Last season, Dana White was so embarrassed with the effort of the TUF 19 participants that he only booked two non-finalists to compete at the finale; this season, all of the TUF 20 ladies are getting a shot to stay in with a win (with the exception of Justine Kish, who is still rehabbing her knee injury). That’s right, all your favourites: JoJo! Felice Herrig! Aisling Daly! Angela Magaña! Eh…
You better get used to these names, because depending on how much 115 pound talent they’re able to add over the next couple of years, the women from this season could be the top title contenders for the foreseeable future. That’s how it goes when you cast based on merit as opposed to whatever show biz criteria they use for most seasons. The tournament format was a smashing success, leading to matches that were high on star power, action, and intrigue. It ended up being lopsided in favour of Team Pettis, not through any fault of coach Gilbert Melendez. The idea to seed the fighters before their selection meant that any slip up during team picks could be costly and Gilbert learned this the hard way.
Going into the final episode, he still had one horse left in the race. Could she go all the way?
Before we get the answer to that, we have the conclusion of the all Team Pettis side of the bracket. Carla Esparza and Jessica Penne are two of the closest people in the house. Friend fighting friend is a common TUF plot thread, though they usually happen earlier than this. It had to be on their minds as soon as they saw the tournament laid out. Before Tecia Torres came back, Carla and Jessica were the two highest seeds on their side.
We get an Anthony Pettis testimonial and I just realized that this only the second time that the coaches fought before the actual season finale (the previous time? UFC 115, where the TUF 11 coaches Chuck Liddell and Tito Ortiz were supposed to face off for a third time, only for an injured Ortiz to be replaced by Rich Franklin). That takes some of the punch out of this episode since we already know the conclusion of their heated rivalry…what’s that? There was so little interaction between them on the show that you can’t prove they weren’t filmed in completely separate locations and brought together by clever editing and computer graphics? Well, okay then.
Carla tries to stay focused on her business and not look over at Jessica’s side of the gym during training. Kind of like when you used to play GoldenEye 007 with four friends on the Nintendo 64 and you had to make a gentlemen’s (or ladies’) agreement not to look at each other’s screens. Someone always would though.
I actually found it endearing that Carla was worried about Jessica maybe not wanting to be friends with her after the fight. Even after all the crap she’s given my girl Randa Markos, I found this somewhat touching. Not that I can relate. I know if that if one of my friends tackled me to the ground, beat the s**t out of me for fifteen minutes, and said beating resulted in me missing out on the opportunity of a lifetime…that friendship would be done right quick.
The fight (Esparza v. Penne)
The whole fight, Carla was getting in and out beautifully. Jessica was able to catch her a couple of times as she came in, but overall Carla was on point. She started off employing a completely different strategy than in the quarterfinals, not going for a single shot in the first couple of minutes. Jessica was the one moving forward, Carla was the one dictating the action. Someone shouted “two minutes!” and Carla finally went for a leg. Jessica was prepared and avoided being put on her back the first time.
Despite that, Jessica was reacting the whole time and not countering with anything particularly effective. Carla would get a takedown at the end of the first round (a favourite tactic of hers) and she took it comfortably 10-9.
In terms of intensity, I’m tempted to say that this fight had a high level sparring feel to it. However, their faces told a different story. They really laid into each other and both of them were badly bruised up by the end of it. Jessica is tough as hell, but she was getting cracked over and over again.
Her aggression occasionally paid off, particularly in the last round, though it turned out to be too little too late. Even if you removed Carla’s takedowns, I still had her taking the fight three rounds to zip. She really showed the extent of her striking prowess in this one, employing some nice leg kicks and elbows in addition to solid boxing. The commish delivers the verdict, a unanimous decision win for Carla, and we have our first finalist.
The next fight isn’t exactly striker versus grappler since Rose Namajunas has proven to be deadly off of her back. Still, it’s suggested that she might want to keep things standing to avoid Randa’s top game. Is Rose a particularly small strawweight? I know she’s got a slight build on a tall frame, but I do wonder if she’s susceptible to being neutralized by a strong wrestler. Then again, that hasn’t worked out for her opponents so far, both of whom were finished by submission.
It occurs to me now that there hasn’t been any interaction whatsoever between Rose and Randa prior to this episode. Are they friends? Enemies? The latter seems likely due to Rose getting along with mostly everyone, including Randa’s nemeses Carla and Felice. Maybe they just stayed out of each other’s way.
Randa gets a birthday surprise, a phone call from her sister. She’s in tears as soon as she hears the dial tone. We’re not privy to the phone call, which probably wouldn’t be all that interesting to us anyway. It’s gratifying for her just to know that her loved ones are okay. Pettis wants to make sure that she keeps in mind what she’s fighting for: herself, her family, her husband, her…
…wait…Randa is married?
The fight (Namajunas v. Markos)
Everything is calm until Rose does a fancy foot shuffle and that sets Randa off! She goes in wild with Rose managing to avoid taking any major shots. They grapple and go down to the mat. Rose initially ends up on top, but Randa tries to just power out of Rose’s half guard. Dana is blown away by their raw strength and so am I.
Randa smartly stays wrapped around Rose’s leg when she tries to posture up and the result is a takedown for Randa. Undeterred, Rose goes for the same kimura she used to beat JoJo. At first, Randa flips right out of it, but Rose is focused on the hold and she gives Randa no chance to reset into a more comfortable position. They roll and Rose is on top now where she works the hold for another submission win!
Rose says they’re going to party tonight! I gave the “Breakout star” award to Randa last week, but Rose has done just as much to get her name out there with her cool personality and thrilling finishes. Pettis points out that she won all of her fights on the show by submission even though she has a reputation as a striker. The first time I heard of Rose was because of her famous boyfriend; after this week, we might be referring to Pat Barry as “that kickboxer who is engaged to Rose Namajunas”.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t give at least a cursory overview of the TUF 20 Finale strawweight bouts. Keep in mind that I’m the worst person in the world at picking fights, especially tournament finales. The only recent winner I can recall picking correctly (not including international editions, though I suck at those too) was Chris Holdsworth. Place your wagers accordingly.
Emily Kagan (3-1) v. Angela Hill (1-0)
Normally, I would lean towards the younger fighter with the greater upside. You have to think they cast Angela H. for reasons beyond her prodigious gastrointestinal aptitude. Even so, I’m going to say that Emily’s experience and grappling are going to be too much for her in this situation. Plus, Emily is with Jackson-Wink and I don’t take that lightly.
The pick: Kagan
Aisling Daly (14-5) v. Alex Chambers (4-1)
I hate that Aisling missed weight and I hate even more that she apparently looked like the zombie bride of Travis Lutter up there. Still, she is a beast and I didn’t see enough from Alex to think that she’ll be able to pull off the upset here. Better luck next time, Astro Girl.
The pick: Daly
Tecia Torres (4-0) v. Angela Magaña (11-6)
As fun as it will be to see Tecia smash Angela’s obnoxious face in, how could they not set up the Angela M./Heather Clark grudge match? Was it that important for them to stick to the inane Team Pettis v. Team Melendez format? Should Angela M. and Heather both lose tonight and get released, I’m hoping the fight happens somewhere. Shannon Knapp, make this happen!
The pick: Torres
Joanne Calderwood (8-0) v. Seo Hee Ham (15-5)
The pick: Calderwood
Bec Rawlings (5-3) v. Heather Clark (6-4)
On the other hand, I guess there’s the small chance that Heather beats Bec, then she can call out Angela M., and then maybe she can convince Felice to fight her a third time, and…
The pick: Rawlings
Felice Herrig (9-5) v. Lisa Ellis (15-8)
Maybe the toughest preliminary bout to predict. Felice and Lisa have both fought a who’s who of women’s MMA, to varying degrees of success. It was impossible for me to get any kind of read on Lisa’s capabilities based on her work on the show since she was dealing with numerous distractions including a long layoff and the anxiety of being away from her baby. I’m a little more familiar with Felice, so I’ll go with what I know.
The pick: Herrig
Jessica Penne (11-2) v. Randa Markos (4-1)
I had this great write-up prepared for Randa if she made it to the finals to face Carla, you should have seen it. It was something about “favourite versus underdog, mean girl versus shrinking violet, big name versus unknown” all that jazz. I might have even thrown a Hemingway reference in there or something. Alas.
Jessica lived up to her hype on the show and frankly, her fight with Carla may as well have been the finale. I’m riding with Randa anyway.
The pick: Markos
Carla Esparza (9-2) v. Rose Namajunas (2-1)
You’re 22 years old. You’re in your first UFC fight. First UFC main event. First five rounder. For a UFC title. You’re Rose Namajunas.
Anytime an unlikely contender emerges, you have to constantly ask if what’s happening is substantial and if it isn’t, when will reality come crashing down? For all we know, Rose is peaking at the right time, or at least hitting the first major peak of her athletic prime. There’s still no blueprint as to how or when one is supposed to be their best in MMA, so who’s to say that it isn’t Rose’s time now? She has been an absolute killer, having finished three tough opponents to make it to the end, including JoJo, who is widely considered to be top five in the weight class. Disregarding the unorthodox circumstances of TUF fights, there’s no denying the results. Rose is a winner and she earned her spot.
That said, you have to think this is the end of the road. Before even stepping foot in the TUF house, Carla owned wins over Felice and Bec, and she took current WSOF champ Jessica Aguilar to a close split decision back in 2011. Her credentials dwarf Rose’s and her performances on the show only validated them further. She used sound strategy and timely takedowns en route to winning round after round. She also showed excellent striking against Jessica, the one area where you might think Rose could catch her.
You can’t rule out Rose snagging something from bottom position considering we’ve seen her do it several times, but Carla just seems too technically sound and patient for that to happen. Rose projects as a legitimate money making star for the UFC someday. Just not this Friday.
The pick: Esparza
Friday, December 12, 2014: It’s the TUF 20 Finale! Watch it! Who are you kidding, you know you don’t have anything better to do.