day one. In a different season, Noke would get to pick the first fighter but since the teams are already made, he walks away with nothing. Bummer.
Does this mean we could possibly have our first Canadian TUF winner? Is it still as big a deal when half the house is from Canada? If you’re curious, the only Canadians to make it to the finals were Mike Ricci (TUF 16) and Jessica Rakoczy (TUF 18).
One last thing I have to say about pre-set teams is that I don’t mind when there isn’t an elimination round. There are pros and cons. In theory, starting a season with two hours of fights seems like a great idea. In practice, it can be a slog. Think about how many free fight cards you struggled to get through this year. Now imagine you have no idea who the fighters are and that most of them probably aren’t at the UFC level. You can see why it might be in everyone’s best interests to leave it in the hands of the casting director rather than the fighters or the judges.
I’ve barely mentioned Noke, though that’s not really my fault. Taking place in Québec, this is Côté’s home field as it were and he’s the de facto MC. Noke does have a funny moment where he declares a "no crying" rule, which would last about six seconds if this were TUF: Brazil.
I wondered how the TUF contestants who grew up watching the sunny locales of Las Vegas, São Paulo (Brazil) and Sydney (Smashes) were going to react to the first cold weather residence in the series’ history. It couldn’t be more Canadian...
...the Aussies are forced to counter with their own stereotype by throwing one on the baaaaaahbie.
Surprisingly, the Australian team really takes to the unique setting, with its taxidermy and country styling. That good feeling deteriorates quickly when Kajan Johnson gets settled and breaks out into a freestyle. This is getting ugly fast. He also has a bad habit of calling everything "money" or "gangster".
After years of toiling away in the Canadian MMA scene, I get the feeling that Kajan is enjoying the newfound exposure.
I mock, but Johnson breaks out from the pack with his informative testimonials and quirks. He does an excellent job of bigging up his teammates, which is particularly helpful even to someone like me who recognizes most of the names, but only in passing. He’s a pioneer of the Canadian MMA scene, having competed in almost thirty professional fights. When you are in such an intense sport for that long, you pick up lots of little peccadilloes. He relaxes himself by "smudging", which involves burning vegetation and rubbing the smoke over his body and he asks that Côté yell "energize" if it looks like his output is waning during a fight.
Yep, that’s sweet grass smoke. Don’t get excited Diaz brothers.
The day arrives for the first fight pick and they make a big deal about how these guys have worked their whole lives to get to this stage. Now they finally get to meet Dana White face to face...via satellite. I’ll be disappointed if he doesn’t actually visit the fighters.
Catch the wave!
Johnson is picked to fight Brendan O’Reilly. Both guys are small welterweights, which I didn’t understand. In the past, I’ve seen coaches looking to capitalize on a size advantage rather than minimize a disadvantage. Johnson has a ton of experience, but he’s also suffering from a litany of injuries and he hasn’t fought in two years. He doesn’t seem too worried.
Cheer up, Kajan.
Noke erroneously states that Johnson has lost half of his fights (his record is 19-10), but whoever said these Aussies could do math, eh? I think he meant to say that he has lost half as many fights as he’s won, something Johnson has in common with bums like Randy Couture and BJ Penn.
I can’t tell you much about O’Reilly other than that he has a great beard and he’s labelled as an "amateur cowboy". That seems vaguely insulting to me. I’m not the only one who isn’t familiar with the Australian team as they admit that they knew little about each other before the show. This is in stark contrast to the Canadians who are the most tightly knit team I’ve seen. Côté is surprising me too. I used to hate him so much when he somehow scraped and clawed his way to a middleweight title shot (I challenge you to name who Côté beat last before challenging Anderson Silva), but in truth he’s always come off as a pretty cool guy. So far he’s been the consummate coach.
The trash talk has been predictably tame. What would you expect from one culture that is known for being polite and another culture that is known for being laid back. Here is a summary of the mud slinging:
These are the guys that should be here. These are the guys that in Canada are the cream of the crop. And in Australia too. These are the best Australians they could get and...we’re gonna fight.
Oh wait, did I say that was a summary? I was actually quoting Sheldon Westcott verbatim. Sick...burn...?
Even when the Canadians get caught questioning the credentials of the Australian team, there is absolutely no follow-up. They get accused and weakly deny ill intent, barely moving from their comfy positions on the couch. I’m not envying the work that the production team had to do for this season. Later, Olivier Aubin-Mercier remarks: "...they don’t look like athletes like us..." Leave it to the French Canadian to bring it!
If O’Reilly’s goal was to prove that the Australian team isn’t intimidated by their Canadian counterparts, then he succeeded. If his goal was to win the fight, then he failed miserably.
"The Badger" is as strong as an ox, there’s no questioning that. It’s his technique and patience that fail him. He shoots in carelessly and even though he gets the takedown, he also gets a knee to the head that busts him open not 30 seconds into the first round. Johnson’s superior ground game makes sure that O’Reilly’s aggression doesn’t pay off. He rolls into a nice heel hook that O’Reilly somehow manages to survive without messing up his knee. It might have taken a toll on him though as he’s looking shaky after they get back to the feet. We see how Johnson’s experience advantage allows him to remain calm while O’Reilly is looking gassed after only two minutes of action. Johnson takes the back and secures a choke that O’Reilly barely defends. He survived the heel hook with sheer toughness so maybe he thought that strategy would work again.
O’Reilly using the rarely effective Admiral Motti choke defense.
The fight was easily the most entertaining part of what was otherwise a flat premiere. Even though O’Reilly and Johnson were sloppy, it was the good kind of sloppy that should earn them both at least one official UFC appearance in the future. As for the episode itself, were it not for the "nations" gimmick, there wasn’t much for a TUF fan to chew on. I hate to say it, but the whole thing gave me a tired TUF 16 feel and that was arguably the worst TUF season. I will remain optimistic.
As consolation to the Aussies, this episode also saw the return of Kahili Blundell, arguably the breakout star from The Smashes. There’s nothing like a cute ring girl to soothe wounded pride.
Theodorou is my pick to win, mostly because I saw him fight when Bellator came to Windsor and I want to sound cool. He also trains in Ontario and that’s a big plus. Also, this is the kind of modelling work he does: