TUF 8 Finalists Put Friendship Aside

By Chris Yucus Dec 12, 2008
Business is business, and neither Efrain Escudero nor Phillipe Nover will let their friendship stand in the way of their promising mixed martial arts careers.

The two undefeated lightweights will leave their regard for one another at the cage door when they step inside the Octagon at “The Ultimate Fighter 8” Finale this Saturday at the Palms Casino Resort in Las Vegas. They will face off to determine the next lightweight winner from the Spike TV reality series.

Nover (5-0-1) admits the two fighters shared a lot together, including a bedroom, while the show was taped.

“We cooked together, cleaned together, talked about girlfriends, our home life,” Nover says. “It’s pretty crazy that we have to fight each other. We got along really well, and I respect him.”

The experience of fighting a friend will be unlike anything Nover has previously faced. The challenges it presents are many.

“In my previous fights, I totally disregarded what the person was like or what their personality was like or anything they did,” he says. “If I fought someone, I really didn’t know them. Knowing that Efrain is a nice guy just kind of makes it more difficult to fight, mentally. I’m going to have to put all the friend emotions behind me and just come out and fight and just try to crush him.”

While working their way through the show’s 16-man lightweight tournament, the teammates relished the tutelage of their coach, UFC interim heavyweight champion Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira, and his assistants, who included middleweight king Anderson Silva. Nover and Escudero appreciated Nogueira’s hands-on approach.

“He outweighed me by almost a hundred pounds, but he still rolled with me and worked with me,” Escudero says. “I don’t expect to beat Nogueira, but just me getting to roll with him gives me a boost of confidence.”

Photo by Sherdog.com

"Minotauro" had a big
influence on both finalists.
Nover felt fortunate Nogueira -- and not former titleholder Frank Mir -- selected him when teams were chosen.

“Both coaches were great coaches, but Nogueira was a lot better,” he says. “He was more involved with the team, and he did more than he actually needed to do. To share a mat with Anderson [Silva], and [to have] ‘Nog’ right there, you learn so much with these guys. All I did was take notes the whole time. They were into coaching; that’s what they wanted to do. They wanted to coach us. They wanted to make us better people.”

Since the show wrapped, the lightweight finalists have kept busy training for the finale. Escudero (10-0) trains with UFC veteran Drew Fickett at Southwest MMA in Arizona, where he has focused on improving his boxing. Nover -- who recently received his Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt from Alexander “Soca” Freitas -- now trains full-time at Team Insight in New York; he recently quit his job as an emergency room nurse to concentrate on his MMA career.

The two blue-chip prospects respect each other’s abilities.

“I respect him in all aspects of the sport,” Escudero says, “but there are points in time where everybody makes mistakes, and I’m planning on countering on his mistakes.”

Nover mirrors Escudero’s assessment.

“He’s well-rounded,” Nover says, “but he does have some flaws I’m hoping to capitalize on.”

The 22-year-old Mexican-born Escudero submitted Ido Pariente, Shane Nelson and the controversial Junie Allen Browning to reach the finale. He admits eliminating Browning from the competition in the semi-finals was particularly satisfying.

“I wanted to fight him since day one because Junie was like, ‘I’m from Kentucky. We come from a poor family’ … blah, blah, blah,” Escudero says. “My dad passed away two weeks before I left for the show. I come from Mexico. My parents were field workers. I mean you’re telling me you had a rougher life than I did? But I’m not around telling the whole world that ‘Oh, my family sucked’ and all this. Keep it to yourself; you’re in there to do a job, and your job is to fight.”

Escudero dedicated his performance on the show to the memory of his late father, Oscar, a professional boxer in his youth.

“He was always supporting me in everything I did,” Escudero says. “Right before he passed away, he sat down with me and told me, ‘I know that you’re chances of getting on the show are very high, so if anything were to happen I want you to leave for the show. I want you to go out there and perform your best.’ He made me promise him that every time I would go out there, I would put everything on the line, I would not leave that cage saying, ‘I could have done this, or I could have done that.’ You go out there, and you fight a war and let the fight take care of itself.”

Before a single episode of season eight aired, UFC President Dana White went public with his belief that he had found a lightweight version of Silva. Nover was the man about whom he was speaking. He proved dominant in three Octagon appearances, as he scored quick submission victories over Joe Duarte, Dave Kaplan and George Roop.

Escudero does not feel slighted by the hype surrounding Nover.

“I like being the quiet one,” he says. “I like being the underdog.”

During one episode, White raised the ante on Nover, as he drew favorable comparisons between the 24-year-old Brooklyn, N.Y., native and UFC welterweight champion Georges St. Pierre. Nover sees White’s praise as a double-edged sword.

“Those are some big words to say. I’m happy I impressed the right person,” Nover says. “I guess it does put pressure on me, but it doesn’t really change my game plan. I’m still going to fight hard, and I’m still going to train as hard as I can. Hopefully, I can fill those shoes someday, but I’m still a small fish in this ocean, and there are some big sharks out there that want to crush me.”
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