As the 15th installment of “The Ultimate Fighter” comes to a close, I feel comfortable saying the latest group of men to enter the reality show house should be regarded as one of the most talented the series has introduced to Ultimate Fighting Championship audiences.
Now that the regular season has wrapped, I expect the statement to hold true during the live finale on Friday at the Palms Casino Resort in Las Vegas. Though coaches Urijah Faber and Dominick Cruz will not meet as expected at UFC 148 due to the latter suffering a torn knee ligament, there should be no shortage of action between their protégés.
Here are five reasons to care about “The Ultimate Fighter 15” Finale prelims:
Experience vs. Enthusiasm
The former jiu-jitsu coach for the renowned Chute Boxe camp in Curitiba, Brazil, Cristiano Marcello entered Season 15 of “The Ultimate Fighter” as one of the show’s most experienced competitors. After advancing in his qualifier, however, the submission ace ran into a Justin Lawrence left hook in the quarterfinals. Still somewhat robotic with his standup, Marcello is at his best when he drags his opponents into proverbial deep waters and drowns them with his jiu-jitsu game.
By contrast, Sam Sicilia does not appear to possess the technical proficiency of many of his castmates. Instead, he gets by using his heavy hands and wrestling to apply pressure to his foes, forcing scrambles and beating his opponents by landing hard shots during the transitional opportunities he creates.
Will the Brazilian be able to absorb Sicilia’s flurries and tie him up on the floor, or will the Washingtonian keep Marcello at bay in order to use his considerable punching power?
It really looked like James Vick had nothing for Daron Cruickshank in the opening moments of their preliminary-round collision. The Team Faber representative was light on his feet, moving in and out against his taller opponent and making him look awkward by landing consistently with kicks to the body.
Then Cruickshank made what we in the business call a “boo-boo.” He put his head down and shot for a takedown with no setup, catching one of Vick’s knees with his face. He was knocked cold instantly.
Cruickshank now has a chance to redeem himself on the big stage, as the 26-year-old takes on brawler Chris Tickle -- the man who put Cruickshank’s unmentionables in jeopardy by lobbing a bottle of water at his groin while he was sleeping. Will Cruickshank’s technical superiority in the standup guide him to victory, or will the hard-hitting Tickle walk through Cruickshank’s kicks and greet him with some good old fashioned blunt force trauma?
Saunders Gets Jury Duty
As the last overall pick of the season, Chris Saunders took most by surprise when he edged Sicilia in a hard-fought split decision to advance to the quarterfinals. Saunders is certainly not your classically trained technician, but this man comes to fight each time he steps in the cage.
By contrast, Myles Jury admitted his preliminary split decision defeat to eventual finalist Al Iaquinta was a new experience for him, as the two-time “Ultimate Fighter” veteran has finished all nine of his professionally sanctioned opponents in the first round. A naturally talented and coordinated combatant, Jury’s technical style should present fans with yet another intriguing example of the boxer-versus-puncher dynamic on this card.
Can Jury use the experience and knowledge gained from his war with Iaquinta to win the day, or will Saunders rough him up on the inside and make it a war of attrition?
Ordinary or Exceptional?
Joe Proctor and Jeremy Larsen may not be the most-hyped members of the season, but their talents should not be overlooked.
Admittedly a jiu-jitsu player first, Proctor put his submission skills to good use in the Round of 16, dragging the hard-punching Tickle to the canvas and finishing him with a rear-naked choke. That trick would not prove repeatable in the quarterfinals, however, as Proctor could not consistently close the distance on the longer Vick. Nevertheless, the Massachusetts native fought gamely in defeat, showing off some solid standup skills despite Vick receiving the unanimous nod from the judges.
Likewise, Larsen fought for all he was worth in going the distance with eventual finalist Mike Chiesa in the competition’s preliminary round. However, he was unable to stop the Washingtonian’s relentless pressure and wrestling attack in his unanimous decision loss. Once again the underdog in his upcoming collision with Proctor, Larsen will control his own destiny when the bright lights illuminate the Palms.
Can Cruz’s eighth and final pick show off some improved takedown defense and turn his upcoming shot at redemption into a firefight, or will Proctor’s measured approach in the standup allow him to close the gap and take the fight to the floor, where he can utilize his jiu-jitsu game to control and possibly submit his athletic foe?
Royal Welcome for ‘El Goyito’
Outside of “The Ultimate Fighter 15” house, fans should look forward to a bantamweight showdown between John Albert and Erik Perez.
Albert has seen mixed results in his UFC career thus far but has brought the hotness in both victory and defeat. After stunning Dustin Pague with a technical knockout in just 69 seconds in the Season 14 finale, the 25-year-old started strong against veteran Ivan Menjivar on Feb. 15, only to be choked out by “The Pride of El Salvador” at UFC on Fuel TV 1.
Just as “Prince” has shown a willingness to put it all on the line in search of a finish, so, too, has “El Goyito” racked up the stoppages during his 14-fight pro career. The 22-year-old possesses excellent reflexes and has shown a well-rounded skill set in finishing eight of his 10 career victims. Entering the Octagon on a five-fight winning streak, can the Jackson’s Mixed Martial Arts representative make a name for himself by dispatching Albert?