The UFC has become “The Ultimate Ebb and Flow Champion,” in terms of scheduling events. After a mind-numbing five events in July, the promotion only put on seven shows in August, September and October combined, followed by a typical four-fight November. After a two-week break, four shows are slated over a nine-day stretch, compressing a whole month of events into less than a week and a half. The second of those shows falls into a rare time slot this Friday night when The Ultimate Fighter 22 Finale airs live from the Chelsea at the Cosmopolitan in Las Vegas.
The TUF 22 Finale features a much-anticipated featherweight match-up between veterans Frankie “The Answer” Edgar and Chad “Money” Mendes, who face off for a shot at the title that should be unified on Saturday night at UFC 194.
Longtime lightweight champ Edgar made the drop to 145 pounds in early 2013 and has been on a roll ever since. He lost his divisional debut to current champ José Aldo, but took out the likes of Charles Oliveira, B.J. Penn, Cub Swanson and Urijah Faber to get back to the top of the division.
Mendes has had many shots at the UFC featherweight strap. In fact, the only three losses on his record are two during title shots against Aldo and one against Conor McGregor for the interim belt in July. He has decisively beat every other opponent he has faced at the professional level, but he can’t seem to get his hands on the title.
On Friday night, one of these men will emerge the victor. While they are by no means looking past each other, this fight is the next step toward another title shot for each.
This night also serves as a platform to crown the next TUF champion. The four semifinalists — Julian Erosa, Saul Rogers, Marcin Wrzosek and Artem Lobov — were by no means odds-on favorites to win it all, but two of them will face off for a six-figure contract in Las Vegas.
Other highlight fights on the card include longtime veterans Joe Lauzon and Even Dunham facing off for what is sure to be an exciting match-up, Tony Ferguson finally getting a crack at a real top-10 opponent as Edson Barboza steps back into action as an injury replacement, and a battle of the old guard versus the new breed will ensue when Mike Pierce takes on Ryan LaFlare.
Combat Press writers Chris Huntemann and Dan Kuhl review the event in this edition of Toe-to-Toe.
Chad Mendes and Frankie Edgar provide the headliner for this card. The winner is almost certainly a no-brainer for the next featherweight title shot, but both fighters have fallen short in previous featherweight title bids. What’s the most ideal outcome here for the UFC and fight fans?
Huntemann: Well, for the UFC, the most ideal outcome is for Conor McGregor to be handed the featherweight title and then featured on every single, solitary piece of UFC memorabilia, programming and… Wait, sorry, wrong fight. It’s just hard to tell sometimes that other fighters are being featured this week.
Anyway, the ideal situation is for the UFC to promote a fresh match-up for fans. We’ve already seen José Aldo fight Edgar. We’ve already seen Aldo fight Mendes, twice. We’ve already seen McGregor fight Mendes. So what would be the ideal match-up? Well, based on the process of elimination, UFC President Dana White’s perfect fantasy would come true if McGregor was to dethrone Aldo for the undisputed featherweight title. The Irishman would then have a fresh match-up waiting for him if Edgar defeats Mendes.
The odds for Edgar/Mendes are razor-close, with Edgar currently a slight favorite. The fight is about as close as you can get. Both guys are excellent wrestlers. They are tough as nails, too. However, I think the aforementioned McGregor exposed the weaknesses of Mendes in their bout earlier this year. Mendes has struggled when matched up with a prolific striker. Lost among Edgar’s toughness and ground skills is that he has become a much better striker.
Mendes has had an impressive run at the top of the featherweight division, but that run is on the downswing. Edgar seems hellbent on getting another title shot, and he will finish Mendes in the later rounds to get it.
Kuhl: I agree with my colleague, but might even take it a step further. The Team Alpha Male vs. McGregor saga has grown a bit stale and is in need of a break. The ideal outcome for the promoter would be wins for Edgar and the interim champ.
As for this particular fight, it really is a toss-up. Edgar and Mendes are both solid pretty much everywhere, but Edgar is finally gaining some traction against the lighter, faster featherweights. Let’s not forget that the one loss he’s had at 145 pounds was to the real champ, Aldo, in Edgar’s divisional debut. He’s beat everyone else, including Team Alpha Male patriarch Urijah Faber. Even as an 18-fight veteran of the Octagon, Edgar keeps getting better. His footwork is quicker, his striking has gained accuracy, and he even pulled out a couple back-to-back finishes, which he never pulled off as a UFC lightweight.
Mendes, on the other hand, has not had an issue finishing UFC opponents. In fact, he was the first person to knock out Clay Guida, Cody McKenzie and Darren Elkins. He’s always been what Edgar is striving to be in this lighter division. The problem for Mendes is that his chin has been a weakness on two very important occasions, against McGregor and Aldo, and Edgar doesn’t get stopped, ever.
Both men will come out strong, as usual, but Edgar will use his experience, his recent uptick in striking skills and his taste for gold as a combination for success. Edgar will win a hard-fought unanimous decision. He may have lost some luster as a lightweight, but his second coming is gunning for that title shot once again, regardless of who wins the unification match.
This is The Ultimate Fighter Finale, so the UFC is poised to crown another TUF champ. Lightweights Saul Rogers, Marcin Wrzosek, Artem Lobov and Julian Erosa remain in contention as of the semifinals. Which two men will advance to the live finale fight, and who emerges as the best man from this season of the reality series?
Kuhl: The 22nd incarnation of TUF has been a tough one to watch (pun intended). The McGregor bullhorn act gets old, so it’s been interesting to see Faber use the laid-back surfer-dude persona to disarm the over-the-top act the Irishman brings to the table, but there are no contenders on the show that look like they could make long-term waves in the promotion.
At the beginning of the season, it was tough to make predictions. Two of the semifinalists, Rogers and Wrzosek, seemed like reasonable picks. Lobov, one of McGregor’s training partners, actually lost his bid to get into the house, but slid in as an injury replacement. His 11-10-1-1 career prior to TUF never seemed like anything too dazzling. Erosa, while having a pretty stellar pre-TUF career, did not seem like he would have made it as far as he did. Lobov finished a worn-out Chris Gruetzemacher, but that will not be the case with Erosa. The American will use his range to finish the Russian and move on to the finals.
In the other semifinal bout, I have to go with Rogers. Wrzosek is a very game fighter and a bit more well rounded, but Rogers has the grit to go with his solid ground game, which will allow him to neutralize the Polish fighter on his feet, get the action to the ground and pull off a win to get into the finals.
I have Erosa meeting Rogers at the TUF 22 Finale. If that happens, Erosa will maintain distance, stuff takedowns, rack up points from the outside and take a unanimous decision to become the next TUF champ.
Huntemann: Am I allowed to pick names out of a hat? Because honestly, I have not watched one second of this season. Not. One. Second. I know that breaks Dana White’s heart, since he explicitly convinced McGregor to be a coach for this season in a desperate bid to boost ratings.
You know what? I’m veering off track. I’m going to defer to my esteemed colleague and his familiarity with this season. If he thinks Erosa and Rogers will meet for the right to have a six-figure contract with the UFC — which they will likely both get anyway, since the UFC makes a bad habit of signing fighters who were previously eliminated from the current season — who am I to argue?
It’s really a moot point in the long run. It’s likely that Erosa and Rogers will not find themselves with the UFC for too long. A bloated roster means fighters like these are often among the first to be released. Aside from the recent season that crowned the UFC’s first women’s strawweight champion, TUF hasn’t produced any noteworthy fighters in recent memory.
Joe Lauzon and Evan Dunham are longtime UFC journeymen. Both have been in high-profile fights, but neither has ever fought for a title. Neither man is in the top 15 of the lightweight rankings, and they combine for a total UFC record of 21-13, but both have several “of the Night” accolades and can be exciting to watch. Will a win put either of them in any sort of relevant position, or is it too little, too late for both fighters?
Huntemann: Lauzon isn’t in the top 15 in UFC’s lightweight rankings? Hold on a second while I run to the UFC’s website to check… Well, I’ll be damned. You would think that a guy with the most post-fight bonuses in the UFC would be among the top 15. Upon further review, “J-Lau” is only 3-3 in his last six fights. So I guess his omission from the rankings makes sense.
Dunham is a close favorite in this fight, but Lauzon will emerge victorious. This fight won’t go the distance either. However, another finish on Lauzon’s resume won’t boost his stock too much with the UFC. He will continue to be gainfully employed after his victory — as will Dunham after losing, due to his exciting style — and could conceivably work his way back to title contention.
However, given that Lauzon has come up short against some of the tougher fighters at lightweight, including Anthony Pettis, Jim Miller, Michael Johnson and Al Iaquinta, it will be extremely difficult for him to emerge in such a crowded division. At this point, playing the role of “entertaining gatekeeper” is probably Lauzon’s best hope.
Kuhl: It does seem surprising to see Lauzon outside of the top 15. That is, until you see who is above him. I would never be the guy to say that Lauzon and Dunham are “good, not great,” because both are amazing fighters that are fun to watch. However, if neither break into the top 15, that will be of no surprise. There is just too much talent ahead of them, and who knows what youngsters will enter the fold in the next few years. Title contention is probably not going to be on the horizon for either one at this stage in the game.
Both men are high-level Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu players, so there is no real clear advantage there. Both men have more of a propensity for the TKO than a pure knockout, so I’m not expecting any flash knockouts. As closely matched as they are in size, style and skill level, I do expect this one to go the distance, and when that is the case, Dunham has a better track record than Lauzon.
Dunham takes this one by unanimous decision after an all-out war of technique.
Tony Ferguson has been on an absolute tear, only losing one fight since joining the UFC in 2011 as part of a previous season of The Ultimate Fighter. Edson Barboza is one of the most exciting fighters in the UFC and owns a highlight-reel knockout of Terry Etim. Should this match-up of top-10 lightweights determine the next title challenger? Also, who will that challenger be and how are they going to win?
Kuhl: Ferguson, as a topic of conversation, highlights something that is very annoying and, frankly, causes the UFC ranking system to lose a lot of credibility. He is currently sitting in seventh place among lightweight contenders in the promotion’s official rankings, but there are three guys — Eddie Alvarez, Michael Johnson and Barboza — that have no business sitting above him. Ferguson has lost once in 10 Octagon appearances, and while that one loss was a decision to Johnson over three years ago, I would pick the current Ferguson over the current Johnson any day of the week.
What does Ferguson have to do to get some love? Alvarez is 1-1 in the UFC with his only Octagon win coming in a split decision over a juiced-up version of Gilbert Melendez. Barboza has several stoppages earlier in his career, but he has gone to the scorecards in his last three outings. Johnson has only stopped three opponents in his 13-fight UFC career, which includes five losses. Ferguson is the true destroyer of the bunch, and he was originally supposed to face No. 3 contender Khabib Nurmagomedov, which was a shot he deserved.
Don’t get me wrong. Barboza is definitely a top-10 lightweight. He is a slick Brazilian striker with an ever-improving ground game, and he trains with Edgar’s crew out east, so he’s constantly getting some of the best looks in the business. However, Ferguson is a beast everywhere, and his indiscriminate destruction of his opponents really showcases his nickname, which roughly translates into “The Boogeyman.”
Barboza is going to come out expecting to win with strikes, but “El Cucuy” is going to use his wrestling to outwork the Brazilian on the ground and take this one by early stoppage. Ferguson by second-round submission.
Huntemann: I’ve become quite the champion for Ferguson as of late. He’s 9-1 in the UFC and on a six-fight winning streak. He’s been in need of a top-10 opponent for a while, and he couldn’t ask for a better match-up than Barboza.
This is going to be an awesome fight. As I’ll probably mention again at some point, I’m more excited for this fight than the main event. Ferguson and Barboza are deadly strikers, making the likelihood slim that this fight goes to a decision. Ferguson is a slight betting favorite, and he will win by TKO in the second round.
Should Ferguson be considered for a title shot if he defeats Barboza? Absolutely. It would be his seventh win in a row, and make him 10-1 in his UFC career. I’m not sure what else needs to be done. Ahead of him in the rankings, there are Pettis and Alvarez, who are fighting each other, and Cerrone, who is getting the next title shot later this month. Ferguson could avenge his loss to Johnson, but that’s about it. The path for Ferguson is fairly clear. If he defeats Barboza — and particularly if he finishes him — Ferguson should be strongly considered for a title shot.
Which fight is the sleeper match-up on this card?
Huntemann: I’m not sure if it’s a “sleeper,” per se, but I’m really excited about the Ferguson/Barboza match-up. It could outshine the main event, and I think it will. Ferguson and Barboza are two of the most exciting fighters in the UFC, each capable of finishing anyone at any time. Barboza’s spinning heel-kick knockout of Etim is still played on an endless loop, and Ferguson can swarm an opponent and overwhelm him for a TKO.
The winner of Ferguson/Barboza should be the next contender for the lightweight title. Either of these guys would be a terrific match-up for the winner of the title showdown between champion Rafael dos Anjos and challenger Donald Cerrone, who fight later this month. Plus, we’ve already seen Cerrone and Barboza square off once before. I’m sure no one would turn down a rematch.
Kuhl: By far, the biggest sleeper is the match-up of youngsters Joby Sanchez and late injury-replacement Geane Herrera. Both of these guys are undefeated outside of the UFC with their one respective loss inside the Octagon coming by decision. Sanchez, a Jackson-Winkeljohn prospect, is coming off a split decision win over Tateki Matsuda in January, while Herrera is coming off a loss to an overweight Ray Borg in his UFC debut in August.
Collectively, in less than five years, Sanchez and Herrera have finished 12 of their combined 17 opponents, and both of them need a win to get any foothold in the flyweight division. Traditionally, the flyweights are known for being quick, but for also going to decisions, so it will be refreshing to see a couple killers collide in what would be a “Fight of the Night” candidate if it wasn’t for the main event and the Ferguson-Barboza match-up.
Pair this card with…
Kuhl: Without even knowing the actual match-ups for the TUF contestants, I’m going to pair this card with a large pot of good coffee and several light snacks. There was hardly anyone this season that showcased a true proficiency for finishing fights at a high level, outside of Ryan Hall. When you add that to such tight match-ups as Edgar-Mendes, Ferguson-Barboza and Lauzon-Dunham, there is a big potential for a series of decisions on a Friday night of a full work week after a UFC Fight Night card the night before. It may take a lot of stamina to get through this one, and some booze and a heavy steak dinner would do justice for no one.
Huntemann: We are of the same mind, my friend. Find yourself some nachos or pretzels, pop open a beer or two and just kick back and relax. The main event is this Saturday at UFC 194. You need to make that an event if you’re planning to watch it (and if you’re not, what the hell is wrong with you?). But as far as hors d’oeuvres go, this card ain’t half bad. You get two fights featuring top-10 guys and some other entertaining fighters like Mike Pierce, Tatsuya Kawajiri and Gabriel Gonzaga. A cold, frosty, adult beverage pairs nicely with this card.
FW: Frankie Edgar vs. Chad Mendes
LW: Edson Barboza vs. Tony Ferguson
LW: Evan Dunham vs. Joe Lauzon
WW: Ryan LaFlare vs. Mike Pierce
FW: Tatsuya Kawajiri vs. Jason Knight
FlyW: Joby Sanchez vs. Geane Herrera
HW: Konstantin Erokhin vs. Gabriel Gonzaga
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