After 12 episodes of hard-fought action between 16 middleweight hopefuls vying for a shot in the UFC, we now know which two combatants will square off in the Octagon for the right to be called The Ultimate Fighter. It all boils down to this. The much-hyped Uriah Hall, who has so far treated his opponent’s consciousness with distain, booked his place in the final with a TKO victory over New Zealander Dylan Andrews. Facing him will be the youngest man to ever enter in to the process and the perma-underdog, Kelvin Gastelum who trumped the favoured Josh Samman in the semi-finals. Headlining the card is a bantamweight tussle between Urijah Faber and Scott Jorgensen, which is sure to have future title ramifications as all Faber fights these days seem to. Also on the card is a women’s bantamweight fight featuring Miesha Tate and Cat Zingano to decide who will secure a title shot and a place alongside champ Ronda Rousey as coach on the upcoming TUF show. But before all that, here’s why you should be looking to settle in early and watch all the action from the prelims unfold.
Josh Samman (9-2-0) vs. Kevin “King” Casey (5-2-0) –
This is a strange one for me. I cannot see why Samman, a semi-finalist who many had tipped for the final, has been matched up with Casey, a loser in the elimination round and in his wildcard bout with Bubba McDaniels. Based on their TUF performances this bout does not make sense. Team Jones’ Samman was impressive in each of his bouts heading in to his semi-final with Kelvin Gastelum, having stopped all of his opponents inside the opening round. However, this run was brought to an abrupt halt when Gastelum locked in a choke and forced Samman to tap in the first round having dominated the fight with superior wrestling. Samman, a one-fight Bellator vet, entered the house with a solid 9-2 record largely built on the regional circuit and even though he ultimately failed in the competition, his stock has only risen as a result of how he performed and the increased exposure that the show brings. Casey, a BJJ black belt, performed below his skill level when in the TUF house. Taking his chance to enter the competition, Casey looked a threat ending his preliminary fight via submission securing himself a spot on Team Sonnen. Casey would go on to be out-grappled by Collin Hart in his elimination round but in a shot at redemption, Casey was chosen as the Team Sonnen wildcard pick and squared off against McDaniels. This would however end in worryingly for Casey as he was unable to answer the third round due to exhaustion brought on by kidney trouble. Before his TUF experience, Casey had complied a 5-2 record with fights for Strikeforce and K-1 against notables such as Matt Lindland and “Minowaman” Ikuhisa Minowa.
Luke “Bigslow” Barnatt (5-0-0) vs. Collin Hart (4-1-1) -
Giant British middleweight Luke Barnatt was one of the bigger characters in this past edition of TUF. The 6’6” Barnatt begun his TUF journey by out-pointing his opponent in order to get in to the house and once there he quickly made his mark. Barnatt was not only the show’s first pick, where he was selected for Team Sonnen, he was also chosen to go up against Team Jones’ Gilbert Smith (5’9”) in the first fight of the series. The well-rounded Barnatt successfully navigated his way through to the next round of the competition with a first round flying knee KO over his vertically challenged opponent. However this was to be as far as Barnatt went, as at the quarter final stage of the competition, Barnatt was KO’d in the third round of his bout with Dylan Andrews. Before entering the show Barnatt had compiled a perfect 5-0 start to his MMA career and will look to extend that record this Saturday when he steps in to the Octagon for the first time. Up against Barnatt at the finale will be grappling specialist Collin Hart. Like Barnatt, Hart was also stopped at the quarter final stages of the competition. Having earned his place in the house via first round submission and besting Kevin Casey in the elimination round, Hart was to be KO’d in the quarters by eventual finalist Kelvin Gastelum. Outside of the competition, Hart has made a steady start to MMA and is currently on a two-fight win streak. In this battle between two vanquished TUF competitors, look for Barnatt to use his length to keep Hart away and prevent the grappler from imposing his plan of taking the fight to the ground as quickly as possible.
Clint Hester (7-3-0) vs. Bristol Marunde (12-7-0) -
A former pro boxer, middleweight Clint Hester will be making his UFC bow this Saturday on the back of a mixed showing on this latest season of the UFC’s long-running reality TV show. Hester forced his way in to the house with a dominating victory, one where he defeated his opponent displaying raw power and athletic ability and was rewarded with Team Jones’ first pick. Hester was paired off with grappler Jimmy Quinlan where he found himself outworked on the ground, eventually succumbing to a second round submission. Hester enters the Octagon riding a three-fight win streak and of his 7 wins, 6 have come via strikes, so it does not take a genius to see how Hester will look to secure the W against Marunde. After an uneventful run as a welterweight in TUF season 16, Strikeforce vet Bristol Marunde returns to the middleweight division to make his UFC debut alongside Team Jones’ first pick, Clint Hester. Marunde has enjoyed success on the regional circuit capturing the Superior Cage Combat Middleweight title back in 2011, an achievement which earned him a shot with the now defunct Strikeforce. Marunde, due to the lack of depth and chaos within the promotion, was unfairly matched up with ‘Jacaré’ Souza in March of 2012 and as a result was soundly beaten. Although this was his last official outing, Marunde has since appeared on our screens as a part of the lacklustre season 16 of TUF where he was eliminated at the quarter final stage of the competition. Marunde is a well-rounded fighter; however he is not proficient enough in any one discipline to really make any sort of lasting impression on the UFC middleweight division. Look for Marunde to try and use his competent grappling to take the former pro boxer out of his comfort zone and down to the mat.
Cole “Magrinho” Miller (18-7-0) vs. Bart “Bartimus” Palaszewski (36-16-0) -
A UFC staple since his run on TUF season 5 back in 2007, former lightweight Cole Miller finds himself in a bit of trouble this Saturday. Having compiled a respectable 7-3 run in one of the UFC’s deepest weight classes, the BJJ black belt Miller is 0-2 since he returned to the featherweight ranks, losing out to Steven Siler and Nam Phan. For any fighter, let alone someone of Miller’s experience and skill-set, this run of form usually spells danger. Standing across the Octagon from Miller will be the hard-hitting Polish-American, Bart Palaszewski. Palaszewski has long been under the Zuffa umbrella having competed for the WEC from 2006 up until his UFC debut in 2011. Palaszewski would announce his arrival with the promotion in impressive fashion, disposing of an overweight Tyson Griffin within one round via KO. Like Miller, Palaszewski has now hit hard times and is also coming in to this bout with back-to-back defeats, albeit against tougher competition in the form of Hatsu Hioki and Diego Nunes. While both men have a big enough name to pad out a UFC undercard, you’ve got to believe that one more defeat for Miller or Palaszewski would see them receive their walking papers.
Sam Sicilia (11-2-0) vs. Maximo “Maxi” Blanco (8-4-1) -
Last but not least is a featherweight duel between TUF 15 alum Sam Sicilia and former Pancrase lightweight champion Maximo Blanco. Sicilia is currently 1-1 in his UFC career so far and will be looking to bounce back from a defeat in his featherweight debut at the powerful hands of Rony Mariano Bezerra at UFC 153. Despite entering the UFC on the back of a defeat to Pat Healy during his short-lived Strikeforce stint, Blanco still had a lot of hype behind him and was seen to be a future title contender in the 145lbs division. A second successive loss to Marcus Brimage in his UFC debut soon put paid to the momentum Blanco had gathered in Japan, excelling for both the Pancrase and Sengoku promotions. A loss here for either man, in particular Blanco, will surely see Dana and co. call time on their UFC career.