At 21 years old, Kelvin Gastelum was the youngest contestant ever on the American edition of The Ultimate Fighter (Patrick Iodice, a member of Australia’s TUF: The Smashes was 19). He was the last pick of Team Sonnen. His boyish admiration for Ronda Rousey made him seem more like an overachieving fan boy than a legitimate mixed martial arts prospect. His character had a lot of negative hooks and nobody expected him to go on and win the whole thing but that’s exactly what Gastelum did. In any other year, Gastelum would be the story.
But this was supposed to be the year of Uriah Hall.
Explosive. Unique. Handsome. Complex. Black. Hall’s flashy kicks seemed to extend beyond the octagon and out of our television screens. We’ve seen so many editions of TUF that we know better than to make too much out of any competitor’s success no matter how easily they dominated on the show (Mac Danzig, anyone?), but Hall was something else. He wasn’t just knocking people out, he was doing it in new and unorthodox ways. A spinning hook kick right on the button. A one-shot cross while fading away. Rapid fire strikes from bottom position. It was like catching a hotshot rapper’s first mix tape. Raw and undeniable.
So what happened? Rewind to last Saturday, where two new stars were born.
You won’t see me at the front of the women’s MMA bandwagon. I fully support the legitimacy of the concept and I absolutely think that women have a place in the UFC, but I believe people need to be more realistic about their expectations. Pat Barry recently said that the women’s fights are usually the most exciting fights on any card and while that may often be the case, it has as much to do with those fights being sloppy, undisciplined affairs as it does with top shelf martial arts acumen.
The Miesha Tate-Cat Zingano fight was a good one, worthy of the “Fight of the Night” award it would later win, but it was also an example of a contest being held to a different standard because of the gender of the competitors. Not better or worse, but different. One thing I’ve noticed in a lot of female fights is that the females are not as adept at maintaining dominant positions. This negates the methodical grappling that casual fans have no interest in and leads to a lot of scrambles that translate into more action. More action is always good, but it shouldn’t come at the expense of technique. That is why champions like Rousey are such a valuable asset, as she steps into the cage and takes care of business even if it does come at the risk of making her opponents look overmatched (and thus, less marketable). Women’s MMA is deservedly on the up and up, but let’s not pretend that it’s anywhere near the depth or skill level of the male ranks yet.
If I hear one more person criticize Dana White for not integrating the female’s earlier I might throw a hissy fit. That’s right, a hissy fit. He was quoted a couple of years ago as saying that women’s MMA just wasn’t ready for the big stage yet and now that he’s pushing it so hard some are calling him out as a hypocrite. Isn’t it possible that a couple of years ago, women’s MMA wasn’t where it was today? Tate, Zingano and Rousey were nowhere near the fighters they are now and they’ve undoubtedly improved every aspect of their game since then so why would White have been in any rush to start a women’s division before? It’s especially befuddling when you consider that they were bringing in the 145 and 135 divisions around that time. If anything, White’s timing couldn’t be better with several high profile prospects rounding into shape and, of course, the ascension of Rousey.
It wasn’t the finals most were hoping for, but that’s about the only thing you could say was disappointing about this season of TUF. With better production values, better fights, more compelling personalities, and less sophomoric hijinks, everything about this season kicked ass. It might seem like the quality of the fights isn’t always something the show runners can control, but in the past they’ve sacrificed credentials in favour of controversy. This season they were able to find a balance between guys who could bring it in the octagon and on the testimonial set. There is nothing more compelling than the human drama surrounding the types of individuals who fight for a living and any other fluff only gets in the way of this basic narrative. Sure, there comes a point where you’ve heard the same “hard times, hard man” origin one too many times, but this season the guys were able to back it up when the time came to throw down.
From Jon Jones’ initial misstep of sacrif…*ahem*…“matching up” Gilbert Smith with Luke Barnatt to Hall’s frenzy inducing annihilation of Adam Cella, you could tell early on that this was a special bunch. They had to be to save this program from last year’s cast, the worst and most indistinguishable in TUF history. The rest of the preliminary round was a mix of big names being exposed in front of a national audience (“Bubba” McDaniel and “King” Casey) and hard fought scraps that rendered the order of the fighter picks irrelevant.
All throughout the season, the theme stayed the same: who truly wants to win? The focus was on the mental game, with Chael Sonnen seeming to have the magic touch when it came to pushing his team through various psychological obstacles. Not to say that Jones was a bad coach, but his aloof persona and relative inexperience made it difficult for him to connect with his team on any meaningful level (the closest relationship on Team Jones was between Dylan Andrews and the older, wiser Stonehorse Goeman). Jones is still in the “doing” phase of his career; the teaching will come to him eventually.
Hall was a fan and betting favourite every time he performed, but there were doubts swirling around Gastelum. The experience of Bubba, the grinding attack of Collin Hart, the confidence of Josh Samman…all of it was supposed to be too much for the kid from Yuma. He didn’t just survive these tests, he passed with flying colours. Bubba and Samman got choked out, Hart suffered a sudden knockout and through it all Gastelum stayed humble and absorbed everything he could in his time in the house. The show is designed for ratings and to push new faces for the UFC, but can you imagine how lucky these guys are to be worry about nothing but staying in shape and training with high level instructors for six weeks? It might not be much fun, but Gastelum made the most of it.
Andrews fell to Hall as expected (though Andrews did not embarrass himself by any means), but Gastelum forgot to read the part where he was supposed to lose so that Hall and Samman could have their grudge match. The two finalists ended up following a similar path to the finale, a decision win to get into the house followed by three straight finishes. That fact didn’t do much to change the perception that Hall was the most unstoppable force ever to emerge from the TUF house. Gastelum was pegged as a 3 to 1 underdog.
Not to take anything away from Gastelum, but Hall’s performance on Saturday was obnoxious. It was as if all of our worst fears and assumptions about him were true. He came out tentative, not looking to own the moment and then he started dancing around like Anderson Silva. His gyrations made him look cocky and stupid. He dropped his hands and backed himself up against the cage as Gastelum pressed onward. Hall would later say that he was using the cage strategically, but all it did was give him less room to maneuver as Gastelum shot in and brought him down time and time again. When the fight was standing, Hall had some nice stretches where the hype seemed warranted, but none of his trademark stuff landed and he just couldn’t sustain any offence. Hall fought hard, but not smartly, making it easy for armchair corner men like myself to pick him apart. He’ll be back and his name still has considerable buzz, but he needs to grow up and show what he can really do.
As for Gastelum, he did what he had done all season: attack, attack, attack. It’s to his credit that he probably would have beaten even the best version of Hall. The prevailing story going into the fight was Gastelum’s heart vs. Hall’s talent, but Gastelum showed that he’s got plenty of talent too. He’s confident with his wrestling and he’s got power in his hands, a combination of attributes that has worked out well for many UFC stars. He’s likely to drop down to welterweight, where he should fit right in with what is largely considered a wrestler’s division. Gastelum might still not be the most talked about name, but I’m sure he’ll settle for a Harley, a fat contract and a tournament trophy from the best TUF season in ages.
Other TUF 17 Finale thoughts:
- Cole Miller saved his job with a submission win over Bart Palaszewski. It seems like only yesterday that “Bartimus” was a top 10 featherweight, but the division got deep quickly and he will be looking for work elsewhere.
- Okay, I think I should probably lower my expectations for Jimmy Quinlan at this point.
- I’d lower my expectations for King and Gilbert Smith too, but I didn’t have any to begin with.
- After having watched it a bunch of times, there’s no doubt that the last two elbows Travis Browne threw against Gabriel Gonzaga were illegal shots to the back of the head. You could argue that they were inadvertent as Gonzaga had the misfortune of crumbling into their path, but they were illegal nonetheless. As a Browne fan, I’d like to see the result stand but a change to a no-contest is more than reasonable.
- I can’t be the only one who still looks forward to Urijah Faber fights. We’re talking about a guy who has been the best or second best in whatever division he’s fought in for the better part of the last decade. He has a high finishing rate and is nearly impossible to put away himself. The only fights he’s lost are title fights and while one could argue he gets too many of those, who else should have them? Faber is an all-time great and people should appreciate that while he’s around.