Stephen Thompson (Dave Mandel/Sherdog)

Toe-to-Toe: TUF 21 Finale Preview and Predictions

For the second night in a row, the Octagon will touch down in Las Vegas. This rare Sunday evening card, which continues the UFC’s International Fight Week festivities, is a hell of a dessert following the UFC 189 main course the night before.

Headlined by top-10 welterweight Jake Ellenberger and rising star Stephen “Wonderboy” Thompson, The Ultimate Fighter 21 Finale has plenty to look forward to as the UFC puts an end to International Fight Week. In addition to a really fun main event , a competitive season of TUF between the American Top Team and the Blackzilians will come to a close. As an added bonus, this Sunday will feature the UFC debut of female star and former Invicta champion Michelle Waterson, who moves up in weight in order to compete with the best in the world inside the Octagon.

The card will get started at the MGM Grand at 6:30 p.m. ET. The action kicks off on UFC Fight Pass with a single fight before moving on to Fox Sports 1 for the remaining four preliminary fights starting at 7 p.m. ET. You won’t have to turn your dials from there, as the remainder of the card will also take place on Fox Sports 1, with the six-fight main slate set to start at 9 p.m. ET.


Combat Press writers Sal DeRose and Vince Carey break down the action in this edition of Toe-to-Toe.

Welterweight headliner Stephen Thompson has won five of his six UFC outings. That should make him a contender, but he still hasn’t even cracked the UFC’s top 15 in the division. Is Thompson far too overlooked? Will his fight with Jake Ellenberger produce the type of result that puts Thompson on the board?

DeRose: Thompson can be as good as people say he is. He has dynamic striking, and his first foray into the Octagon was proof of that. However, the 32-year-old hasn’t really faced top competition outside of his second fight in the UFC against Matt Brown. That Matt Brown isn’t the same as today’s Matt Brown (his victory over Thompson was the second win on his amazing seven-fight winning that catapulted him into the top five).

Thompson isn’t overlooked, though. He just hasn’t faced the level of competition to validate a top-15 ranking just yet. To be the best, you have to beat the best. Thompson hasn’t beaten the best quite yet. His decision victory over Patrick Cote in his last fight is a step in the right direction, but it isn’t quite there.

Ellenberger represents the final step that could put Thompson in the top 15. People will point out that Ellenberger is 3-4 in his last seven fights, but look at who Ellenberger has fought in that span — the likes of Martin Kampmann, Rory MacDonald, Robbie Lawler and Kelvin Gastelum. If you’re going to lose, those are some pretty good names to lose to, especially considering Lawler and MacDonald fight for the title at UFC 189.

That gauntlet of fights is a nightmare for anybody, even the champion at 170 pounds, so let’s give Ellenberger some credit here. He might not be the same fighter who instilled fear in opponents after he scored a TKO over Jake Shields in New Orleans, but the 30-year-old is still a very experienced fighter who has faced a wide variety of top-notch opponents in the UFC.

That being said, I’ll take Thompson to get the victory here. I wouldn’t be totally surprised to see Ellenberger get a knockout or a submission, but Thompson is on a roll right now. Thompson will enjoy a couple of inches in height and a reach advantage, and he should be able to keep Ellenberger at bay. Since Thompson isn’t exactly known for his grappling prowess, I do suspect Ellenberger will try to land a few takedowns in this fight, but it won’t be enough. Thompson gets a decision, or perhaps we find out just how weak Ellenberger’s chin has become as Thompson scores a knockout.

Carey: As much as I enjoy watching Thompson fight, this fight all depends on which Ellenberger shows up on Sunday. In his early UFC career, Ellenberger completely lived up to his “Juggernaut” nickname and was a force to be reckoned with inside the Octagon. He was an aggressive, headhunting finisher who had no problem going toe-to-toe with serious veterans like Carlos Condit and Diego Sanchez. Then Ellenberger fought the aforementioned MacDonald and, for some reason, couldn’t get anything going in the cage. From that fight on, the Nebraska native has been a mixed bag at best.

Even in Ellenberger’s last fight, a win over the recently released Josh Koscheck, he didn’t quite look like the fighter who had smashed his way into title contention less than two years before. Something’s been a little off with the former contender for a while now, and if he doesn’t figure it out prior to this weekend, then he’s going to be in a ton of trouble against Thompson, a dangerous striker. “Wonderboy” is long and knows how to use his reach with incredible effectiveness. It’s a fighting style that’s ironically similar to the skill set MacDonald applied to keep Ellenberger at bay and start the latter’s free-fall down the rankings.

In order to win this fight and therefore score the biggest victory of his career, Thompson is going to have to use his reach advantage to keep Ellenberger guessing and force “The Juggernaut” to hesitate to commit when getting into exchanges on the feet. That bodes well for Thompson, as only the hyper-aggressive Brown has truly been able to throw him off of his rhythm thus far in his UFC career and Ellenberger has been almost the anti-Brown due to his inability to pull the trigger in recent losses.

This is a huge step up for Thompson, but it may have come at the perfect time. “Wonderboy” has been dominant in his last four fights, whereas Ellenberger has mostly floundered. I wasn’t convinced that Ellenberger was truly back to form after his recent win, either. My colleague suggested that Ellenberger might look to get this fight to the mat, but the veteran is going to have to close some distance in order to do that. He’s had some trouble in that department against the last few strikers he’s fought. Ellenberger is the more well-rounded fighter and definitely has more ways to win this fight, but it seems more likely that Thompson will stick and move on the feet while working his way to a decision.

This event serves as the finale for The Ultimate Fighter’s 21st season, but there’s no traditional tournament final. Instead, the reality series produced one “finals” fight for the season that pits Hayder Hassan against Kamaru Usman. The UFC also booked one additional fight featuring TUF cast members Michael Graves and Vicente Luque. So, who will emerge as the winner in the finals fight between Hassan and Usman, and how much of a long-term impact will that fighter have in the UFC? Also, were there any other fighters featured on the show, beyond these four, that you would have liked to see compete at the finale event?

Carey: From the end of the first fight of the season, Usman and Hassan have been gearing up to fight. I’m actually really intrigued by what’s going to happen when these two finally get to step into the cage. They are two very different fighters with very different styles, but they both have roughly the same amount of experience and were the most dominant fighters on the show in their own way.

It’s not all that unusual to see old-school striker vs. grappler match-ups in the TUF house. But while Usman and Hassan are both a little one-dimensional, they proved that they’re the best at what they do while on the show. Usman is going to use his grappling to look to stifle Hassan’s insane striking output the same way he shut down a pair of Hassan’s Blackzilian teammates, and Hassan is going to look to throw some fisticuffs and put a hurting on Usman on the feet.

Hassan needs to come out of the box quickly in order to win this fight. If the American Top Team standout can put the pressure on early and make Usman fight defensively in the opening moments, then I like his odds of securing a finish. However, any hesitation on Hassan’s part in the opening moments could open the door to allow Usman to close the distance and utilize his control in the wrestling game to start to take away some of Hassan’s power and explosiveness by draining Hassan of some of his energy.

If this was a normal fight, I’d favor the wrestler, Usman. However, with so much emotion and team pride on the line, I have a hard time believing someone as focused and aggressive as Hassan will allow himself to end up on the wrong end of a grinding defeat. I like Hassan by early knockout here to take the prize, but early is the key word. If it gets into the latter half of the fight and Usman has had control, then I’m seriously worried about Hassan having enough pop on his punches to keep the wrestler at bay.

As for the rest of the guys in the house, I feel like it’s pretty obvious that Graves and Luque are the most deserving of the shot they received. Graves has shown a lot of promise since he was able to get his head back on straight following his opening-episode loss to Usman, and he remains one of the more intriguing prospects on the show. Luque, meanwhile, is coming off a loss in what may have been the fight of the season against Hassan and was strongly considered to take Usman’s spot in the finals by his team. A couple of the other guys, like Jason Jackson and Nathan Coy, had their moments, but if only two other guys could end up fighting at the finale, I’m glad that Graves and Luque were the fighters selected.

DeRose: Hassan was originally my pick to be the “winner” of this season of TUF. He has looked great outside of the UFC and continued to do so during the show. I’m picking Hassan to beat Usman based on the potential he displayed before and during the show.

My colleague already mentioned it, but this is a classic fight pitting a grappler (Usman) against a striker (Hassan). The one thing my fellow writer failed to mention is that Hassan will have some great coaching backing him up in this fight, where Hassan will undoubtedly be trying to keep the fight on the feet. The 32-year-old will have to rely on his striking and knockout power, and he will have to keep the pressure on Usman. Grappling works out well on TUF to help sustain a fighter over the course of however many fights they have on the show in such a short span, but it’s different once a fighter gets out of the house and into the Octagon. Hassan has definitely had time to develop a good enough game plan.

As far as long-term success goes for Hassan? Well, at age 32, he has a short amount of time to really make a big impact on the UFC’s welterweight division. Just coming off of TUF, Hassan obviously isn’t at the level of a top-10 fighter. There are a couple of seasons that contain exceptions to this rule, but I have reserved expectations for the most part for fighters coming off of the show because there have been more failures than successes in recent years. It’s also not fair to say that a fighter has little potential or no hope of ever progressing. This simply isn’t the case with Hassan. He has the right factors in place to be successful, considering where he trains and his fan-friendly knockout style. I would like to see him face at least one person in the UFC that wasn’t on his season of TUF before I fully cast judgment on his potential.

Unfortunately, any other fighter I may have wanted to see fight on this card lost on the show. I would have personally loved to see former World Series of Fighting welterweight champion Steve Carl, considering how good he has been outside of the UFC. However, Carl lost both of his fights on the show, so I guess it will be back to the drawing board for him and probably a little bit longer of a wait before we see him actually compete inside the Octagon.

Former Invicta FC atomweight champion Michelle Waterson is set to make her UFC debut on this card, moving up from 105 pounds to the 115-pound strawweight division. Considering her past championship success and unusual popularity for a fighter stepping into the Octagon for the first time, is it safe to call “The Karate Hottie” a future title contender in her new weight class?

DeRose: It’s really hard for me to pick in favor of a fighter who is competing a weight class above where they normally compete. Typically, that means giving up height, reach and strength advantages to someone who is just naturally bigger. It does sometimes work out. For the most part, however, it doesn’t. The concept of fighting a weight class up is usually reserved for The Ultimate Fighter, where a quick succession of fights leads to having to make weight a lot in a short period of time.

Waterson can transcend these typical expectations, though. She was great at atomweight, where she was the Invicta champion, albeit for a short time, and defeated some good fighters up until her recent loss to Herica Tiburcio. Waterson topped recent strawweight title challenger Jessica Penne while both ladies fought in the 105-pound division, and that could lend credence to the idea that Waterson could possibly beat top talent a step up from her ideal weight class.

It all starts with Waterson’s first UFC opponent, Angela Magana. Magana is a good test for Waterson in her venture into the strawweight waters. Magana could receive her walking papers after this fight if she loses again. Magana is on a three-fight skid, including a one-sided loss to Tecia Torres in her last fight. Magana is a name people recognize, considering her antics on TUF and post-TUF, but she isn’t one of the division’s elite.

Waterson should be able to control this fight on the feet and on the ground in order to outwork Magana over three rounds. Furthermore, Waterson’s corner can’t be overlooked. She trains out of Jackson’s MMA and will be very ready for this fight. The most significant thing working against Waterson will be the “Octagon jitters” that have plagued a lot of fighters making their UFC debut, both small and big names. I’ll still take Waterson to win by whatever avenue opens up to her in this fight.

Carey: I, too, usually have serious reservations about a fighter moving up in weight. However, while the size disadvantage will come into play eventually in Waterson’s Octagon career, I don’t think it happens in her debut.

If anyone can overcome the strength and size disadvantages of fighting above their natural weight class, it’s someone like Waterson that has the technical skills to negate those advantages as much as possible. On the mat, “The Karate Hottie” is one of the more entertaining and unorthodox grapplers you’ll see. Her insane flexibility and ability to pull sweeps from out of nowhere make her equal parts fun to watch and dangerous. Things don’t get much easier for opponents on the feet, either. Waterson’s training at the famed Jackson-Winkeljohn camp especially comes into play on the feet, where she’s equal parts technical and creative.

Against Magana, I honestly don’t see Waterson running into too many problems. Whether they stay on the feet or the fight hits the floor, I’d give “The Karate Hottie” the nod. Since Magana isn’t a world-class wrestler or super long on her feet, the size disadvantage likely won’t make much of a difference. Waterson should roll to her first UFC victory on Sunday, but kind of like the scenario that faces Jorge Masvidal later on the card, it will be what happens after Waterson gets a win that will decide her fate as a contender at her new weight. Whether it’s a grinder like Carla Esparza or just a big, long striker like current champ Joanna Jędrzejczyk, Waterson is going to run into a serious test sooner rather than later at 115 pounds. How well she performs then will tell us whether she’s a serious contender or more style than substance at strawweight.

Jorge Masvidal is coming off a controversial split-decision loss to Al Iaquinta. Prior to that, Masvidal was on a three-fight winning streak at lightweight. Can Masvidal pick up the win here and right the ship against Cezar “Mutante” Ferreira at welterweight? If so, can Masvidal march back up the rankings and start contending in a new division?

Carey: I can’t talk about this fight without bringing up the fact that I really don’t understand why Masvidal decided to move up to welterweight at this point in his career. The recent loss he suffered to Iaquinta was considered a robbery by many in the MMA community, and he had previously put together a really strong 5-1 record inside the Octagon. Masvidal was definitely inching toward moving up in the lightweight title scene if he could have rebounded nicely from the decision loss. Alas, he’s decided to take his talent to welterweight, where he may have more power and cardio, but where his improving wrestling skills are sure to be tested.

All of that being said — and even though I think Masvidal would have a brighter future at 155 pounds — I can’t deny that the former lightweight should be more than able to hold his own against many of the guys at welterweight right now. This initial test against Ferreira will show us exactly how well he’ll be able to hang with the middle-of-the-pack fighters in the division. A dominant win for Masvidal would go a long way toward making sure this change in weight is the right decision, but anything less and it’s going to be hard for the American Top Team veteran to make any real statement in the stacked division.

Ferreira is a solid fighter in the right situations, but Masvidal should be too much for him. If “Gamebred” comes to the cage with his “A” game, I have a hard time envisioning how he loses this one. I’ve got Masvidal by stoppage, but I’m not jumping on his welterweight bandwagon until he beats someone who is closer to being ranked.

DeRose: Don’t worry, I considered Masvidal’s fight against Iaquinta a robbery as well. However, Masvidal’s move to welterweight isn’t really all that perplexing. In the lightweight division, the 30-year-old had a long way to go to get to the top. With Rafael dos Anjos as the new champion, there is a whole slew of new challengers, most notably Donald Cerrone and Khabib Nurmagomedov, waiting for their shot. The division probably didn’t seem as wide open as welterweight.

So, I can’t blame Masvidal for the move. Maybe it was for the reason stated above, or maybe it was due to the promise of an easier weight cut. However, with all the wrestlers at welterweight, it will indeed be a harder division for Masvidal to climb. He might be getting more strength and cardio, but now he is facing guys who negate any edge he gains. As will be the case with former Invicta atomweight champion Michelle Waterson in her move to strawweight, Masvidal fighting a step up in weight will prove to be an extremely difficult task.

Masvidal does have a great team behind him at ATT, which should make the move easier. Ferreira, who stands at 4-2 in the UFC with his only losses coming to Sam Alvey and C.B. Dollaway, is a good first fight at welterweight for Masvidal. Ferreira should be a game opponent, but he shouldn’t look to keep this one on the feet. Masvidal, a skilled boxer, will overwhelm him if he decides to play that game.

I expect Masvidal to win this fight. After this, though, who knows? Masvidal certainly has the talent and the skill set to succeed in any division. He had only been getting better at lightweight, and maybe that trend will continue at 170 pounds.

Which fight is the sleeper match-up on this card?

DeRose: I’m going to pick the middleweight contest between Josh Samman and Caio Magalhaes.

Samman is coming off a highlight-reel, head-kick knockout of Eddie Gordon in December. The knockout is still a very vivid memory in my mind and, I’m sure, in the minds of many other people. Samman has built himself up in the UFC with a 2-0 record, and both of his fights have ended early with a knockout.

You can’t count out Magalhaes in this one, no matter how memorable Samman’s knockout may be. Magalhaes has gone on a four-fight winning streak since losing his UFC debut to Buddy Roberts. He has finished his opponent in three of those four victories, and his last two fights have ended in less than a minute with a knockout finish.

These guys will bring it, and it will be wildly entertaining for the audience.

Carey: This is kind of a sleeper card, thanks to UFC 189 stealing all of the attention the night before. However, if I’m picking an undercard fight to watch on Sunday, then it’s the flyweight bout between Willie Gates and Darrell Montague.

In his UFC debut, Gates put on a pretty entertaining fight despite being outmatched by top-five flyweight John Moraga. I’ve been looking forward to seeing him return, and the fact that he’s fighting a tough veteran like Montague, who has a lot on the line, only adds to my excitement.

Montague has gone a disappointing 0-2 inside the Octagon, albeit against really good competition. With walking papers likely in Montague’s future with another loss, I’m expecting a motivated “Mongoose” to give the fans a show in order to try to save his job.

Pair this card with…

Carey: UFC 189. I feel like this is so obvious that it really doesn’t need to be said, but I’m going to do it just in case: If you’re going to spend your Sunday night watching a decent fight card such as this one, you damn sure better be spending your Saturday watching the UFC’s pay-per-view offering. The TUF Finale card has a few fun fights. Between the interesting main event and Waterson’s debut, it’s definitely worth the effort of tuning in, but the lineup for the event one night earlier is simply awesome. Pair these two cards and make it a fight weekend — or watch this card a little later on the DVR if you can’t pull off a doubleheader — but make sure you get to see the pay-per-view on Saturday.

DeRose: If you can’t fly yourself into Las Vegas to see both the UFC 189 card and this TUF Finale, I suggest two days of barbeque. One Fourth of July weekend isn’t enough, so you can totally go ahead and do a second straight weekend in front of the grill. If you haven’t been able to tell by most of my answers to this question in the past, my philosophy is that no card is complete without food. This is a big event weekend for the UFC and there is plenty of MMA packed into the week, so a celebration is in order. Enjoy another weekend of barbeque, perhaps some food you didn’t make the week before or, if you’re like me, some of the food you bought in bulk at Costco that you didn’t end up using on the Fourth of July weekend.

Fight Picks

Fight DeRose’s Pick Carey’s Pick
Main Card (Fox Sports 1, 9 p.m. ET)
WW: Jake Ellenberger vs. Stephen Thompson Thompson Thompson
TUF 21 WW Finals: Hayder Hassan vs. Kamaru Usman Hassan Hassan
WW: Michael Graves vs. Vicente Luque Luque Graves
WW: Cezar “Mutante” Ferreira vs. Jorge Masvidal Masvidal Masvidal
Women’s StrawW: Angela Magana vs. Michelle Waterson Waterson Waterson
BW: Russell Doane vs. Jerrod Sanders Doane Doane
Preliminary Card (Fox Sports 1, 7 p.m. ET)
FlyW: Willie Gates vs. Darrell Montague Gates Gates
MW: Caio Magalhaes vs. Josh Samman Samman Samman
MW: Dan Miller vs. Trevor Smith Miller Miller
FW: Maximo Blanco vs. Mike De La Torre Blanco Blanco
Preliminary Card (UFC Fight Pass, 6:30 p.m. ET)
WW: Dominic Waters vs. George Sullivan Waters Sullivan