It’s hard to believe that it’s been seven years since B.J. Penn first coached The Ultimate Fighter opposite fellow legend Jens Pulver. At the time, lightweights were an iffy property after Pulver had vacated the belt in March, 2002 and Penn and Caol Uno fought to a title fight draw in February 2003. Pulver sought better pay elsewhere and Penn would claim the welterweight championship from Matt Hughes before also leaving the promotion. With the two biggest stars out of the picture, the lightweight division was suspended until 2006.
None of this is to say that everyone was sitting on their butts waiting for Penn and Pulver to come back. When lightweight action resumed, several fighters would step up to remind fans how exciting and explosive the "little guys" could be. Spencer Fisher, Kenny Florian, Hermes França, Tyson Griffin, Clay Guida, Melvin Guillard, Roger Huerta, Joe Stevenson, and Sam Stout are just a few of the names who were making a splash at 155 in the & division even as it was unclear when they would get a strap to call their own.
In October of 2006, Sean Sherk would defeat Florian to become the first champion since Penn (a year later, Sherk would test positive for steroids and be stripped of the title. The lightweight belt was something of a "cursed idol" back then). Just like that, all the momentum that had been built up over the year came to a grinding halt. The UFC went to the TUF well to rejuvenate the division.
With Penn and Pulver back in the fold, it made perfect sense to feature them and a whole cast of fighters in their weight class. The crew included several contestants who had already made appearances in the UFC so for some this was an opportunity to boost their profiles. Joe Lauzon was a particularly strange inclusion as he had actually knocked out Pulver in his lone UFC appearance (Matt Wiman and Gabe Ruediger were the other two, though they were unsuccessful in their debuts).
What resulted was one of the show’s finest seasons, with great fights, great drama between the coaches and great careers for many of the cast members. Lauzon, Wiman, Ruediger, Nate Diaz, Rob Emerson, Manny Gamburyan, Corey Hill, Gray Maynard and Cole Miller would all go on to have at least three UFC appearances, with Diaz, Maynard and Gamburyan (in the WEC at featherweight) getting world title shots. It gave the lightweight division the surge of talent that it needed and a marquee main event rematch in Penn/Pulver. Penn would make short work of Pulver this time, before moving on to destroy Stevenson and Sherk to establish himself as the undisputed lightweight king.
Enter Frankie Edgar.
Standing just 5’6", Edgar didn’t possess an eye popping physique or one punch knockout power. He was neither a limb snatching submission machine nor a haymaker throwing brawler. But he was fast. Real fast.
Edgar’s top shelf wrestling and indefatigable approach proved to be the perfect foil for Penn and he won a controversial decision to dethrone Penn after "The Prodigy" had reigned for over eight hundred days. An immediate rematch was called and Edgar shut the door on any controversy, sweeping the scorecards. He would go on to have a pair of classic title defences against Maynard before dropping the title to Ben Henderson.
And that’s how we got here. Team Edgar versus Team Penn. Edgar now at featherweight, Penn dropping down for one last shot at his rival. The stakes are much smaller, the fighters are much larger, but the song is the same. Welcome to the 19th season of The Ultimate Fighter.
I’m really looking forward to Penn coaching again. He’s older and wiser now, maybe even more mature. Damn, it seems like he and Edgar actually like each other. That’s a shame. Edgar mentions that he actually tried out for season 5, which is mind blowing in retrospect. You think he would have done better than Andy Wang?
On to the fights!
(* indicates that a fight is "highlights only")
Light Heavyweight Fight 1Tyler King (7-1) v. Daniel Spohn (8-3)
The first fight brings on a rollercoaster of emotions. King is an ex-NFL player who had his career derailed by an injury. His mom is there to support him. She says she feels sorry for the other guy. It’s an ill omen for what is to come.
The action doesn’t last long. A counter-punch by Spohn drops King with one shot. It’s as ugly as knockouts get, with King crashing down face first into the cage. Mom comes over right away to check on him. Dana White, Edgar and Penn talk about how this is the "hurt business". Normally, such a thrilling start would be celebrated but this is uncomfortable.
Middleweight Fight 1Adrian Miles (14-5) v. Hector Urbina (16-8)
Miles was picked on because of his freckles. There’s a motivation I haven’t heard before. Urbina is high school wrestling stud who turned pro after graduation. I imagine he’s the sort who would have bullied Miles if he knew him.
Urbina doesn’t hide his desire for the takedown. He goes after it with everything he’s got and it’s almost not enough because Miles has some incredible balance. Penn loves Urbina’s grappling, especially when he breaks out a move that is best described as a modified judo throw. Urbina pulls guard and ends the fight with a guillotine choke. He yells out "Will you be my uncle?" Not sure who he was talking to (Dana?), but that’s pretty funny.
Light Heavyweight Fight 2Jake Heun (6-3) v. Todd Monaghan (8-2)
Ah, Jake Heun. Here’s a guy with a story. He’s a Chris Leben disciple who tried out for TUF 17. I’ve seen him fight at heavyweight, middleweight and now light heavyweight. You can tell that he wants to do this for a living so badly. He says that it’s a "conscious decision to be a broke ass fighter".
Monaghan is a reformed criminal and a born again Christian. He shares a pre-fight prayer with his wife.
Heun looks great out of the gate, staggering Monaghan with a combination. There’s a premature celebration by Heun after some borderline illegal ground strikes. Heun is sloppy, but there’s something there. Monaghan gives up his back and it looks like this one is over but he’s okay! Then he pulls an arm bar out of nowhere! Monaghan wins!
Heun says that he’s done with fighting. Bummer.
Middleweight Fight 2Cathal Pendred (13-2) v. ???
Everything I’ve heard about Pendred has him pegged as the top welterweight prospect out of the UK, so it should be a treat to see him fight. Unfortunately, White tells us that his opponents kept suffering various maladies and they weren’t able to get him a match-up in time. For the first time in TUF history, a fighter is getting into the house on a bye. Feel the excitement!
For some reason, all of the fighters under Team Edgar’s watch have short shorts. White mockingly calls it "Jersey Style". Edgar asks one of his guys what’s up and he’s told that they’re being cut for good luck. Remember this for later.
Middleweight Fight 3*Roger Zapata (5-1) v. Tyler Minton (5-1)
Zapata falls for that old reality television trap: answer a question about your family and watch the tears flow. He’s a new dad, spurred on by an online chat with his wife. He calmly takes Minton apart en route to a TKO victory.
Middleweight Fight 4*Lyman Good (15-3) v. Ian Stephens (4-0)
Being a former Bellator champ, Good is a marked man. Everyone mentions it and I’m sure it only served to motivate his opponent. Stephens is twenty-five years old with only two pro fights. Surprisingly, he dominates the action.
White: This is not gonna look good if the f**kin’ Bellator champion doesn’t even make it into the ‘Ultimate Fighter’ house.
Stephens wins a unanimous decision and says that "Bellator champs don’t belong here." I’m thinking Good was bought in just so they could take shots at the competition.
Light Heavyweight Fight 3Chris Fields (8-4) v. Josh Stansbury (4-2)
Fields is a newlywed Irishman. Conor McGregor is in the building to support him and Pendred. In the other corner is Stansbury, who’s got a chin like Hendo.
You won’t see this match being broken down on Striking Simplified anytime soon, I’ll tell you that match. Stansbury continuously looks for a big right, eventually catching Fields and putting him down against the cage. Fields survives until a low blow creates a pause in the action. The accident doesn’t stop Stansbury from picking up where he left off. He regains control with a takedown attempt, only to suffer a freak knee injury. Stansbury was definitely winning the fight so that is a terrible way for him to go out. Don’t expect Fields to be a high pick.
McGregor: Luck of the Irish!
Speaking of luck, Stansbury was one of Edgar’s guys…and he didn’t cut the shorts! It’s a real thing!
Light Heavyweight Fight 4Anton Berzin (3-1) v. Cody Mumma (5-1)
The Russian MMA invasion has made its way onto TUF. Berzin is a BJJ black belt who immigrated with his family. He actually has some solid hands too, which he puts to good use to set up his grappling. A stunning judo flip puts Mumma down and then Berzin moves into back control. His corner yells at him to not get too high, but he ignores them and snags an arm bar. Shows what they know.
Middleweight Fight 5*Tim Williams (8-1) v. Bojan Velickovic (8-2)
If Williams looks familiar, he’s the scary looking dude who tried out for TUF 17. He is quite accurately called "The South Jersey Strangler". I’m not sure if that’s so much a nickname as it is a confession.
Much more pleasing to the eye is Velickovic’s girlfriend, Zenja Draca (saved you the googling). She’s a college tennis player apparently. When she gets to Velickovic’s room, they immediately start making out like it’s a conjugal visit. They give a mandatory interview and you can tell they’re just thinking about boning the whole time. The door is eventually shut on the camera guy so the two lovebirds can get some private time.
For some reason, Penn is endlessly amused by Williams’s resemblance to Joe Lauzon. Back and forth fight for two rounds. Velickovic can barely get off the stool for the third. Maybe he shouldn’t have because the fight is waved off seconds into the extra period when it’s clear he can’t defend himself. I wonder if there was something he did before the fight that might have sapped his reserves…
Middleweight Fight 6*Matt Gabel (8-3) v.
This one is all about Gordon, a massive middleweight. Penn says he looks to be at least 220. He has huge power. Even his blocked punches have enough juice to push Gabel around the octagon. There’s no finish, but Gordon takes a one-sided decision.
Light Heavyweight Fight 5*John Poppie (3-1) v. Josh Clark (7-2)
Poppie suffers from bipolar disorder. That’s something I imagine a lot of professional athletes deal with even if they don’t want to admit it. Fighters in particular can go from the highest of highs to the lowest of lows with one wrong move and they have months and months to dwell on their triumphs or failures. I always encourage people to be honest with themselves when it comes to addressing that sort of mental condition.
Clark is a federal agent who used to disable land mines for the army. There are some serious psychological issues on both sides of the octagon.
The highlights depict another tough fight that goes to a third round, where Poppie ends up tapping to a triangle arm bar.
Light Heavyweight Fight 6Patrick Walsh (4-1) v. Doug Sparks (7-2)
I really want to tell you that Sparks won this fight. In his brief time on the show, he becomes notorious for always wearing a headband with furry ears, claims that he’s half-human, half-polar bear, and expresses his passion for "psychology, socio-biology and evolutionary psychology". I think he’s channeling Matthew McConaughey in True Detective. He’s undeniably fascinating and it would have been great to see him in the house.
Fascinating doesn’t win fights. After nearly getting caught in a guillotine, Walsh escapes to side control and wins with a kimura.
Light Heavyweight Fight 7Daniel Vizcaya (7-2) v. Matt Van Buren (6-2)
There’s a funny moment where Van Buren tells his dad that he hopes they don’t talk again anytime soon because that will mean he made it into the house. The fight ends with a surprising stoppage by Herb Dean. He’s vindicated by a replay that shows Vizcaya going limp under a flurry of elbows (the kind Travis Browne has been using). I hate those elbows. They look illegal to me.
Light Heavyweight Fight 8*Kelly Anundson (6-1) v. Corey Anderson (3-0)
These two fighters are familiar with each other having both wrestled at Newbury College. Small world, eh? Anundson has some serious wrestling credentials, though nobody is quite sure what to make of them:
White: Three time All American college wrestler. Two time FILA world champ.
Penn: What does that mean?
Edgar: I don’t know, man.
White: Listen. Just ‘cause you two never won the FILA world championships…quit hatin’.
True to his reputation, Anundson gets a lot of takedowns. Even after getting full mount, he can’t put Anderson away. Anderson’s cardio is on point and it’s enough to carry him to a win.
Middleweight Fight 7*Adam Stroup (5-1) v. Dhiego Lima (8-1)
Lima is the brother of two-time Bellator tournament winner and newly crowned Bellator Welterweight Champion Douglas Lima. If you’ve ever seen Douglas fight, you know he’s got some serious striking chops. His brother is no different, rocking Stroup and cruising to a decision victory.
Middleweight Fight 8Nordine Taleb (8-2) v. Mike King (5-0)
Let’s be real here. Taleb should really be 9-2 since he just won a fight in the UFC hours before this episode aired! This is a surreal segment. Knowing what we know, it’s safe to assume that Taleb doesn’t make it past this stage but…what if? He would be the first contestant to do two full seasons of TUF. What if he won? Would he compete in a TUF final even though he already has a contract? Would they just pretend that he wasn’t on TUF Nations? Why was this allowed to even happen? Why is my nose bleeding right now?
A couple of minutes in, you can see why they saved this fight for last. Incredible output and chins by both men. If Taleb fought like this on TUF Nations he would have won the whole thing. The coaches are impressed and lament the fact that either man has to go home.
Things only get wilder in the third round. King almost locks in an unorthodox knee bar. The attempt is enough to force Taleb to give up top control. They scramble and King hunts for an Americana arm lock. Crazy action! It could have gone either way, but King did enough to take this one.
When Penn was picking teams for season 5, he memorably asked all of the fighters to raise their hands if they wanted nothing to do with Jens Pulver. It was a moment of pure mind f**kery. In a callback to those shenanigans, Penn asks Edgar if they should save time and split the middleweights since four red guys won and four blue guys won. White tells him to knock it off.
Edgar wins the coin toss and he decides to go with picking the first fighter starting with the light heavyweights:
Stephens (1st) – Edgar inexplicably calls him "Joseph Stephenson" (???)
Van Buren (5th)
Penn picks Pendred to fight. Despite having done this before, he completely forgets that he also gets to pick the opponent. His coaches suggest Urbina and it is on!
Overall, not a bad episode though it’s missing a hook. For example, TUF 17 was the first show with the fancy new production, TUF Brazil 2 was the last show with the old production, TUF 18 was the first season to feature women, TUF Nations was in Canada, and TUF Brazil 3 is TUF Brazil 3. So what can we look forward to here?
The first season to feature light heavyweights since TUF 8 back in 2008. A whole season with one of my favourite fighters, Frankie Edgar. A whole season with everyone else’s favourite fighter, B.J. Penn. I mean, come on, it’s B.J. freakin’ Penn!
Blast from the past.
Next week: Cathal Pendred v. Hector Urbina. Also, there’s a better than good chance I link to that Andy Wang clip again.