The Ultimate Fighter (TUF): Season 31 returned this week for the 10th time this season with an important episode in the context of the bantamweight tournament. Timur Valiev and Bard Katona, a pair of UFC veterans and two of the brightest fighters in the tournament, square off with a spot in the tournament finals – and the potential for a second chance in the UFC – on the line.
Katona will be reunited with real-life head coach John Kavanaugh and training partner Conor McGregor, per UFC President Dana White giving the fighters the option to change allegiances.
Last week’s episode saw Austin Hubbard secure a spot in the lightweight tournament finals with a lackluster (and perhaps) controversial victory at the expense of teammate Roosevelt Roberts.
Those with a subscription to ESPN+ can stream TUF 31 on demand.
TUF 31 Episode 10 Recap
The episode opens with Katona bidding adieu to Team Chandler and Head Coach Michael Chandler. Katona embraces Chandler and tells him how much he appreciated the help and how this “is not goodbye.” Chandler is at peace with Katona’s decision, which I’m sure was pretty predictable from all angles.
If there were any other coaching staff on the other side of the APEX, maybe Ryan Bader, Robert Drysdale, or any of Chandler’s assistants is in Katona’s corner ahead of his fight.
While Katona’s move is a subtraction for Team Chandler, it serves as an addition for Team McGregor. As “sad” as Katona may be to leave Chandler, he has to be happy about being reunited with Kavanaugh and McGregor. As McGregor is leading the team through balance drills, Katona hits the mits with striking coach Owen Roddy and is really pleased with the session and familiarity that comes with training with his guys again.
It is an advantage not afforded to many fighters who come through the show, and Katona is in a very unique situation. If he defeats Valiev and beats the winner of Rico DiSciullo and Cody Gibson in the finale, he will become the first fighter to win TUF on more than one occasion.
We then get a look at Valiev’s preparation in the Chandler camp. Chandler has him training primarily along the edge of the cage, where he says the fight will be won and lost. Valiev believes he is better than Katona everywhere. He believes this is a claim he is conditioned to make having trained with Katona earlier in the competition. He believes he has the edge from having trained with Katona, but is forgetting that Katona also trained with him, and therefore is likewise clued in to his strengths and weaknesses.
One advantage that Valiev will have is the wisdom of UFC lightweight champion Islam Makhachev, who stopped by the training session to visit with Valiev. The champ said he and Valiev’s relationship dates back several years, and spoke highly of his talent. He adds that his friend deserves to be in the UFC, while Valiev expresses his satisfaction with being able to communicate in Russian for the first time in several weeks. He ends up posing for a photo with the champ and the Basharat Brothers, Farid and Javid.
— The Ultimate Fighter (@UltimateFighter) August 2, 2023
Back in the Katona camp, Katona speaks on how he believes he was “wrongly” released from the UFC. However, the former BRAVE CF bantamweight champion admits he did not show his best, nor his most entertaining self against Carlos Vera in the opening round, and believes he has something to prove against Valiev. On top of that, the strength in Valiev as an opponent should make fight fans believers in Katona if he’s able to get his hand raised, regardless of how exciting the fight is. The same goes for Valiev.
Katona joins his coaches in watching film of Valiev against Trevor Wells as they look to find places to attack, adding that he believes he is the more refined fighter.
Just like last week, this week’s semifinalists are permitted a 10-minute Zoom call with friends and family. Katona opts to call his girlfriend, Katie Saull, who also trains at SBG Ireland, and spends that time reading her a passage he wrote about her from his journal. He moves her to tears.
Valiev, meanwhile, calls his mother and catches up with her on his family, though this segment comes following the weigh-ins. Valiev tells his mother he has another tough fight on his hands in Katona, while Valiev’s mother says she is passing on his well wishes to his family while affirming their belief in him.
Team switches and guest appearances 👀
Catch Episode 10 of #TUF31 tonight at 10pmET / 7pmPT!
— The Ultimate Fighter (@UltimateFighter) August 1, 2023
At the weigh-ins, both fighters make weight with Valiev checking in at 136 pounds while Katona weighs 135.5. UFC President Dana White calls this the biggest fight in the careers of both men, and he is not wrong. Both Katona and Valiev are clear top-40 fighters in the world in the sport’s most stacked weight division, and the winner should be considered a prohibitive favorite to punch their ticket back to the UFC.
As previously mentioned, Katona has a chance to make unique history as the only two-time TUF champion.
Keith Peterson is the referee.
Katona lands the first strike with a nice left hook about 20 seconds into the round. He then fakes a takedown to land a two-punch combination. From the opening bell, the level of combined skill in the Octagon is apparent, something missing from virtually every fight leading to this one. Katona takes Valiev down against the cage, but appears to have been cut along the way and is bleeding profusely from a cut on the right side of his head.
Must’ve been a slashing elbow.
Valiev fights his way back to his feet, and the two are now standing and trading as Katona’s cut starts to intensify. Even Valiev is covered in his blood. Early on, Katona has gotten the better of almost every striking exchange despite getting cut. It’ll be up to Valiev to mix in the grappling in order to get back into the round. Katona is wise to Valiev’s first takedown attempt, however, as he seems to be liking the matchup he has on the feet.
Finally, Valiev catches a Katona kick and takes his opponent down. Katona immediately begins to fish for an arm, and uses the scramble to work his way back to the feet without taking any additional damage. Valiev is now controlling Katona’s back against the fence with 40 seconds left in the opening stanza. Katona is looking to break the grip of Valiev, but Valiev slams him before losing control and bringing the fight back to the feet as the round ends.
Valiev made it competitive towards the end and may have came back, but Head Coach John Kavanaugh tells Katona “that’s your round.” I would tend to agree.
Round 2 opens with a striking exchange, and Katona is continually finding a home for his lead left hand. In spite of this, neither fighter is doing a considerable amount of damage on the feet, and the cut on Katona came from a Valiev elbow with his back against the cage. Katona is working the jab nicely through the opening minute.
He again finds a home for the left as Valiev takes a step back. Valiev loves the overhand right, but has landed it just once to this point, twice tops. Katona lands another left off a brief exchange in the clinch. Valiev lands a knee up the middle. He fakes a takedown twice, but Katona is unphased and lands another left. Both fighters shoot in at the same time and nearly clash heads, prompting a warning from referee Peterson.
White comments that Conor’s instruction “is absolutely right” that Valiev is not throwing the right when he should be. Valiev lands a duo of consecutive body kicks before landing a left. Katona is now looking to level change and has Valiev held against the cage. With 30 seconds to go, Katona might be ahead slightly, but this is another close round. He lands some knees to Valiev’s thighs against the cage, but Valiev reverses a takedown attempt and ends up on top as the round ends.
I’m not sure who’s gotten which rounds, but both fighters should be prepared to leave it all in the cage here in the third. Katona meets Valiev in the middle of the cage for the third round in what has easily been the most high-level, most entertaining fight of the season. Katona appears to wobble Valiev early in the third and is now pressing forward. As I write that, Valiev lands a nice three-strike combination and has really begun to work the leg kicks. Still, Katona is starting to land some the hardest shots of the fight, though the leg kicks seem to be effecting him little by little.
Katona has Valiev pretty well scouted from boxing range, and Valiev is looking to keep “Superman” off him with a right teep kick. Valiev now looks to change levels, and Katona pulls for a guillotine. The submission attempt fails, and now Katona is using the cage to work his way back to his feet. Valiev remains heavy on his back, however, as blood continues to pour like a faucet out the side of his head.
Valiev controls Katona against the cage for about 30 seconds before landing a right hand on the break. Katona again presses forward, using his left hand like the weapon it’s been all fight. He counters a Valiev right hand with an effective right of his own, followed by a left before trying for a level change of his own. He is on Valiev’s right leg as the 30-second warning comes into effect. Katona continues fishing for the takedown, probably thinking it would be enough to secure him the fight. However, he doesn’t get it and both fighters exchange one more time as the round ends.
I have it 29-28 Katona. Maybe a narrow 30-27.
White says he could see it going either way and admitted that while he was not impressed with Katona’s first fight, he ended up being impressed by both guys. Chandler says he felt Katona surprised everyone with how quickly he adjusted. McGregor called it a “nice war” and felt the matchup favored his fighter because he’s fought and beaten fighters from that region before. Still, White sees it as a toss-up.
Brad Katona def. Timur Valiev via Split Decision
McGregor, who always looks like he’s letting the audience in on a secret in his confessionals, is congratulatory to both fighters, telling Valiev he is “a hell of a fighter.” Katona called his opponent a “tough cookie,” but was very proud of the performance he put on. He seems to be in great spirits after the win, and is in prime position to get back to the UFC after winning the BRAVE CF championship overseas.
Valiev believes he could have done more and will use the fight as a learning experience. He fought well, but Katona has become much more well-rounded since leaving the UFC and showed it with this performance. Still, Valiev is definitely UFC caliber, and hopefully he gets the call anyway.
Stay tuned for next week’s episode, which will feature the Coaches’ Challenge, as well as a semifinal lightweight fight where it looks like Kurt Holobaugh and Jason Knight are going to beat the hell out of one another.