Perhaps I am overreacting a tad, but the parallels are most definitely there: both TUF and the …NTM franchises feature egoists with varying degrees of talent competing for that infinitely important contract (less so for TUF, from which even middling performers find at least temporary future employment with UFC), being whittled slowly away, week after week, with the obligatory teary farewell (I hope and pray that TUF6 features the weepy letter-to-remaining-contestants idea), while professionals appear to help their charges but actually undermine them whenever possible. I eagerly await seeing TUF contestants in their pink nightdresses shriek with excitement upon finding that days Dana Mail. Perhaps I have revealed too much.
To the matter at hand, though, that matter being the recently aired Ultimate Fighter 5 programme, which was of course the most controversial yet! Well, it pretty much had to be after TUF 4 sang sad songs of declining viewer-ship amid such changes as the ditching of team coachers and the inherent rivalry stemming from bickering authority figures.
Thankfully on the latter count, the ultimate in bickering rivalry was at hand with the duo of ‘The Prodigy’ BJ Penn and Jens ‘Little Evil’ Pulver. I was a big fan of the Ortiz-Ken Shamrock feud, before it came time for them to actually fight, with its pool sharkery and general tetchiness, but this season was something else entirely. See, the subtext of TUF 3 was Ken desiring revenge following his massive (blood) loss to Ortiz at UFC 42. As that particular revenge was never going to happen, that narrative strand was somewhat moot. TUF 5 cast Penn as the would-be avenger, which was eminently possible, probable and, some would have argued pre-Upset Year, inevitable.
Underpinning the coach based battling, of course catalysed by that opening moment when Penn asked for a show of hands as to who wanted to be on his team – nearly everybody – was the cast of drunken, violent, borderline deranged gluttons. Needless to say, it was completely fantastic viewing.
I suppose the issue of Gabe Ruediger has to be addressed at some point, so here are my thoughts: He’s technically smart, but also an idiot. I hated the way he strove to have an answer for everything, whether he was talking to Wiman, DeSouza or even when Dana dismissed him. His inability to make weight was a sad state of affairs. If I was ever picked for a competition such as this (heaven forefend), I’d be so desperate to make weight that I would walk into the house at 154, just to be on the safe side. I figured he’d be one to avoid after he said he liked mind games. Unless you’re really, really intelligent, don’t go down that cul-de-sac or you’ll look like a self-important twonk.
And, as predicted, he failed; these mind games revolved around either implying his rivals were gay, or that he was. Great stuff, Cerebro. What’s really sad is that, given this is a house of fighters, such low grade japery actually has an effect. Other ‘it’s OK, they’re fighters’ stuff was the insane controversy caused by someone (Emerson?) crayoning ‘Team Pulver Sux!’ on the wall. Normally I hate the kind of people who think it’s wise to rip their tops off and start flexing when ready for a fight to kick off, but I think Nate Diaz is great so he’s let off. Ditto that being of pure anger, Manny Gamburyan. If it was Team Penn, though, my words of derision would have been harsh and plentiful.
That is not to say I don’t like Penn: quite the opposite, as I was cheering him on during the TUF 5 finale. I just felt sorry for Pulver since that opening episode popularity contest. I didn’t always agree with Jens and his coaching strategies, it has to be said. When Nate Diaz wanted to train a bit with Team Penn prior to his battle with fellow Team Pulver member Corey Hill, Pulver looked to feel as though a dagger had been plunged into his heart. I thought it perfectly understandable that Diaz didn’t want to train with his next opponent. That said, it’s not as if they hadn’t been training together for weeks anyway (would an extra couple of days be tantamount to divulging personal secrets?)… and on top of his Penn training, he still trained with Team Pulver, so… it’s all a tad moot really.
Speaking of Hill, I found the gangly MMA neophyte to be by far and away the most compelling character on the show. I think it was episode three that focused on the man, and it was the most entertaining period of the programme that didn’t directly involve fighting.
I loved the fact that he had no idea who Jeremy Horn was, even though – as an MMA fan – I should have been appalled at such a lack of respect for da bidneth. I loved the fact that he soaked up new knowledge like a sponge, to the extent that he took an off-the-cuff remark from Horn about the guard being ‘your home; your zone’ and turned it into a mantra, chanting ‘this is my home! This is my zone! Nobody comes in my zone or my home!’ – all the while walking with knees and elbows touching like a fantastic, giant BJJ crab. Needless to say I was dying to see him fight, if overflowing with trepidation at such an experience-lacking fighter being thrown in with relative veterans. With Ruediger eating his way off the show, Hill fought Emerson.
Corey ‘Buddy Rowe’ Hill vs. Rob ‘Rob Emerson’ Emerson was a bit of a dud fight, all things considered; especially for someone like me who was dying to see Corey finally fight. To be perfectly honest, I didn’t expect Corey to come away with the victory after the two pecked at each other for the duration, but then again I didn’t expect anyone to win it. I thought maybe the judges would elect to have massive tubes placed over both fighters that sucked them out of the building and deposited them in a desert with Jeremy Jackson and Bobby Southworth.
I couldn’t really tell, nor did I care, who should have won the fight, but Emerson seemed to throw some effective leg kicks while Hill flailed away a bit. Hill seemed to be the kind of fighter who would be unstoppable if he knew what he was doing. Like maybe if he trained with Anderson Silva for a while and learned about the Thai clinch. Hopefully he takes Jeremy Horn’s advice (now he knows who Horn is) and trains with ‘Gumby’.
I reckon maybe the judges looked for external criteria when awarding this fight to Hill. Like the fact that Emerson had already tasted defeat at the hands of Nathan Diaz and still lacked any kind of fire in this second chance bout. Maybe they were as entertained as the rest of us at Corey’s training rages and ‘nobody comes in my zone or my home!’ walking-guard mantra; Corey equalling more ratings than Emerson equals Corey staying in the competition. I was just glad he was on the same team as Manny, as that Armenian bruiser would be a nightmare for Hill in a fight. Maybe something like Sergei Kharitonov’s pulverisation of Semmy Schilt, but on fast forward.
On the same episode was Joe Lauzon eviscerating one of the random blokes who don’t get much camera time. Mike… Mark… Jim… Geraghty? He seemed to have a smart mouth that rather endeared. Sadly for Geraghty, he was – as we say in Streetfighter-playing circles – perfected. He got taken down, drubbed a bit down there, and got back to his feet, where Lauzon literally pounced on him and choked him out with a sleeper that was applied like it was a real pro-wrestling match. It was amazing stuff and, if you add that to how he mashed Pulver, I figured Lauzon a (the) favourite to win the whole thing.
Which, I suppose, brings us to one Manvel Gamburyan. Despite what Dana said, I always had faith in him; steamrolling one’s first opponent will do that for you. He was just so compact and aggressive with enough skill to make those attributes work massively in his favour that I didn’t see how anyone could be against him. When he won his initial fight, over Noah Thomas, I felt slightly sceptical about what a win over Thomas means in the grand scheme of things; the manner in which he did so, though, was a statement of breathtaking persuasion that was hard to argue with.
As the rounds progressed, wheat duly sorted from chaff, the questions remained: even Dana White repeatedly claimed the stout Armenian was too small to make it past each respective round. While he was indeed short, such a compact build, allied with his respectable skills, made it hard to imagine who would beat him any time soon, and how they would do so. As it turned out, nobody had the answer, as he overpowered and sucked the fight from favourites like Matt Wiman and Joe Lauzon.
…Which brings us neatly to one Nathan Diaz. I have to admit I rooted slightly for him from the beginning due to his being the younger brother of the ever-entertaining Nick Diaz, who has vanquished the likes of Robbie Lawler and Takanori Gomi but remains his own worst enemy. Nate seems to be equally self destructive in his genius. I usually hate people who try fighting others outside an official fighting framework, but I didn’t mind his topless chest beating post-Graffitigate. I also thought his attempt to goad Cole into fighting him, mere tele-visual weeks after the mass cull caused by the sword of Danacles, was both incredibly brave and so dumb that it crossed the line into demented brilliance. Like the musical career of OPM, then. And that’s not to mention his bizarrely-conceived beef with Karo ‘do these people not know I can destroy them?’ Parisyan, which would probably have involved some level of Parisyan grabbing Diaz by his lapels and throwing him onto his own head. Then possibly following with an eye socket lock that has a cool Japanese name.
Long story short, Diaz’s skills were sufficiently bill-paying, and he made it to the final by overcoming Emerson ‘Emerson’ Emerson, the aforementioned Hill*, and made it into the finale by besting a very game Gray Maynard. In fact, as tele-visually uninteresting as Maynard was, he had the better of their fight until a quick choke forced him to tap.
So when Manny met Nate in the Ultimate Fighter 5 Finale, viewers were pretty much treated to the two most impressive fighters of the tournament (aside from Joe Lauzon, naturally, who I would be hard pressed to bet against in his future fights). In keeping with the motif of the season, hyper-motivated dynamo Gamburyan had the best showing of the first stanza. However, in keeping with the other motif of the season, Diaz snatched victory from the jaws of defeat, albeit unintentionally, when Gamburyan’s shoulder suffered from what was later revealed to be a nagging injury.
A tragic end for Manny, then, whose ‘winning is my destiny’ intensity reminded of Diego Sanchez before everybody stopped liking the latter fighter. Hopefully he can heal up properly at some point, as his star should shine brightly. As for Diaz, there probably couldn’t be a more fitting winner. His combination of skills and divisive attitude mark him out as a potential lightweight Tito Ortiz, but with teeth. And a human-sized head. Meanwhile, Maynard and Lauzon performed well enough that they probably have a well-paid future lying underneath Sean Sherk for twenty five minutes soon enough (and knocking oneself out on a takedown is unlikely to hinder that, so the controversy surrounding Maynard-Emerson is neither here nor there in the big picture).
And so ended another season of TUF (with Penn returning to magnificently winning ways, lest we forget), with yet another on the horizon. Many have expressed their weariness at the constant grind of: house of fighters; they get annoyed; they fight in tournament format; someone gets prematurely kicked off; there is a finale. While there is definitely something of a template here, I have to admit that a bunch of jerks beating each other up every week is guaranteed to get me viewing with almost no potential downside. Here’s hoping the welterweights don’t let the side down then.
* It is a shame that after his first big episode the producers decided to look away from Hill for so long; he was incredibly compelling viewing, and his growth in skill would have likely had something of an Educating Rita/Pygmalion effect in the viewing. I cannot believe the ‘this is my home and this is my zone’ and ‘Buddy Rowe shouts at Corey Hill’ were the only bits of bizarre behaviour he exhibited.
I’m actually divided on him, coincidentally enough.
The proud MMA fan in me is glad he lost, because he was new to the sport and I wanted someone who lived and breathed MMA to win, someone who knew who Jeremy Horn is. On the other hand, I was well pleased to see such improvement in his performance, and the willingness to step in there with a proven fighter like Diaz. While the best fighter won in that case, I cannot wait to see what Corey does from here; his short bursts of ground and pound suggest he has an inherent aptitude (are there any other types of aptitude?) for MMA. I just hope the UFC does not keep looking away from Hill now the season is over.