When Shayna Baszler walked into The Ultimate Fighter (TUF) house after winning her qualifying match, she was something of an anomaly on the show.
Probably since Roy Nelson four years ago, there's nobody who came into the show as much of a ringer. Baszler (15-8), a ten-year veteran, was significantly more experienced than either coach, Ronda Rousey or Miesha Tate.
A legitimate pioneer on the U.S. women's MMA scene, she was there when Bodog Fight first put women's MMA on U.S. television in 2006, and moved onto Elite XC when it opened up for women a year later. Of late, she was a regular on Invicta shows.
She had long been considered top ten in the world in the bantamweight class. She was the odds-on favorite to win the competition. In the last seven years, her only losses were to major name fighters, Tara LaRosa, at the time the top ranked woman in the world, Cris "Cyborg" Santos, Sarah Kaufman, Sara McMann and Alexis Davis.
And then, she was eliminated in the very first match after getting into the house by Julianna Pena, who came on the show with no national reputation and having lost her previous two fights. Virtually nobody in the house thought Pena had much of a chance with her.
"The truth is, I still will say this and I will get blasted for this, but I'm a better fighter than Julianna," said Baszler, who is currently training with her coach on the show, Ronda Rousey. "The reason she won is she fought for her life and I didn't. Even in a hard sparring day, there's a switch that has to get turned on. For every great fighter, there has to be a down and dirty street (element) in them and I just didn't get to that. There are so many factors why I didn't flip that switch. In retrospect, a big thing was being the first fight, even though I wanted to be in the first fight. Honestly, I'm so used to big shows, performing in front of bigger audiences. We're in a gym that we train in twice a day. Maybe 30 people are there to watch. It's a really weird thing. There's no music when you come out. It wasn't the same routine. But everybody has to go through it.
"The bottom line is for whatever reason on that day, I had a really great first round. And I came out for the second round and she was fighting for her life and I wasn't. That goes to show how far that desire can take someone because what happened happened."
Baszler said she made a grave error after being hit with a strong punch in the beginning of the second round, and mentally, she said she gave up the round, figuring she was going to lose the round. She thought she had won the first and was just waiting for the sudden death round. Instead, she ended up choked out while waiting. While not on television, she said she was the subject of a Rousey speech the next day in training of never conceding even a split second of a fight.
"There was a moment in the second round that they didn't show, they were showing Ronda's reaction, after I got hit with a really good punch that rocked me," she said. "I already conceded the second round. You see me and I'm tired. I wasn't tired, but I was giving her the second round and you can't hesitate like that. You should be fighting every single second. If they beat you for four minutes and 59 seconds of a round, they don't have the right to get that last second. (In a rematch) I would fight every second of the match, instead of just the first six minutes."
As noted on the show, Baszler was in a unique situation. She was friends with Tate, but she took an immediate liking to Rousey as her coach. So after having been away from the show, this is her take on the dynamic and conflict between the two.
"I never had a problem with Miesha. We've been friendly. I've been fighting for a long time and we've grappled against each other in grappling tournaments. t was hard for me at first. I have a lot of respect for Ronda. Going into the show, we hit it off right away. We started talking and were immediately geeking out together on video games. I didn't have a problem with either of them.
"Ronda's (feelings on people are) either a zero or a ten. She doesn't have a five opinion on anyone. When Miesha would poke at a number two level, Ronda's not responding at number two. She's jumping from zero-to-ten. The fact Miesha would poke at Ronda, or at least her guys would poke at our guys quite a bit, it's no secret they know the reaction is going to be a zero or a ten."
She noted that Team Tate was constantly taunting at them, and then when it came to shake hands after the fights, her coaches weren't fake and weren't going to do it.
"I don't know if you know who Greg Nelson is, he's a coach in Minnesota, he said a really cool quote that applies to this. You can't poke a stick at a gorilla and get mad when he goes ape crazy. Well, he used a more colorful word than crazy, on you."
As far as the fight on Dec. 28 for the UFC women's bantamweight title goes, she doesn't hesitate for a second to predict the outcome.
"Ronda's gonna beat Miesha. I've competed with Miesha. I'm confident. I was one of the people who used to think if you can stop Ronda's armbar, you can beat her. But I've trained with her, and she's got a lot of cool stuff besides the armbar. I do a lot of crazy stuff. People that have watched me know my grappling game is of the regular map that you'd see in a jiu-jitsu class. Ronda can keep up. She's no slouch. When we were training, while we're not competing, when we were training, I remember us having awesome grappling matches."
Baszler said that nobody has seen what Rousey has in her arsenal because nobody's pushed her to show it."She's got a ton of stuff. As someone who has a bunch of creative stuff, she has a lot of stuff that goes off the map as well, but nobody has forced her to go off the map."
A training session on the final day of filming was the one Baszler brought up to point this out.
"It was the last day of the show, the last training session, the last time we were going to grapple. There was only a minute and 45 seconds left in training and that was it. And I said to her, `It looks like I made it the whole season without being armbarred by Ronda Rousey.' Then, bam, bam, bam, six armbars in a row.
"Ronda's armbar is good enough that if you know it's coming, she still going to get it."
For the women, this season of The Ultimate Fighter was not just the usual quest for unknowns to get exposure and a spot on the UFC roster. It was more a way to create several new stars for the new women's bantamweight division, to increase the roster size and the new talent would likely become more visible in the UFC than on any season in a few years.
Baszler went in as the closest to a sure thing to make the roster, but at this point it remains secretive whether or not she'll get a fight on the Nov. 30 finale in Las Vegas.
Wednesday night's show involved weight cutting, as top men's pick Cody Bollinger of Team Tate didn't stay close enough to 135 pounds, and gave up trying to cut, thereby eliminating him from the show. One of the perks of the show was the food was free and you could order anything you wanted. But you had to be disciplined enough, since you often only had two days between the announcement of the fight and getting into the cage, meaning for the entire time, weight was an issue.
"Anyone who is friends with a fighter or lives with a fighter, you know that a fighter cutting weight is on edge," she said. "On The Ultimate Fighter, you can be fighting in two days. You don't know. It's a household of people perpetually two days away from a fight. And after people get comfortable, people stop caring and that's when the drama comes in."
Eating was an issue for some, but she had no problems with it.
"Honestly, it was a lot easier for me," she said. "It's weird how America works. Healthy food costs way more than crap. I didn't have to worry about budgeting. I have to eat healthy, but I also ave to pay rent. But there, there's no excuse for not eating healthy. I ordered an Ahi steak. Back home at the World Market, that's a $30 tuna steak." She noted with so much free time in the house, there was time to prepare food, everyone knew how to eat and how to make weight, so there should be no excuses.
Baszler's ground game comes from her love of catch wrestling. She's trained extensively with Josh Barnett, and speaks in reverence of Billy Robinson, who she's trained under, and is one of the last living survivors of the heyday of the Snake Pit in Wigan, England, of the 1950s, where Europe's best grapplers went to learn the submission game.
Catch is a top game oriented art, far more aggressive than jiu-jitsu, but not as applicable to modern MMA because it was the forerunner of pro wrestling before it became theatrical, and it's a game of both pins and submissions.
Robinson in the past has bemoaned the lack of pins allowed in MMA, and the guard game from Brazilian jiu-jitsu as weakening the submission aspect and excitement of the ground game, by allowing people to go to their backs with impunity. He teaches how a number of unique submissions come up because one has to protect their backs being put on the mat and avoid being pinned.
"Training with Billy Robinson is just like any martial artist who would go to the old master of the art," she said. "He's so knowledgeable. He's an old guy now. His body is beat up form doing catch wrestling and pro wrestling. He can't get on the mat with you. But I'll never forget it. I was at one of his seminars and he literally told me a different place to put my thumb and it changed a move from having a 50/50 chance of working to a 90 percent chance of working. Just my thumb, not body positioning or anything. The experience he brings, the knowledge he has of grappling, there's not many people left from his generation who did catch wrestling. I love the history of catch wrestling. The martial artist in me is bummed because there are so many moves that are based on people not wanting to get pinned that are lost because of the guard in MMA.
"I love that pure wrestling, and catch wrestling was the beginning of it all. He's the most knowledgeable person in the world about the art of catch wrestling alive today."
Baszler said she loved the experience of Ultimate Fighter, but it's also something she would never want to do again.
"This is the way I explain this. I definitely don't regret it. It was a once-in -a-lifetime opportunity. I had a blast while I was there. It was great. But I hope to never do it again. I used to winder why they didn't have a TUF All-Stars season like other reality shows. But now I know. I don't think they could get enough people to sign up again.
"You can't really explain it. Everything I have to explain makes you feel it's bad. But it wasn't bad and I loved it. The memories I'll have forever. But it was also like jail. We couldn't go anywhere. We had to go where they told us.
"When you're training at home, if you don't want to go to your 4 p.m. session and want to take a nap and go at 7 p.m., you can do it. You also have fights and you don't have a normal support group. Our team was super tight, but you can't call your boyfriend and talk about how you just lost a fight you should have won. You can't call your parents. That was the hardest part, not being in control of my time."