MMA Review: #487: UFC: Ultimate Fighter XX Finale

-The 20th season of The Ultimate Fighter AKA The Ultimate Fighter: A Champion Will Be Crowned was not only the first to introduce a new weight class – in this case Women’s Strawweight (115lbs) but it was also the first TUF tournament to culminate in a World Title fight. This meant the stakes were HIGH, but unfortunately the season didn’t quite live up to the hype for my money – the fights were all fine for the most part but none of the women really came off like a possible star – in fact the only three who came away looking likeable were affable Brits Joanne Calderwood and Aisling Daly and the token Canadian Randa Markos – the rest ranged from catty bullies to drama queens. To be fair though you can’t always judge characters from TUF as they’re all at the mercy of the producers, but yeah. Still, it was cool to have another title introduced and the eventual title fight – favourite Carla Esparza vs. underdog Rose Namajunas – was actually the first ever title match on a TUF finale card! Though why they didn’t fill the whole card with Strawweight fights I didn’t know.

UFC: Ultimate Fighter XX Finale

12/12/14
Las Vegas, Nevada

-Your hosts are Jon Anik and Kenny Florian.

Women’s Strawweight Fight: Jessica Penne vs Randa Markos

The two losing semi-finalists from the TUF World Title tournament, I was surprised to see these two matched on the Finale as I expected them to be given softer opponents in order to build them up as possible title contenders. But then matching the TUF semi-finalists seems to be a popular trend recently so who knows? I was leaning towards Markos here as she’d looked excellent in all of her fights on TUF and while Penne had looked good too she usually fights a weight class lower.

Round One begins and they circle before Markos tags Penne with a combo and goes into the clinch. Sick throw from Penne allows her to get on top though and she secures half-guard. Looks like Markos is somehow cut already too. She looks to sweep Penne but the veteran avoids it and then slides right into mount where she looks for a top side triangle choke. Markos manages to spin free, and she almost takes the back before they stand and Penne hits a trip back down to half-guard. Penne works to pass into full mount again and gets it, posturing up to land some nice punches. Markos hits a reversal, but gives her back in the process and Penne tries to hop on. She botches it though and Markos escapes out the back door and drops some hard punches down before standing over Penne. Upkick lands for Penne as Markos stands over her. Markos drops down into the guard but Penne immediately throws up a triangle choke and it looks sunk. Markos manages to step over the head to alleviate it somewhat and she looks out. Penne tries to switch to an armbar, but Markos postures free. Good right hand from Markos from the top but Penne hits a RIDICULOUS ankle pick sweep and gets to top position where she lands a hard left hand into the guard. Round ends with Penne on top. 10-9 Penne.

Round Two and Markos looks badly marked up which is surprising given there weren’t many striking exchanges in the first. They trade punches from the beginning in this round though with Penne landing some jabs but being tagged by a couple of quicker combinations from the Canadian. Superman punch connects for Markos. Or should that be a Superwoman punch? Good body kick from Penne. Another one is caught and Markos takes her down and lands some punches before standing over her to deliver some leg kicks. Penne gets back to her feet and continues to look to jab, but Markos again counters with some decent shots. Nice right cross from Markos. Knee answers for Penne. Another counter combo lands for Markos. She’s tagging Penne constantly at the minute. Penne manages to clinch but the Canadian shrugs her off. Hard right hook from Markos. Heavy counter stuns Penne and Markos follows with a flurry that has Penne covering up. Penne continues to push forward but Markos catches a kick and hits a takedown, then gets full mount! Whoa. Penne immediately looks for a reversal though and shows some ludicrous leg flexibility to almost get a leglock. Instead she uses it to hit a sweep. Beautiful grappling. Penne postures up to drop some punches through the guard with a minute to go, and she passes into half-guard. Looks like Penne’s almost got full mount here. Seconds to go and she opens up with some ground-and-pound, and remains in control as the round ends. 10-9 Markos though for the better striking for the majority of the round.

Round Three and Markos comes out swinging with a spinning backfist and a quick flurry. Spinning back kick to the body follows. She’s really attacking here with her striking. Penne stalks forward with a jab but takes another glancing spinning backfist. Penne continues to push forward with her jab and some kicks, landing a right hand for good measure but Markos continues to look for the spinning backfist. Nice counter uppercut from Markos. Penne needs to get this fight to the ground ASAP. Right hand from Penne but she eats a big flurry from the Canadian. A pair of knees answer for Penne but she eats an uppercut. Hard right cross from Markos. Takedown attempt from Penne and she gets it, planting Markos on the ground in full guard. Body shots land from the guard for Penne and Markos almost goes into a full handstand in an attempt to reverse. She can’t quite manage it though and Penne gets into half-guard to work more ground-and-pound. Looks like she’s got the back and she goes for the rear naked choke, but Markos escapes only to find herself underneath full mount. Markos works back to half-guard but continues to eat punches. Nice pass to full mount from Penne again and then she takes north/south as Markos tries to reverse. Seconds to go and Penne remains on top, but Markos goes for a weird inverted triangle. It looks sunk but I’m not sure if it’s a proper choke, and Penne manages to wait out the round. 10-9 Penne in a close one for 29-28, but you could perhaps argue the other way too.

Judges have it 29-28 Markos, 30-27 Penne and 29-28 for Jessica Penne to pick up the win. 30-27 is a bullshit score but I think the right girl just about won. Really excellent, high-level competitive fight between two of the best in the weight class. I think both girls are legit title contenders and it wouldn’t surprise me if either gets a title shot later in the year or in 2016. Good stuff!

Lightweight Fight: Yancy Medeiros vs Joe Proctor

These two were coming off impressive wins in their last fights – Medeiros with a sick reverse bulldog choke over Damon Jackson and Proctor with a knockout of Justin Salas. My feeling was that Medeiros had potential to get to the next level while Proctor probably didn’t – no offense to him – and so I was taking Medeiros to win.

First round gets underway and Medeiros comes out throwing kicks, looking to keep Proctor at a distance. Good body kick lands for Proctor though. Brutal leg kick from Proctor who has evidently been working a ton on his striking. Leg kick answers for Medeiros. Proctor comes back with another leg kick as the exchange continues. Nice counter right from Proctor but Medeiros lands with a spin kick to the body. Another rushing leg kick lands for Proctor. These are some serious leg kicks he’s landing. Couple of jabs from Medeiros and he’s standing almost sidewards looking to set up a spin attack. Nice right hand lands for Medeiros and hurts Proctor. Medeiros begins to close him down with more shots including a kick to the body. Spin kick glances for Proctor and he closes in with a flurry that has Medeiros a bit hurt. Yancy manages to tie him up though before separating and it looks like he’s complaining about a groin shot. Good right hand from Medeiros. Right answers for Proctor but Medeiros shakes his head in total disdain. Spinning backfist glances for Proctor and he follows with a combo. Medeiros comes back with some shots of his own as the exchange continues. Proctor finds himself with his back to the cage and from there Medeiros lands with a BRUTAL spin kick to the body! Proctor looks hurt and has the DELAYED REACTION!~! before collapsing in a heap, and Medeiros opens up on him with strikes before grabbing a TIGHT GUILLOTINE to force the tapout!

Awesome finish for Yancy Medeiros. It was an even fight up to that point largely, but when Medeiros landed that spinning back kick it looked like Proctor just couldn’t recover enough to properly defend the choke. Tremendous action throughout and it looks like Medeiros might have the talent – as well as the attitude – to take another step up in this division.

Lightweight Fight: Daron Cruickshank vs KJ Noons

Real battle of strikers in this one then and I’m guessing that’s why they chose to televise it expecting a stand-up war. Both were coming off wins – Noons over Sam Stout and Cruickshank over Anthony Njokuani. I was taking Cruickshank just because I think he’s a better striker and I’ve always found Noons a bit overrated if I’m honest.

Fight begins and they trade some kicks to begin before Cruickshank lands with a quick spinning backfist. Good leg kick from Cruickshank. He seems like the faster man thus far. Nice side kick to the face from Cruickshank. Noons tries to close him down to no avail. Body kick lands for Cruickshank. He tries to follow with a right hand but Noons catches him with an eye poke and Big John McCarthy has to call for time. Ought to be a point really even though it was inadvertent. They restart and Noons comes in and stuns Cruickshank with a pair of left hooks, but Daron ducks under and hits a BIG German suplex to dump him to the ground! Noons pops right back up though and breaks free. Both guys are really swinging now. Counter right hand connects for Cruickshank. He’s throwing all sorts of crazy kicks too. Nice low single leg from Cruickshank and he gets Noons down, but the StrikeForce veteran pops up almost immediately. Side kick to the body lands for Cruickshank. Flying knee glances for Noons and he takes a counter left in return. Combo lands for Noons ending in a hard left hook. Heavy left from Noons connects as he walks Cruickshank down. He’s having success when he can back Cruickshank into the fence to stop him throwing all those wild kicks. Low side kick sets up a combo for Cruickshank but Noons fires right back with a good combo. Takedown from Cruickshank with seconds to go and he keeps him under control to the buzzer. 10-9 Cruickshank. Fun round.

Into the 2nd and Noons stalks forward but eats a quick combination and a jumping knee from Cruickshank. Flurry from Noons and Cruickshank is in trouble, covering up and stumbling back towards the fence! Flying knee follows and Cruickshank goes down, but pops right back up and he’s on the run….but he claims an eye poke and looks in SERIOUS PAIN as Big John calls time again. This time he calls the doctor in as replays show a blatant eye poke set up Noons’ flurry. Doctor checks him over and throws the fight out as Cruickshank can’t see a damn thing.

Official decision is a No Contest, which is bullshit to me – I know Noons clearly didn’t mean the eye poke but I mean, he’d already been warned for it in the first round and for me that’s grounds for a DQ, particularly when it turns out to have caused quite a serious injury (I believe a torn retina for poor Cruickshank). They HAVE to start addressing the whole reaching-with-an-open-hand issue to gauge the distance because it’s going to end up with someone blinded, and despite what Joe Rogan says new gloves aren’t the answer – the answer is to start fucking docking points and DQing guys who do it and they’d soon fucking stop I’m sure. This was an excellent fight marred by a shitty ending.

Featherweight Fight: Charles Oliveira vs Jeremy Stephens

Where the previous fight was a battle of strikers this one was more like your classic striker vs. grappler fight, with Stephens being the knockout artist and Oliveira being the submission wizard, although to be fair Oliveira’s striking has looked great at times too. I was leaning towards him for that very reason – he’s more well-rounded than Stephens, although Stephens’ punching power can never be counted out.

Round One and Stephens opens with a leg kick. Oliveira immediately uses a right hand to close the distance, but he takes a knee to the body and drops to guard where he immediately locks up an armbar. Stephens is in trouble here. He uses BRUTE FORCE to lift Oliveira up and slam him right on the back of his neck, but even so Oliveira’s still got the arm locked up. Couple of solid punches land from the bottom for Oliveira as he continues to work on the arm, but it doesn’t look quite as tight as it did before the slam. The Brazilian adjusts and the hold begins to look tight again, but Stephens is staying remarkably calm at the minute. It looks like he’s got it sunk and now you can see Stephens wincing, but he manages to hold on and finally escapes to a big pop into the guard. Elbows connect for Stephens from the top and you can see Oliveira at one point checking whether he’s been cut or not. He hasn’t, for the record. Stephens decides to stand up but Oliveira gets right back on him and looks to get him down again, landing a hard elbow from the clinch for good measure. One minute to go and they break off. Glancing combo from Stephens but Oliveira pushes forward with some kicks. Big overhand right is just blocked by Oliveira. Good knees from the Brazilian set up another clinch but Stephens quickly breaks. Round ends shortly after. 10-9 Oliveira for the armbar attempt as he had Stephens on the defensive for the majority of the round.

Round Two and Oliveira comes in with a hop kick that sets up a superman punch and follows it with a sharp leg kick. Takedown attempt follows but Stephens channels his inner Travis Browne and nails him with elbows to the side of the head. Oliveira manages to push through them though and tackles him onto his back and immediately passes to half-guard. Looks like the mount might be open too. Sure enough he gets it and transitions to take the back with both hooks. SICK grappling. Body triangle is sunk for Oliveira and Stephens is again in trouble. He goes from a choke attempt into an armbar attempt, but Stephens manages to cling on. Armbar is FULLY EXTENDED but somehow Stephens hangs on and hits a MIRACLE ESCAPE! Holy shit I don’t know how he did that. Oliveira winds up on his back and Stephens stands up over him. That was amazing. Big right hand from Stephens drops down into Oliveira’s guard, but the Brazilian stands back up and closes the distance with a few knees from the clinch. He grabs a front headlock in a attempt to drag him down for an anaconda choke it looks like, and he manages to force Stephens down onto the ground, but somehow Stephens escapes that too. Jesus. Stephens winds up on his back in full guard but Oliveira again transitions to take the back. The guy just has ridiculous grappling skill. Again he gets the body triangle and switches off to another armbar, but AGAIN Stephens escapes and ends the round with some ground-and-pound. 10-9 Oliveira in an incredible round.

Round Three and Stephens lands a beautiful right hand to the body and then sprawls to avoid a takedown. Oliveira drops to his back but Stephens is having none of that and waves the Brazilian up. Oliveira backs him up again and manages to get another takedown, but in the scramble Stephens almost gets a kimura! Oliveira avoids it though and finds himself in top position again, this time in side mount. Nice scramble from Stephens allows him to steal top position and he chooses to stand up again. Good low kick from Oliveira. Stephens begins to push forward but he seems to be having issues with the length of Oliveira and the Brazilian glances on a hook kick to the cheek. Exchange continues and Oliveira goes for a takedown but it’s very slow this time. Stephens avoids and Oliveira rolls to his back, but again Stephens stands up. Leg kick lands for Stephens. Another takedown attempt from Oliveira follows and this time he gets it and dumps Stephens on his back. He passes to half-guard again and looks like he’s setting up for a possible brabo choke. Stephens manages to defend and works his way to his feet, but Oliveira goes for the takedown again. Stephens avoids and stands over him and now the crowd are booing Oliveira’s tactic of dropping to his back. Big right hand connects from above for Stephens and then he backs out again and kicks the legs. Herb Dean forces Oliveira back up with just over a minute to go and he answers a one-two with a leg kick. Stephens is swinging but he takes a hard knee to the body and then Oliveira pulls guard. Big elbows land and this might be enough for Stephens to take the round but not the fight. More elbows connect for Stephens but the round ends before he can finish. 10-9 Stephens for a 29-28 overall for Oliveira.

Judges have it 30-27, 29-28 and 29-28 all for Charles Oliveira. This might’ve been a career-best performance for him actually as he was able to avoid all of Stephens’ power shots and showed massively improved wrestling and takedowns to go along with his nasty submission game to basically keep Stephens on the defensive for the majority of the fight. He did show some holes in his game still – it looked like he was gassing in the third which was why his takedowns started to fail, but then again by that point most fighters would’ve been tapped had it not been for Stephens’ ludicrous submission defense. Excellent fight at any rate and I think Oliveira’s a match for anyone at 145lbs at this stage.

UFC World Women’s Strawweight Title: Carla Esparza vs Rose Namajunas

So after all the weeks of TUF tapings it had all come down to this – the last two women standing in a sixteen-woman tournament to decide the first ever UFC Women’s Strawweight Champion. Pretty big fight then to say the least. In terms of how the women matched up, it was experience (Esparza) vs. youth (Namajunas) for the most part, and in terms of the styles it was Esparza’s grinding wrestling game against the more explosive style of Namajunas, summed up by Rose pulling out three finishes during the tapings compared to only one for Esparza (over a very inexperienced opponent in Angela Hill). Namajunas had certainly had the tougher route to the finals – going through Alex Chambers, Joanne Calderwood and Randa Markos – but I was slightly favouring Esparza here due to her experience levels at the top.

Round One and Namajunas comes out quickly looking to impose her striking, and they trade some early shots with neither woman gaining an advantage. Flying kick from Rose but Esparza catches her and gets a takedown and immediately goes to work with some ground-and-pound. Namajunas does a good job of escaping though and she’s back up on her feet. Rose closes in but walks into a sharp left hook. Flying knee misses for Rose but she lands with a combo. Spinning backfist glances for her but Esparza tackles her down. Rose reverses to her feet but eats a knee on the way out. Into the clinch but Esparza breaks with a sharp elbow. Lot of pressure from Namajunas thus far. Good right hand lands for her. Lot of movement now from Esparza. Front kick lands hard for Rose but Esparza takes it well. Nice right hand from Esparza and she lands some knees from the clinch too. Flying kick misses for Rose. Beautifully timed takedown from Esparza and she lands inside the full guard. Good ground-and-pound follows as Rose tries to stay active from her back. They come back to their feet and trade wildly and surprisingly it’s Carla who gets the better of it. Seconds to go now and Rose clinches and forces her back into the fence. Good knees inside from Esparza but Rose separates. Round ends with another Esparza takedown. Close round but 10-9 Esparza by a hair.

Round Two and Esparza opens with a nice right cross. Couple of kicks from Rose back her up but don’t really land cleanly. Flying kick sets up a hard right hand though and they clinch with Esparza landing the better shots. Glancing left hand from Esparza. Rose uses some more kicks to keep distance but Carla shoots right in on a double leg and plants her on the ground, passing to half-guard for good measure. Namajunas keeps trying to shift her hips but Esparza’s base is too good and she drops some nasty elbows. Triangle attempt from Rose but Esparza avoids and stands back up. Rose walks her down again but Esparza manages to land a couple of decent counters. Takedown attempt from Rose now but Esparza reverses it and takes top position in the guard again. Sweet pass to half-guard from Esparza and she drops some punches to keep the pressure on. Good job from Rose to get back to full guard but she’s losing these rounds on her back. Slick pass into side mount from Esparza and Rose might be in trouble here. She’s just beating Rose up on the ground. Full mount follows with seconds to go in the round. Carla lands with a flurry of punches but Namajunas manages to hang on until the round ends despite giving her back. 10-9 Esparza in a much clearer round.

Between rounds Rose looks totally broken in her corner and Pat Barry’s just giving her a pump-up speech rather than any technical advice which is when you know things are desperate.

Round Three and Rose misses with a spinning backfist and then gets taken down right away. Carla even manages to fix her top as she settles into top position where she drops some ground-and-pound. She goes into knee-on-belly and then forces Namajunas to give her back. Both hooks are in for Esparza and Rose is in trouble. She tries to roll but can’t get free and Esparza peppers her with some punches that eventually set up a rear naked choke. Tapout is academic.

Namajunas tried but she seemed outmatched here – Esparza’s experience, wrestling advantage and clean counter striking allowed her to never be in trouble with Rose’s more reckless attacks and by about halfway through the second round it looked like she’d psychologically broken the less experienced fighter and after that there was really only one winner. Excellent performance from Esparza to become the first UFC Strawweight Champion. Obviously she’s since lost the belt and seemingly from that (as well as due to losses by other TUF girls like Joanne Calderwood and Felice Herrig) it’s become popular to question the level of talent on the TUF season, but I don’t buy into it myself – I think the talent level was very high, but crowning a champion via TUF which is essentially a short-notice tournament was always a bit questionable – it favours the fighters who can manage to stay healthy, are experienced at cutting weight and who can also handle the house situation from a psychological standpoint, and so a wrestler like Carla was always at an advantage and in all honesty may not have actually been the “best” fighter per say had all the women had proper training camps for each fight and stuff. But yeah, that’s another article entirely really. Regardless, this was a really good main event and I think the Strawweight division adds a lot of fun fights to the UFC product, and allows more fighters to be paid good money, which is all a plus. Post-fight Esparza dedicates the win to the late Shane Del Rosario which is cool too.

-Highlights apparently filmed on a Samsung Galaxy or something like that roll to end our night.

Final Thoughts….

This was a quality free-TV show from the UFC. We didn’t get one bad fight although the Noons/Cruickshank ending stunk, the Strawweight fights both delivered (as did the prelim ones for that matter…) and we got what I’d consider one of the year’s more underrated fights in Oliveira/Stephens. TUF season in general might be worth a rewatch too I think but the Finale is definitely worth two thumbs up.

Best Fight: Oliveira vs. Stephens
Worst Fight: Noons vs. Cruickshank

Overall Rating: ****

Until next time,

Scott Newman:
NewmanMMA@gmail.com