The end of “The Ultimate Fighter” Season 21 is here, and the battle between American Top Team and the Blackzilians has come down to one final fight. Oh, and then one more fight at the live finale on Sunday. Also, probably some more fights on future UFC undercards. But, for now, this is it.
Last week, ATT’s Michael Graves staged a come-from-behind upset of Jason Jackson to level the score at 300 points apiece. Now, ATT is in position to complete its own dramatic comeback if they can secure a third straight win, for which they’ll get to try in their own gym. The newly created “TUF” point system has truly worked out in ATT’s favor, since the Blackzilians would have sealed the season weeks ago were it judged strictly by wins and losses.
Dana White opens the episode telling the camera that this has been “one of the most exciting seasons ever,” a blurry gym behind him as always. These recaps have largely ignored the UFC president’s talking head segments since, frankly, they offer little insight. Removed from the action in South Florida, White’s contributions have mainly consisted of scoreboard updates, surface observations about the competitors, and explaining why a fight did or did not suck.
Two days before the final bout, Blackzilians owner Glenn Robinson gathers his squad in the gym for a motivational speech. Last week’s aggressive, coach-in-a-football movie approach didn’t work out, so now Robinson takes a slightly gentler tone.
“You know what they’re gonna say about us? ‘They started strong and finished weak,’” says Robinson. “Is that what you guys want to be known as? Because that’s what they’re gonna say about you guys. I don’t wanna hear that. We’re a better team.”
Robinson and his coaches have already selected their last fighter, the “one man who asked for this fight over and over,” Vicente Luque. The 23-year-old Brazilian earned 50 points for the Blackzilians earlier in the season by submitting veteran Nathan Coy with a third-round anaconda choke. Luque vows to get another win for his team regardless of who ATT sends out, “whether it’s Hayder, Marcelo Alfaya or Superman.”
American Top Team’s selection process is equally brief, as Dan Lambert has only to ask Hayder Hassan if he’s ready to fight again. Hassan has been the lone standout on the ATT side, having knocked out Andrews Nakahara in week five to halt his team’s initial losing streak before returning three fights later to outpoint Felipe Portela. Now, the 32-year-old “Hulk” will become the only man this season to fight for a third time.
“Hayder is the reason we’re still here,” Lambert says. “He’s been the horse we’ve been riding this whole tournament, and we’re gonna ride him to the end.”
Moving right along, it’s time for the official weigh-in, where Luque checks in at 170.25 pounds and Hassan tips the scales at an even 171. Lambert and Hassan agree that the Blackzilians have done well by selecting Luque, whom Lambert says shocked the entire ATT coaching staff with his performance against Coy. Likewise, Robinson and Luque expect an “amazing fight” thanks to both men’s aggressiveness and standup accumen.
“I think our styles match each other,” says Luque. “We’re both strikers, and exciting strikers, but he hasn’t trained with guys as hard as I train, so I know I’m gonna beat him.”
Blackzilians team captain Kamaru Usman believes Luque’s more technical boxing will prevail against Hassan’s powerful slugging. Hassan feels there are holes to be exploited in Luque’s game, while ATT head coach Ricardo Liborio warns that the well-rounded Blackzilian is not to be underestimated. UFC welterweight champ Robbie Lawler even chimes in, offering teammate Hassan some very Lawlerly advice.
“I just tell him, ‘Whenever you’re in range, let your hands fly,’” says Lawler. “Take the fight to guys, and go out there and knock people out.”
It’s fight time, and referee Jorge Alonso is back in the cage to officiate, apparently having survived Glenn Robinson’s temper tantrum after last week’s fight. Round one opens with Hassan sticking some clean jabs in the face of Luque, who counters with outside leg kicks. A left hook from Luque finds its mark, then a push kick sends Hassan backward toward the fence. Hassan keeps jabbing, reddening Luque’s grill with stiff, straight punches, but the Brazilian is unfazed and begins scoring with uppercuts. Another hard jab from Hassan slows the progress of Luque, who goes back to leg-kicking midway through the round.
Inside the two-minute mark, Luque shoots and hits an easy takedown. Hassan scoots backward to the fence and stands, but Luque picks an ankle to ground him again. Standing back up, Hassan uses an underhook to turn Luque toward the cage and then circle out. “Hayder” chants fill the ATT gym, quickly drowned out by shouts of “Vicente” from the visitors. Hassan tries to press the action in the closing seconds, but Luque’s power strikes, takedowns and forward movement should combine to swing the close round in the Brazilian’s favor.
Between rounds, the ATT corner tells Hassan to double up on his jab, which has been his most effective weapon thus far. Blackzilians coach Tyrone Spong takes a more direct approach, slapping Luque across the face and telling him to “punch straight.”
“Hayder’s getting tired,” Lambert notes as round two begins, his fighter’s footing looking less sure as Luque keeps him on the end of long punches. Hassan is still jabbing, but the straight shots are now mixed in between wild overhand punches which mainly touch air. Nonetheless, the jabs are doing their job, bloodying Luque’s nose and keeping the longer man just out of range. An inside thigh kick clips Hassan on the cup, but he catches Luque with a straight counter and wants to fight on.
Luque’s offense has dropped of significantly this round, allowing the tired Hassan to jab his way back into the fight. Finally, with 10 seconds remaining, Luque shoots for a takedown. This time, Hassan backs up against the cage and stays standing until the horn sounds, and now the fight looks to be knotted at one frame each.
The fight goes to round three, which begins with more long, stiff left hands from Hassan. This time, Luque doesn’t wait long to drop levels and try for a takedown. Hassan hits the mat, rolls backwards and stands, but he’s held against the cage by Luque once he gets back to his feet. Heeding advice from Lawler, Hassan pushes down on Luque’s head to separate and circles off the fence. Hassan sticks a couple more jabs, draws a deep breath and kicks at Luque’s lead leg. The Brazilian just can’t navigate through Hassan’s straight punches, though he does manage to snuff out a takedown attempt.
With two minutes to go, Hassan begins to show heavy fatigue, dropping his hands to his waist after punches and succumbing to a double-leg shot on the fence. Luque isn’t able to do anything with the takedown and only clings to his opponent’s legs for 30 seconds or so before Hassan is able to stand. The final minute sees Hassan as the more aggressive and accurate striker, and he ends the fight by stopping a Luque single-leg attempt. Both teams celebrate at the final horn, but round and the fight should go to Hassan.
The judges score the bout 29-28 Hassan, 29-28 Luque, and 29-28 for the winner by split decision, Hayder Hassan. Despite winning only five of the season’s 12 bouts, American Top Team has prevailed by a score of 400-300. The Coconut Creek gym earns the team prize of $200,000, which Lambert says will be donated to the Wounded Warriors Project.
Later, the owners, coaches and teams assemble in the ATT gym to find out which two men will square off at the finale in Las Vegas for the $300,000 prize. The only qualifier is that a fighter must have competed twice during the season, meaning that ATT can choose between Hassan, Michael Graves and Nathan Coy, while the Blackzilians have the options of Luque, Usman, Jason Jackson and Valdir Araujo.
“I’d put Hayder up against Godzilla right now,” says Lambert. Indeed, ATT opts to go with the man who almost single-handedly carried their team to victory.
The Blackzilians have a tougher debate: multiple coaches suggest Luque, while Rashad Evans pushes for Usman, the only fighter on the team to win two bouts. Ultimately, they decide to send the wrestler up against Hassan.
So, there it is: American Top Team’s Hayder Hassan and the Blackzilians’ Kamaru Usman will square off this Sunday at “The Utimate Fighter 21” Finale in Las Vegas.