The 30th season of The Ultimate Fighter (TUF) has entered the semi-final portion of the tournament with four fights remaining in the season to determine the finalists for the men’s heavyweight and women’s flyweight crowns. Last week saw Team Nunes’ Brogan Walker take a unanimous decision victory over Hannah Guy of Team Pena to cement her place in the women’s semi’s. This week, Team Pena heavyweights are slated to collide with Jordan Heiderman going up against Zac Pauga, but not before the traditional coach’s challenge takes place with a cash prize being awarded to the winning coach and team.
TUF 30 Episode 9 Recap
The episode opens with both teams returning the TUF House following the semifinal announcements that concluded last week’s episode. Team Pena heavyweight Pauga openly questions why the decisions that were made were made. Teammate Juliana Miller theorizes that the fights could have been made from a stylistic perspective, but Pauga and Heiderman can’t help but wonder if there was some sort of strategy employed by the coaches. In spite of this, Pauga reiterates that it is not a big deal and he is ready and willing to fight anybody, even his own teammates.
The action then moves back to the gym, where Head Coach Julianna Pena is getting her fighters ready for their semifinal fight with one another. Pena, a former Ultimate Fighter in her own right, expected this to happen at some point in the competition, with her goal to go 8-0 against Amanda Nunes in the first round (she ultimately went 5-3). Pena details having to fight teammate Sarah Moras on her season, with both fighters agreeing to train on opposite sides of the gym. With Heiderman and Pauga in the same situation, Pena lent her advice to both heavyweights with the decision ultimately being made to have both fighters working on opposite ends.
In a surprising turn of events, Pena also noticed that a member of her women’s roster, Helen Peralta, had been “lagging” during wrestling drills and that she smelled alcohol on her fighter. When it is determined that Peralta had, in fact, been drinking prior to practice, Pena ponders whether or not to address it with Peralta already eliminated from the competition. Assistant Coach Wayne Gregory advises her to address it, but to “be compassionate about it” with the fighters nearing the end of their journey in the house.
Pena calls Peralta over to a bench to discuss her drinking issues. Peralta says she started drinking before practice to cope with being upset about being eliminated from the tournament. Peralta had previously fought Team Nunes’ Kaytlin Neil to a razor-close split decision, a fight she arguably won and believes she should still be in the tournament. Pena seemed to empathize with Peralta, mentioning how much it broke her heart to see her upset. Still, she advises her fighter not to compare herself to other people. The story doesn’t end there, however, as Peralta confronts her teammates about snitching on her drinking back in the house. She ultimately accuses teammate Laura Gallardo of ratting her out to Pena, which is unfortunate given the understanding there appeared to be between coach and fighter. Gallardo, however, says she felt disrespected and hurt by Peralta showing up in that condition, which is fair. Peralta argues she had still been a good training partner because she didn’t hurt anybody, but Gallardo, whose family has a history with alcoholism, disagrees.
Male teammate Mohammed Usman steps in, bringing up how much he enjoys the team comradery he has formed with teammates of both genders. Usman encourages his teammates to talk it out, and Peralta continues to say she wasn’t hurting anybody but herself. Gallardo ends up taking the high road, apologizing for hurting her while Peralta puts her over as a great person and teammate in spite of what happened. Gallardo arguably shouldn’t have had to apologize, but good on the ladies for squashing their beef ahead of the semifinals.
Back in the gym, Pena mentions that she will not be cornering either fighter and both fighters will have the opportunity to be cornered by their actual head coaches for this fight. Pauga says he likes the matchup with Heiderman, thinking he has an edge in skill over Heiderman, who he says makes up for the skill gap with physical advantages. Pauga, a former light heavyweight, might be able to match Heiderman in the cardio department, and it can be argued that Heiderman only beat Chandler Cole because of Cole completely gassing out. If the fight sees a third round, one would expect both fighters to have plenty of reserves ready to go.
Heiderman believes the fight with Pauga will come down to whoever can make the least mistakes. He opts to work on movement in the lead up, zeroing in on a detail-oriented approach to his training in an effort to beat Pauga. He believes Pauga will be most dangerous in the first round and that he gets better the deeper the fight goes, so whether Pauga is able to measure up to Heiderman physically will be something to monitor in the fight.
Coaches’ Challenge – Axe Throwing
UFC President Dana White is in the Apex to host this season’s coaches’ challenge: and axe-throwing competition between Pena and Nunes. Upon hearing the announcement of the competition, Nunes beamed with confidence while Pena elicited an opposite reaction.
The coaches will throw three times per round for five rounds. Points will be awarded when an axe sticks the wooden board target, and points will be determined by where the axes land on the board. There are three octagon-shaped lines on the board: black, red and silver, effectively making up three zones. Points will be determined in increments of 1-3, with a bullseye yielding five points. The coach with the most points at the conclusion of the competition wins. Per a coin flip, Pena yields the right to go first to Nunes. The winning coach will receive $10,000 with each of her team members receiving $1,500 each.
Nunes is up first and hits a three-spot on her second try. However, she bookended it with a pair of whiffs, bringing up Pena for the first time.
“When I saw Julianna pick up that thing, she didn’t even know how to hold it,” Nunes said. “That thing, I said like, oh, ‘I’m gonna smash you.'”
Pena’s first attempt misses, but gets on the board with a two-point strike on her second shot. Nunes leads 3-2 after one round and connects on a three-point throw that lands just above the bullseye and added one more point to end the second round. Pena, meanwhile whiffs bad on her first two attempts of the second round, but connects on a bullseye on her third attempt, tying the competition at seven points apiece. Nunes comes out hot in the third round, earning her team eight points to put the pressure back on Pena. Pena is able to add three points, making it 15-10 after three rounds. Nunes nets three points of her own to start the fourth round, putting Pena in an eight point hole to start her penultimate go-around. With Pena unable to score any points, Nunes starts the fifth and final round off with consecutive three-point lands, giving her a 24-10 lead over Pena with Pena on her last legs. She will need three bullseyes to win, and unfortunately can’t land on her first throw, thus making Nunes $10,000 richer. Pena isn’t sweating the loss, however, saying she will make it count when it matters most.
Back in the house, Pauga is celebrating his 34th-birthday. While he says he didn’t expect to spend it in the TUF House, he wouldn’t have it any other way. His teammates brought him his favorite flavor of cake to enjoy, and is somewhat notable that Heiderman was not seen eating the cake, though he eventually came to the table.
Jeff Mullen, Executive Director of the Nevada State Athletic Commission, is on hand at the weigh-ins to add some professional flair to the event. Heiderman weighs in at 247, while Pauga, having long since filled into his heavyweight frame, weighed in at 244 himself. Both fighters are about the same height. Teammate Bobby Maximus comments that he believes Pauga to be the most talented fighter in the house, while Usman says he’s just excited for the war.
This week’s flashback segment takes us back to McGregor vs. Faber, when one of the most memorable coaches’ challenges ever, the watermelon air drop, took place. Good times.
White says he is awarding the semifinalists with one phone call home to whoever they choose. Pauga says he’s in the house to show his family the importance of chasing dreams and putting the work in. He says his family will always see a side to him nobody else will ever get to. Heiderman, meanwhile, called home to his girlfriend, putting over the support system he has in place that always has his back. He knows he has already made his family proud and will continue to do so as he progresses to the finals.
With both fighters now aboard the bus to the Apex, the first semifinal of the season is fast approaching. Both fighters come off as likeable figures, and it will be a shame to see one of them not realize their spot in the finals. Heiderman will be cornered by his head coach Nick Norris who coaches at a couple different gyms in his native Nebraska. Pauga, meanwhile will be cornered by Vinnie Lopez of Elevation Fight Team. Lopez puts Pauga over for holding his own with the likes of Alistair Overeem and Curtis Blaydes in the gym, and Pauga is eager to show he is on another level.
The measurables of each fighter, as Mike Goldberg would say, are “virtually identical.” Prior to the fight, Pena tells White, along with Forrest Griffin that she flew in each of the fighters’ head coaches to corner them for the fight.
“That’s a good idea,” White said. “Nobody’s ever done that before.”
On some level, it is amazing White didn’t know Pena had gone ahead and made that kind of decision, whether he heard from Pena herself or second hand, but perhaps that is a reflection of his actual level of involvement with the product these days. Particularly with the seriousness of the non-disclosure agreements signed prior to going on the show, this was interesting to hear.
Mark Smith is the referee. Both fighters look explosive as they are athletic to start things out. Pauga is landing on Heiderman early, with Heiderman struggling to find his range. Pauga does a beautiful job of working to the body, opening things up for him upstairs while Heiderman whiffs on his own jab and uppercut. A little more than a minute in, Pauga is walking Heiderman down and seems to the more powerful fighter as well, as least at this point in the fight. Pauga again finds a home for a left straight to the body as Heiderman gets off his first leg kick of the fight. At about the halfway point, Heiderman shoots on Pauga, and while he is unable to take him down, he is able to claim his back. Heiderman then trips Pauga to the ground, but Pauga is able to get back to his feet and break the grip of his opponent. With about a minute and half to go in the round, the pace has slowed just a tad, as Heiderman seems to be playing the long game like he alluded to in the build-up. He might have to forfeit this round, however, unless he can get busier. Heiderman fakes a takedown a couple times, but Pauga connects on a spinning back fist, which is followed up by a beautiful knee to the body.
One round down, Pauga has a clear 10-9 in his back pocket heading into the second round. There does seem to be a gap in skill on the feet, so unless he gasses out, he would have be considered a modest favorite to claim the second round and the fight.
About 35 seconds into the second round, Pauga crushes Heiderman with his biggest shot of the fight, a left hook followed by two more successful punches that sends Heiderman crashing to the canvas. Smith is quick to step in, awarding Pauga the win by way of TKO.
Zac Pauga defeats Jordan Heiderman via TKO (punches) at 0:39 of Round 2
Pena seems surprised, but it is unknown whether her surprise was due to the result of the combination Pauga landed to close the show. She called it “an incredible fight,” putting over Heiderman’s toughness to be able to take Pauga’s shots. Sure enough, Pena’s bewilderment was due to Pauga’s left hand, which was indeed a thing of beauty. Given the high profile wins he owns on the regional circuit against the likes of Markus Perez, albeit at light heavyweight, it might be tough for bookmakers to peg Pauga as an underdog in the finale because that was an awesome performance. True to his own word, Pauga illustrated the skill gap between him and Heiderman on the feet and was able to get the finish. Pauga says moments like this are what he quit his job for and believes he will be the Season 30 Ultimate Fighter.
Heiderman asks his coach what happened on his way back to the locker room, but he doesn’t seem too dejected. He says he probably hadn’t fully recovered from his last fight, but admits there are no excuses and tips his hat to his opponent. Heiderman’s coach compliments Pauga, saying he had him pegged as the toughest guy in the house.
Next week’s episode will see Team Pena’s Gallardo collide with Team Nunes’ Walker with the first spot in the women’s finale up for grabs.