Sijara Eubanks (Jeff Vulgamore/Combat Press)

Toe-to-Toe: TUF 26 Finale Preview and Predictions

Another season of The Ultimate Fighter is in the books and another new UFC champion is set to be crowned. TUF 26 marks the second time the promotion has used its flagship reality show to award a title to a new weight class.

Much like the prior season with the same format, TUF 20, the show’s roster was comprised of women, this time in the flyweight division. And like that iteration, a large portion of the cast was pulled from all-women’s promotion Invicta Fighting Championships. Some of the choices were no-brainers: inaugural Invicta champion Barb Honchak, UFC veterans Roxanne Modafferi and Lauren Murphy, as well as former Invicta title challenger DeAnna Bennett. But there were plenty of fresh faces from the international scene as well.

Surprisingly, none of the aforementioned names reached the finals of the title tournament. In fact, it was the No. 12 seed Sijara Eubanks and No. 14 seed Nicco Montaño who left the house with the right to compete for the belt. They’ll headline an 11-fight card on Friday, Dec. 1, at the Park Theatre in Las Vegas. In addition to the main event, the card features 14 of the 16 cast members, plus a prospect-heavy lineup including the likes of Sean O’Malley, Brett Johns and Andrew Sanchez.


Combat Press writers Rob Tatum and Zach Aittama break down all the action in this edition of Toe-to-Toe.

Editor’s Note: This preview was posted prior to weigh-ins, which took place on Thursday, Nov. 30. Sijara Eubanks was removed from the card due to medical reasons.

Sijara Eubanks and Nicco Montaño fight for the women’s flyweight championship. These ladies were low seeds in the TUF tournament, and they each scored at least one upset over a marquee veteran. Are these ladies really the two best fighters from the TUF cast, or did they benefit greatly from the show’s format? Which lady comes out on top at the Finale?

Aittama: It’s hard to argue with the results of the reality series. Both fighters had to fight the very best competitors on the show. Maybe it says more about the tournament seeding that two of the least experienced fighters on the show defeated the top six seeded fighters. Look back at episode four of the season, where Eubanks tapped out Maia Stevenson and yelled, “Twelve!” at UFC President Dana White in the audience, strongly suggesting that her seed in the tournament was a mistake. As we found out when the season came to a close, Eubanks and Montaño took out the tournament favorites and earned their place in the inaugural women’s flyweight title fight.

As for the show’s format, both fighters were treated to excellent coaching and strong training partners. The format gives the more inexperienced fighters a chance they might not have otherwise been afforded if they trained at a small gym outside of the show. In this case, both Eubanks and Montaño are experienced grapplers who train out of solid gyms, so their growth on the show shouldn’t come as a surprise. It might seem crazy that two fighters with only nine combined professional fights are fighting for a title in the UFC, but there is no doubt both have the skills to beat the best women in the flyweight division.

Eubanks’ weight was a consistent theme during the show. “Sarj” is a very big flyweight who fought most of her career as a bantamweight. Eubanks struggled to make weight in each fight on the show, which could have affected her performances in the cage, but it didn’t. The bigger concern is that Eubanks has only made 125 pounds once. Without the one-pound allowance, because it’s a championship fight, it’s going to be a question leading into the Finale. Eubanks is a professional, though, so expect her to be on weight for the biggest fight of her life.

Following her absolute domination against Stevenson in the quarterfinals, Eubanks made herself a player in the tournament. She took Stevenson down and continuously peppered her with strikes from the top position until it opened up the opportunity to finish the fight with a kimura. Eubanks is a black belt in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, but she flashed a little striking in her semifinal bout with DeAnna Bennett. Eubanks landed a flush left head kick that sent Bennett crashing to the mat in the first round. Eubanks cemented her place in the final with a victory over the No. 1 seed, Roxanne Modafferi. Eubanks is incredibly strong in the wrestling and grappling exchanges, which should make for an absolute battle against Montaño, who is as tough as they come as well.

Montaño used her superior strength and relentless pace to upset UFC veteran Lauren Murphy in the opening round of the tournament. She continued that blazing offensive attack against Montana de la Rosa (Stewart) in the semifinals. Montaño landed a huge knee in the first round that hurt Stewart and opened a massive cut over her right eye. Stewart battled back, but she was no match for Montaño’s wrestling and top game. Montaño battered Stewart despite her opponent’s unwillingness to give up. Montaño capped off her impressive run through the competition with an incredible back-and-forth, grinding fight with No. 2 seed and former Invicta champion Barb Honchak. Montaño showed some of her striking deficiencies against Honchak, but her sheer strength and conditioning carried her through the battles in the clinch and on the mat. Montaño is nearly impossible to take down and she is mean in the clinch.

The fighters in the inaugural UFC women’s flyweight championship most certainly earned their spots. What you should expect is two fighters with the skill, toughness and motivation to become a champion. Despite their records, both fighters are going to fight until they can’t fight anymore, which means the fans are in store for one hell of a fight.

Montaño has all of the tools to become a champion. However, Eubanks will just be a little stronger on the feet and in the grappling exchanges, and she will take home the title.

Tatum: I can’t say I blame Eubanks for emphatically screaming at UFC President Dana White about the seeding of the tournament. While her record may not feature dozens of fights, she’s a Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu black belt who had proven her skill set under the Invicta FC banner prior to the reality show. Couple that with her impressive wins over Stevenson, Bennett and Modafferi and it’s easy to argue that she should have been seeded much higher in the bracket.

Montaño, on the other hand, was much less heralded heading into the show, but quickly erased any doubts by upsetting the former Invicta bantamweight champ Murphy. She carried that momentum into a complete battering of Stewart, before scoring by far the season’s biggest shocker, a decision win over former Invicta flyweight champion Honchak.

My colleague laid out how these two athletes capitalized on the coaching and training they were provided over six weeks in the house. However, the show’s format was certainly a factor, especially for Montaño. Fighters with strong grappling and clinch games tend to succeed on the show, and it was no different on this season. The wins over Murphy and Honchak were truly eye-opening, but would it have happened with a full camp for both fighters? Or if the fights hadn’t been just weeks apart? I don’t want to discredit the accomplishments of any fighter who competes on TUF, but the format is always a factor.

As for the fight, I’m inclined to agree with my fellow panelist. Eubanks has been working her striking with Mark Henry in New Jersey, which gives her the perfect tools to complement her grappling base. She’s already showcased her finishing ability with her highlight-reel finish of Bennett. Montaño will give her one hell of a fight in the first couple of rounds, but Eubanks will use her strong top game to punish Montaño and eventually secure a fight-finishing rear-naked choke to claim the title.

Outside of the two TUF 26 finalists, which members of the TUF 26 reality-show competition have a bright future inside the UFC? Conversely, which TUF 26 contestant is the biggest longshot for a future in the UFC?

Tatum: If you watched this season of the show, then the answers to these questions should be pretty straightforward. The cast was split fairly evenly between established veterans and inexperienced up-and-comers. With all but two members of the show — Maia Stevenson and Lauren Murphy — getting a chance to compete at the Finale, the UFC is giving the cast a chance to prove they belong in the promotion.

Outside of the title fight and the long-awaited rematch between No. 1 and No. 2 seeds Roxanne Modafferi and Barb Honchak, there’s a good chance that some of the fighters will be the dreaded one-and-done inside the Octagon. As evidenced by the reality show, there were a handful of fighters who were one-dimensional and inexperienced. And the promotion did not do them any favors in its matchmaking at the Finale. I expect Melinda Fábián, Christina Marks and Karine Gevorgyan to struggle against more experienced wrestlers DeAnna Bennett, Montana de la Rosa and Rachael Ostovich-Berdon, respectively. Could any of them score a flashy knockout and prove me wrong? Absolutely. But I’ll stick with a proven track record in each of these fights. Even with the division being new, a lopsided loss by any of these fighters could send them back to the regional circuit for more seasoning.

Two match-ups provide a little more intrigue in my eyes. Talented grapplers Emily Whitmire and Gillian Robertson should combine for a fun show of ground skills, while former pro boxer Ariel Beck clashes with a very tough Shana Dobson. At the very least, I expect Whitmire and Beck to stick around for another fight or two with the promotion, but wouldn’t be surprised if Robertson also gets another opportunity even if she loses.

Aittama: Starting at the top, the winner of Modafferi and Honchak has to be in the running for the first shot at the newly crowned champion. Both fighters have incredible track records and are well-established veterans of the sport. Modafferi has been competing and winning against some of the best in the world for more than 14 years. She came very close to capturing the Invicta flyweight title in a back-and-forth fight with Jennifer Maia. Honchak left the sport in 2014 as the reigning Invicta flyweight champion before returning to compete on the show. Both are capable of beating the best fighters in the world in the division, and they should provide an immediate challenge to the winner of the inaugural UFC women’s flyweight championship.

I agree with my colleague’s assessment that the matches tend to favor the more experienced grapplers over the less-established prospects. The matchmaking for the fight card seems to favor the veterans, but should the less-experienced fighters pull off the upset, it could be a good launching point for their career. The fights in that mold are the match-ups between Bennett and Fábián, Ostovich-Berdon and Gevorgyan, de la Rosa and Marks, and Beck against Dobson. Of the underdogs who could pull off the upset, Dobson’s athletic advantages and improving game could surprise Beck, and Gevorgyan’s raw talent might present some problems on the feet against Ostovich-Berdon.

The victors in these four bouts are likely to make up the top 10 and should be able to stick around the UFC for multiple fights. Ostovich-Berdon impressed on the show with her improving striking game and absolute unrelenting toughness. Bennett was caught with a well-timed head kick from Eubanks, but she could find herself right in the title mix with an impressive showing. De la Rosa looks to be a fighter with plenty of potential. The 22-year-old is an experienced wrestler and grappler who put together a nice showing on TUF. She took a beating in her fight with Montaño, but Dana White stepped into her locker room afterward to tell her she was a “gangster” because she tried to finish the fight until the final bell despite being well behind on the judges’ scorecards.

Robertson is another fighter who could push into the top 10 with a victory over Whitmire. Robertson has plenty of experience in the amateur ranks, and a win in her UFC debut would likely keep her in the big show for the time being. Whitmire’s mental game seems to be a question mark, but she earned plenty of respect for taking a big risk to be on the show while not having a place to live outside of the house. Whoever wins that fight will likely stick around the UFC for the time being.

Sean O’Malley — do we need to know this name?

Aittama: O’Malley makes his UFC debut after being signed following a first-round knockout of Alfred Khashakyan on the second episode of Dana White’s Tuesday Night Contender Series. The 23-year-old landed a hard right hand that sat Khashakyan down in the first round. The MMA Lab product finished the job with a massive left hand that floored Khashakyan and brought White to his feet.

O’Malley delivered an exciting fight and finish on a show that was underwhelming leading into his fight. The UFC gave O’Malley a contract following his first-round knockout. However, he still looks rather green in a few areas of the game. O’Malley has an unorthodox striking style from the southpaw position. He likes to spin, throw kicks and bait his opponent in to land his own counters. O’Malley is capable off of his back, but his technical grappling level, especially in the wrestling department, is fairly underwhelming.

O’Malley seems to be on the right path in improving his game by training at an excellent camp. He has some natural ability and intangibles that could lead to him becoming a fun action fighter. At this point, though, his ceiling as a prospect is still unknown. At 5-foot-11, he has the power and size to win some fights in the deep bantamweight division, but he will have trouble competing with the upper echelon of the division.

Tatum: On paper, O’Malley certainly has all the intangibles to be a star in the UFC. As my colleague pointed out, he’s massive for the 135-pound division, trains at a high-level camp and has stopped seven of his eight opponents to date. It’s no wonder the UFC gave him a contract after his win on DWTNCS.

While his striking skills are entertaining, O’Malley takes a lot of risks. When it works, he’s quite the crowd-pleasing fighter. However, one glance at his resume reveals that he hasn’t faced elite competition. His wins over David Nuzzo under the Legacy Fighting Alliance banner and Khashakyan on DWTNCS are his only signature victories to date. The UFC is doing the right thing by giving him a well-tested veteran in Terrion Ware.The fight should provide O’Malley with the type of measuring stick needed to gauge his future.

Look for O’Malley’s reach and unorthodox attack to be the difference, as he tops Ware on his way up the bantamweight ladder.

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

Tatum: I’ve already praised the match-up between Emily Whitmire and Gillian Robertson above, but I think the most competitive fight on the card will be between bantamweights Joe Soto and Brett Johns.

California’s Soto, a veteran of Bellator MMA and Tachi Palace Fights, had the misfortune of making his UFC debut in a title fight against T.J. Dillashaw. But he lasted until the fifth round, which is likely why he didn’t receive a pink slip after subsequent losses to Anthony Birchak and Michinori Tanaka in his next two outings. The 30-year-old has rebounded with three straight victories, including a slick heel-hook finish of Marco Beltran.

The Welshman Johns may not be on the radar of casual fans just yet, but his 14-fight undefeated streak should not be ignored. After reigning in Cage Warriors and Titan FC, he’s now reeled off back-to-back victories over Kwan Ho Kwak and Albert Morales to kick off his UFC tenure. With past wins over UFC veteran Walel Watson and TUF alum Anthony Gutierrez, he’s earned a stepped up in competition.

This fight will be a back-and-forth affair between two battled-tested veterans. Soto’s slick ground game has the potential to give Johns problems, even from top position. Look for Johns to push the pace and eke out a decision win to stay unbeaten.

Aittama: Of the top-seeded fighters heading into the tournament, DeAnna Bennett was one of the favorites to be crowned the new UFC women’s flyweight champion. Along with Modafferi, Honchak and Murphy, Bennett was one of the most experienced fighters on the show and someone who has fought many of the best fighters in the world spanning three different divisions. She lost to eventual title challenger Sijara Eubanks on the show from a devastating high kick. However, Bennett is still a top-level fighter who could potentially challenge for the title in the future.

Bennett’s first step toward the title will be through Hungary’s Melinda Fábián. The relatively inexperienced fighter was unfortunately affected by an injury on the show and was unable to perform against fellow contestant Rachael Ostovich-Berdon. Fábián had more experience than some of the other fighters heading into the show, but she has yet to beat a fighter with a win. Fábián’s last two wins came against clearly overmatched opponents, including submitting Monic Billicsi in seconds with a straight ankle lock, a submission that should never work at a high level in MMA.

Fábián will willingly trade with Bennett, and she is capable of fighting in every area of the sport. That won’t be enough against Bennett, however. This is the type of match-up that could be a breakout performance for Bennett. She’s lost her past three fights before entering the TUF house, so a victory in her UFC debut could potentially revive her early career success from Invicta FC. Bennett finds the finish and puts herself into the top 10 in the UFC’s newest division.

Pair this card with…

Aittama: UFC 218. Both fight cards coming up this weekend have fights that should deliver in the entertainment department. The UFC event in Detroit clearly has the bigger names and more meaningful fights across the roster, but the Finale will serve to reveal the top fighters in the UFC’s newest division. The champion will be determined, a set of top contenders will be presented, and we could just see a few prospects putting together a breakout performance. The flyweight division is rich in talent and this is just the beginning for these women inside of the Octagon. This card is an appealing appetizer for the pay-per-view on Saturday night.

Tatum: An open mind. Whenever the promotion opens up a new division, there’s a lot of uncertainty. Even with seven of the TUF 26 roster previously competing for Invicta FC, a number of them — including the finalist Eubanks — are still relatively green inside the cage. Every weight class will have its growing pains, but the flyweight division is one of the sport’s deepest talent pools. With time, fight fans will realize that the women at 125 pounds are talented fighters and very entertaining to watch. Casual fans will get the chance to whet their appetite on Friday night.

Fight Picks

Fight Aittama’s Pick Tatum’s Pick
Main Card (Fox Sports 1, 10 p.m. ET)
Women’s FlyW Championship: Nicco Montaño vs. Sijara Eubanks Eubanks Eubanks
BW: Sean O’Malley vs. Terrion Ware Ware O’Malley
Women’s FlyW: Roxanne Modafferi vs. Barb Honchak Honchak Honchak
MW: Eric Spicely vs. Gerald Meerschaert Meerschaert Meerschaert
Women’s FlyW: DeAnna Bennett vs. Melinda Fábián Bennett Bennett
BW: Joe Soto vs. Brett Johns Soto Johns
Preliminary Card (Fox Sports 1, 8 p.m. ET)
Women’s FlyW: Christina Marks vs. Montana de la Rosa de la Rosa de la Rosa
MW: Andrew Sanchez vs. Ryan Janes Sanchez Sanchez
Women’s FlyW: Karine Gevorgyan vs. Rachael Ostovich-Berdon Ostovich-Berdon Ostovich-Berdon
Women’s FlyW: Ariel Beck vs. Shana Dobson Beck Beck
Preliminary Card (UFC Fight Pass, 7:30 p.m. ET)
Women’s FlyW: Gillian Robertson vs. Emily Whitmire Robertson Whitmire