MMA Review: #552: UFC: Ultimate Fighter XXIII Finale

-Another year, another season of TUF, then. This one was sold on the premise of exciting fights and a BITTER RIVALRY between coaches Joanna Jedrzejczyk and Claudia Gadelha, but in the end it turned out to be another underwhelming one – the rivalry was indeed bitter but it didn’t get to the levels of Rampage vs. Rashad, Miesha vs. Ronda or Tito vs. Ken for me, and while the fights were perfectly acceptable, it didn’t seem like there was any blue chip prospects on show, especially when the guy I had pegged as that (Khalil Rountree) was exposed somewhat as having a weaker ground game. At least the Finale looked really good though – not only were we getting the Jedrzejczyk/Gadelha fight in the main event, but we also had the UFC debut of former Bellator champ Will Brooks as well as an appearance from a legit blue chip prospect in Doo Ho Choi.

UFC: Ultimate Fighter XXIII Finale

Las Vegas, Nevada

-Your hosts are Jon Anik and Brian Stann.

Lightweight Fight: Joaquim Silva vs Andrew Holbrook

This seemed like an odd choice for a main card opener, but then nothing on the prelim card really stood out either so c’est la vie. Silva – AKA ‘Netto BJJ’, which is a weird nickname as he’s a striker, not a grappler! – had come from the unheralded TUF Brazil 4 while Holbrook had made his debut with a shady decision win over Ramsey Nijem back in the summer of 2015. My pick was Silva due to my usual TUF Brazil bias.

Fight begins and they circle around and throw out some feints before Silva catches a low kick and throws Holbrook down, before DECKING HIM WITH A RIGHT as he stands! Holbrook looks out and sure enough Silva comes over the top with some hard hammer fists that stiffen him up.

Really quick knockout from Netto BJJ and it was vicious, too. Holbrook just couldn’t move his head out of the way in time as he tried to stand back up and that was that. Doesn’t move Silva up that much in the rankings I wouldn’t say but this might be enough to get him another televised slot on a Fight Night card and with such a huge roster these days that’s quite a big deal in itself. Fun opener.

Featherweight Fight: Doo Ho Choi vs Thiago Tavares

Choi is a guy I’ve seen as a top prospect and possible future title contender for years now – since he knocked out Mitsuhiro Ishida basically – and it was nice to see him not have such a massive layoff this time after last fighting in late November. He’d beaten Sam Sicilia with a vicious knockout there but had seemingly slid back under the radar since. Tavares meanwhile – once a top prospect himself but now a gatekeeper – had last picked up a pretty good win over Clay Guida via guillotine choke. Despite Tavares having a massive experience advantage I was picking the Korean Superboy by knockout again.

Round One begins and Choi pushes forward from the off with Tavares circling on the outside. Takedown attempt from Tavares under a flying knee and he gets it, planting the Korean on his back by the fence. Choi looks unbelievably calm as Tavares tries to step into mount, and the Korean tries to use the fence to stand as Tavares works to keep him down. Good work from Tavares keeps him down, but eventually Choi uses the fence to stand. Tavares keeps him clinched, but he has his back to the cage now. He manages to hit another trip, but Choi scoots right back to the fence and stands again. Choi does well to break off, and from there he closes in and sends a LASER BEAM RIGHT HAND through the guard and drops Tavares hard! Another shot puts him out and that’s all she wrote. Crowd go insane.

Awesome finish from Doo Ho Choi and a massively impressive performance too – Tavares is a guy who can usually take down all of his opponents, but despite getting two takedowns here he couldn’t do anything with them and one clean shot on the feet put him out cold. Evidently Choi hits with some unbelievable power for a 145lber. I’d like to see him tested against another grinder next I think so someone like Darren Elkins or Dennis Bermudez would work, but I think he’d knock them out too as I see him as a legit title contender pretty soon. He’s just a phenomenal prospect.

Lightweight Fight: Will Brooks vs Ross Pearson

Huge fight right here and a bit of an unexpected one too – Pearson was initially booked against James Krause in a battle of gatekeepers, pretty much, but when Krause pulled out with an injury Zuffa found a hell of a replacement in their new signing, former Bellator champion Will Brooks – a guy who a lot of sites had ranked firmly in the top ten thanks to his pair of wins over Michael Chandler as well as an unbeaten streak going back to 2013. Nice to see some movement that way too in these days when there’s so much ludicrous talk about UFC stars jumping to Bellator. My pick here was Brooks as I felt Pearson was a bit past his best at this point and Brooks seemed to have the potential to go to the very top of the division.

Round One and Pearson opens with a leg kick. Counter right hand glances for Brooks. Leg kick into a body kick follows for the former Bellator champ. Quick combo leads to a clinch from Brooks but Pearson shakes him off. Another solid counter right connects for Brooks. Step-in knee connects for him too but Pearson comes back with a glancing body kick. Brief exchange sees Brooks end with a knee. Right hand follows for Brooks. Left hook from Pearson but Brooks replies with a knee. Clinch from Brooks and he looks for the takedown, but Pearson defends it well with his back to the cage. Beautiful left elbow connects for Brooks from the cage and then he drops for the takedown again, but he still can’t get the Brit off his feet. Pearson breaks off but it looks like he has a small cut on his forehead. Good kick to the body from Brooks. Nice slip from Pearson as Brooks lunges in with a left. Accidental clash of heads follows but both guys seem okay. Jab into a body shot from Pearson. Sharp leg kick from Brooks and he clinches, going for the takedown again, but he still can’t get Pearson down and in fact Pearson switches position on him. They continue to jockey for position with seconds to go in the round and exchange knees to the buzzer. 10-9 Brooks, I’d say. Good round.

Round Two and Pearson stalks forward to begin, but Brooks stays elusive and dodges the Brit’s strikes. Good low kick does land for Ross but he takes an uppercut. Body shot answers for Pearson and they exchange some jabs and punches. Hard knee to the body lands for Brooks and he follows with a one-two that lands cleanly as well. Counter right hand from Pearson to come back. Jab into a body kick lands for Brooks. He’s looking pretty smooth on his feet. Nice combo from Brooks and then he suddenly switches it up and hits a double leg to guard. That was tremendous. Good punches get through for Brooks from the top as Pearson squirms in an attempt to get him off. Heavy right hand connects for Brooks as Pearson almost gets free. Brooks stands over him to drop some more shots and Pearson gives his back, but he takes the opportunity to stand. He drops to a knee to avoid a suplex and takes a couple more shots, and then Brooks slaps one hook in. Pearson shakes it off well though and pops back up to his feet. He turns into Brooks, but eats some really good clinch strikes in the process. 1:30 to go and Brooks has looked excellent. Nice knee to the body from the clinch for Brooks. Right elbow and another knee follow. Brooks is awesome in the clinch. Thirty seconds to go and they break, with Brooks landing an uppercut to the body. Knee lands for Brooks and he follows with a combo. Low kick answers for Pearson and Brooks slips to his back, going into guard to end the round. 10-9 Brooks again.

Round Three and Pearson’s corner are pretty frank in telling him he needs to win it. Sure enough he comes out with more urgency and he delivers a jab to the body and a big left hook and a right uppercut. Hard left hook lands for Brooks and he shoots, but Pearson stuffs it. Good leg kick from Brooks but Pearson fires back with a body kick and another left hand. Jab into another takedown attempt from Brooks but Pearson sprawls again. Clinch from Brooks and he lands with a knee to the body. Pearson quickly spins him around though and lands a knee of his own, but one goes low and Dan Miragliotta has to call time. They restart and Brooks glances on a combo as does Pearson. Good knee lands for Brooks but Pearson catches him with a clean left hand counter. Excellent body shot from Pearson. Step-in elbow lands for Brooks. Exchange continues and Brooks gets a bit hurt by a left hook. He fires back with a right and a jab, but Pearson’s pressing forward. Body kick lands for the Brit. Big combo follows and Brooks is covering up! He’s in trouble here. Clinch follows for Pearson and they exchange knees inside before Ross breaks and cracks Brooks with a combo. Brooks tries to fire back, but he’s eating the harder shots here. Brooks breaks off with just over a minute to go, but Pearson hits him with a hard body kick, only to get thrown to the ground when he tries to follow up! Nice. Brooks takes the back for a second but Pearson turns into him again, and they remain clinched with thirty seconds to go. Hard left elbow from Brooks. They continue to exchange in the clinch and the round ends with a really good sequence of an elbow and uppercut from Pearson and an uppercut from Brooks. 10-9 Pearson but I’d call it 29-28 Brooks overall.

Judges have it 29-28 all round for Will Brooks, pretty clear-cut decision in the end but it was a tremendous fight, particularly as Pearson really came out firing in the third round and Brooks didn’t back down at all. I thought Brooks looked excellent in his UFC debut – I know Pearson isn’t top ten or anything and he didn’t put him away in spectacular fashion, but can that really be expected in a debut when you take into account Octagon shock and all? It’s not like Ross is an easy out after all and he rarely gets finished or whitewashed by anyone really. I was impressed and I think the best is probably yet to come for Brooks who has clearly made the best move for his career. Can’t wait to see him again as I enjoyed this fight as much as any I’ve seen recently. Kudos to Pearson for fighting up to the level of a likely title contender, too.

TUF 23: Women’s Strawweight Finals: Tatiana Suarez vs Amanda Cooper

Didn’t really pay attention to the TUF season if I’m honest so it’s hard to do a preview here really – all I know is that Suarez – a former Olympic-level wrestler and a thyroid cancer survivor – was the favourite coming in and used her slick grappling game to dominate and submit all of her opponents on the show, while striker Cooper struggled with her weight cut at times but still beat my favourite fighter on the cast in the semis in Brit Lanchana Green. My pick was Suarez just because well, everyone was expecting her to win.

Fight begins and Cooper wings a big right hand out early on, but Suarez drops for a single leg and gets her down smoothly. Full guard for Cooper but Suarez lands some heavy shots from the top, only for Cooper to attempt an armbar. It looks like it might be sunk, but it’s not quite tight enough and Suarez manages to defend and escape. Takedown from Suarez again and she avoids a possible kimura from Cooper en route. Into half-guard for Suarez and she works the body with some short punches. Full guard for Cooper again but Suarez stands over her and drops some punches, before a sweep from Cooper puts her on top. Nice. She’s in side mount, but Suarez works free and gets back to her feet. She drops for another takedown and gets it, landing in side mount and escaping a guillotine. More good punches from Suarez and she continues to land as Cooper gets full guard back. Suarez’s top game is nasty. Hammer fists connect for her and she passes into side mount and then spins RIGHT AROUND INTO A TIGHT D’ARCE!~! This looks sunk and she turns like a clock until Cooper taps out. That was phenomenal grappling.

Really good showing from Tatiana Suarez. Remember when I said I didn’t think there were any blue chip prospects on this season? I may have been wrong. Post-fight she shows a ton of charisma in her interview as well, getting emotional and mentioning how she didn’t break to cancer so she’s not going to break inside the cage. That’s awesome. She looks great, has charisma and judging by this she can definitely fight, so hey, looks like TUF might’ve unearthed a possible star in the making. This was one of the better TUF finals I can remember recently.

TUF 23: Light-Heavyweight Finals: Andrew Sanchez vs Khalil Rountree

Well, when the TUF cast was first announced, two names had me excited at LHW – Khalil Rountree and Phil Hawes, who had been named on Bloody Elbow’s last Scouting Report and were considered two of the top prospects in the game, albeit at 185lbs. In a surprise, Sanchez – a more experienced fighter with a record of 7-1 – took out Hawes in the pre-house fights, and ended up making his way to the finals with a win over another decent prospect in Eric Spicely. Rountree meanwhile entered the house in devastating fashion with soccer kicks to the body (!) but then lost his first fight to Cory Hendricks, showing some real holes in his ground game in the process. An injury to Hendricks put him back into the tournament though and he beat Josh Stansbury to get to the finals. Based on how Rountree’s ground game had looked in the house then, the smart pick was Sanchez, but I still couldn’t help but go with the more explosive prospect and took Rountree to win by knockout.

First round begins and both men miss some early strikes before Rountree sprawls to avoid the first takedown attempt. Good low kick from Sanchez. Couple of wild strikes miss for Rountree and Sanchez glances on a couple of kicks. Another takedown attempt from Sanchez is successful, and he forces Rountree onto his back. Rountree scoots back to the fence, but Sanchez rotates him away from it and looks to keep him firmly grounded. Rountree works back to his feet, but Sanchez drags him right back down. Again he works back up, but Sanchez has the back and keeps hold of him before dumping him again. This time Sanchez grapevines Rountree’s right leg to keep him down, but he’s landing practically zero strikes on the ground. Couple of punches do get through but it’s not enough to impress the crowd, who begin to boo pretty openly. One minute to go and Sanchez remains in firm control. Rountree manages to muscle back to his feet, and this time he manages to escape too. He swings, but Sanchez ducks under and hits another double leg to put him back down. Half-guard for Rountree and Sanchez drops a couple of elbows to end the round. Total yawner, 10-9 Sanchez.

Second round and Sanchez throws out a handful of kicks before shooting again. Rountree manages to defend it this time but he takes a decent right hand from Sanchez. Pair of left hands land for Rountree but Sanchez ducks under and goes for a takedown. Rountree defends initially, but Sanchez keeps coming and holds him against the fence before dragging him to the ground. Again he grapevines the legs to keep Khalil down, and he begins to land some punches albeit not doing too much damage. This is such a boring fight. Sanchez looks to take the back, putting one hook in, but he also seems content to just ride Rountree and land some chopping punches. Boos are coming loudly now. Cameras catch Rountree telling his mom to shut up (!) but that isn’t going to help him escape from underneath Sanchez. Not sure why they haven’t been stood up yet as this is awful. Round ends there. 10-9 Sanchez in another stinker.

Third round and Rountree comes out and throws a big left head kick that just about glances. Head kick misses for Sanchez and he shoots, but Rountree sprawls to avoid and glances on a body kick. Right hands land for both men before Sanchez shoots on a single leg. Big hammer fists to the head from Rountree as he defends, but Sanchez drives him into the fence. Crowd are already booing before he’s even got the takedown now. Sure enough Sanchez trips him down and lands in the guard, and from there the action is minimal again. Sanchez works to take the back this time and he gets one hook in and considers the choke, but gives it up to land some punches. More booing follows as we get more inactivity, Sanchez just landing with really ineffective shots from the back. Round peters out on the ground and it’s got to be another 10-9 for Sanchez. You could give any of the rounds 10-8 too, but I personally would say Sanchez didn’t do anywhere near enough damage to warrant that.

Judges have it 30-25, 30-25 and 30-26 for Andrew Sanchez. Guess the judges are being more liberal with 10-8 rounds suddenly. What can you say here? If the previous TUF final made you desperate to see Tatiana Suarez fight again, this one did the total opposite for Andrew Sanchez. It was a terrible, terrible fight, one of the worst televised ones of the year for my money, and a throwback to the early Koscheck-type school of lay-and-pray. It made sense for Sanchez to use this gameplan given Rountree’s issues with the ground game and his dangerous striking, but it wasn’t at all entertaining, sorry.

UFC Women’s World Strawweight Title: Joanna Jedrzejczyk vs Claudia Gadelha

TUF coaching and bitter rivalries have always gone hand in hand, and this feud was no different, stemming back to December 2014 when Jedrzejczyk beat Gadelha via a controversial split decision to earn a title shot in the newly minted Strawweight division. Since then of course, she’d dethroned champ Carla Esparza and defended the title a further two times, while Gadelha had bounced back by beating the former #1 ranked Jessica Aguilar. In terms of the feud, it seemed like TUF wanted to push Jedrzejczyk as the villain, but as always with TUF you’ve got to take the EDIT MONSTER into account and it seemed like both girls were quite happy to snipe at one another. Sadly we never did get to see them come to blows during TUF, which supposedly happened right after the tapings had finished. As far as how they matched up? Given how close the first fight had been it was damn near impossible to pick, but it was hard to go against Joanna given how she’d been performing.

Round One gets underway with no glove touch, naturally. Few jabs open up for Joanna but Claudia surprises her with a straight left and she goes down! Crowd go crazy as she pops up and takes some more punches before quickly clinching. Takedown from Gadelha and she lands on top and laces up Joanna’s legs to attempt to mount over the butterfly guard. She ends up in half-guard and it looks like she might be prepping for a D’Arce, but Joanna turns onto all fours and works up to her feet. Joanna manages to turn her into the fence inside the clinch and then she separates with a combo as Gadelha spins her. They exchange with both women landing, and then Gadelha clinches again, walking through an uppercut to force the Polish fighter into the fence. Beautiful takedown from Gadelha puts her on top again in half-guard, and she peppers Joanna with some punches while working to control her. Big shots get through for Claudia in fact. Joanna tries to hip escape and works up to her feet, but Claudia stays right on her and then they exchange elbows before separating. Front kick to the body from Jedrzejczyk. Leg kick follows but Gadelha counters with a right hand. Nice combination from Joanna and she follows with another front kick. Good combo from Gadelha answers as the exchange continues. These girls are FAST. Gadelha is countering with the right hand very well. Round ends on the feet and goes to the challenger, 10-9.

Round Two and Gadelha pressures Joanna with some punches that Joanna returns, before shooting for the takedown. Joanna stuffs it and breaks with a left, but Gadelha quickly lands with some dirty boxing and then goes for the takedown again. Nice takedown from the Brazilian and she’s on top in half-guard. She looks to isolate the left arm for a possible kimura, but Jedrzejczyk gets her back to the fence to avoid. Gadelha’s got the right leg totally grapevined to keep her down though and then she opens up with some stiff punches right to the face .They trade punches from the position before Joanna manages to get back up, but despite an elbow strike Claudia stays on her and looks to force her back down. Good clinch strikes land for the challenger too. Joanna’s doing well to defend the takedown but all of the clinching has to be gruelling. Nice elbow from Jedrzejczyk as Claudia tries to drop for a double leg. Attempted throw goes wrong for Claudia and Joanna lands on top, but the challenger rolls for a leglock. Joanna defends with some hard elbows and then appears to be going for a D’Arce, but Claudia easily avoids that and transitions into a takedown attempt. It fails and Joanna gets back up, but she can’t shake the challenger off her. Knee to the chest from Joanna and she manages to break with seconds to go, but Claudia ties her up again as she stalks forward. Round ends and it’s 10-9 Claudia again.

Round Three and Claudia looks a bit tired coming out of her corner. Jabs from Jedrzejczyk are countered by a combo from Gadelha, but she walks right into a nasty combo from the champion. Joanna looks much fresher. Couple of big left hooks land for Claudia and then she shoots and puts Jedrzejczyk on her back. Joanna pops right back up though before Claudia takes her down again with a hip throw. Again Joanna works right back up and she lands a nice right elbow from the clinch. Claudia exits with an elbow, but Joanna hits her right back with one of her own. Gadelha is breathing really heavily. Combinations from Joanna and Claudia is standing right in front of her. She tries to fire back, but Joanna is the quicker striker and she’s beginning to find her range and tee off now. Beautiful counter combination from Jedrzejczyk. Front kick to the body follows. Big takedown from Gadelha pretty much out of nowhere, but Joanna instantly works to get up and lands with some hammer fists as she does so. Slick move from Joanna allows her to spin into top position, and she lands some hard shots and leaves Gadelha on her back as she stands, forcing Big John McCarthy to call her to her feet. One minute to go and a couple of big combinations get through for Joanna, but Gadelha counters with a hard elbow that stuns the champ for a second. She seems okay though and they clinch, with Joanna hitting her with a series of brutal elbows and a front kick to the body on the exit. Big shots land for both girls as the round ends. Close-ish round but I think Joanna did more damage and the momentum definitely shifted. 10-9 Jedrzejczyk.

Round Four and Joanns starts quickly with some jabs into a combo. Big shots from Joanna and Gadelha looks exhausted. Joanna’s hands are insanely fast and she uses the jab to set up things excellently. Big front kick to the body from the champion. She continues to dance around and strike from range as Claudia is looking more and more like a stationary target. Incredible right hook from Jedrzejczyk. Her movement is phenomenal now too as she’s not allowing Claudia to hit her barely at all. Clinch from Claudia but Joanna hits her with a right hook and a hard elbow. Left answers for Claudia but she’s busted open. More combinations land for Jedrzejczyk and she throws in some kicks too, including a front kick to the face. Big counter right from Jedrzejczyk and then she lands a series of clean punches before clocking the challenger with a head kick. Gadelha looks like she’s got nothing left. More clean shots from Joanna and Claudia might be in trouble. She walks right into a hard elbow as she tries to clinch and it looks like she’s beginning to drop her hands, too. Big knee into an elbow from Joanna and she continues to open up with shots. Round ends and Claudia’s nose looks busted open. Clear 10-9 for Joanna, close to a 10-8 in fact.

Round Five and it could well be winner take all, but Claudia looks like she’s running on fumes while Jedrzejczyk still looks fresh. They actually touch gloves to open the round (!) and Joanna opens with a slick combination as Claudia comes forward. It’s almost hard to keep up with Joanna’s striking due to the insane speed and variation. Credit to Claudia as she continues to push forward, but she’s eating more strikes. Takedown attempt from the challenger and she manages to drive Jedrzejczyk across the cage and into the fence, but she can’t get Joanna down now and eventually the champ escapes and opens up with a combo for good measure. Nasty front kick to the body from Joanna. Stats say that Joanna’s landed almost 200 strikes which is wild. Claudia keeps trying but she’s eating the cleaner shots in every exchange. Another takedown attempt follows with two minutes to go, but again she can’t get the champion down and in fact Joanna gets her down and takes the back for a second before opening up with elbows that force Gadelha onto her back. Joanna stands over her and forces her up, where she eats a couple of jabs before landing a solid right hand of her own. Less than a minute to go now and Jedrzejczyk continues to dominate the striking. Vicious one-two from Joanna rocks Claudia but she recovers quickly. She’s incredibly tough. Clinch from Claudia but Joanna hits her with a knee to the body and a slashing elbow. Takedown attempt but Joanna stuffs it to end the fight. 10-9 Jedrzejczyk, so I’d call it 48-47 for her although you could probably go 48-46 with a 10-8 fourth round.

Official scores are 48-46, 48-45 and 48-46 for Joanna Jedrzejczyk to retain her title. Wild to see so many 10-8’s being handed out but it’s not a bad thing. Post-fight Joanna tries to bury the hatchet by saying how much respect she has for her and then apologising for the feud, before Claudia says that she respects Joanna as a champion, but it doesn’t seem like the dislike is truly gone. Hey, it’s always easier for the winner I guess. Joanna then says she wants in on the MSG card in November, but EVERYONE wants in on that card right now so who knows. Hopefully no Jon Jones though!

Tremendous fight in the end then; it was reminiscent of classic title fights like Couture vs. Rodriguez in fact in the way that Claudia just came storming out of the gate into an early lead, but ran out of steam and once that happened Joanna really took over to dominate and dismantle her standing to retain the title. Claudia showed a tremendous amount of heart – a lot of fighters would’ve been finished in the fourth or fifth – but by that point she had nothing left and it was always going to be Joanna’s fight. I guess a lot of it has to do with Joanna’s game (striking) being less taxing on the gas tank than Claudia’s grappling-heavy style, but you’ve got to admire the conditioning of Jedrzejczyk too as she defended all of those grappling sequences and then didn’t even seem tired. With the 135lbs division in total flux right now you’d have to say pound-for-pound she’s the best female fighter on the planet right now, and it’s probably not even close. Next up is probably the winner of Namajunas vs. Kowalkiewicz but I don’t see either of them doing any better.

-Show ends there as Joanna is celebrating.

Final Thoughts….

Horrible Sanchez/Rountree fight aside this was a great show, with the main event absolutely delivering fireworks and Brooks/Pearson being an excellent fight too. The other three fights all ended quickly and were largely one-sided, but they also had memorable finishes and in the case of Suarez/Cooper, could well lead to the birth of a real star in the Strawweight division. Definitely check this show out on Fight Pass if you missed it but do yourself a favour and skip the second TUF final. Thumbs up for this one.

Best Fight: Jedrzejczyk vs. Gadelha
Worst Fight: Sanchez vs. Rountree

Overall Rating: ****

Until next time,

Scott Newman: