The two-hour season premiere of “The Ultimate Fighter” Season 17 begins with a slick new intro, establishing that Jon Jones and Chael Sonnen will serve as coaches this season. Though a little heavy on the handheld shots, this opening five minutes is already better than anything the show has offered up in the last two seasons.
Sonnen and Jones exchange pleasantries in an empty gym and check out the Harley-Davidsons that the winning coach and fighter will take home. UFC President Dana White recaps the history between the two coaches, dating back to the cancellation of UFC 151. A gaggle of middleweights suddenly pours into the gym, and White drops his first F-bombs of the season.
The sun sets and rises over Las Vegas’ cityscape, and suddenly it is time to fight the elimination round. It appears the fighters’ families will be in attendance for this process, and the gym is uncharacteristically filled by cheers and applause.
Jake Heun and Adam Cella are the first men in the cage. Heun is the aggressor early, whiffing with a high kick before hitting a takedown and landing in side control. Cella manages to recover guard, swiveling his hips and securing an arm. Though Heun gamely stands and slams his foe in an effort to escape, Cella maintains control of the arm and hyperextends the elbow to force the tap.
Up next are former Bellator light heavyweight Nik Fekete and onetime Maximum Fighting Championship title contender Zak Cummings. Fekete charges forward with an overhand right and gets clipped by a perfect right hook counter from Cummings, who finishes the job with a series of jackhammer lefts. The official time is not announced, but the stoppage comes less than 10 seconds into the opening frame.
Hawaiian cowboy Eldon Sproat faces former Strikeforce Challengers main-eventer Kevin Casey. Though Jones describes the fight as “awesome,” we are nevertheless presented with a NOS Energy performance highlight (brought to us by NOS, by the way). Casey takes Sproat down, pounds on him, takes the back and locks up a Rickson Gracie Super Lion Killer Special to earn the submission victory.
Scott Rosa says he does 90 percent of his training on his own and currently operates out of a friend’s garage. Despite this, the 6-foot-6 middleweight is 4-1 and owns a win over UFC veteran James Irvin. Rosa steps in the cage against Swedish engineer Tor Troeng, who climbs his taller opponent’s back and strangles him with a rear-naked choke. More garage time is required, apparently.
Georgian Clint Hester takes on Englishman Fraser Opie, and Hester uses a varied attack to earn a one-sided decision over the Brit. The international additions don’t stop there, as the Guam-based Ryan Bigler takes on Bubba McDaniel. After a lackluster first round, Jones offers some words of encouragement to teammate McDaniel, who slams and pounds out Bigler in round two.
Josh Samman and Leo Bercier are up next. The speed difference is immediately clear, as Samman grabs a double-leg and works the body with punches from half-guard. The Floridian takes the mount and rains down Sakuraba-style double-fists, screaming obnoxiously with each blow until the bout is stopped.
Single father Kito Andrews faces undefeated 21-year-old bail bondsman Kelvin Gastelum. Andrews lands a straight right, and we’re treated to another delicious performance highlight with Complex 6, whatever the hell that is. Gastelum is awarded a close decision after two hard rounds. Jimmy Quinlan and Mike Persons do battle next, and Quinlan hits a huge takedown before methodically passing to mount and finishing the bout with ground-and-pound.
One of the show’s most-hyped participants, Uriah Hall, locks horns with 21-year-old Andy Enz. Hall looks one step too fast for his foe, as the former Ring of Combat champion mixes strikes with takedowns beautifully. Hall eventually takes Enz’s back, but the Alaskan survives and escapes to his feet to force a second round. Enz hits a takedown of his own and snatches a brabo choke in round two, only to see Hall escape and earn a hard-fought decision victory.
Hulking Coloradan Gilbert Smith hits a high-impact high-crotch takedown to start his fight with Eric Wahlin, who tries a gogoplata off his back before getting caught in a fight-ending arm-triangle choke. Up next, the Cesar Gracie-trained Nicholas Kohring faces towering Brit Luke Barnatt, swinging for the fences against the larger man but ultimately coming up short in a clear-cut decision.
Another ROC veteran, “South Jersey Strangler” Tim Williams, suffers an early knockdown against Australian Dylan Andrews and drops a razor-thin judges’ verdict, despite putting forth a great effort in the eyes of White, Sonnen and Jones. Collin Hart then dominates Mike Jasper from the get-go, taking the fight to the floor and finishing his man with a rear-naked choke.
The coaches deliberate in the locker rooms over their strategy and decide on their picks. Back in the gym, White explains that the “wild card” aspect of the show will return, with White and the coaches deciding on two losers to return to the mix later in the season based on performance. Sonnen selects Barnatt, Hall, Cummings, Troeng, Quinlan, Casey and Gastelum, while Jones picks Hester, Samman, McDaniel, Smith, Hart, Cella and Andrews.
Jones announces that Smith will square off with Barnatt next week to decide the first man to advance to the quarterfinals. Samman second-guesses his coach’s decision in a confessional, stating that he had his heart set on fighting first.
“I really like Gilbert, but I don’t think he’s ready,” says Samman. “I think that was a decision that was made in haste. Whoever wins the fight keeps control of the pick. We talk about having a clean sweep and beating all their guys, and we can’t do that if we don’t win the first fight.”