I’ve got a bunch of column ideas bouncing around my skull, but as one of the last proud, card carrying fans of The Ultimate Fighter I’d be remiss if I didn’t offer a few thoughts on the season 17 premiere. After all, they’ve brought out the big guns for this one: Jon Jones and Chael Sonnen are two proven draws and even though the basis for the match-up is farcical at best, it’s exactly the kind of scenario that can bring in casual fans and even appeal to the morbid curiosity of hardcore fans. After my initial viewing, I can happily say that the show has made some aesthetically pleasing changes and, cliché as it sounds, if you were ever looking for a time to jump back into TUF, this is it.
The testimonials no longer have that low-rent, generic reality TV feel, having been abandoned in favour of rich, film-quality close-ups. There’s a determined effort to make the show look more like their Primetime series and I can tell you that that effort is appreciated. On a completely racist note, is it a bad sign that I’m already having trouble telling most of the generic white dudes apart?
Sonnen enters the gym in top form; walking up to Jones and talking to him like their old friends as if hasn’t spent the last two months denigrating his character. Normally I wouldn’t support Sonnen’s act, but there’s something about his psychotic two-facedness that is disturbingly impressive. Jones, to his credit, is cordial but not buying into that shtick for a second.
Before I get to a brief recap of the fights, it should be mentioned that for the first time the contestants were allowed to invite friends and family to watch them battle to get into the house. So you know…no extra pressure or anything:
(note: the competitors this season are all middleweights)
Jake Heun v. Adam Cella
The last time I saw Heun, he was being overwhelmed in a heavyweight bout by 2009 NCAA Wrestling heavyweight champion Mark Ellis. He was doughy then and he looks like a completely different person at his natural weight class. He’s so physically imposing that he’s called “The Honey Bear” apparently. He also started his career through Chris Leben. I could not be rooting harder for this guy.
Sure enough, Heun comes out swinging like a crazy person and you can tell that Cella is intimidated…but only for a moment. Coolly and calmly, Cella works off his back and locks in an armbar that he refuses to release even after Heun nearly drops him on his head. Heun has to tap. I should have known to pick Cella since he has a hot girlfriend and the hot girlfriend corollary is infallible.
Zak Cummings v. Nik Fekete
Speaking of attractive significant others, Fekete’s wife is built like Christina Hendricks. Victory is guaranteed. I mean, forget all of the big show experience Cummings has. Hot girlfriend corollary!
Cummings knocks out Fekete in about 10 seconds.
Eldon Sproat v. Kevin Casey
Sproat might be the first Hawaiian hipster cowboy (he brags about how cowboys existed in Hawaii waaaay before they popped up anywhere else).
Like Cummings, Casey has fought for Strikeforce before and he’s got some serious BJJ credentials having grown up and trained with the late Rockson Gracie (son of Rickson). This is the first fight to get condensed into highlights and Casey represents the Gracie’s well with some nice grappling. A nice cut is opened up on his forehead, but he takes Sproat’s back and wins via rear naked choke. Casey’s bloody, but victorious visage provides a memorable week 1 image.
Scott Rosa v. Tor Troéng
“Who beats a guy named Tor?” Jones asks. Not Scott Rosa apparently. Troéng (whose first name is pronounced “Thor”) sounds a lot like Dirk Nowitzki, even though he’s Swedish and not German. This fight also gets the highlight treatment, which gives us time a chance to see some of the banter between Jones and Sonnen:
Sonnen: Jon, you wouldn’t long kick me across the ring would you?
Jones: Possibly. I might go for some crazy s**t, I just might.
Sonnen: Would you really? I misjudged you. I thought we were friends. I thought we were hitting it off. You’d really do that?
Jones: I wouldn’t hurt you with it. I’d just tap you.
Like I said, maybe the fight shouldn’t happen but these two have a lot of potential as rival coaches. Sonnen can handle most of the talking and Jones just has to play off that.
Clint Hester v. Fraser Opie
Hester is clearly a physical specimen and Opie…well, he’s a guy whose last name is Opie. Even though his background is in boxing, Hester mixes in some takedowns and even whips out a nice suplex. Jones gets hyped and he gets up to start offering Hester some tips. Sonnen laughs at the bias, but both guys agree that Hester is one to watch.
Ryan Bigler v. Bubba McDaniel
There’s no question that McDaniel is the favourite here. He’s a training partner of Jones and he sports a gaudy 20-6 record. The book on him is that he lacks consistency and that’s certainly supported by a lacklustre first round. Jones puts his coach’s hat on again and he spurs McDaniel on to a second round TKO win, prompting another great exchange:
Sonnen: There’s your pick, huh? There’s your first guy. I’m gonna have to cross him out, because I know you’re gonna…
Sonnen: Of course you’ll pick him ‘cause he’s your teammate and everything so that guy’s gone.
Jones: Is he my first pick?
Sonnen: Yeah! For sure. Of course, he’s your teammate! What are you gonna do? Go back and see him be like, “Oh, I didn’t want you first.” That’d be weird. That’d be weird for the next ten years of your career.
Josh Samman v. Leo Bercier
There’s no getting around it: Samman reeks of douche. Hopefully the coaches won’t hold that against him. Bercier is a Native who seems really serious and stoic. So, like every other Native person I’ve met.
It’s not much of a fight as Samman takes Bercier down within seconds. He shouts “Are you guys ready?” and then starts rifling off the always never, ever, ever effective double fists to the head. He also shouts a lot and heaven help us, he wins the fight. Ladies and gentlemen, we have a weiner!
Kito Andrews v. Kelvin Gastelum
I have to give the show a lot of credit for not telegraphing who the winners of these fights will be. They spend a large amount of time on Andrews’ story of single fatherhood with two children, but it’s Gastelum who squeaks out a decision. White mentions that Gastelum is the youngest fighter in TUF history at 21, but Patrick Iodice and I would like to have a word with him. I don’t care if I’m the only one who watched it, TUF: The Smashes happened!
Jimmy Quinlan v. Mike Persons
Jones calls Quinlan the best wrestler they’ve seen so far, which bodes well for him. If you have one specialty that you can fall back on, it can take you a long way in this tournament. Add in the fact that he seems to be all business and Quinlan is a solid sleeper pick. He runs through persons.
Uriah Hall v. Andy Enz
Hall comes into the competition with a reputation as an exciting, dynamic striker and with luck this opportunity could lead to him becoming a breakout star in the UFC. To Enz’ credit, he’s more than up to the challenge and both guys put forth a great effort. In truth, a lot of Hall’s fancy stuff doesn’t really connect, but his fundamentals are solid and as this is my first time seeing him, I now know what the hype is all about. The good news for Enz is that he’s got to be first on the UFC’s replacement list.
Gilbert Smith v. Eric Wahlin
Because I haven’t been racist enough, it needs to be said: there are some big ass black mothafu**as on this show. Case in point, Wahlin by no means embarrasses himself (he’s got some tricky jiu-jitsu), but Smith is straight diesel and I can’t imagine too many people wanting to have to work from under him. He’s relentless in going for an arm-triangle, eventually suffocating Wahlin. It remains to be seen how that physique lasts over a longer fight.
Nicholas Kohring v. Luke Barnatt
Englishman Barnatt is hard to miss, standing at 6’6” tall. Kohring is a game opponent, fearlessly closing the distance, but Barnatt’s physical gifts are going to be a huge advantage no matter who he’s facing. He’s more than just a tall guy though, showing crisp kickboxing and ground and pound. I like his demeanour too. He could play a heavy in a Guy Ritchie film, no problem.
Dylan Andrews v. Tim Williams
Laced with noticeable scars, Williams looks flat-out dangerous and he’s got a nickname to go along with it: “The South Jersey Strangler”. I believe it!
Andrews wins the fight. He’s from Australia and since Barnatt won the last fight, we’re getting an early sequel to the Smashes. It happened! The fight almost ends in the opening minutes, but Williams is like a zombie and he doesn’t let up against Andrews for a second. Even in defeat, Williams joins Enz on the UFC radar.
Collin Hart v. Mike Jasper
Dana White says that executive producer Craig Piligian nicknamed Hart “The Dick” at casting. Guess I’ll have to buy the Blu-ray to get the whole story there. Jones picks Jasper, but Hart’s dirty boxing and gritty approach draw a flattering Randy Couture comparison. Much more flattering than “The Dick”, anyway.
At this point I have to say that the production overhaul did the show wonders as the whole experience just felt like a big deal. It’s an old showbiz adage: if you don’t treat your stars like stars, why should the audience? The days of filling the house with slobs and scumbags in an insulting attempt to appeal to the “common people” are over; let’s get back to romanticizing the sport.
Here are the teams, with Sonnen winning the coin toss and choosing the first fighter (7 picks in total, 1 wildcard spot):
The top picks are no surprise as the raw tools of Barnatt and Hester are unquestionably compelling. Hall expressed disappointment at being picked by Sonnen, but when you consider that he’s already a strong striker, being coached by a world class grinder like Sonnen could be the best thing to ever happen to him.
At the fight selection, Jones shocks everyone by going right after Sonnen’s top pick with his 4th pick, Smith. Not only that, but Barnatt is 9 inches taller than Smith. Curiouser and curiouser…Jones must know something we don’t, so with the strong possibility of an upset in the 1st fight here are the four names I can see making the finals: Hall, Quinlan, Hester, McDaniel. If my sterling 0-3 record at picking the TUF 16 and Smashes winners is any indication, these poor bastards won’t even sniff the semis.
Apropos of nothing.