TUF Rousey-Tate: First impressions

This season of The Ultimate Fighter isn’t really about the coaches or the fighters. It’s about women’s MMA and the awkward collision of its past, present and future.

From its beginnings, MMA has always had awkward relations with its past. In Japan, promoters walked a fine line between fiction and reality. (“Hey, this is a real fight! Well, OK, that one wasn’t, but trust us — this one is!”) The first UFC events had to come up with something to explain why the guys in the cage were qualified to be there.

And even today, a lot of UFC fighters’ credentials are overstated. And a lot of the sport’s pioneers are discarded if they fall out of favor. (See Shamrock, Frank.)

Women’s MMA has an obscure history in the first place. Gina Carano got a couple of fights on prime time, sure. Others in the sport have been known only to the hard-core fans.

Enter Ronda Rousey.

The brash Olympic judo medalist has catapulted the sport into the limelight. She has more readily identifiable credentials than Carano — an Olympic medal speaks more loudly than a well-honed striking style. While Carano would smile and occasionally say the word “sex,” Rousey is willing to chat about anything from sex before fights to the tragic loss of her father when she was young. She is an athlete — and an exceptional one — who knows how to sell herself.

But it’s “herself.” Not so much the sport. Rousey isn’t Mia Hamm, smiling nervously amidst all the attention and deflecting the spotlight to those who came before her like Michelle Akers. Granted, MMA is an individual sport rather than a team sport. But Rousey seems to separate herself from her sport in ways that even the outlandishly self-promoting Muhammad Ali never did.

And that’s evident in The Ultimate Fighter. Rival coach Miesha Tate may have little chance of beating Rousey in their rematch at the end of this season, but she would certainly be a better fight commentator down the road. She knew the fighters, veterans and newcomers, and offered frank assessments of their strengths and weaknesses. Women’s MMA promotion Invicta FC would be wise to pick her up as the women’s MMA analogue of superb soccer commentator Kate Markgraf.

Rousey, on the other hand, had little to say. Maybe she was just busy taking notes, and perhaps she was in no mood to chat with Tate or Dana White, who had shocked her the preceding day by springing Tate into the gym in place of original coach Cat Zingano, who was injured.

Not that Rousey was departing from protocol. The Ultimate Fighter usually glosses over fighters’ pre-TUF careers. But in this case, that’s probably a mistake. Two of the sport’s biggest names, Tonya Evinger and Tara LaRosa, were beaten in their preliminary fights. That should be a bigger deal that it appeared on the show. They did at least play up Revelina Berto’s fighting family, which includes boxing star Andre Berto.

(By the way, men are also fighting this season. The preliminary fights were mostly terrible.)

Tate put things in perspective. She accurately predicted Evinger’s fade, questioning her heart and stamina. (She also made some allusion to girlfriend drama, and it’s fair to say Evinger and Tate have had a feud far beyond what we’ve seen in other women’s sports.) She paid tribute to Roxanne Modafferi as a pioneer of the sport who’s “tough as nails” despite looking and talking more like a librarian than a fighter.

It’ll be tough not to root for the veterans here. Modafferi, someone I once interviewed for a story about fighters’ day jobs (she was an English teacher in Japan), is thoughtful and funny, shouting a bunch of cliches after her win and then admitting with a laugh that what she had just said was rather lame.

Then there’s Shayna Baszler, who isn’t the least bit afraid to talk up her credentials. She says she has already beaten some fighters who are now in the UFC (true) and is higher ranked than many of them (also true — she’s only two places behind Tate). She’s carrying a big chip on her shoulder and yet is the overwhelming favorite, wisely chosen first by Rousey.

And she delivered the quote of the night to explain why the veterans may have more grit and determination than the younger crowd. “It’s easy to be hungry when the feast is at the table. I was hungry when all we were being fed were crumbs.”

The Rousey-Tate rivalry is, at its heart, all about the respect the brash newcomer should be paying to those who paved the way in this sport. Brock Lesnar stomped to the top of an undertalented heavyweight class and was still gracious to people like Randy Couture. We haven’t yet heard such things from Rousey, though perhaps she’ll get a chance when she’s in the odd situation of coaching someone like Baszler, who has a better-rounded skillset than the armbar-reliant Rousey.

Personally, I should be thrilled with Rousey’s success. I was touting her as an MMA prospect before she won an Olympic medal. I may have even mentioned to Dana White, who probably laughed about it at the time. (To be sure, he didn’t sign Rousey on my recommendation.) And there’s no question women’s MMA is in a better place now than it was before her emergence.

But Rousey, intentionally or not, gives the impression that she thinks herself bigger than the sport. She may say the occasional kind word about Liz Carmouche or Cat Zingano, but this whole MMA thing feels like a little dalliance for her, just a stepping stone between her careers in the Olympics and in Hollywood.

We can’t place all the blame on Rousey for dragging the Tate rivalry with into Dynasty territory. Tate went there, too. And Rousey is a bit like the Yankees, Manchester United or Duke basketball — her success breeds contempt. Rousey’s a tremendous athlete and a shrewd person who has probably outdrafted Tate, who opted for her young training partner over Baszler and may pay for that pick next week.

So Tate and her team may be the underdogs here. The Rockys to Rousey’s Clubber Lang. Should be fun to watch this play out.

And there’s a dude who looks like the biggest behavioral problem since Junie Browning. Plus the potential for couples to form if the fighters somehow forget the house has cameras everywhere. As soon as people figure out how to find Fox Sports 1 on their TVs (wow, people are clueless), this show might take off.

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The Ultimate Fighter 17, Episode 5: Sonnen the good guy?

The funny thing about this season: Chael Sonnen is making it difficult to hate him.

His pep talks to his team feel sincere and inspiring. He does a twist of the Hoosiers scene measuring the height of each basket, telling his fighters about a researcher finding people had no trouble walking across a 2×4 when it’s down on the ground but unwilling to do it when it’s suspended between two ladders. It’s not the fight making you nervous, he says — it’s the environment, with “Uncle Dana” watching.

While he drops the occasional Muhammad Ali rhyme (“How you gonna deal with the team of steel?”), he isn’t trash-talking. He and Jon Jones have had a cordial relationship throughout. They agree far more than they disagree. (We’ll see if that changes when the time comes to pick the wild cards.)

He’s impressed with Team Jones’ Bubba McDaniel, praising him for running on his day off and saying he wanted to push for a wild-card slot for whoever faces him.

This week, he called on his cool friends to help out. He got Ronda Rousey on the phone to talk with a smitten Kelvin Gastelum, promising to come out to Vegas to teach a session if he upsets Bubba McDaniel. (He does, and she calls back again while his teammates tease him.)

More surprisingly, he brought in Mickey Rourke, who has been a bit more successful as an actor than he was a boxer but is eager to tell stories of dealing with adversity. “Discipline into my life came very late,” he says to an attentive group of fighters.

In today’s MMA Fighting live chat, Luke Thomas said we may be seeing the real Sonnen now that he has talked and postured his way to comfortable positions as an analyst who is getting his third title fight. He no longer needs to do the act.

The counterargument to that would be that Sonnen did some bad stuff that wasn’t part of the act. His non-UFC career led him to court. He had a muddled testosterone-therapy case that may have affected the performance against Anderson Silva that vaulted him up the UFC respectability ladder.

But if that’s in the past, and this is “the real Sonnen” with a bit more maturity and responsibility, then a lot of people are going to like him.

Oh, and then his fighter upset Bubba. Not a bad fight at all, though Bubba broke down in tears of disappointment afterward. Kelvin, blasted by Josh Sannan as having “the worst diet in the house,” looked solid on his feet and terrific on the ground. After a first round that featured more sweeps than the 1-vs-8 matchups of the NBA playoffs (“Quit floppin’ around!” yells Sonnen from the corner), Kelvin established better control in the second round and eventually sunk a deep rear naked choke on the startled veteran.

Sonnen called it the best fight of the tournament so far, again complimenting Bubba. “One more for the bad guys,” he says, still willing to play the heel even if he isn’t acting like one.

We didn’t see much in the house other than an entertaining game of charades. Bubba didn’t participate, opting to stare at the fire and reflect on his troubled youth. “The law sometimes doesn’t agree with me.”

We also hear once again that Kelvin is the youngest fighter in TUF history. Not true. His TUF bio gives his age as 20. Patrick Iodice, who fought in TUF Smashes, is still just 19.

The next fight is Tor Troeng (Sonnen) vs. Josh Sannan (Jones). Sonnen says they made the matchup because everyone else in the house is scared of them. Everyone’s also scared of Uriah Hall. Maybe they should just let Hall fight the Troeng-Sannan winner?

But earlier in the episode, we see that all is not well with the show’s favorites. Samman is dealing with a few injuries to his finger and knee, and he asked the Team Jones coaches not to pick him next if Bubba gains control for the team. Jones appreciates the communication but worries that the better fighters are starting to dictate things on the team.

And in the scenes from the next episode, Josh is describing a nasty hamstring injury in his past. Over on Team Sonnen, Uriah Hall is falling into the old way of annoying TUF teammates, punching too hard in training. Ouch.

The Ultimate Fighter 16: The final recap

The final episode of TUF Smashes, the UK-vs.-Australia season, also concluded a few days ago. The last episode featured good-natured toasts between two teams who have come to respect each other, then a stellar submission by Colin Fletcher. Maybe Fletcher’s fight against the far smaller Richie Vaculik looked like a giraffe fighting a gnat, but give actor/surfer Vaculik some credit for taking the fight to him.

We also saw Valentino Petrescu showcasing his juggling skills from his circus days. And a lot of laughter. If you saw any of these guys on a fight card, you’d be likely to root for them.

Back to the USA. Yes, we have to.

Team Nelson seems unhappy. Joey Rivera says he feels “jaded” by Roy’s practices.

The word “jaded” can mean “worn out or worried, as by overwork or overuse,” but the team has griped all season over a lack of practice time, so that can’t be it. Another meaning: “dulled or satiated by overindulgence.” Is that some sort of crack about Roy’s belly?

Rivera also complains that there was no synergy. OK, now we’re in a Dilbert cartoon. Maybe Roy should’ve proactively enabled his team to feel empowered to streamline operations into a client-based operation. Bingo!

Of course, we don’t get much of a discussion of Nelson’s assistant coaches, one of whom is fighting for the UFC lightweight championship Saturday night. Well, maybe a passing reference to the Skrap Pack.

Then we go straight to the fights. Colton Smith fights in the second-tightest shorts ever seen in the Octagon without losing a bet (tightest: Mike Easton) and wears down Jon Manley in the 12th fight out of 13 this season to go the distance. And just as the Knockout of the Season bonus is about to go unclaimed, Mike Ricci knocks Neil Magny cold with an elbow. Magny awakes and starts grappling with referee Steve Mazzagatti, thinking he’s still in a fight.

Ricci says he choked up a bit afterward because he hurt a friend of his. Somewhere in Canada, Michael Hill is throwing a shoe at a TV screen, remembering the days when HE was Ricci’s BFF.

So the final features the ultrasmug Ricci, who threw fellow Canadian Hill under the bus, against Smith, who won his prelim after he faked the traditional touch of gloves at the beginning. In fairness, Smith seemed to be a good guy in the house, but the “liberal tree-huggers” among my neighbors would like a word with him.

The top talent of the season is clearly Danny Downes. No, he wasn’t on the show, but the fighter is a terrific episode recapper.

Someone might surprise us. Smith and Ricci could mature. Magny is one to watch, even if Dana White has followed through on his threat to keep all these guys off the finale. Manley and Sam Alvey have a bit of potential.

But this fall’s TUF experience raises a big question: If the UFC is running a good solid version of The Ultimate Fighter somewhere else on the planet, why do an inferior version at “home”?

The Ultimate Fighter 16, Episode 11: Blame Canada!

Time for the showdown of friends and teammates — Jon Manley and Joey Rivera. They praise each other and hug. And Team Carwin thinks Team Nelson hasn’t bonded …

Colton Smith is cornering Manley. Cameron Diffley is cornering Rivera. Dana White is giddy. Denny’s is the sponsor. Herb Dean is the ref. They’re both 7-1. We haven’t heard anything from Julian Lane yet. This is exciting stuff.

After some standing exchanges, Manley rushes into Rivera and pushes him to the cage. Smith and Diffley keep up steady streams of positive reinforcement, like coaches who just walked out of a Positive Coaching Alliance workshop. (Hey, it’s a good program. Based on John Wooden’s ideals, so you can’t say it’s not old-school.)

Rivera reverses and gets a grip on a guillotine, but Manley reverses and finally gets the takedown. But somehow, he ends up in awful positions. The momentum swings back and forth like a table tennis referee’s eyes following the ball. (Sorry — I’ve seen that “bad high school analogies” meme maybe 10 times this week on Facebook.) Rivera gets Manley’s back and goes for the choke. Manley slips out and gets back on top. Rivera gets a triangle attempt. Manley escapes. Rivera goes for an armbar. Manley gets side control. That’s where Round 1 ends, and that probably means Manley took it 10-9.

In Round 2, Rivera spends the first 3:30 showing off his outstanding takedown defense. Manley finally gets the takedown and gets in side control. Somehow Rivera gets a triangle attempt. But Manley slips out.

Dana White recap: Rivera looked like he was on Xanax.

Jarman had it 19-19, but the other two judges correctly scored it 20-18 for Manley. Not a great fight — the friendship certainly played a factor. Manley, who has THE ONLY FINISH SO FAR THIS SEASON, is disappointed in his performance despite the win.

Then we go to the former best buds from Canada, Mike Ricci and Michael Hill, who start arguing in the house over something having to do with sauce being sabotaged. This leads to one of the dumbest trash-talk exchanges in TUF history.

Ricci: “You’ll get your chance.”

Hill: “You’ll get YOUR chance.”

Then we have an ad for the U.S. Marines, with Mike Ricci. Who’s Canadian. This is the most embarrassing moment for Canada since Bryan Adams released “Summer of ’69.”

Hill actually reminds us of a mulleted Bruce McCullough character from Kids in the Hall.

The fight starts with some modest fireworks, and Hill lands one or two decent shots. But when Ricci gets Hill to the ground, Hill’s defense sags. Ricci looks like he’s posturing up to try the Michael Scott “spit in Dwight’s mouth” technique, which is indeed illegal under the Unified Rules of MMA.

But instead, Ricci does a bit of damage. The horn sounds before he can do any significant work toward a submission.

In Round 2, Ricci gets it to the ground quickly and takes Hill’s back. Hill stands, but Ricci drapes himself on Hill’s back as they do the Pilobolus. They fall to the mat with Ricci punching away, and coach Roy Nelson is reduced to profanities. Hill manages to stand again, but Ricci gets a good solid grip on a rear naked choke and … loses it. Hill actually stands and lands a couple of consolation strikes before the horn sounds.

Judges couldn’t get it wrong if they tried. 20-18 x3 for Ricci.

Shane Carwin speaks for the first time in the episode. Don’t remember what he said. Dana White isn’t impressed with Hill’s ground game.

In the three remaining minutes, we get the semifinal pairings:

Jon Manley (Nelson) vs. Colton Smith (Nelson). Another buddy vs. buddy.
Mike Ricci (Carwin) vs. Neil Magny (Carwin)

On the next episode … the semifinals. And they say one thing is for sure — there will be a knockout. That means there’s another thing for sure — a semifinalist is getting the Knockout of the Season bonus, unless they give it for one of the prelims.

But before we leave, let’s forget about Ricci and Hill, remembering some of the many good things about Canada:

  • Sarah McLachlan
  • Rush
  • Whistler
  • Kids in the Hall
  • Toronto
  • Dwayne De Rosario
  • Christine Sinclair
  • Kara Lang
  • Health care
  • European candies not available in the USA
  • The CBC
  • Curling

The Ultimate Fighter 16, Episode 10: Team Jacob vs. Team Carwin

So the ratings are down again. That’s surprising. Isn’t a Twilight movie the perfect lead-in to a men’s-only show about people fighting without vampire teeth and sparkles? Going from Team Jacob vs. Team Edward to Team Nelson vs. Team Carwin doesn’t do it for FX viewers? These kids today … can’t understand them.

While we’re complaining about strange decisions on or about The Ultimate Fighter, let’s peek over at TUF: Smashes, the thoroughly entertaining UK-vs-Australia matchup you really should be watching online. I’ve never understood the logic behind making semifinal matchups. Usually, Dana White brings in the fighters and coaches, then fakes everyone out by going in a different direction. That’s what he did here.

Australia earned three of the four welterweight spots, so two Aussies will need to face off. Two of them immediately said, “Oh, I just want to beat up British scum, sir!” Benny Alloway did it differently. Asked who would be the easiest win, he said Xavier Lucas. That makes sense, since the X-Man was the one who got the free pass to the semifinals after teammate Manny Rodriguez was hurt in his win, replacement Aussie James Vainikolo couldn’t shed a whole bunch of weight in a few hours without spending the rest of the season in hospital, and the Dana White/George Sotiropoulos brain trust stuck it to the UK’s Valentino Petrescu once again.

So Alloway was probably correct, but not politically correct. And word leaks back to the house, and he’s in trouble.

(But first, Dana incorrectly tells the X-Man that both Aussies picked him! That’s not really what Robert Whittaker said.)

Then we get the logical semifinal matchups — Alloway vs. new enemy Xavier Lucas, plus Robert Whittaker against remaining Brit Brad Scott. What? Oh, no — we actually have Alloway vs. Scott, while Lucas and Whittaker have to face each other.

The lightweight bracket had a head-scratcher as well. All four UK fighters advanced, but Mike Wilkinson was injured. Rather than give Colin Fletcher a bye to the final or give Team UK a replacement, Dana White brings back Richie Vaculik, one of two healthy Aussies. Dana says he’s doing that because Team UK broke the rules by obtaining and using a phone. But Colin Fletcher is one of the UK fighters who stayed away from the phone. (Norman Parke and Brendan Loughnane, the other semifinalists, were guilty as charged.)

If Vaculik gets lucky against Fletcher and gets to the final, it’ll be a travesty. Fletcher is clearly the class of the lightweight fighters, and he didn’t break any rules. (It’s still OK to go streaking around the tennis court, right?)

Smashes rant over … back to the USA, where we’re at that point of each TUF season when we realize the bout between the coaches isn’t going to happen

First, Mike Ricci justifies his decision to fight Canadian buddy Michael Hill, saying this is a competition, and the people in the house are just numbers to him. Danny Downes has already pointed to the problem that undermines Ricci’s case: He’s wearing sunglasses inside. What is this, a poker tournament?

But we go over to the intra-Carwin matchup first, where Bristol Marunde, being a veteran and someone with functioning eyes, realizes that Neil Magny has a longer reach than he does. They’re not just teammates — they’re bunkmates.

Hey, we didn’t see the weigh-in? How do we know they made it?

Round 1: Marunde fares pretty well, ducking under Magny’s punches and throwing uppercuts. Magny keeps backing up and finally falls prey to a takedown. But Magny gets up, and somewhere along the way, Marunde got a cut in his eyebrow that seems to be bothering him.

Round 2: Magny gets slightly the better of the standup, but Marunde catches a kick and kicks Magny’s other leg out from under him. Then he lands in Magny’s guard. After 30 seconds or so, he stands, but Neil isn’t able to kick him away and get up. Marunde tries to leap down in side control but can’t get it, and Magny stands. Then Magny gets a takedown of his own, getting into Marunde’s half-guard. And Magny is better able to land some punches and the occasional elbow. Marunde flips over and escapes, then comes out firing with 30 seconds left.

No sudden-victory round. It’s unanimous for Neil.

Seems a little harsh to me. I thought Bristol might have won the first. Dana White says he gave that round to Magny but could see the case for Marunde. But if you’re a fan of 10-10 rounds or the half-point scoring system, then Magny wins 20-19 or 19.5-19. Under the 10-point system, it’s questionable but not unjust.

Marunde is happy with his performance. And he should be. Probably the best fight of the season.

Immediately to the second quarterfinal, and this time, we see the weigh-in. Igor asks for a towel screen so he can make 171. Carwin is very confident in Igor.

The staredown is interesting. Igor, a bit taller, gets his nose in Colton’s face and nods his head. Colton shakes his head, as if they’re saying “Yes” and “No.” They bump noses, someone says not to (bleeping) touch me, someone says I’m gonna touch you tomorrow, and Igor shoves. Colton gets right back. Igor shoves again. They’re broken up.

Somewhere in there, Colton said something that was bleeped. And maybe that bleep means something bleeping different in Brazil.

“Roy’s sitting on the bench ordering popcorn and peanuts and egging it on. What a dick.” Wow! Something quotable from Carwin! That should really set the tone for his fight with Nels … oh … right.

Outside the case, Igor should be scared to fight me, Colton says. He’s in the military. And there’s some special military stuff that you can’t use in the cage. Like groin shots.

The tale of the tape tells us Igor has a five-inch reach advantage and much more experience.

They do not touch gloves.

Round 1: Igor, who apparently did not see the “Keys to Victory” saying he needs to keep the fight standing, goes for the takedown. But Colton takes him down. Colton spends the next four minutes deftly switching between dominant positions, occasionally pausing to punch Igor a few times.

Round 2: Colton gets him down again, and unless Igor pulls off a submission somehow, this going to be Colton’s fight. Igor does not. This is not a hard fight to judge.

Next week: Look, will you just watch? The fights are getting better. The drama in the house is interesting. Maybe the editors will even let us see the Diaz brothers when they show up to coach with Nelson.

The Ultimate Fighter 16, Episode 9: Friends and fighting

In life and The Ultimate Fighter, stepping up and apologizing is a Good Thing. From a utilitarian perspective, apologies add much to the greater good. They free society of the need to do excessive policing, allowing that society to focus on more positive efforts. They also establish norms of decency that reduce the risk of society members being victimized.

Dana White might not be a utilitarian philosophy student, but he appreciates a good solid apology. So when he brought in James Chaney to confront him about potentially biting Jon Manley in the previous fight, he was impressed that Chaney immediately confessed and said he was sorry. White reiterated that there’s no place for biting in fighting, but with Chaney showing nothing but remorse, White accepted the apology.

In the house, things aren’t resolved in such a civil utilitarian fashion. Julian Lane says something about the military that his buddy Colton Smith doesn’t like. Colton says he’s doing something positive with his life. Julian says he is, too. Colton is surprised to hear that acting “a fool” on television is “positive,” and he piles on. “OK, Junie Browning.”

Oh, it’s on. Maybe you can call a TUF castmate “Chris Leben,” after the show’s original meltdown artist. Maybe even “Jamie Yager.” But “Junie Browning”? Oh, Julian doesn’t like that one bit.

Dom Waters steps in “Junie”/Julian’s way but says in confessional he was tempted to let ’em go.

Colton actually handles everything himself. He repeats “Chill, man” about 15 times. He then tells Julian, “We started this together, we’ll finish this together.”

We do see a bit of friendship in the house. Fellow Canadians Mike Ricci and Michael Hill like each other. This is what we in the media business call “foreshadowing.”

Moving on to meet this week’s fighters: Dom learned MMA late in his military career. Ricci learned it from a Renzo Gracie book, practicing moves with his buddies, then from Georges St. Pierre.

Carwin thinks Ricci is the most technically sound fighter in the house and just needs to watch for Dom’s power … zzzzzzz … huh? Hey, Carwin said something funny! He jokingly says Mike’s kind of a pretty boy! That’s a joke, right?

At no time in the prefight buildup or the first round did Dom look like he was going to win this fight. He spends most of the first round refusing to throw his fists. Mike does a little bit more but doesn’t do anything huge. The only thing that happened — Mike landed a good kick to the liver.

Second round: Dom presses Mike face-first to the cage. Finally gets takedown. Roy Nelson yells, “Use your bony elbows, Dom!” But Mike easily drags himself to the cage and wall-walks his way up.

But Dom wears him down along the cage, drags him down and briefly has his back. Unfortunately, Dom’s grappling is just a little sloppy, so even after pressing him to the cage again and dragging him down, he lets him back up.

Again Dom pushes Mike down onto all fours and makes a bit of an effort for the choke. As time runs down, Nelson yells at him to give up on the choke and pound him, which Dom does.

We’ve got a third round, to no one’s shock. Dom looks passive again but suddenly shoots for a single-leg takedown. Mike tries to defend by grabbing a guillotine, but Dom picks him up and slams him, landing in side control. Somehow, he gives up that position, and Mike ends up on top in Dom’s guard. From there, Dom just fades away.

So Ricci advances. Meanwhile, half of the UFC’s welterweights are calling Dana White asking to matched up with either of these guys.

Dana White brings in all the fighters to ask them which castmates they want to fight. This is usually an exercise in predictability. If a couple of guys hate each other, they’ll say so. Otherwise, they all want to prove to Dana that they’ll fight anyone.

But we get one shocker. Mike Ricci wants to fight Michael Hill. And Hill is dumbfounded when he comes in to say he’ll fight anyone except his best buddy and fellow Canadian, only to hear from Roy Nelson that Ricci picked him.

This is so un-Canadian. Rush has had the same lineup since 1975. Loverboy is still touring with its debut-album lineup except for late bass player Scott Smith. Ricci and Hill’s split is the worst Canadian in-fighting since Bob and Doug McKenzie last told each other to take off.

The quarterfinal matchups are interesting in another sense:

Bristol Marunde vs. Neil Magny. Team Carwin’s most impressive fighters in the first round. Neil isn’t happy.

Igor Araujo vs. Colton Smith. They hate each other for reasons I can’t quite remember.

Joey Rivera vs. Jon Manley. Teammates and buddies, a little puzzled to be matched up.

Ricci vs. Hill. Ricci says he beat the top pick on Team Nelson, so let’s fight the second. But Hill was also the least impressive winner.

Next week: More people hate each other and fight each other. They have to plow through six fights (four quarterfinals, two semis) in the remaining episodes, so the drama in the house won’t have much time to play out.

MMA: Where have all the hardcores gone?

In mixed martial arts, the fanbase is divided into two camps — “hardcores” and “casuals.”

“Casuals” are fans who were late to jump on the MMA bandwagon and are most prone to respond to big names. They know Brock Lesnar, but they’re a little hazy on Cain Velasquez. They aren’t well-versed in the grappling aspects of MMA. For a while, the dividing line was after the Forrest Griffin-Stephan Bonnar fight in 2005 that propelled the UFC to greater heights.

“Hardcores” can earn their credentials in a few different ways. They might be experts in technique, either striking or grappling. They may have been around since the days of Pancrase or at least Pride’s heyday. They’re not homogeneous — some appreciate the pro wrestling roots of Japanese MMA, some hate pro wrestling and want MMA to strive for legitimacy and professionalism akin to other major sports. They’ll argue about the sport’s history the same way college-rock diehards will argue whether Automatic for the People was R.E.M.’s masterpiece or further evidence that they’d sold out.

In the EliteXC days, the UFC was the hardcore fans’ choice. EliteXC was betting the farm on the lie that Kimbo Slice was one of the world’s best heavyweights. Not even Kimbo believed that. The UFC was mostly a meritocracy. Some fans insisted that the UFC merely had some of the world’s best talent, not all of it, but the UFC was not something to ignore. The title belts meant something.

The Ultimate Fighter has often divided hardcores. The first season yielded the spectacular Griffin-Bonnar fight and several legitimate UFC stars, so even if hardcores scoffed at the drunken shenanigans in the house, they were willing to pay attention. As the TUF talent has grown weaker, hardcores have been more likely to say, “Oh, I haven’t watched since the fifth season.” They may have come back for the heavyweight season, which mixed in a few good prospects along with a true test of Kimbo Slice’s fighting skills, and the featherweight/bantamweight season drew a lot of curious looks at a largely untapped talent pool. But beyond that, the hardcores are an audience that would need to be won back.

The 15th season (first on FX) was designed to do just that. The fights were live. The drama in the house was toned down. It was less of a reality show and more of a tournament for prospects that played out in real time. But the ratings weren’t great. Perhaps the new Friday night time slot was a problem, though I’m inclined to think hardcores know how to work a DVR.

Season 16 went back to the old format, and the promos showed plenty of confrontations in the house. Honestly, I thought the ratings would go back up, capturing people who may claimed they didn’t like reality-show nonsense but secretly craved it. That hasn’t happened.

And that brings us to the week’s blockbuster news: Chael Sonnen and Jon Jones will be the coaches on the show’s 17th season. Then Sonnen, who has never won a UFC fight at light heavyweight, will fight Jones for the light heavyweight title.

I responded on Bloody Elbow with a flippant comment that “There are no hard-cores.” I thought I had explained a bit more, saying that the UFC must think there are no hardcores (I decided to drop the hyphen after looking around for common usage) if they’re just going emphasize Sonnen’s big mouth over a legit title contender, but I see now that I must have hit “send” before typing the rest. Oops. No wonder I got called out on the board and on Twitter.

Coincidentally, I talked with a colleague yesterday who has been around since the old days, and we talked about the size of the hardcore audience. It’s hard to pin down. Hardcores have kept up a lively presence on the Internet, with thriving news sites and a multitude of blogs. But what percentage of the audience is hardcore?

My colleague thinks hardcores’ enthusiasm has dimmed as the UFC has spread itself too thin, putting together weaker cards. I’m torn. Sure, the UFC has come up with some remarkably weak co-main events and third fights on the main card, leading to the cancellation of a major pay-per-view card when the Jones-Dan Henderson fight fell through and left nothing viable to call a main event. But shouldn’t hardcores also be interested in seeing fighters on their way up the ladder? Aren’t they the ones who hop on Facebook three hours before a pay-per-view so they can watch the prelims?

That takes us back to this question: Should we define “hardcores” as people who want to watch as many fights as they can, or are they people who just want to concentrate on the proven or promising fighters?

The next question: Is the TUF audience hardcore, and are they tuning out because they think the fighters have no future? Or is it casual, and have they tuned out because they’ve seen all the reality drama before?

Then what about the Bellator audience? Are they hardcores? And will they watch as Spike puts together another reality show that sounds an awful lot like The Ultimate Fighter but with Bellator rather than the UFC as the prize at the end? (Or do Bellator and Spike think casuals are so habituated to watching MMA on Spike that they won’t notice the brand name has changed?)

“Casuals” may be easier to predict. Give them a big name and an outsized personality, and they’ll respond. But that buzz has to come from somewhere — if their hardcore-leaning buddies aren’t telling them they need to check out Ben Henderson, they won’t. And the hardcores are a little more difficult to predict. They’re a temperamental bunch, and I say that with a lot of respect.**

The good news about the hardcore audience is that they’re not going to go away. Casuals may come and go, but hardcores have too much respect for the sport to abandon it entirely. The danger for the UFC is that hardcore fans are willing to look beyond it.

So I don’t know how big the hardcore audience really is. But I know they’re important. And I know stunts like Sonnen on TUF will not make them happy.

* – Apologies if the headline gets that awful Paula Cole song stuck in your head.

** – Am I a hardcore? Honestly, I’d feel like a poser if I claimed that. I may have been one of the first mainstream sports guys to catch on to the sport — I was USA TODAY’s first official beat writer — and I’ve gone back to watch everything from the first four UFC cards to every TUF episode. But I was lucky to work with Sergio Non, who had an encyclopedic knowledge of every fighter from at least the past 12 years. I have other colleagues in the media who can go point-by-point through the finer elements of jiu-jitsu or covered UFC cards when the sport was still virtually underground. I can go beyond the big names — some of the best fight cards I’ve seen were WEC cards that didn’t draw many other viewers on Versus — but I know my limitations. And I hate pro wrestling.

 

UFC gives Chael Sonnen a title shot he simply does not deserve

Updated below with more comments …

Boxing and MMA promoters have to walk a fine line between hucksterism and sports. The UFC has long walked it better than most.

Dana White didn’t build up Kimbo Slice as one of the world’s best heavyweights — EliteXC did that. White and company instead gave Kimbo a chance to work his way up through The Ultimate Fighter, taking advantage of his notoriety but not treating him as something he wasn’t.

The UFC might make some matchups just for fun. When boxer James Toney barked his way into a UFC shot, White put him on a main card and fed him to powerful wrestler Randy Couture, who duly took him down and demolished him. Last weekend, needing a main event for one of the many injury-rattled cards this year, White put middleweight champion Anderson Silva in a non-title light heavyweight fight against the durable Stephan Bonnar, a classic case of the unstoppable force against the immovable object. (Unstoppable force 1, immovable object 0.)

But title fights? No. Aside from the title shots granted to the winners of the “Comeback” season on The Ultimate Fighter, title contenders have usually earned their shots. Perhaps Brock Lesnar was fast-tracked in the heavyweight division, but he was essentially part of a four-man tournament to settle a weight class unhinged by Couture’s contract dispute. Vitor Belfort got a surprising shot as a late replacement, but he’s a past champion who still has a lot to offer. The UFC just doesn’t hand out title shots to undeserving fighters.

Until now.

Chael Sonnen has no claim to a title shot at 205 pounds. None.

The case for Sonnen: He gave Anderson Silva fits in two shots at the middleweight title, and he has the wit (and willingness to stretch the truth) to sell a fight.

The counterargument, from MMA Mania’s Brian Hemminger: “Chael Sonnen hasn’t fought at light heavyweight since UFC 55 over seven years ago when he was choked out in the second round by Renato Sobral.”

Other reactions:

And here’s the dean of the MMA press corps, Yahoo’s Kevin Iole: “A guy who did nothing to qualify for a title shot is getting one for no reason other than that he’s quick with a quip. The UFC bills itself ‘as real as it gets,’ but this time, it’s nothing but a fairy tale.”

But wait, there’s more …

– As exciting as Sonnen’s hype might be, he isn’t the most exciting fighter in the cage. Through 14 fights in the UFC and WEC, he has exactly one finish — his October 2011 arm-triangle choke win over Brian Stann. Before that, his last finish in the cage was against Kyacey Uscola in SportFight in 2007.

– In his current UFC stint, he’s 5-3. And I’m not convinced he beat Michael Bisping.

– Sonnen got TWO shots at the middleweight title and lost them both. Now he’s supposed to move up and be a contender without fighting anyone else?

– After his really impressive performance in the first loss to Silva, Sonnen’s postfight drug test showed a 16.9:1 testosterone/epitestosterone ratio. It’s supposed to be 1:1. The World Anti-Doping Agency allows for natural variance up to 4:1. Nevada’s commission allows 6:1, even when Sonnen was approved for therapeutic use of synthetic testosterone.

– Other light heavyweight fighters exist.

Sure, the UFC might want to give The Ultimate Fighter a jolt, given the current ratings. (The current season isn’t bad, but for some reason, people just aren’t tuning in. Don’t tell me Friday nights are a problem, unless you’re telling me MMA fans are high school football fanatics. Or players.)

So if the UFC really wants to have Sonnen on The Ultimate Fighter, here are a couple of suggestions:

1. Have Sonnen and Jones fight a non-title catchweight bout. That way, if Sonnen somehow gets lucky and beats Jones, he’s not the “champion” of a weight class in which he has no other notable wins.

2. That Sonnen vs. Forrest Griffin rematch (Griffin beat him via first-round submission in another promotion in 2003) the UFC was planning? Put Sonnen and Griffin on TUF.

Updates: Fighters are speaking up now:

http://twitter.com/SportsMyriad/status/258562862790873088

The Ultimate Fighter, Season 16, Episode 4: Fix the scales!

Previously on The Ultimate Fighter: Bleeep … Bleeeeppp! …. Bleeeeeeepppp! And Joey Rivera shocked No. 1 pick Alvey.

Several seasons ago, Forrest Griffin flipped a coin to set up the matchups. Now, Roy Nelson has his team drawing straws. Final draft pick Julian Lane gets the short straw, and he’s so pumped that his Mohawk is shaking. He’s leaning toward picking Mike Secor because Secor has been a jerk in the house. But maybe Mike Ricci (can he take a punch?) or Bristol Marunde (reasons unclear).

Dana White takes the guys for a special premiere of Here Comes The Boom. Dana pitches the film as a funny film, not a tough-guy film. (Can’t it be both? I’ve got this screenplay …)

We get to see a few snippets, especially the slow-motion of Kevin James knocking former TUF coach Jason “Mayhem” Miller.

Everyone had fun, but it appears Roy Nelson had an issue with it.

Nelson’s worried that Lane isn’t fully prepared to go three rounds, thinking he gets sloppy when he’s gassed. Nelson tries to keep Lane motivated through some conditioning work: “If my fat butt can do this, I know you can.”

Fight selection time, and Nelson gives the fake-out, hinting that it’s going to be Mike (Secor? Ricci?) but taking Marunde instead. Marunde gives a long staredown, then tells Lane, “Big mistake.” Lane’s response: “Yeah, for you.” Wait … what? Marunde didn’t do anything, mistake or not. It’s like the old Brian Regan bit where the gate attendant says “Have a nice flight,” and Regan reflexively responds, “You too … if you go somewhere … sometime …”

Marunde talks about how awesome everything is with Team Carwin. Then he weighs himself and stares in disbelief … 186 pounds. Let’s get those 15 pounds off.

The weight cut starts in a hot tub. Then Marunde gets in a hoodie and a sleeping bag in the backyard. In Vegas. That’ll do it. We get a montage later that shows considerable amounts of sweat rolling out.

Over to Nelson’s team, and Roy is having a lot of trouble getting Lane to realize he can’t just let Marunde push him to the fence.

Then back to the weight-cut montage, including a nice torrent of sweat.

Weigh-in time, and Marunde makes it. Or does he? A couple of people on Nelson’s team think the beam on the scale was up. As in, “Dude, he’s heavier than that.”

Both Marunde and Lane say they’re fighting for a financial future for their young kids. Anyone else get really uncomfortable when fighters say that? You know, unemployment’s down. You can get steadier jobs. With health insurance, pending Congressional action in 2013.

Marunde seems like the better-grounded guy. He’s down to earth. And yet he comes across like an ’80s movie villain. He does know his ’80s films:

http://twitter.com/BristolMarunde/status/254410421476409344

Tale of the tape: Marunde’s taller, older, more experienced … how exactly is Lane going to win this? He starts out swinging wildly and then being taken … you guessed it … up against the cage.

After 90 seconds of nothing, Marunde opens enough distance to land some knees. They break, and we get a view of Lane’s absurdly tight shorts. Why isn’t he wearing TUF standard issue? Can’t we put a black bar over that? And why is he taking so many knees?

Lane does succeed once or twice is turning it into a wild brawl, and that’s where he could succeed. Marunde’s face is somehow turned into a bloody mess. And yet the round ends with Marunde on top of Lane, pounding his ribs.

Between rounds, we see two gashes on Marunde’s face — one on the bridge of the nose, one on his cheek. Lane opens with a solid head kick. Then he slips throwing a wild right hand from about 20 feet away. Marunder responds with a sharp leg kick and combo. To say Marunde is the more fundamentally sound fighter is like saying Neil Peart has better drum technique than Phil Rudd.

A couple of minutes in, Lane again throws long-range bombs. One or two somehow land. Marunde again presses Lane to the cage, but Lane circles. Marunde regains control. Nelson keeps calling for Lane to throw an inside leg kick.

Round 2 ends, and there’s clearly not enough time in the episode for a third. I’d guess Marunde won, but the blood could sway the judges, and each round was close. But it goes to Marunde.

THEN Nelson brings up the weight issue. “Do you want me to make sure the commissioner does HIS job?”

White is stunned. And he tells Nelson he should’ve brought it up at the weigh-in. Which is what Nelson was asking! 

Yet White exclaimed, “You can’t fix stupid.” No, but can you fix the scales?

Lane is in tears, dealing with the reckoning of letting down his family. Dude, CareerBuilder. Monster.com.

Next week: Lane seems mad again.

Worth noting: Nelson’s bottom two draft picks have fought. So have Carwin’s top two. So Carwin leads 2-1, but don’t bet on him holding that lead.

The Ultimate Fighter: It’s the stupid reality, stupid … | Popdose

It occurs to me that most of you haven’t seen my argument that The Ultimate Fighter is suffering because of the lack of house shenanigans, even if hard-core fans would hate to hear that. Here it is:

The Ultimate Fighter: It’s the stupid reality, stupid … | Popdose.