Wednesday, April 22, marked the return of the UFC’s The Ultimate Fighter series. Immediately, one thing was clear: this issn’t your average season of TUF.
Instead of having fighters come in as acting coaches and pick their own teams based upon a group of fighters, two rival gyms compete against each other. In one corner, American Top Team, one of the longest running mainstream gyms that’s had success at the highest levels. Facing off against ATT, is the Blackzilians squad. They’re a younger team in terms of how long they’ve been around, but the camp fields a star-filled roster none the less.
The figureheads are Dan Lambert of American Top Team and Glenn Robinson of the Blackzilians. The two men share a checkered past and it’s clear that they have no interest in being cordial. Outside of the two owners not liking each other, it’s clear the two teams won’t be getting along in the fighter’s house either. The gyms are in close proximity to each other and are always competing for rights of being called the top gym in Florida.
Among the differences in this season is a “points system.” The first four fights will be worth 25 points, the second four fights worth 50 points and the final four worth 100 points. The team with the most points at the end of the season will be declared the winner. The fighters won’t be training in a UFC gym this time around either. The competitors will train in the friendly confines of their own gym and the weekly fights will be held at whichever gym holds the “home-gym advantage.”
Perhaps the biggest change for the fighters is the fact they won’t know who they’re facing until the day of the weigh-ins. The fighters could also end up competing multiple times or not at all. However, a fighter must compete at least twice to earn a spot on the finale.
This season represents the UFC’s attempt to change the format of its long-running reality show, and the changes should provide fans with a fresh look.
In the first fight of the season, American Top Team’s Michael Graves faced off against the Blackzilians’ Kamaru Usman. Graves classifies himself as having a wrestling base, but says he’s a well-rounded fighter. He brings a 4-0 record into the contest with Usman. The Blackzilians’ fighter is an NCAA Division II wrestling champion and spent some time at the Olympic Training Center as well. His record stands at 5-1, and he was considered the top welterweight prospect on Bloody Elbow’s 2015 Scouting Report.
The first round started with Usman getting an early takedown off a caught kick from Graves. Graves fought to his feet and hit a nice switch on Usman, but he still couldn’t get the powerful wrestler off him. Graves finally managed to shrug Usman off and hit a front kick to the face of the Blackzilian fighter. Usman secured another takedown, but wasn’t doing much outside of holding Graves against the fence. Graves again made it up to his feet and moved toward the center of the cage. Toward the end of the round, Usman finally managed to mix in some nice punches in with his takedown. Graves already had a cut and some swelling beneath his right eye. Graves appeared to be the more active fighter in terms of striking output, but Usman’s takedowns likely secured him the first round.
Graves came out in the second looking to land hard shots, but he was met with some stiff punches from Usman. The Blackzilians’ fighter pushed Graves against the fence once more, but couldn’t land any meaningful damage to his American Top Team foe. Graves was really impressive in his ability to stuff the takedowns of Usman and avoid being put on the mat for extended periods of time. However, Graves was clearly holding back on his combinations for fear of Usman shooting under them. It mattered little, as Usman took Graves to the mat and took his back for a moment. Graves managed to wiggle out and reverse an Usman takedown to take the back of his foe. Usman did a good job of hand-fighting with Graves to prevent the rear-naked choke from being locked in. With 30 seconds left in the round, Usman managed to shuck Graves off him, landing in guard in the process. The round ended with Usman on top, working some ground-and-pound to close out the second stanza.
Both teams seemed to think an overtime round was in the cards. However, the judges ddidn’t agree. Two judges scored the bout 20-18 for Usman, while one judge scored it as a 19-19 draw. The Blackzilians earn 25 points and retain the home-gym advantage.