The Ultimate Fighter (TUF): Season 31 semifinals got underway this week in the ninth episode of the season. Rico DiSciullio finished Hunter Azure on last week’s episode, helping Head Coach Conor McGregor avoid a sweep in the process. However, Team Chandler’s team of UFC veterans will still dominate the semifinal matchups.
This week will see Team Chandler’s Austin Hubbard and Roosevelt Roberts vie for a spot in the lightweight tournament finals as we learn the remainder of the semifinal matchups on tap for this season.
Those with a subscription to ESPN+ can stream TUF 31 on demand.
TUF 31 Episode 9 Recap
Given the matchup of Hubbard and Roberts, we also know that Jason Knight will be taking on Kurt Holobaugh in the other lightweight semifinal. I am still unsure why UFC President Dana White opted for the Hubbard-Roberts fight. If this were a real tournament, both fighters would probably be seeded first and second in the eight-man field given the strength of some of their UFC performances, and therefore could not fight until the tournament championship anyway. Instead, the winner will be gifted with a favorable matchup in the Knight-Holobaugh winner.
That’s not a slight against Knight or Holobaugh, either. That said, the winner of their upcoming fight could find themselves outgunned by the winner of the other semifinal, though key to remember this is a show that is won and lost in the Octagon.
The semis are announced TONIGHT 👀
— The Ultimate Fighter (@UltimateFighter) July 25, 2023
The episode kicks off at the TUF House coming off DiSciullio’s victory last week. Following a day of training, we learn the semifinal matchups at the same time the fighters do, in addition to their seeds. Apparently, White saw Hubbard and Roberts as the second and third-seeded fighters at lightweight, with Jason Knight as the top-seeded remaining fighter. If this isn’t a look into what the UFC President sees in MMA prospects, I’m not sure what is.
Ever since maybe the second or third season of Dana White’s Contender Series, I’ve become privy to the idea there is a difference between an “MMA Prospect” and a “UFC Prospect.” MMA prospects are evaluated like prospects in any other sport: size, athleticism, intangibles all contribute to a fighter’s ceiling, while a distinguished base, power, technique, and versatility can also be a big plus with charisma and marketability being the cherry on top. UFC prospects are strictly fighters who can go out and put on the highest quality of performance for a television product as possible at the lowest cost. The UFC has no interest in running packed arenas or building a Conor McGregor-esque superstar in every because that takes effort and costs money.
For the UFC, it is way more cost effective to sign fighters like Trevor Peek at a minimum and cherry pick their matchups. If they happen to eventually succeed by their own merit, great. If they happen to fail, also great because through a show like DWCS, they can easily replace fighters like that who lack technical skill but are “tough” and “don’t quit.”
By the way, descriptors like “tough” should be a death sentence for any fighter aspiring to reach the pinnacle of the sport, as it implies they take a ton of damage which, as it currently stands, is the top criteria for MMA judging.
All of that is not to say the UFC does not value real MMA prospects, as they have plenty of those in every division. Rather, it is apparent that Dana White specifically sees prospects through a different lens. When left as the sole decision maker, the the UFC’s prospect ideology and typical MMA prospect ideologies can clash. It’s like a general manager in baseball only seeing value in power and speed. Sure, a center field prospect may have 60 HR and 60 SB upside, but if they can’t hit over .200, don’t walk, strike out more than half the time and are a complete defensive liability, are they really a prospect?
I’m not saying Knight can’t beat Hubbard, and he might even match up well with a fighter like Roberts. However, the matchmaking does feel like a ploy to get him into the finals, though Kurt Holobaugh is not a guy who’s just going to roll over for him either. He does will have a path to victory through the grappling, but will need to evade all of Knight’s submission attempts along the way.
Back to the show. The other two semifinal matchups at bantamweight will be contested between Brad Katona (2) and Timur Valiev (3), and Rico DiSciullo (1) vs. Cody Gibson (4). Again, given their resumes and skills, there is no reason for Katona and Valiev to be fighting in the semifinals, but I digress, and these should be fun fights regardless.
— The Ultimate Fighter (@UltimateFighter) July 26, 2023
It had been implied a few episodes ago that several fighters may be asked to switch sides given the lopsided results of the quarterfinals. Katona, Holobaugh, and Hubbard are therefore all given the option to do just that. “Option” is key here, as fighters are not mandated to switch sides. Katona is pretty agreeable to this, as he was hoping to land on McGregor’s team in the first place. He and McGregor both train under SBG Ireland Head Coach John Kavanaugh in Dublin. However, the rest of Team Chandler’s fighters all resist the idea of going to train with McGregor. Neither Hubbard, nor Roberts had any interest in switching sides, and White hypothesizes that Conor’s post-fight outbursts have rubbed everyone the wrong way. Holobaugh also publicly condemns the idea of teaming up with McGregor.
With Hubbard and Roberts both agreeing to remain loyal to Team Chandler, Head Coach Michael Chandler has no choice but to bow out of his coaching duties, splitting his assistant coaching staffs while himself focusing on training Valiev to fight Katona and Gibson to fight DiSciullio.
As the action returns to the TUF House, McGregor stops by to make his homemade “Irish Stew” for the fighters cooked with McGregor’s new stout beer. Coach Kavanaugh is also here. The reaction to him in the house is mixed with Gibson particularly unhappy to see him. Landon Quinones called the stew “delicious,” while Knight also seemingly enjoyed it for what it was while saying he’s more a “Keystone Light kind of guy.”
White allows the semifinalist fighters to call their families as a reward for winning their first-round matchups. Fighters are allotted 10 minutes on Zoom with their support system (friends and family) and this is typical family-centric TUF fare. Hubbard called speaking to his family the highlight of his time in Vegas thus far.
Just like that, we have reached the weigh-in portion of the show with very little focus on the actual preparation for Hubbard and Roberts. Roberts misses weight on his first try by .25 pounds. In order to combat this and properly make weight, he opts for Team McGregor’s Mando Gutierrez, the barber of the house, chop off his dreadlocks. While the idea of things like hair impacting weigh-in results is largely a myth, a thick head of hair like Roberts’ could tip the scales, and there is precedent for dreadlocks adding a tiny amount of weight as UFC women’s bantamweight Sijara Eubanks once did the same thing, ironically also on TUF.
Roberts is able to make weight successfully, so the fight will proceed as scheduled.
Mark Smith is the referee.
Both fighters come out tentative at first, which is understandable given the hours the two have put in with one another in the training room in recent weeks. Roberts, for the record, is a huge lightweight, standing four inches taller than Hubbard with a two-inch reach advantage, so he will need to find a way to use his physical advantages to negate Hubbard’s pace. Nevertheless, the early respect between the two is evident.
Smith warns Roberts about open fingers, then warns him again as the two trade abbreviated single strikes. Halfway through the round, neither fighter seems willing to commit or light their opponent up with a combination, and it is still anybody’s round at this point. So far, the fight has taken on the tone of a light sparring session. Roberts is slightly more active, trying a jumping knee, but takes an accidental groin strike and hits the canvas. However, he is back to his feet before long and pushing forward with single strikes while Hubbard is trying to keep him at bay with leg kicks as the round ends.
I’d score it 10-9 for Roberts based on activity and activity alone. Fight-altering damage was largely non-existent.
As the second round begins, Roberts is again warned for exposed fingers. These appear to be more “suggestions” or soft warning, as Smith is a referee who typically plants the seed in fighters’ heads early to not make the mistake at a crucial moment of the fight. So far, there’s been more activity to this round with Hubbard pushing Roberts against the fence. He lands some offense, backs away, but shoots in for a takedown, which he succeeds with. Hubbard is mostly using top position for control, while Roberts looks to use submission attempts to threaten a change of position. Hubbard is able to get off some light hammerfists from side control, but soon loses position with both fighters returning to their feet. Smith is now warning both fighters for their lack of activity. Hubbard is now dictating the pace and leading the dance, which, albeit, is a slow pace and slow dance. Roberts is once again warned for exposed fingers as the round ends.
I have the fight even after two.
Both fighters come out with more urgency with the fight seemingly up for grabs here int he third round. Hubbard gets Roberts against the cage early following a short-lived grappling sequence. Roberts tries to counter with a takedown of his own, but Hubbard is wise to it. He is able to get him down on a second try, however, but Smith quickly warns the fighters for inactivity on the ground. Hubbard eventually uses a triangle to get back to his feet. As time melts away, Smith again warns the fighters for inactivity as Hubbard counters another takedown by putting Roberts up against the cage. Roberts lands some weak knees with his back to the cage, and as Hubbard breaks away to seemingly deal damage, the final horn sounds.
I’m not sure how to score that third round, but I do know that neither fighter gave a very good account of themselves. There were no real winners.
Austin Hubbard def. Roosevelt Roberts via Split Decision
White is not shy in expressing his disappointment in the performance, and I do not blame him. Both fighters had multiple opportunities to put a stamp on the outcome, and both passed on the opportunity. Make no mistake, the UFC are not about to deny the winner of The Ultimate Fighter entry back into the company, as this is a competition about winning more than it is putting on good performances. That said, it is questionable whether Hubbard even won that fight, and he could be on a short leash unless he rediscovers his form in the finale.
Chandler even admits he has no idea who won the fight.
In hindsight, maybe the matchmaking was sound on the semifinal matchups after all? Whether he has to fight Knight or Holobaugh, either fighter will have no problem bringing the action to Hubbard if he is not willing to initiate it himself. Roberts, for the record, blamed his tentativeness on his friendship with Hubbard, and it now seems unlikely the UFC will retain him after a performance like that.
We then preview next week’s episode, which will see Brad Katona battle Timur Valiev in what should be the best fight of the season, at least from a skills standpoint. UFC lightweight champion Islam Makhachev is also set to appear.