The Ultimate Fighter 20, Episode 9: Mean girls

It’s been a while, hasn’t it? The last season of The Ultimate Fighter I recapped in full was Season 16. Remember Shane Carwin?

But I’m inspired. Season 20 — all women, all contenders, a title belt on the line — is terrific. The fights are more intriguing that what you’ll see on some UFC pay-per-views these days. I can’t wait to see Rose Namajunas take on Joanne Calderwood. Not because of their staredown. Because they’re great fighters with good personalities.

Even the reality aspects of Season 20 have been better than many past seasons. Sure, the house has divided into cliques — as it always does. (So please don’t assume this is some female trait on display in the TUF house for the first time.) The producers have given us a bit of misdirection on the supposed house villain, Heather Clark. After a couple of episodes of teammates ganging up on her, the careful viewer started to notice that she wasn’t actually doing anything worthy of such scorn. By the time we learned she was definitely not faking her knee injury, Angela Magana and other Clark tormenters had become the villains.

Luke Thomas and Kid Nate are a little down on the lack of coaches’ interaction in this season. I have no problem with the lack of a coaching rivalry. My respect for both coaches has grown. Anthony Pettis is thoughtful and empathetic. Gilbert Melendez is doing his best to mediate intrateam disputes.

So here we go — back in the recappers’ chair. It’s Episode 9.

(Have I mentioned that I love the new theme song? I do. Good subtle touches like the ride cymbal building up to the final guitar riff. Quality.)

Rose Namajunas laments that she’s the only fighter left from Team Melendez. That’s actually a good situation in some ways.

And, hey — there’s alcohol! I had just been thinking that we hadn’t seen much drinking this season. That leads to Bec Rawlings, drowning her sorrows after elimination, having a slumber party with Magana and a couple of the other Rude Girls. Tecia Torres, awakened in her upper bunk, decided to take her pillow elsewhere. And … that’s it? In a lot of seasons, that sort of thing ends with furniture being destroyed. This time, it ends with Torres and Magana agreeing to switch bunks and rooms without incident.

Over to Team Pettis, which has seven quarterfinalists. Lots of teammate vs. teammate situations, and Pettis follows TUF precedent by backing out of cornering against someone he has been coaching.

But this is where the conflict shifts …

We’ve heard very little from Randa Markos since she upset Tecia Torres (who wound up reinstated to the tournament and winning) in Week 1. She’s fighting Felice Herrig, who always finds the camera.

The team decides to split into mini-teams, each only taking one session per day, so fighters aren’t training with their next opponents. Torres is a little reluctant to drop the two-a-days, but at this stage, it seems like it’s just as well.

And now, Dana White’s favorite part of the season, the Coaches’ Challenge. As we’ve seen in all the ads, it’s a trivia competition hosted by the golden-voiced Bruce Buffer. White explains that they moved away from a physical challenge to rest Pettis’ knee.

Round 1: 10 fighters have coached and competed. Name two. Melendez buzzes in — Rashad Evans and Forrest Griffin.

Next: Which fighter won a championship title but did not win his season of TUF? Pettis guesses wrong.

Felice Herrig has little faith in Pettis, but he redeems himself a bit by coming up with the year of the first UFC event (1993). He ends up with 900 points to Melendez’s 1,800.

The “sudden victory” round is like Final Jeopardy — wager, then answer. The question: How many successful title defenses does Anderson Silva have? Each coach answers “9.” It’s 10. They bet wisely — Pettis bet it all, as he had to, and Melendez bet nothing. Melendez wins. Pettis finally gives the producer-friendly “Well, that’s all Gilbert’s going to win” spiel.

We’re abruptly back to the next fight, where Markos talks about her underrated striking. But Aisling Daly thinks she needs to take this fight to the ground. Then it’s cliche time — Markos really wants it, she works hard, this is her chance, etc.

But Markos wants to go back to two-a-day training. She doesn’t care if Herrig is watching her. Conflict time!

The Pettis coaching staff asks Herrig, No. 1 seed Carla Esparza and whoever else is in the room if they would reconsider the split training sessions. Herrig is so livid that her hair suddenly sprouts a few more colors as she gives her confessional about how the team voted but the other girls went “behind their backs” to the coaches to complain. The “behind the back” talk would’ve been when the other fighters were in the session that the Herrig crew didn’t attend. That’s kind of like saying the Sales team went behind the backs of the Marketing team by discussing something in the Sales meeting.

The Pettis coach who was trying to sort things out is identified. He’s Scott Cushman, one of the focal points of an investigative report about the death of a fighter he was coaching. Not the best timing, though I’d have a few more pointed questions for the referee and doctors than I would for the coach.

Another coach tries to sell the “they don’t want to watch you train; they just want to cut weight and work out” angle. Esparza calls them cowards for talking with coaches in … again, in their training session. Does this mean Esparza is a coward for calling the other fighters cowards when they were cowardly not there to be accused of being cowards?

Herrig continues that line of thought in the sauna with a very frustrated assistant coach who looks a little like Jake Shields but clearly isn’t. Shields is helping Melendez, though I’m not sure he has been identified once.

Back at the house, a few fighters are in the hot tub talking about the situation. Herrig, her hair pulled so tightly into twin buns that it now qualifies as Kevlar, struts out to complain that they didn’t mention it at the team meeting. She calls them “cowards” … then quickly races back into the house. That’s called “undercutting your point.”

Markos, in confessional, laughs it off as extra motivation.

The next day, the Pettis van is crowded. Esparza and Herrig gang up on Markos, who wants no part of the discussion. Esparza and Herrig conclude that Markos is the rudest person they’ve ever met. She’s Canadian! She can’t be rude! Back from commercial break, Herrig does a mean impression of Markos for Esparza’s amusement.

At this point, it seems only fair to get Herrig’s postshow thoughts on this whole mess, even though I’ve accidentally spoiled the outcome of the fight. Here’s what she says about Markos:

Back to game-planning — Herrig thinks Markos will get tired after missing a couple of takedowns. Jessica Penne, another fighter who hasn’t gotten a ton of screen time, thinks Herrig will win — oh, we’re suddenly back to Herrig. Earlier, she said she prefers to fight when she’s not mad at her opponent, but now she says she fights better when she’s mad.

And back to the house, where Herrig and Esparza do a patty-cake game repeating Markos’ “Don’t talk to me” line. Markos, stretching by herself in the house, mutters “(bleep) bitches.”

At long last, 44 minutes into the episode, we have the weigh-in. Esparza says the fight will be easy because Markos hasn’t been nice, which is impressive logic.

Now we get the Scottish voice of reason, Joanne Calderwood. In her lilting Celtic voice, with subtitles, she says Randa’s mentally stronger than Felice and more focused. “Randa’s going to take it to the ground, and I think that’ll be it.”

The staredown is entertaining. Herrig again trots out the “Don’t talk to me” line. Then she blows a bubble, which Markos impressively swats away. That’s accurate striking.

Back in the house, Calderwood looks very comfortable on her bunk bed as she chats with Markos. They strip away the subtitles as Calderwood says Herrig looks like a (bleep) clown. Markos goes to confessional and says it just shows Herrig is weak.

Let’s get a word from Calderwood:

Herrig says Markos was quivering and cowering. I don’t think those words mean what she thinks they mean. Markos looked quite intense.

One last reminder that Herrig doesn’t like Markos before they finally walk to the cage. “The anger that I bring into the cage does help me a lot,” Herrig says before listing all the nasty things she’s going to do.

We get back from the ad break at the 53-minute mark, so we know this’ll be a short fight. Herrig has a three-inch reach advantage even though they’re the same height. Dana White isn’t there, so we once again have the ref giving the “two five-minute rounds” speech.

Herrig throws a few punches from distance, but she can’t stop Markos from coming in and clinching 20 seconds in. Herrig gets Markos against the cage, but Markos reverses it and starts going for the trip. At 1:15, she gets it, but Herrig manages to end up on top of her. They stand again, and Markos throws a knee against the cage. That’s a rare strike attempt from Markos. The grappler then gets her arms around Herrig’s head and throws her to the mat, landing on top in side control. Markos pulls a slick armbar. Herrig taps.

They don’t shake hands. Markos says she should’ve pulled harder to break her arm.

“That should shut her up, right?” Markos says to a couple of people in the Team Pettis bleachers. Esparza: “Maybe if you weren’t such a bitch, she’d shut up.” Markos: “Don’t worry, you’re next.” Esparza: “Oh my god, I wish you were my next fight. I can’t wait to fight you.”

They’re on opposite sides of the draw, and I don’t see Markos beating the Namajunas-Calderwood winner. At this point, with Esparza’s head somewhere other than fighting and training, I don’t see her getting past Tecia Torres, much less the Aisling Daly-Jessica Penne winner.

Herrig and Esparza didn’t come across well in that episode, to put it mildly. But in fairness, remember what Rich Franklin called “The Edit Monster.” Six weeks get distilled down to a few hours of footage. Maybe Markos secretly switched the coffee in the house to decaf. Maybe she forced Herrig and Esparza to listen to Caress of Steel, by far the worst Rush album. We don’t know.

Scenes from the next: It’s Harley-Davidson plug time. And Conor McGregor visits his pal Daly. The fighters don’t appear to have anything nasty to say to each other. “I’m looking forward to the challenge of facing her,” Penne says. I think I’ll watch anyway.

Update: The fighters went on TUF Talk, and Esparza, unfortunately, doubled down. Markos pointed out that it’s all there on the show for people to see. Esparza could’ve claimed that the editing made her seem worse that she was. But Esparza seems to think the episode made her look OK. Oops.