'The Ultimate Fighter' (TUF) champions were crowned twice on consecutive nights in two different countries this past weekend. Australia's UFC on FX 6 and the standard U.S. The Ultimate Fighter 16 Finale events showcased some of the best MMA and UFC has to offer. It also underscored some of the worst.
From stupendous knockouts to moments of god-awful reffing, there was much to love and hate. Let's separate the best from the worst, the winners from the losers and the signal from the noise.
Worst Reffing Moment: Steve Mazzagatti in Ricci vs. Smith
Maybe Dana White really is onto something. I've long thought Mazzagatti was an inconsistent referee, but not the world's worst. I might have to reevaluate that now.
During the Mike Ricci vs. Colton Smith bout - mind you, this was the finals for season 16's welterweight tourney - Smith inadvertently drills Ricci in the groin with a kick. That's nothing uncommon, but it did land cleanly and with some authority. Ricci signaled he was hit low and Smith even waited for the referee to make a move before pursuing a clearly hurt opponent.
The problem? Despite being at a rather optimal angle to see the kick, Mazzagatti seemingly 'saw' nothing. He was staring right at them, almost perpendicular to both competitors, and acted as if nothing had happened. The UFC seemed to be so incensed about it they quickly showed replays narrated by commentator Joe Rogan of Mazzagatti missing what was right in front of him.
I have no satisfying answer for you about how to absorb or interpret this. It happened in the state with the same commission where judges awarded Timothy Bradley the win over Manny Pacquiao...and thought that never merited review. If that isn't worthy of a second look, Mazzagatti's infractions most certainly aren't even if it's nevertheless terrible to endure.
Best Display of Stockholm Syndrome: Melvin Guillard
This was a rather rich turn around. One can hardly blame Guillard for the reversal, although he painted himself into a corner with his premature declaration of divorce from Varner. Still, the quick embrace by non-power players of that which was seconds ago repudiated is something one generally cannot get from boxing or smaller MMA shows. It's also delightfully excruciating to watch.
Best Rebound Win: Hector Lombard
Both night of fights featured a host of fighters who needed to get back on the winning track after losing performances in their previous UFC fights. Many performed rather ably, like ATT's Dustin Poirier or Pat Barry. My pick, however, goes to Hector Lombard.
Lombard looked mediocre in his UFC debut, but it was the sort of fight that underscored some of his limitations. His Friday bout with Rousimar Palhares, however, did precisely the opposite. For all of his shortcomings, Lombard is a terror and top-tier middleweight. He's also got sensational takedown and submission defense while packing a serious punch. It's not that Lombard wasn't himself in his UFC debut, it's that we didn't get to see the better side of things. This time we did.
Most Impressive UFC Debut: Rustam Khabilov
Now that's how you make an entrance. If you're going to be making your UFC debut, do something different to get noticed. I'm not sure Klhabilov's plan was attention per se, but what he did worked.
Khabilov wasted no time displaying his superior strength and particular affinity for suplexes when tossing TUF veteran Vic Pinchel around. Three of them in a row followed by some perfunctory punches was all it took for Khabilov to put his opposition away. That's interesting enough except when you look back at his career you'll note he's won several fights this way with German suplexes as well as the belly-to-belly variety.
It's far too soon to speculate how far he can go, but anyone bringing non-traditional throws and skills to the Octagon is a welcome departure from the generic wrestle-boxing all too common in today's MMA landscape.
Least Advisable Return Fight: Matt Mitrione
This was not an optimal choice for Matt Mitrione. I admit it was high risk, high reward, but that's not a good reason to take it. Nelson was a bad match-up for him from the beginning. An experienced veteran with competition experience against the division's elite who has an iron chin, powerful punch and fearless pocket presence. Oh, and if he needs it, his ground game isn't so bad either. Let's not further forget Mitrione took this bout on short notice.
Sure, Nelson's 36, but Mitrione is 34. Neither is going to be clocking their best NFL combine scores at this point. So, all things being equal, it's hard to see a way Mitrione wins this. I understand his perspective is different and I admire that, but I also suspect it was fueled at least in part to get back in the good graces with UFC management after declining the Daniel Cormier fight in Strikeforce.
Maybe it's worth it in the end to Mitrione. If so, that's all that really matters, anyway. But now he's 0-2 in his last two bouts and was stopped for the first time in his career. I guess doing management a solid helps somehow, but it isn't totally clear to me how. I'm not Mitrione's manager or friend, but if I were, I'd have told him to pass on this one.
Biggest Standout Among TUF Winners: Not Applicable
Perhaps I'm alone on this, but I doubt it. Not one of the winners (or losers) of either TUF shows particularly stood out to me. That isn't to say they're bad. They're not. In fact, some probably have a better UFC future than non-TUF entrants. But they're all also basically unremarkable. No one seemed to have the skill set or performance that offered up the kind of confidence in a young prospect the MMA community looks for when evaluating next-level talent. I don't want to rain on what I'm sure is a very happy occasion in their lives. They're all good, but is that really good enough?
If I'm being too dismissive, fine. I'm happy to be wrong here. And I know carping ad naseum about how TUF has run its course is played out by now. But it's true even if we get tired of mentioning it. We'll have to see how things progress, but for now, there's no overarching reason to pay special attention to the winners. They'll have to do a lot more than win the show to garner real fanfare.
Clearest Demonstration More Is Not More: Friday and Saturday
The ultimate proof of whether people responded favorably to these events will be the television ratings. If they're good, I'll eat crow. If they're bad, well, everyone loses, so there's no since in bragging about one's predictive strengths.
Look, the issue is this: while I'm not particularly high on the TUF winners, the fight cards were good to very good. I particularly thought the main card of the TUF 16 finale was worth watching. But so much of it all in close quarters makes even the outstanding feel unexceptional. Pat Barry's knockout was great, but would've been amplified by being rarer. Ditto for Nelson's very enjoyable stoppage win, among a host of others one could chose from.
That's why the term 'exceptional' is important here. The word has meaning only as a basis of comparison, not on absolute conditions. The fastest way to move the goal posts back on what constitutes something being truly special is to flood the market with content. That's true even with good or great content, which is what happened this weekend. I'd like to take a moment to decompress from it all to give everything it's proper reverence.
Sadly, the MMA power players - not simply the UFC, but many if not most promoters - strangely believe there is an audience out there with an indefatigable appetite for all of this. I hesitate to speak for everyone, but I feel confident saying there most certainly is not.