Demetrious Johnson (R) (Dave Mandel/Sherdog)

Toe-to-Toe: TUF 24 Finale Preview and Predictions

So, it’s come to this. The UFC flyweight champion, Demetrious “Mighty Mouse” Johnson, has been so dominant, for so long, and has completely cleaned out his division to the point that the UFC had to use its reality show, The Ultimate Fighter, to find someone for the champ to fight. It was like The Voice meets American Idol, if we could watch Adam Levine beat up Ryan Seacrest — or watch Blake Shelton beat up both men.

We’re still waiting to see who will be the next sacrificial lamb — er, opponent — for Johnson. We’ll find out this week if Johnson faces Tim Elliott, a former UFC fighter and the current Titan Fighting Championships flyweight titleholder, or Elliott’s final opponent on the reality show, Shooto champion Hiromasa Ogikubo. The winner, whether it’s Elliott or Ogikubo, gets to be the next guy to try his luck at dethroning Johnson, who’s been the only flyweight champion the UFC has ever known since the division was introduced in 2012.

It is also the custom with The Ultimate Fighter that the two coaches from the show face off at the end of the season’s run, and this time is no different. Flyweights Joseph Benavidez and Henry Cejudo will settle their season-long bickering in the Octagon. In another featured bout, Jake Ellenberger will look to continue his recent resurgence by taking on Jorge Masvidal. The UFC just keeps chugging along with its programming, though at least this latest incarnation gives the audience a title fight for its troubles.


The UFC Fight Pass prelim card starts at 7 p.m. ET on Saturday, Dec. 3, with the Fox Sports 1 prelim card starting at 8 p.m. ET and the main card kicking off on Fox Sports 1 at 10 p.m. ET. Until then, enjoy this edition of Toe-to-Toe from Combat Press writers Chris Huntemann and Zach Aittama.

Demetrious Johnson gets to defend his title against the winner of The Ultimate Fighter 24. The finalists are already decided — it’s UFC veteran Tim Elliott and Shooto champion Hiromasa Ogikubo. The title challenger will be revealed during this week’s episode of the reality series, but while we wait for the big reveal, here’s a question: Who will be in the cage with Mighty Mouse this weekend, and is that man the better suited of the two when it comes to dethroning the longtime champion?

Aittama: I’ll answer the second question first. Stylistically, neither man matches up really well with the dominant champion, but what fighter does?

Ogikubo, 29, is a skilled grappler with slick wrestling and a good top game. He was able to defeat all three of his opponents in the house on his way to the final with his seamless ability to switch between every phase of the fight. Ogikubo expertly shifts between his kick-heavy striking and his controlling ground game. His transition game earned him victories over the No. 1 seeded fighter, RFA champion Alexandre Pantoja, EFC kingpin Nkazimulo Zulu and Tachi Palace titleholder Adam Antolin. Ogikubo entered the house on a five-fight winning streak against some of the best competition Japan could offer.

Ogikubo relies more on finding a home for his punches through his takedowns and top control. He’s not the most active or aggressive fighter from the top, but he has a knack for landing his elbows and fists from the top. His striking doesn’t match up well with the faster, more dynamic champion. Johnson would have a lofty advantage in the clinch, especially in terms of offensive output. Ogikubo is a strong wrestler and grappler, but Johnson is one of the better fighters in the sport at staying off of his back and getting back to his feet. Add in Johnson’s large athletic and physical advantages, and the path to victory for Ogikubo narrows even more.

Elliott is the definition of a grizzled veteran. He’s been in tough situations inside of the UFC against some of the best fighters in the flyweight division. He’s come through with close back-and-forth performances against top-10 fighters John Dodson, Joseph Benavidez and Ali Bagautinov. Following his loss to Zach Makovsky at UFC Fight Night 60, Elliott was released from the promotion. The 29-year-old Missouri native was picked up by Titan FC following the promotion’s deal to air on UFC Fight Pass. He snagged the vacant Titan belt with a decision victory over UFC vet Iliarde Santos at Titan FC 34 and defended it twice with wins against Brazilian prospect Felipe Efrain and former UFC fighter Pedro Nobre. On the reality series, Elliott defeated Hex Fight Series kingpin Charlie Alaniz, Legacy titleholder Matt Schnell and the tournament dark horse, Caged Aggression champ Eric Shelton.

Elliott is a scrapper. He fights with everything he has, and he does it in his own unique style. He approached the reality show with the idea that he would challenge himself by fighting orthodox instead of in his usual southpaw style. Elliott is a dominant left-handed fighter, so his willingness to face other top competition while knowingly not fighting at his best is one hell of a risk, and it shows exactly how big his balls are. This is a guy who hasn’t backed down from the upper echelon of the division. He is now one fight away from fighting for the UFC flyweight championship.

And Elliott is who I’m going with to win the tournament final. From the creation of the idea to have some of the world’s top flyweights face off for a shot at Johnson’s title, I was of the opinion that Elliott was among the best 125-pounders outside of the UFC. I still believed that notion when the 16 champions were selected for the show’s cast. And I believe it today as the final episode of the season airs tonight.

Now, do I believe Elliott can shock the world and upset the pound-for-pound king? It’s not likely, and I won’t be picking Elliott to take down Mighty Mouse. However, don’t count Elliott out. He is an aggressive striker with a pretty sizable height and reach advantage. He won’t shy away from going all in on a shot to get this fight to the mat. He won’t shy away from letting his hands go if Johnson attempts to fight him on the feet. Elliott has an underrated grappling and submission offense that could surprise Johnson if he makes a mistake over the course of 25 minutes. The key for Mighty Mouse in this fight will be navigating the distance, scoring when the opportunity arises, and making the most of Elliott’s aggression.

Johnson will return to the cage with a chip on his shoulder. He was excited to face the winner of this tournament when the show was announced. Now, he has the chance to prove he is one of the best fighters in the sport’s history, inching one step closer to breaking Anderson Silva’s UFC title-defense record.

Huntemann: I always love a good redemption story, so I’m going to go with the emotional pick and say Elliott emerges as the victor and goes on to face Johnson on this Saturday’s card.

Elliott has been battle tested in his career, and not just on The Ultimate Fighter. He’s already faced the likes of Jens Pulver, in addition to the aforementioned Benavidez, Dodson and Bagautinov, and he’s defended his Titan FC flyweight title impressively twice.

By all accounts, Ogikubo is an extremely talented and dangerous fighter, but sometimes you have to throw analysis out the window and just go with your gut. Elliott is supremely motivated to make it back to the UFC and fight for a title, and he’ll use that motivation to defeat Ogikubo.

Now, do I think Elliott defeats Johnson? Simply put, my answer echoes that of my colleague: No. It’s no slight against Elliott, but there’s a reason why Johnson is considered the pound-for-pound best fighter in the world by almost everyone right now. He’s supremely skilled and talented, and he gets better with every performance. Johnson has no equal in the flyweight division. As tough and scrappy as Elliott may be, he won’t be the guy to end Johnson’s reign.

The UFC deserves credit for introducing this concept for this season of TUF — having a tournament of champions from all over the world to face one of its champions. Hopefully, the company adopts this format for future seasons (assuming there are future seasons of the show). Who knows? Maybe one day in the future, a regional champion will fight his or her way through the TUF gauntlet and score the upset of the year when he/she defeats a UFC champion. It just won’t happen this time.

This season of The Ultimate Fighter hosted a houseful of champions from smaller organizations. Will all of these fighters find a home inside the Octagon and on the UFC’s roster? If not, who are the most likely to land back on the regional circuit immediately? Also, which fighters are most likely to eventually rise to the top of the pack and claim a title shot of their own?

Huntemann: I have a confession to make. I didn’t watch one second of this season of The Ultimate Fighter, as has become my custom. I know. I’m a horrible fan and even more horrible writer — neither is a point I will really argue. I’m not sure how useful I can be in answering this question, though I’m sure my very loquacious colleague will be more than willing to pick up the slack. I’ll defer to him on this one.

That said, there are some names from this season that I recognize — Tim Elliott, Damacio Page, Eric Shelton and Matt Schnell, just to name a few. I’m sure those guys will find a home (or be reintroduced) to the UFC, as will some other guys from this season’s roster with whom I’m not all that familiar. The UFC needs warm bodies for the flyweight division, because Mighty Mouse has taken care of everyone else.

Aittama: The short answer is, no, most of these fighters won’t find a home in the UFC. I did watch this season of The Ultimate Fighter, and I have to say, it’s been one of the better seasons in the past few years. The level of talent and the stellar fights made for one of the best seasons in the show’s 11-year history.

However, it sounds like the UFC has different plans for much of the cast. With the exception of the four semifinalists, only Brandon Moreno and Matt Schnell have been picked up by the promotion. It’s important to note that both Schnell and Moreno, who is actually making his second UFC appearance on this card, were signed by the promotion as short-notice replacements.

If I was in the position of UFC matchmaker Sean Shelby or the newly hired Mick Maynard, I would sign many of the fighters from this season. Out of the fighters not already under contract, this would include quarterfinalists Kai Kara-France and Adam Antolin. Both men employ exciting fighting styles and the ability to finish a fight at a moment’s notice. Kara-France, 23, would be a solid addition for the UFC’s potential venture into Southeast Asia. The Tiger Muay Thai fighter has made a name for himself by finishing nine of his 12 career wins. Antolin trains with American Kickboxing Academy, but the 34-year-old’s age might be his biggest roadblock to joining the promotion.

Although Shooto Brazil champion Ronaldo Candido has a world-class ground game, his striking is still green and he has just six fights under his belt. He has finished all six of his opponents, but he would be better served to return to Nova União and continue improving while training with some of the best fighters in the world.

Damacio Page should be scooped up. The UFC veteran has wowed audiences with his otherworldly knockout power. Page would make an exciting addition to the UFC flyweight division, a weight class he never competed in during his UFC stint.

One of the show’s top-seeded fighters, Yoni Sherbatov, was upset by the No. 15 seed, Eric Shelton, when he was choked unconscious with a second-round rear-naked choke. Sherbatov is a talented fighter, and it turns out losing to Shelton wasn’t such a big upset in retrospect. Sherbatov was a favorite of the matchmakers before the show, so he may just find his way into the UFC sooner or later.

Skilled strikers Nkazimulo Zulu, Terrence Mitchell and Jaime Alvarez would probably gain the most from returning to the regional circuit. They showcased their worth before the show, but none of these men could get past the first round.

The likelihood the promotion signs Matt Rizzo or Charlie Alaniz is low. Rizzo couldn’t get much offense going before Schnell locked him up in a submission, and Alaniz fell victim to an Elliott bulldog choke in the first round.

Out of the group, Alexandre Pantoja was one of the heavy favorites heading into the show. I still believe he is a top flyweight, but his stock fell when he couldn’t get out from under Ogikubo’s top control. Shelton will be a formidable foe for most flyweights with his combination of athletic ability and well-rounded technique. With continued progression of their games, Shelton, Pantoja and many others may find themselves fighting for a title after all.

What exactly is the point of Joseph Benavidez fighting Henry Cejudo? Yes, they were the coaches on this season of The Ultimate Fighter, and it’s tradition that the two coaches fight each other when the season is over (unless that coach is Conor McGregor). But both guys have been beaten convincingly — and in Benavidez’s case, repeatedly — by Demetrious Johnson. The winner of this fight is not likely to receive yet another title shot. Should either fighter consider a move back to bantamweight?

Aittama: When the UFC put this bout together, the matchmakers likely considered both Benavidez and Cejudo as potential future challengers to Johnson’s belt. Otherwise, why make the fight?

Despite losing to Mighty Mouse twice, Benavidez is the No. 1 contender in the UFC flyweight rankings. He has defeated every other flyweight ranked in the top 10 with the exception of Cejudo, Kyoji Horiguchi and Wilson Reis. Benavidez has defeated eight of his past nine opponents and 12 of 14. His only losses came to the top pound-for-pound fighter on the planet. The 32-year-old has put together a string of five wins against top competition since getting knocked out by Johnson in the main event of UFC on Fox 9 in late 2013. He started the streak by knocking out TUF 24 finalist Tim Elliott in the first round at UFC 172. He bolstered his record with decision victories over top-10 opponents Dustin Ortiz, John Moraga, Ali Bagautinov and Zach Makovsky.

Cejudo is still the No. 2 contender at flyweight despite coming off of the devastating first-round knockout against Johnson at UFC 197 in April. The 2008 Olympic gold medalist won his first 10 professional fights to earn the shot at the long-reigning champ. He entered the UFC after just his sixth pro fight and won four straight on his path to the title. Cejudo outstruck and out-pointed Dustin Kimura, Chris Cariaso, Chico Camus and Jussier “Formiga” da Silva to account for his four UFC wins.

These fighters were rumored to be facing off late last year, but nothing came of it. Benavidez went as far as to call Cejudo out following his recent win over Makovsky at UFC Fight Night 82 in February. Cejudo didn’t take kindly to Benavidez’s words, giving the UFC more reason to put together the battle of top contenders. Initially, Johnson would have been tied up in title defenses against Wilson Reis at UFC 201 in July and this season’s TUF winner in late 2016. Despite winning five straight, Benavidez would have been unlikely to receive the next shot at the title because of his losses to Johnson without winning another big fight. Those factors are what likely led to this fight coming to fruition.

Benavidez needed another big win or two before the UFC would give him another shot at the only man to beat him in the past six years. It’s not like Benavidez doesn’t deserve another shot at the title either. He’s beaten a who’s who of top UFC flyweights and has strung together another long winning streak against top-flight competition. Cejudo may have a longer road back to the title, unless he defeats the consensus second best fighter at flyweight. A win over Benavidez would give Cejudo the leverage he needs to build his way back to a second chance at UFC gold.

Both men have fought at bantamweight in the past. Benavidez won 15 of his 24 fights while competing at 135 pounds. He lost just twice in 17 fights in the division, and both losses came to current UFC bantamweight champ Dominick Cruz. A move back to bantamweight wouldn’t benefit Benavidez after putting on excellent performance after excellent performance in his preferred weight class. And let’s not forget that Benavidez’s first fight with Johnson was a closely contested five-round decision, so a third fight with Johnson is still a compelling scrap despite Johnson being up 2-0.

Cejudo began his career at bantamweight and struggled with weight-cutting issues in his move to flyweight. He missed weight in multiple bouts, including a scheduled match-up with Scott Jorgensen at UFC 177, before debuting in the UFC at bantamweight in 2014. After a win against the aforementioned Kimura, Cejudo took to the mic to declare he would be a flyweight once again. He hasn’t missed weight since and now competes at his optimal weight class. So, no, neither man benefits from a move up in weight.

Unfortunately for Cejudo, Benavidez has the striking chops and grappling know-how to defend Cejudo’s Olympic-level wrestling. Benavidez always finds a way to navigate dangerous situations on the ground and find a key submission or some space to get back to his feet. Benavidez’s ever-improving striking has put away top competition in a manner in which Cejudo never has.

Benavidez will continue his streak of beating every flyweight he faces that’s not named Mighty Mouse.

Huntemann: Yeah, Benavidez’s first fight with Johnson was a closely contested split decision. But guess what happened when they fought a second time? Yup, that’s right. Benavidez got knocked out in the first round. And guess what? So did Cejudo when he fought Johnson earlier this year. The champ has already dispatched his seemingly top two challengers in quick and violent fashion, which is why I’m in no hurry to grant either guy another title shot.

However, I’m a fair man. Benavidez should be lauded for his current winning streak. He is a prime candidate to return to bantamweight, which is where he fought before the UFC introduced the flyweight division in 2012. Benavidez took current UFC bantamweight champ Cruz to a split decision for the belt in 2010 when both guys were still in the WEC. He has seemingly never looked better, as has Cruz. So who’s to say Benavidez wouldn’t fare better in a rematch with the bantamweight titleholder? Cruz was choked out the first time he faced Urijah Faber when both guys fought for the WEC featherweight title. Ever since, Cruz has had Faber’s number. So, hey, you never know what could happen.

In fact, the point of Benavidez almost cleaning out the flyweight division, sans Johnson, sort of reinforces my point. Who’s left for Benavidez to fight after he defeats Cejudo (my spoiler alert for later on!), since a third title fight with Johnson seems unlikely? Cejudo, meanwhile, is still young enough to climb his way back to another title shot down the line, even if he loses to Benavidez on Saturday.

Jorge Masvidal has been on the wrong side of three split decisions in his past five fights. He earned his seventh UFC win in his most recent outing against Ross Pearson at UFC 201. Can Masvidal find consistency in his new weight class, or will Ellenberger get his own career on track after knocking out Matt Brown in his last fight?

Huntemann: Welp, Masvidal has fought at welterweight before, though this move in weight seems to be in a slightly different context. Masvidal may have lost three out of five, but at least he’s lost in damn entertaining fashion in his bouts against Al Iaquinta, Benson Henderson and Lorenz Larkin. None of those guys are slouches either, for the record.

However, this might be a do-or-die situation for Masvidal. The welterweight division is still extremely tough, with fighters like Tyron Woodley, Stephen Thompson, Demian Maia, Donald Cerrone and Neil Magny, among others. Oh, and Ellenberger now seems to be back on track following his impressive knockout of the aforementioned Brown.

Ellenberger trains at King’s MMA, which experienced quite a bit of success recently with former champions Rafael dos Anjos and Fabricio Werdum. Perhaps a change in venue is all “The Juggernaut” needed.

Ellenberger will continue his apparent resurgence with a victory over Masvidal. The punching power has always been there for Ellenberger, and though Masvidal lives up to his nickname of “Gamebred,” I’m not sure if he has enough to overcome Ellenberger.

Aittama: I can get on board with the fact that Ellenberger is one of the biggest hitters in the division, but he’ll need more than power punching if he hopes to defeat Masvidal. His time under Rafael Cordeiro at King’s MMA seems to have finally paid off for the 31-year-old Ellenberger. He is relatively young, but he’s been in the line of fire over and over again in his career. There’s only so much accumulation of damage a fighter can take before coming diminished.

Ellenberger isn’t past that point quite yet, though. He does have a difficult match-up ahead of him. The brash and outspoken Masvidal has a nearly identical record to Ellenberger. Both men have been inside the ring or cage over 40 times, and their veteran presence is felt every time the cage door locks. Masvidal has continued to grow under the watchful eye of American Top Team. He has excellent boxing and an underrated submission attack that’s earned him victories.

This is one of those fights where we really don’t know what is going to happen until they step into the cage. Ellenberger has the power to put anyone away. Masvidal has been cracked throughout his career. Yet, we’re not far removed from Ellenberger getting put away by Stephen Thompson, Robbie Lawler and Kelvin Gastelum. To his credit, Ellenberger’s losses in the past nine years have all come to fighters who have or do reside inside the UFC’s top 10. So maybe my colleague is onto something when he picked Ellenberger. I’ve had more faith in the “Juggernaut” in the past, but Masvidal brings enough craft on the feet and skill on the mat to find the holes he needs to exploit to get the win.

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

Aittama: One of the more underrated fights on the card is the match-up of young female strawweights Jamie Moyle and Kailin Curran.

The Ultimate Fighter 23 cast member Moyle will make her Octagon debut following her elimination by the season’s runner-up, Amanda Bobby Cooper, in the show’s semifinals. Moyle garnered much hype following her first three professional fights in the Invicta FC cage. She built a strong amateur record before debuting at Invicta FC 9 in 2014 and defeating the previously unbeaten Jenny Liou. Moyle submitted fellow prospect JJ Aldrich and went to war with Amy Montenegro to earn her place as one of the top strawweights in the promotion. She fell short against the strong and durable Sharon Jacobson before getting scooped up by the UFC for TUF 23. She makes her long-awaited Octagon debut following her performance on the show, where she submitted Canada’s Alyssa Krahn.

Curran will be happy to welcome Moyle to the UFC on Saturday night. The tough Hawaiian has continued to improve her game since signing with the promotion in 2014. Curran has been on the losing end in three of her four Octagon appearances, but her performance on paper doesn’t tell the entire story of her career. She held her own in losses to Paige VanZant, Felice Herrig and Alex Chambers. She went back-and-forth with Van Zant and Chambers, but wasn’t able to fend off the third-round finish in either bout. Curran picked up her first UFC win against Emily Kagan in December 2015 when she made the TUF 20 alum tap in the second frame.

This fight pits two exciting strawweight prospects against each other in what should be a surprisingly fun scrap. These ladies are fighting to stay inside the UFC, and the fight will certainly showcase their full range and depth of skill.

Huntemann: The fight between Ryan Benoit and Brandon Moreno has the potential to be quite good.

Moreno, a TUF alum, began his UFC career with a bang, submitting Louis Smolka, who was talked about in some circles as a possible flyweight title contender going into that fight, in the first round in October. Moreno hasn’t lost since 2012, whereas Benoit has alternated wins and losses in his last seven fights.

If Moreno finishes Benoit here, then he begins a pretty quick ascent up the flyweight ladder. However, Benoit is likely desperate for some consistency, so he’s going to let it all hang out. That spells fireworks.

Plus, both of these guys have “Baby” in their nickname — Brandon “The Assassin Baby” Moreno and Ryan “Baby Face” Benoit — and how can you not appreciate that?

Pair this card with…

Huntemann: Some kind of sausage. No, really. Hear me out. While I love all things meat in tube form, sometimes you’re not exactly sure what’s inside. It’s like a mystery — or mystery meat, if you will. That’s just like the main event of this card. We don’t know yet who Johnson will defend his title against, and we won’t know until Wednesday night. That’s like a mystery, too. See what I did there? Symmetry!

Aittama: Hope. Yes, let’s hope the UFC sees how successful this season of The Ultimate Fighter was and continues to change the format of the show. The show’s ratings in the beginning of the season were much better than expected, but a break due to the Major League Baseball playoffs and the World Series handicapped the ratings in the later half of the season.

Not only does the UFC need to continue to change the format of the show, but it needs to get behind the idea that the promotion can find viable talent to showcase in the coming seasons. Almost every cast member on this edition of the show is a UFC-caliber fighter, something that cannot be said of most of the 24 seasons of the series.

The UFC will have challenges continuing to promote a decade-old product to new fans, and with the production budget nearly getting cut in half, it may be harder said than done. There is hope, however. There are whispers that the UFC is contacting former fighters to compete on an “All-Star” season in the welterweight division. Maybe this show has something left to give in the coming years. At least, we can hope.

Fight Picks

Fight Aittama’s Pick Huntemann’s Pick
Main Card (Fox Sports 1, 10 p.m. ET)
FlyW Championship: Demetrious Johnson vs. TUF winner (Hiromasa Ogikubo or Tim Elliott) Johnson Johnson
FlyW: Joseph Benavidez vs. Henry Cejudo Benavidez Benavidez
WW: Jake Ellenberger vs. Jorge Masvidal Masvidal Ellenberger
LHW: Jared Cannonier vs. Ion Cutelaba Cutelaba Cutelaba
Women’s BW: Alexis Davis vs. Sara McMann Davis McMann
FlyW: Brandon Moreno vs. Ryan Benoit Moreno Benoit
Preliminary Card (Fox Sports 1, 8 p.m. ET)
FW: Gray Maynard vs. Ryan Hall Maynard Hall
BW: Rob Font vs. Matt Schnell Font Font
LW: Brandon O’Reilly vs. Dong Hyun Kim Kim O’Reilly
Women’s StrawW: Kailin Curran vs. Jamie Moyle Curran Curran
Preliminary Card (UFC Fight Pass, 7 p.m. ET)
MW: Elvis Mutapcic vs. Anthony Smith Mutapcic Mutapcic
LHW: Devin Clark vs. Josh Stansbury Stansbury Clark