On Monday, UFC lightweight champion Anthony Pettis and former Strikeforce titleholder Gilbert Melendez began filming the twentieth season of The Ultimate Fighter in Las Vegas, NV. While the show has, in large part, become formulaic and stale, especially after a recent listless nineteenth season, this upcoming iteration at least promises a few fresh caveats, as it will not only introduce a brand new weight class to UFC audiences -- the women's 115-pound division -- but it will also crown a new champion in the process, a first for the UFC's flagship series.
"These girls, whoever wins the show is going to be the champion of their division, so to get to see that process happen in six weeks is very cool," Pettis told MMAFighting.com a few days before TUF 20's filming began. "It took me a long time to get to a title, and to know that I can help one of the have a chance to achieve their dreams, it's a cool feeling.
"And the cool thing is I got to watch their fights from Invicta. Most seasons, you can't really see who's on the season, who they are. I've seen these girls fight before. One of these girls came from my team, Rose Namajunas. She trained on my team for a long time ... so I've watched the division for her. I know a lot of these girls."
Indeed, the UFC announced in December that it had acquired the contracts of 11 of the top female strawweights in the world, eight of whom ultimately joined the cast, including Invicta FC champ Carla Esparza, as well as a slew of Invicta FC's top contenders, highlighted by Namajunas, Felice Herrig, Bec Rawlings, Tecia Torres and Joanne Calderwood.
The UFC staged additional tryouts in late-April, and a finalized cast list is expected to be released in the coming days. Altogether, 16 fighters signed on for the show, all in the hopes of joining either Team Pettis or Team Melendez and claiming the inaugural UFC women's strawweight belt.
"It's going to be a fun time," Pettis said. "I've been coaching since I was 10. I opened up my first taekwondo school when I was 16, so I have a lot of experience teaching and I have a lot of experience coaching. Teaching the technique is easy. It's relating to them on a personal level, having them feel comfortable taking advice from you, that's the hard part; getting past the kickboxing, the wrestling, the jiu-jitsu. We're all practicing the same stuff, but who has the best connection on that note, I think, is going to win the season.
"I don't want to say who I'm picking," continued Pettis, "Or who I'm thinking about, because if they're not on my team, that doesn't really look good on my end. But there are some girls that I know are very good. There's some that stick out to me because they have more of my fighting style. Melendez is a wrestler, I'm a striker. Everybody knows that, so I think the girls are going to gravitate towards who they want to go against. If they're a wrestler, they're going to go on his team. If they're a striker, they're going to be on my team."
Pettis, who trains out of Milwaukee's Roufusport academy, said that head trainer Duke Roufus will make periodic visits in order to help Team Pettis along, although Pettis doesn't expect Roufus to be a regular on set, as several Roufusport fighters will be preparing for fights in Milwaukee during filming.
After the show's conclusion, Pettis is expected to break his 16-month absence and attempt to defend his lightweight title for the first time against Melendez on December 6th at UFC 181. For the 27-year-old, it's a match-up that's been a long time coming.
"[Melendez] is as tough as they come," Pettis said. "I was in high school when he was fighting, so I was watching him a lot when I was in high school. I have a lot to look at, and just being a fan of the sport, I've watched him for a long time. Wrestling is obviously his strength. I wouldn't say it's the best wrestling in MMA, but he puts it together real well with the strikes and then his jiu-jitsu."
Considering that Pettis has been sidelined since August 2013 due to a torn PCL and a delayed timetable caused by TUF 20, he expects to field more than a few questions about what effects ring rust will play into the bout. However in this case, Pettis isn't worried, as Melendez is virtually in the same boat, albeit with lengthy contract negotiations taking up his time rather than injuries.
"It happens, it's part of the sport," Pettis said. "When you're kicking and punching, your body is not made to do those kinds of things, so injuries are part of the sport. I knew that coming into the sport.
"My last fight was in August 31st, his (last) fight was September 18th. We both have the same amount of time off, so it doesn't really affect me. Time away from the Octagon isn't like crucial for me. I have 20 fights already. Nothing changes. It's not like it's going to be something different. It still means the same thing. If I lose, I lose my belt. If I win, I'm the champ."