Can you remember the last time “The Ultimate Fighter” had an out-of-the-box star?
Forrest Griffin and Stephan Bonnar immediately come to mind, thanks to their barnburner in the tournament final of the show’s first season. Other winners have gone on to become stars in the promotion, such as Season 2 winner Rashad Evans, who became a top pay-per-view draw, and Michael Bisping, a perennial contender. And still others have carved out solid careers inside the octagon before fading, such as Joe Stevenson and Kendall Grove.
Then there’s always “TUF 4? winner Matt Serra, who cashed in a golden ticket to pull off the biggest upset in UFC history by beating welterweight champ Georges St-Pierre. He was a known commodity, however.
That was also early “TUF” history, though. With more seasons, talent has thinned as one season has blended into another. Regional or international talents are better served with standard fight contracts than the long-term deals associated with the show. Winners, meanwhile, stand out less in the UFC’s massive talent ranks. It’s no longer uncommon when they get released or to see them bogged down in the preliminary-card jungle.
To date, no “TUF” winners have generated such a tangible buzz before they finished the show. Not until Uriah Hall walked onto the “TUF 17? set and joined coach Chael Sonnen‘s team to oppose champ Jon Jones‘ squad.
Hall (7-2 MMA, 0-0 UFC), who meets fellow Team Sonnen fighter Kevin Gastelum (4-0 MMA, 0-0 UFC) at The Ultimate Fighter 17 Finale on Saturday at Las Vegas’ Mandalay Bay Events Center (FX, 9 p.m. ET), hasn’t just dominated his opponents on the show, but instilled fear in them. After knocking out Adam Cella and Robert “Bubba” McDaniel in the opening round and quarterfinals, respectively, semifinal opponent Dylan Andrews simply froze and then broke after providing him a punching bag.
No doubt, Andrews didn’t want to be a victim of the spinning hook-kick that sent Cella to the hospital and quieted the cageside bleachers of both teams. Hall’s performance cast an aura of menace.
Now, it could be that a perfect storm of favorable matchups and good old-fashioned luck has put him in his current position. He certainly hasn’t appeared invincible, though none of his “TUF” opponents have been able to capitalize on his weaknesses. Nonetheless, should he get past Gastelum in the final, it wouldn’t be shocking to see him on the fast track to a title shot.
When you dole out highlight-reel finishes in a show that’s supposed to incubate talent, you can expect that kind of treatment.
There might be no underdog better suited to deliver an upset than Gastelum, however. The young fighter upended expectations early in the show by submitting early favorite McDaniel, and he then went on to deliver two first-round finishes, including a knockout of Collin Hart.
As a wrestler, Gastelum has the potential to put Hall where he is weaker. He’s also fought consistently bigger men and beaten them with superior grappling.
That will come in handy against Hall, who boasts a significant height and reach advantage in the fight, and appears to be fighting at his natural weight class. Gastelum looks like he could potentially cut to welterweight (and probably should given his 5-foot-9 frame and 72-inch reach).
In any event, Gastelum needs to close the distance early and set up a takedown with strikes. He can’t afford to wait while Hall puts together combinations.
Because Gastelum is slightly undersized (and under-bet as a nearly 3-to-1 underdog), the matchup isn’t the best to see whether Hall is capable of making a splash in the middleweight division. There are bigger and better grapplers who could give him plenty of trouble on the mat, not the least of which is Chris Weidman, who beat him three years ago on the regional circuit.
But if Hall can put on a striking clinic against the best wrestler this season, it’s an encouraging sign of his potential. If Gastelum can dodge bombs and pull off the upset, on the other hand, it’s unlikely he’ll stick around in the 185-pound division. Nothing is set in stone; “TUF” is about development.
Other main-card matchups
Urijah Faber (27-6 MMA, 3-2 UFC) vs. Scott Jorgensen (14-6 MMA, 3-2 UFC): This is a bantamweight fill-in for the event’s original headliner, which featured flyweight champion Demetrious Johnson vs. challenger John Moraga before injury forced the champ to withdraw. Ex-WEC champ Faber comes into the bout following a submission win over Ivan Menjivar at UFC 157, which put him back on the right track following a loss to current interim 135-pound titleholder Renan Barao. Jorgensen, too, is on the rebound after submitting John Albert at UFC on FOX 5, which snapped a two-fight skid that included a knockout loss to Eddie Wineland. The men not only share losses to Barao, who outpointed both of them, but a common manager in Mike Roberts, so they’re well aware of each other’s skill sets. The nimble Faber is likely to carry a speed advantage, which will serve him well in punching exchanges and during scrambles that are inevitable between wrestlers. Jorgensen might have a slight edge in power, but he’ll first need to catch Faber. Neither man is likely in line for a title any time soon, so the matchup falls more under the category of fun than relevance.
Miesha Tate (13-3 MMA, 0-0 UFC) vs. Cat Zingano (7-0 MMA, 0-0 UFC): This bout is just the second to feature women inside the octagon, and it’s laden with significance for the women’s bantamweight division. The winner of the bout will secure a coaching spot opposite champ Ronda Rousey on “The Ultimate Fighter 18? and afterward get a shot at the belt. Betting lines are mixed in the bout, with ex-champ Tate slightly ahead, Zingano on top, and the pair dead even. That’s likely a reflection of Tate’s previous performance, which was a significant step down from earlier showings and nearly resulted in a TKO loss to Julie Kedzie, and Zingano’s physical power, which has led her to an unbeaten ledger. Zingano is adept at stuffing her opponents against the cage, but she also possesses powerful kicks and good jiu-jitsu. The first two could be a problem for Tate, who’s great at getting opponents to the mat and maneuvering for submissions, but still underpowered in the standup department. If the fight lingers on the ground, expect Tate to take home the win. If it stays on its feet, however, Zingano could grind out the win.
Travis Browne (13-1-1 MMA, 4-1-1 UFC) vs. Gabriel Gonzaga (14-6 MMA, 9-5 UFC): Nimble heavyweight Browne returns to action after a leg injury sent him spiraling downhill against Antonio Silva, who delivered an upset knockout. Gonzaga, who most recently submitted Ben Rothwell, is a big puncher who could definitely turn the lights out on Browne, but he’s better suited flexing his grappling chops on the mat. Browne is fast and unpredictable on his feet, and will try to pick apart his Brazilian opponent on the feet.
Robert “Bubba” McDaniel (20-6 MMA, 0-0 UFC) vs. Gilbert Smith (5-1 MMA, 0-0 UFC): This middleweight matchup could be tailor-made for either fighter, as both struggled to live up to their potential on “TUF 17.” Smith, who was dominant in his elimination-round fight, was too predictable against Luke Barnatt and paid for it with a knee to the chin that knocked him out of the show. Gastelum out-grappled early favorite McDaniel. Against each other, McDaniel takes the striker role to Smith’s wrestler. Between hard-swung hooks, Smith will look for the takedown and ground and pound while McDaniel will use his range to score from the outside. McDaniel has proven able to get back to his feet, however, so he gets the edge in the matchup.
The Ultimate Fighter 17 Finale full card includes:
MAIN CARD (FX, 9 p.m. ET)
PRELIMINARY CARD (FUEL TV, 7 p.m. ET)
PRELIMINARY CARD (Facebook, 5:30 p.m. ET)
For more on The Ultimate Fighter 17 Finale, stay tuned to the UFC Rumors section of the site.