Ever since the beginning of the 20th season of The Ultimate Fighter, fans of the mixed martial arts “reality” show have been treated to a new viewing experience that made the show feel not so long in the tooth. Last season we were introduced to the idea of a new division being formed in front of our eyes, with championship gold on the line. The added intrigue gave the show a new dimension that was capped off with a fantastic finale card. Going into the tenth anniversary of the show’s syndication, a new format emerged once again. This time it would feature to prominent teams from breathtaking southern Florida; American Top Team and the Blackzilians.
TUF 21 Recap: Episode 1
From the opening moments of the show, a noticeable difference in visual format was obvious. The graphics, music and cinematography all felt unique to this season. A nice plus. The UFC spared no expense either. A gorgeous seaside manor would be the best set of words to describe living conditions. The viewer was then introduced to the prologue of the tale that led to this unique season of TUF. In summary, Glenn Robinson and Dan Lambert do not care for each other. They have an ongoing dispute regarding the formation of the Blackzilians camp that escalated into a mutual personal hatred. Some vignettes on the most contentious aspects of the relationship were presented, where each owner argued their case against the other.
Once all of the dust settled, another striking detail of the show was presented to the viewer. Dana White presented himself before the cameras to announce that both teams would put up their best eight welterweight fighters in competition out their own gyms, not a UFC constructed television set. The Blackzilians won the coin toss and were granted home gym advantage. Not long as that another bomb was dropped… the fights would be blind match-ups until the day of the weigh-ins. Teams were to select their fighters without knowing the opponent. Things just got interesting.
Once the viewer was introduced to the cast members and the dynamic between the two teams, suspense began to build as the first fight loomed over them. Two top prospects were eventually selected after two long vignettes featuring the coaches looking deep in thought at a boardroom table. In the mix for the Blackzilians was a bearded Rashad Evans giving stern input, which was a nice look at what a long injury lay-off can do for your facial hair. After some “witty” banter it was settled. Representing American Top Team would be Michael graves, a well-rounded striker with an interesting hairstyle. Standing up for the Blackzilians would be Kamaru Usman, a dynamic college wrestler with a vivid imagination (Seen doing imaginary play-by-play announcing to himself during a morning stretch).
As training began, trickery was afoot in the TUF house. Both teams were looking to develop a psychological edge by trying to confuse the other as to who would be fighting. Not much came of it, but it’s about the war, not the battle. More vignettes of hard workouts in all disciplines of the game highlighted the strengths of both Usman and Graves before their bout. We got another glimpse of a superstar during this time; with Robbie Lawler as serving as a coach on the show during sprawl drills. During pre-fight preparation, we also got a look at Blackzilians stand-out Anthony Johnson returning from Sweden after his clubbing of Gustafsson. Usman calmly described his opponent to “Rumble” Johnson as “a wrestler who likes to kick”.
With game plans clocked in, it was time to get down to business. Both fighters entered the cage area to the rousing cheers of their teammates. You could almost feel the tension in your living room. Right after the opening bell, Graves cracked Usman with a right straight as Usman did the Jon Jones spider crawl toward him. Everyone in the building knew it was on like donkey kong after that. The opening round had some solid striking exchanges. Usman had big power in his boxing and came out swinging. Graves looked a little wearier but was doing an excellent job with his counter punches, especially the left hook. After getting tagged a few times by Usman; Graves cracked Usman in the face with a beautiful front kick. As the round wore on, the forward pressure of Usman proved to be the difference. Once he established his range, he dominated Graves with two big takedowns. While Usman wasn’t able to control Graves on the ground, he certainly still out-grappled him. With the round coming to a close, Usman tagged Graves with several large looping hooks that opened up a small cut under the left eye of Graves. Great first round overall.
The second round looked fairly similar to the first, with more looping hooks and takedowns for Kamaru Usman. Again though, he wasn’t able to control Graves while he had him down. Graves couldn’t really catch his breath or set anything up but he did manage to once again establish his counter left hook. Michael Graves looked to get off more kicks, but was quickly grounded most times. A good showing of defense from both men on the feet and on the ground, with Usman’s takedowns being the exception. As the two-round fight was coming to a close, Graves sprawled a takedown and scrambled onto Usman’s back. He was looking to threaten with a choke, but Usman wisely arched his back and got to his feet. Kamaru Usman was eventually able to shake Graves off his back and gain another TD. As the last thirty seconds came and went, Usman stayed on top and hit Graves with some short elbows in side control before Graves transitioned into full guard. The bell rang and everyone expected an overtime round. To the shock of Dan Lambert especially, the judges returned a verdict. Usman had grinded out a majority decision, with judge umber three scoring it a draw.
After the fight, some machismo boiled over from the crowd. Hayden Hassan was barking at Usman that “he was next”. Bad blood looks to be forming. Before the show ended, we were treated to some classic Dana White. A critical rant about both men in which he claimed they didn’t do enough. Personally, I thought the fight was much better than some of the bouts we’ve seen on TUF, especially on the first night. Better luck next time boys.
With that, the credits rolled and a preview for next week was released. It featured an angry Dan Lambert personally insulting the physique of Glenn Robinson. Classy. Although it does make you want to watch it again. Stay tuned for next week’s show, where we are likely to see more fireworks.