I was surprised how much I missed the show after taking last week off. As much as I complain, there are plenty of positives. For the most part, the cast is diverse and memorable, the fights have been solid and there’s just enough drama to keep things interesting without being overly manufactured. That last point definitely held true this week in one of the most emotional entries yet in the Nations season.
Sheldon Westcott returns to the house with what would only be considered "good news" if you’re an athlete. He has various strains that were severe enough to cause numbness in his arm, but other than that there are no breaks or tears. The house is happy for him. I’d be bitching and complaining about the discomfort; Westcott is thrilled because it means he can still compete.
Watching the fighters make their requests for the next round is usually one of my favourite segments, but it’s fairly obvious who all of the welterweights are going to pick so that removes most of the intrigue. All the Canadians want to fight Richard Walsh, while Walsh chooses Kajan Johnson. Johnson mentions that he knows he’ll have to fight the best anyway so he’d be happy with anyone and that may have sealed his fate, as it were.
All four middleweights get the fights they wanted, which makes me wonder if they spoke to each other about what to say to White. Here are the semi-final matches:
- Johnson v. Laprise
Johnson: I’ll look at your hair. You look at my chest.
- Aubin-Mercier v. Walsh
Filthy judo versus...just filthy.
- Theodorou v. Manawaroa
First one to have their hat turned forward loses.
- Westcott v. Grujic
Vik trying not to get lost in Sheldon’s eyes.
The majority of the episode is geared towards developing the identity of Chad Laprise. Prior to this episode, he came off as a mostly non-descript housemate who was quick to smile even as he did little besides discuss the competition. There was the hint of something bubbling underneath and it’s Laprise himself who chooses to delve into his own past of shameful violence. The emotional recounting gets him fired up, causing a previously suppressed stutter to come out in full force. His dream is to open up a "fight church", where martial artists can train and then learn about God together.
Laprise’s desire to succeed spills over into his fight preparation, where he makes sure that he will have a coaching edge. This leads to a convoluted cornering situation. Initially, the plan is for Fábio Holanda and Nordine Taleb to corner Johnson while Laprise would go with Kru Ash (who he trains with outside of the show) and Roberto Tussa (Team Australia’s jiu-jitsu coach). Somewhere along the way, Taleb drops out because he doesn’t want to corner against his teammate and David Zilberman (Team Canada’s wrestling coach) joins Team Laprise. The final corner total 3-1 in favour of Laprise.
The editing team does a masterful job with the set-up for this fight, including a fine use of split-screen to show the disparity in support for Laprise and Johnson. My theory is that they want to change the perception of Laprise, not so much making him into a villain but definitely someone who stands in contrast to Johnson, Walsh and Olivier Aubin-Mercier (who can’t even talk about knocking someone out without breaking into a chuckle) as far as going to any lengths to get an advantage.
Laprise is shown hanging out with the Aussies who have taken a shine to him. Walsh says everyone wants Laprise to win. He also mentions that he didn’t want to fight Laprise because Laprise wanted it so badly. You gotta play hard to get! Jake Matthews is unconvinced, suggesting that he is politicking to get the support of the Australians.
When it comes to deciding who gets the Canada locker room, Johnson compromises again. His reasoning is that he needs to know that Laprise is at his best to make the fight worthwhile, but I have to wonder if it’s just in his nature to not make waves. He might be giving up too much here ahead of such an important bout.
Can I interest you in a pre-match back rub too, bro?
Case in point, the coaches all take the opportunity to encourage Laprise, especially Patrick Côté who says that Johnson is overconfident. Even Holanda says not to worry about Johnson’s wrestling and that there is no way Laprise will be taken down. Holanda is in Johnson’s corner!
Notice how sad Olivier looks.
Johnson takes a moment to visit the Canadian locker room to give hugs to everyone, but I can feel the tension through my television screen. He goes across the hall to prepare, hitting pads with Taleb while Laprise is surrounded by the majority of Team Canada. Johnson would later say that it felt like everyone was against him.
As you’d expect from training partners, the two are evenly matched in the opening minutes. There is lots of movement by both guys, though Laprise looks as tight and focused as usual. Johnson lands a clean punch that causes Laprise to slip, but only for a second. That seems to wake him up and now it’s Laprise who starts to connect. I actually lean narrowly towards Johnson getting the first round (10-9), factoring in a near takedown that was only stopped by an obvious cage grab. Shouldn’t judges be allowed to use their own discretion when scoring that?
In round 2, Laprise is definitely landing the heavier shots. He looks steady while Johnson is becoming more loose, more careless. Watching the fight a second time, it’s incredible to see Laprise’s corner being so vocal as Johnson struggles to score a takedown and the Australians rallying behind Johnson when they see how alone he is. Grujic in particular cheers for Johnson to do well. You can see the growing distress in Johnson’s face.
Johnson is down to landing single shots with no combinations. He ends up throwing fancy s**t that doesn’t land. The walls are closing in on him. Laprise lands a beautiful counter shot and Johnson goes down face first. His jaw is broken, possibly by the follow-up punches that are hard to watch.
It is crypt quiet in the gym. You’d hesitate to celebrate a knockout like this against a hated enemy, much less a close friend. Even the Australians that butted heads with Johnson look concerned. Brendan O’Reilly, his rival, talks about how much he respects him. The losing fighter reacts with a mix of shock and fading adrenaline. Awww, this sucks! Johnson says, which is about as accurate a summation as you can make.
Training partners rarely fight in MMA, even on TUF. The last time I saw a finish this devastating between close friends was on TUF: Brazil 1 when Rony Jason broke Gasparzinho’s arm. Those two lived together! This knockout was worse, though.
Back in the locker room, the Australians are there to console Kajan. One of them (Grujic, I think) says "You’re amongst friends, Kajan." I’m not sure he hears it. Aubin-Mercier, Grujic and Johnson himself talk about how he might have been hung out to dry by his team. I know I could barely see Holanda moving or talking during the fight while Laprise’s corner (and possibly Côté) were as vocal as possible.
Johnson struggles to speak, his jaw is so messed up. Having to see him subtitled only makes his words more impactful:
I just didn’t want to go through this again. I didn’t want my face to break again. I didn’t want to lose the biggest fight of my life...It’s just another test. I just don’t know why I am tested so much.
What a bummer. How to boost my spirits...
Aaaah, thanks Steph.