It’s time for another season of “The Ultimate Fighter,” but this edition of Ultimate Fighting Championship’s flagship reality show comes with a few differences.
Season 21 marks the first American edition of “TUF” to be filmed outside the UFC home base of Las Vegas. This time around, the teams are preselected: rival South Florida gyms American Top Team and Blackzilians each will send eight welterweights to the show. The 16 fighters will live together in a Miami-area house, but unlike past editions of “TUF,” contestants will get to train at their home gyms with their own coaches.
For the first time, a point system will be in play. During the first 12 fights of the season, a fighter can compete up to three times, with the goal being to earn as many points as possible. Wins in the first four fights are worth 25 points, wins in fights five through eight are worth 50 points, and wins in the final four fights are worth 100 points. The fighter with the most points after 12 fights wins $200,000, while the season’s winning fighter will take home $300,000.
Fighters will not know who they are competing against until the weigh-ins, and the winner of each fight earns home-gym advantage for his team in the next bout. A fighter must compete twice during the regular season in order to be eligible for a spot at the “TUF 21” finale on July 12.
“The first 12 fights, a guy can fight three times, or a guy can not fight at all,” says UFC President Dana White. “There’s a lot of strategy involved in this season.”
Episode one begins with American Top Team owner Dan Lambert and Blackzilians owner Glenn Robinson giving some history on their teams and the bad blood between them. Based in Coconut Creek, Fla., with affiliates throughout the U.S., the long-standing ATT was founded in 2001 by Lambert and former Brazilian Top Team member Ricardo Liborio. In 2011, manager Robinson assembled the Blackzilians at Jaco Hybrid Training Center in nearby Boca Raton, taking with him longtime ATT fighters Gesias Cavalcante, Jorge Santiago, Danillo Villefort and Yuri Villefort.
The way Lambert sees it, Robinson bought his team rather than developing it. Robinson contends that he was simply trying to help Santiago, with whom he had become friendly while taking muay Thai classes at ATT, and that the team was founded after unspecified incident led Lambert to ban Robinson from the gym.
“The next thing that happened was Danillo, Yuri, ‘JZ’ and Jorge told me that they quit American Top Team,” says Robinson. “Simultaneously, I became friendly with Rashad Evans... Anthony Johnson soon came after him, as well as others, and eventually, the Blackzilians were born.”
American Top Team’s squad will consist of Marcelo Alfaya (16-7, 1 NC), Steve Carl (21-4), Nathan Coy (14-5), Michael Graves (4-0), Hayder Hassan (6-1), Sabah Homasi (8-4), Uros Jurisic (4-0) and Steve Montgomery (8-2).
Team Blackzilians will feature Valdir Araujo (14-5), Carrington Banks (3-0), Luiz Firmino (18-6), Jason Jackson (4-2), Vicente Luque (7-4-1), Andrews Nakahara (4-2-2), Felipe Portela (8-2) and Kamaru Usman (5-1).
The fighters arrive at their palatial new home via boat, and the teams greet one another with what Montgomery describes as “a little bit of awkwardness, tension [and] competitiveness.” Carl notes that the Blackzilians’ lineup includes a few upsized lightweights who could have trouble competing against the larger ATT members.
White arrives at the compound to give his customary motivational speech, telling the fighters to “get in there and put on a f--king show.” The UFC boss flips a coin to decide where the first fight will take place, and home-gym advantage goes to the Blackzilians.
The squads begin their training five days out from the first fight of the season. Robinson has yet to decide whether Blackzilians should “go with a heavy hitter or go more wrestler,” but he plans to make a decision the following day after practice. Meanwhile, one of the Blackzilians has been keeping a close eye on the competition.
“I have an idea of who I think ATT’s gonna put out,” says Usman. “Watching how they carry themselves, how they eat, I was almost confident that Michael Graves was going to be their first pick -- and then Nathan Coy started to emerge.”
Coy tells the camera that he would fight 12 times in a row to help ATT win, but as it turns out, Usman’s first instinct was correct. ATT head coach Liborio tells his fighters that Graves will be the first man to represent the gym.
“We want to get this show back on our turf and have the next fight be at our gym, so we went with who we think is our top guy right now,” Lambert says of Graves. “He’s a young kid but he’s got all the confidence in the world.”
The Blackzilians coaching staff -- which includes former UFC champ and “TUF 2” winner Evans -- meets to select their first fighter. While consideration is given to the veteran Firmino, they ultimately decide to ask Usman whether he is comfortable fighting so quickly. Usman accepts, to the delight of Robinson, who believes “The Nigerian Nightmare” is well-rounded enough to pose a problem for any fighter ATT sends against him.
After the picks are revealed at weigh-ins, Lambert expresses some surprise that Blackzilians went with Usman over the more experienced Firmino. Graves and Usman both check in at an even 170 pounds, and soon it’s time for the first bout to get underway.
Usman puts Graves on the ground with a takedown after only 15 seconds, but Graves hits the switch, works back to his feet and pops Usman with a front kick to the face. Former Olympic wrestling hopeful Usman wants the fight on the floor, and he gets Graves back down with ease. Again, Graves is able to stand and disengage from Usman’s fence clinch. Usman reddens Graves’ right eye with a few left hooks before once again wrapping up the ATT fighter against the cage.
Between rounds, Liborio tells Graves that Usman will continue to shoot for takedowns, and that when he does, Graves needs to make him pay.
Graves shuts down a double-leg attempt from Usman but eats a wide left hand behind it and then gets pushed against the fence. Usman delivers a few knees to the body before Graves is able to escape. When they meet back in the center of the cage, Usman changes levels to hit a single-leg takedown. Graves stands quickly and winds up with his back to the fence again. After repeating the sequence again, Graves escapes from the clinch and circles back to the middle. Usman fakes a shot to deliver another hard left hand up top, then drives on a double and brings Graves down once more. Graves stands and peels away Usman’s hands to avoid having his back taken.
Usman fails on his next shot and winds up stumbling to the ground, where Graves leaps on his back and sinks in one hook. As Usman stands, Graves gets his second hook in place and begins hunting for a rear-naked choke. Usman puts a hand on the ground and, with Graves riding high, explodes out the back door. Now in top position, Usman postures up in Graves’ half guard to deliver a few solid elbows to the face and knees to the body in the closing seconds.
Both corners think the fight will be ruled a draw, necessitating a decisive third round, but after the scorecards are tabulated, there is a verdict. One judge scores the bout a draw at 19-19, but the remaining two judges score it 20-18 for the winner by majority decision, Kamaru Usman.
After one fight, the Blackzilians lead by a score of 25-0 and will retain home-gym advantage for next week’s bout.