This week, the 21st season of “The Ultimate Fighter” heads into the home stretch with the first of four bouts worth 100 points each. The Blackzilians lead 200-100 on the scoreboard, meaning they need only win two of the final four to bring home the $200,000 team prize, while American Top Team must win three.
The final four fights will also see some familiar faces returning to the cage, as a fighter must compete twice during the season in order to be eligible for a spot on the live “TUF 21” finale in Las Vegas on July 12. So far, the only fighter to qualify for the finale is ATT’s Hayder Hassan, who last week won his second fight with a decision win against Felipe Portela.
The Blackzilians are getting a little unorthodox with their training late in the season. First, coach Jason Gochez visits the team at the fighter house for a little resistance training in the backyard swimming pool, working on hand speed and technique by throwing punches underwater. Later, at the Blackzilians’ gym, owner Glenn Robinson uses motion capture software to identify mistakes his fighters are making during sparring. “If there’s something that they do repetitively, I can write an algorithm to pick up on that repetitive motion,” says Robinson. “The goal is to take training centuries ahead of where everyone else is.”
It’s inventive and possibly even helpful to the fighters -- we don’t see enough on screen to really know -- but it will never not be funny to see grown men doing physical activity while covered in ping-pong balls.
With two days left before the next fight, American Top Team’s Dan Lambert and Marcus Silveira meet to discuss their next pick. Right off the bat, “Conan” says that he believes Steve Carl should be the next man in the cage for ATT. The former World Series of Fighting titleholder already fought once this season, and it did not go well: after struggling to make weight, Carl put on a lackluster showing which ended in a second-round guillotine choke loss to Valdir Araujo. Lambert acknowledges that Carl “underperformed” last time due to some mental issues, but feels he’ll do better on his second try.
“I let a lot of pressures creep into my head in the first fight,” says Carl. “Going into this next fight, we’re gonna do this a lot differently. I’m not sitting down. I’m not strategizing. I’m not doing anything. I’m walking into that fight with one thing on my mind, and that’s me.”
ATT is banking on Carl’s scrambling ability and submission game to prevail against one of the other team’s wrestlers, and a wrestler is exactly who the Blackzilians have in mind. Robinson asks coach Tyrone Spong what he thinks about sending Kamaru Usman back into the cage. Spong believes the former NCAA Div. II wrestling champ is mentally ready and good to go. Usman competed in the first fight of the season, defeating Michael Graves via two-round majority decision to capture what would be the first of four straight wins for the Blackzilians. Now, they’re calling upon the Nigeria native to win on ATT’s turf and bring the fights back home.
Meanwhile, the heads of both teams treat their fighters to a little rest and relaxation. Lambert brings ATT out on his boat for a little cruising of Florida’s intracoastal waterway, while Robinson brings the Blackzilians to a tavern for a surprise visit with their families.
The next day, it’s weigh-in time, and Usman checks in at 170.5 pounds. There’s a moment of suspense as Carl is announced as 171.25, but the coaches bust out the towel and Carl disrobes to shed to the extra quarter pound.
“I don’t think he’s half the wrestler that he thinks he is,” Carl tells the camera about Usman. “I’m gonna go out there tomorrow and I’m gonna put him to sleep in the first round.”
In their final session before the fight, coach Ricardo Liborio advises Carl to keep the pressure on Usman at all times, feeling that the veteran can capitalize on takedowns and scrambles to find submission opportunities. Lambert says Carl will be a “neck hunter” in the bout, searching for guillotines and Peruvian neckties.
It’s fight time, and after crawling out of his corner to begin round one, Usman jumps upright and snaps back Carl’s head with a hard, straight jab. Carl backs up to the fence, then catches Usman coming in with a two-piece combination. Usman’s first takedown comes less than a minute into the round, though he only manages to keep the larger man on the ground for 30 seconds. The next time Usman comes shooting in behind another hard jab, Carl puts his back against the cage and widens his base. Carl reverses to try a double-leg of his own, but Usman blocks and then bloodies the ATT fighter’s nose with a couple more solid right hands.
With two minutes left in the round, Usman pins Carl to the cage with an underhook and socks him with short left hands. The fighters are right in front of the ATT corner, and the home team shouts at referee James Warring to let him know that Usman is grabbing the fence behind Carl’s back -- although, when the camera zooms in on Usman’s hand, that doesn’t appear to be the case. Usman soon releases Carl and knocks him backward with a left hand, then slides out of the way when Carl tries to return fire. Usman’s jab continues to find a home, further bloodying Carl’s nose. When Carl shoots for a takedown with 30 seconds left, Usman sprawls on it and forces him to the canvas. It’s a clear-cut round for Usman, who ends the frame on top, dropping ground-and-pound.
Carl starts round two jabbing and keeping the shorter man out of striking range, trying to force Usman to shoot, but he’s not throwing the “punches in bunches” for which his corner is calling. Usman drives in and shoves Carl up against the cage, and again ATT complains about fence-grabbing. While Usman controls the position and stomps at his feet, Carl searches in vain for a guillotine choke. A standing kimura attempt from Carl finally gets him off the fence, but only because Usman tosses him to the ground in order to shake the arm lock. Carl isn’t able to stand up in time, and Usman lands in his guard with three minutes left in the bout.
Usman break through butterfly guard and pushes Carl over to the base of the fence, where the ATT fighter is able to post and stand up. A body-lock takedown brings Carl right back to the canvas, and now Usman starts pouring on the ground-and-pound with punches, elbows and forearm strikes. Carl struggles to get back to his feet, but as soon as he does, Usman whips him straight back down to the ground. Slipping out of a last-ditch armbar attempt, Usman passes to side control and then finishes the fight throwing punches and knees at the turtling Carl. It’s another round for Usman, who should have a decision coming his way. The Blackzilians clearly agree, as their corner loudly chants “let’s go home” even before the verdict is announced.
All three judges score the bout 20-18 for the winner by unanimous decision, Kamaru Usman, who now qualifies for a spot at the finale. Despite going 0-2 in his appearances, Carl is also eligible to fight on July 12.
Usman’s win reclaims home gym advantage and nets 100 points for the Blackzilians, who now lead by a score of 300-100. In order to win the $200,000 team prize, American Top Team must win three straight fights to end the season.