The Ultimate Fighter 21, Episode 1: These teams matter

How do you keep The Ultimate Fighter fresh after 10 years? Give the UFC credit for trying.

In 2011, they used it to introduce their bantamweight and featherweight divisions. T.J. Dillashaw has gone on to do pretty well for himself, and John Dodson isn’t bad, either.

In 2012, they tried a live season. They decided it didn’t work, so they backed away.

Then — women! First as coaches and half the cast as Ronda Rousey yelled at Miesha Tate for a while. Then as the whole cast last season, with the winner getting the belt. (And, sadly, not successfully defending it.)

This season, things are totally new. Yes, you’ve seen it from the ads — they’re staying in a house that will be underwater when the ice caps melt.

(Disclaimer: Reading the preceding paragraph may be illegal in Florida and North Carolina.)

But this season has a few other novelties:

1. They’re in Miami, not Las Vegas.

2. It’s a matchup of existing teams, not something contrived through a draft. These are rival gyms in South Florida. The fighters are all from those gyms. The fights will be in the gyms. After a coin flip for the first fight, the winner gets home gym for the next fight.

3. To keep up the team-vs-team aspect, this isn’t a tournament. Teams are fighting for points — 25 points for each of the first four fights, 50 for each of the next four, 100 for the last. Fighters can fight once, twice, three times, or none. You have to fight twice to fight in the finale. (They don’t mention the criteria for an overall winner.) And the gym with the most points gets paid.

Oh, and the owners don’t like each other.

Dan Lambert runs American Top Team, which has been around forever and has 45,787 professional fighters, including 17,786 in the UFC. That includes Robbie Lawler, who has completed the improbable rise from middling Elite XC/Strikeforce fighter to UFC champion.

Glenn Robinson used to train with ATT, but he says Dan banned him after he helped some fighters work through … some stuff. Or something. They’re not specific. But Robinson and those fighters struck out on their own. And in a bit of good timing, Rashad Evans bolted from Greg Jackson’s gym and figured South Florida was a trade up from New Mexico.

The best early zinger, from ATT: “Glenn’s just a fat guy who makes tools.” (Thanks to commenters at Bloody Elbow, I know now it’s because he owns a big-time tool company, which may explain the opulent house he shows off later.)

So the only recognizable part of this season is the TUF house, which looks even more opulent than ever, occupying one of those little points out into the water that’ll be worth a lot of money until the next storm hits.

Each team’s arrival in the house looks like this:

The curious thing: Why just one weight class? Does each gym really have eight quality welterweights? I guess they think so.

We get a really quick intro to all the fighters. The standout name is “Creepy Steve” from ATT. The standout resume goes to ATT’s Steve Carl, the former World Series of Fighting champion. (Yes, they mentioned another promotion on the show, though not on the official site’s bio pages.)

We also get a trip over to Glenn Robinson’s dazzling house, where the Blackzilians watch teammate Anthony Johnson’s stunning demolition of Alexander Gustafsson. If you watched the lead-in program, you know that the UFC producers named Gustafsson’s close loss to Jon Jones the best UFC fight … um, ever, apparently. So Johnson’s win was a very big deal.

Over to the ATT gym, where they talk about their strategy for picking fighters. It’s sensible — if you want people to fight more than once, you’d better get them in that first fight early rather than trying to have them go twice with little rest in between in the last few weeks.

And they pick their first fighter: Michael Graves, who describes his style as “wrestling, but all over the place.” If you watched Bull Durham, you know that’s not a compliment. But he doesn’t care about that — he has a fiancee who’s expecting.

Back at the house, conflict has already arisen in the most obvious place — the kitchen. The ATT guys say the Blackzilians are writing their names on all the food, including stuff they didn’t order. Looks like they’re still making a nice meal, though. How did all these fighters turn into such good cooks? I know journalists in their 30s who can barely handle Lean Cuisine.

Speaking of journalism, the Blackzilians’ complex has office space that looks like something big newspapers built before the business model crashed. They do a quick video conference with their guys in Sweden before picking Kamaru Usman for the first fight. Bloody Elbow likes this guy.

Usman is shown praying at the fighters’ house before we get his back story — born and raised (until age 8) in Nigeria, pursued Olympic wrestling career in Colorado Springs (not mentioned: he won the 2010 NCAA Division 2 championship), switched to MMA under Evans’ tutelage, has a daughter.

And we get one of my big TUF Pet Peeves: The guy who says he’s fighting for his family’s financial stability. You want financial stability? Work at a bank. Work at Starbucks and get your degree in the process. If you’re a UFC veteran who continues to fight because you’re actually getting a payoff, OK — then you’re fighting for your family’s long-term financial stability. When you’re on The Ultimate Fighter? You’re chasing a dream. Like me when I ditch this whole writing thing and start my prog-rock trio.

Obligatory beach and water shots, then over to the weigh-in. This is the first time the fighters will know who they’re fighting. Game plan? What game plan?

Anonymous Florida commission guy (that’s right, we’re not in Nevada any more) runs the weigh-in with remarkable formality. Both guys weigh in at 170. They face off, sort of — Graves is looking at the floor.

This is a 90-minute episode, so we get Robbie Lawler on camera along with the usual training cliches. Did you know a lot of fighting is mental? (Funny, I did well on the SAT — can I beat Jon Jones?)

Quick trip back to the house — damn, what are they making in the kitchen? Can we make this a cooking show instead?

I still don’t know much about Graves. He was born three months before I graduated from college. I’m not sure whether to call his hair a mullet.

Usman oozes confidence. He says he scouted everyone on their team. Graves is talented at controlling distance, he says, but that’s against lesser opposition.

Dana White loves the atmosphere, which is strange when you consider that he isn’t there to do the “two five-minute rounds, then sudden victory” speech. He leaves that to our unnamed ref.

Round 1: Usman does the spider crawl across the cage to start, and he soon gets Graves down by the cage. Graves does a decent job of getting up and eventually out. He lands a glancing head kick, and Usman again goes for the takedown. Graves has blood on his cheek somehow, but he gets up again and gets stuck clinch-fighting. Usman gets the underhooks, but Graves powers out and fires a strong knee. His punches, though, lack conviction. With a minute left, Usman lands a solid punch to the face and another takedown, though Graves again bounces right back up. I hate to give the round to someone just because he got a couple of takedowns and did nothing with them, but Graves didn’t do enough to win it. 10-9 Usman

Round 2: Graves is picking up the tempo on the feet, flinging a couple of kicks and punches. Usman gets the clinch against the cage. Ah, my favorite part of MMA — the pointless clinch against the cage where the clincher occasionally tries to land a knee from two inches away to show that he’s busy. Graves gets out, Usman shoots again, Graves gets briefly on top, and … they clinch again. Usman gets him down briefly and very briefly gets on Graves’ back. They break again, and Graves tries a half-hearted spinning back kick.

You get the picture. It’s another one of these fights with a wrestler who has no other discernible skills facing a guy who can’t get his striking game going.

Then suddenly, with 1:40 left, Graves dodges a takedown attack and takes Usman’s back. Usman stands with Graves draped on his back. Graves grits his teeth, going hard for the rear naked choke, but he can’t get the arm under the chin. Graves is on the verge of sliding off Usman’s back when Usman flings him off instead, landing in half-guard and dropping a couple of elbows. “GET UP, MIKEY!” yells an ATT member.

The coaches think we’re going to a third round. It’s 11:21, so it’ll be a brief one if we go.

And we’re not. It’s a majority decision for Usman. ATT is pissed that Usman got the second round, but one submission attempt isn’t going to overcome a whole lot of positional dominance.

The highlights show Graves’ early kick to the face was pretty powerful. But that was it.

An ATT guy starts yelling at Usman that he’s next. Usman comes over to yell back at him. Pity we didn’t know who it was.

Over to Dana White. He is not impressed. At all. He says neither guy fought like he wanted to win. Each guy was trying to do just enough to get the decision.

And that’s the curious problem with so many recent seasons of this show. I don’t get it, either. A spectacular loss on TUF will do more to get you in the UFC’s good graces than a grinding win. But that’s easier said than done.

We get a name for the guy who called out Usman — he’s Hayder. That would be Hayder Hassan, whose bio tells us he has a degree from Florida State.

Glenn Robinson is amused in the locker room. “‘I’m next?’ What do you mean — you’re next to lose?” Oooooh … snappy comeback.

We go straight to TUF Talk, where Karyn Bryant asks Usman what he thinks of Dana’s dissing. Usman says he’s a big fight fan, so he’s used to hearing that. Well, I’m inspired.

TUF Talk has more topics lined up on the right — “Hayder challenges Usman,” “Breaking down Usman” and “G. Robinson calls out Lambert’s ex.” Yeah, I think I’ll go to bed.

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