The same things that make for great moments in sports are what make for memorable moments of television. Unexpected developments. Underdog stories. Compelling personalities. With the most recent season of The Ultimate Fighter, there was a melding of all three.
Aside from the fourth season of the show, which was dedicated to UFC veterans hellbent on a comeback, almost every fighter to walk into the house does so anonymously. Most have only fought on the regional circuit and have only local followings. Kelvin Gastelum perfectly fit that mold. At the time he tried out for TUF, he had only been a pro for a little over a year. He'd fought five times, though never against an opponent with a winning record. Gastelum barely even made the show's age requirement. Contestants must be 21 at the time of filming, and he hit that mark just a week before taping was set to begin. That made him the youngest competitor in TUF history. It also made him the season's biggest underdog.
Gastelum was the last man picked by Chael Sonnen. Neither he nor opposing coach Jon Jones could be blamed for their oversight. There was nothing in Gastelum's background to suggest he was about to blossom into a beast. He doesn't come from a major fight team. He didn't arrive with any reputation. He was just a generic fighter with a dream.
That contrasts sharply with his Saturday TUF 17 Finale opponent Uriah Hall, who from the beginning, came off as a star.
As the TUF coaches and UFC president Dana White watched Hall fight in his prelim to get into the house, Sonnen put that bull's-eye on him.
"Jon, that might be the key to the Harley, right there. That might be him, right there," he said to Jones, referring to the motorcycle given to the winning coach.
Then, each time Hall fought, he did something eye-popping. His spinning back kick knockout of Adam Cella was an encapsulation of mixed martial arts, graceful and violent, terrifying and thrilling. He KO'd Bubba McDaniel in nine seconds. In the semis, he finished Dylan Andrews in the fight's final seconds after a flurry from bottom position led to a sweep and closing strikes.
His explosive power has convinced many observers that Hall will be the rare TUF-bred fighter to contend in his division upon completing the show. Among those is Sonnen, the former title challenger, who upon witnessing Hall's blink-and-you-miss-it defeat of McDaniel, told him, "You're a contender, Uriah." Then, to ensure Hall understood he was talking past TUF, he added, "For the title." Jamie Huey, a boxing coach who mentored Sonnen's team during the season, furthered that, saying he didn't think there was anyone as quick and accurate as Hall in the entire UFC. This is a man who saw Sonnen compete against middleweight champion and near-unanimous G.O.A.T. Anderson Silva as recently as last year, and he gave Hall the thumb's up?
While Hall became the clear standout, the Bugatti Veyron of the cast, Gastelum is the Hummer H1, a versatile and bulky workhorse who adapts to the changing terrain. During the competition, he won fights by decision, submission and knockout. After facing no one with a wining record before the show, he ran the gauntlet through a trio of opponents with a combined 33-9 mark. Sonnen, who also coached Gastelum, said he'd never seen anyone make such quantum leaps in training.
Despite it all, Gastelum still comes into the finale as a sizable underdog, and Hall, a heavy 4-to-1 favorite. TUF roles, after all, are quickly defined, and slowly erased.
That's just a number, anyway. And we don't root for numbers (not unless there is money involved), we root for people. On Saturday night, there will be many pulling for one last Gastelum upset, and many rooting for another Hall highlight. After 12 weeks, that is the kind of fight, the kind of moment that TUF is supposed to build.
It also doesn't hurt that both Gastelum and Hall come off as genuinely good people. Gastelum seems humble, hard-working and appeared absolutely star-struck when he met Ronda Rousey during the show. Meanwhile, Hall, despite his dislike for Josh Samman, couldn't hide his genuine concern upon knocking out his opponents and seeing them hurt. When he KO'd Cella, for instance, he shed a few tears while awaiting word that he would be OK.
Past labels like "favorite" or "underdog," "contender" or "prospect," Hall and Gastelum are two intriguing people who will now have a head start on building a career worth following. For all the talk about TUF getting stale over the years -- and some of it is warranted -- it is refreshing to be reminded that the show can still produce fighters who matter once the TUF house turns out the lights.