The opening is unfamiliar. As with the season opener last week, we have Jon Anik’s voice introducing us live, even though we’re going to have 45 minutes of reality TV first. Then it’s a ponderous intro explaining the new format in vivid detail. Dana White nearly falls out of a chair.
The usual theme music is gone. The graphics have changed. It barely looks like TUF.
We see the fighters going to the house late at night, probably just after the live broadcast last week, and immediately racing to choose beds.
Michael Chiesa is excited to have a place to live rent-free. Jeremy Larsen thinks it’s like a first date — everybody’s on their best behavior. Still drinking a bit, of course, but no house shenanigans. We go straight back to the gym for the draft.
Since the UFC was kind enough to send a press release with records and hometowns, I’ll include that in the draft roundup along with a couple of reminders of who’s who:
- Cruz: Justin Lawrence (4-0), Villa Ridge, Mo.; destroyed WEC vet James Krause in prelim.
- Faber: Al Iaquinta (6-1-1), Wantagh, N.Y.; Serra-Longo product won tough prelim bout most remembered for opponent Jon Tuck’s nasty broken toe.
- Cruz: Sam Sicilia (11-0), Spokane Valley, Wash.; won prelim in eight seconds.
- Faber: Cristiano Marcello (13-3), Curitiba, Brazil; Brazilian jiu-jitsu expert.
- Cruz: Myles Jury (10-0), San Diego, Calif.; first repeat contestant in TUF history.
- Faber: Daron Cruickshank (10-2); Wayne, Mich.; impressive in decision win in prelims.
- Cruz: Mike Rio (9-1), Miami, Fla.; sole loss was to Efrain Escudero.
- Faber: Joe Proctor (8-1), Pembroke, Mass.; “recommendation from Joe Lauzon,” won good prelim bout over Jordan Rinaldi.
- Cruz: James Vick (5-0); Fort Worth, Texas; split-decision winner over Dakota Cochrane.
- Faber: Michael Chiesa (8-0), Spokane Valley, Wash.; obliterated prelim opponent.
- Cruz: Vinc Pichel (8-0), Sherman Oaks, Calif.; KO specialist won prelim with nasty elbow on the ground, finished with rear naked choke.
- Faber: John Cofer (8-1), Hull, Ga.; scrapped out win over experienced Mark Glover.
- Cruz: Chris Tickle (8-4), Bloomington, Ill.; those losses were early in his career, and his prelim was a demolition.
- Faber: Andy Ogle (9-1), Tynemouth, England; barely won prelim.
- Cruz: Jeremy Larsen (9-2), Phoenix, Ariz.; tough prelim win against a game Jeff Smith.
- Faber: Chris Saunders (10-2), Long Beach, Calif.; “The SoCal kid” won the worst prelim fight.
Faber practices first, and everyone loves him and each other. Cruz’s session gets a timestamp for Saturday — early TUF episodes would say “Day 13” and so forth, but that was phased out. This is new.
Tickle is an interesting situation. He’s apparently a buddy of Faber’s who figured he’d be on Faber’s team. Cruz knew that. But after 12 picks, Cruz was sick of waiting. Faber looked stunned. Tickle was irritated that he didn’t go earlier.
And then Cruz decides to test Tickle right away, throwing him in a grappling session with top pick Lawrence. He takes it well and manages to bond a bit with his team.
Off to fight selection. Faber won the coin toss and chose the first fight instead of the first pick. That’s not a bad idea. Setting the matchups can lead to a long run of wins. But I’ve already seen the result here, so I know Faber botched the pick.
And first, Faber says his dad called and said Cruz is a bold-faced liar. “There’s some UFC magazine saying my parents gave me a gym.” Faber denies such a thing and is pissed that Cruz brought up “family.” Cruz says he won’t bring up family and apologizes to Faber’s parents. It’s one of the least interesting debates in TUF coaching history.
Fight pick: Vick vs. Cruickshank. Faber thinks Vick lost his prelim fight, so it’ll be an easy win for Cruickshank.
Then comes the shocker.
Chiesa, the easygoing guy with the tangled hair and beard, says he was at practice getting warmed up when Faber told him he had to call his mom. He surely knows it’s not good news. He retreats to a dressing room and learns that his father has passed away.
He struggles through a confessional, saying his dad has been fighting AML, a form of cancer.
Chiesa says he had promised his dad he would stay on the show. But he tells his mom he’ll see what his options are. Faber goes in to comfort him and says in confessional he hopes he’ll stay.
Back at the house, Chiesa calls Sam Sicilia over. They’re training partners. They barely get in the house before Chiesa breaks down and chokes out the words that his father passed away. Sicilia is emotional in his own confessional.
Sicilia stresses the positive — his dad got to see him fight and win on national TV.
After an ad break, we get another Anik voiceover reminding us about the fight coming up. It’s a little jarring given what’s going on in the episode.
Timestamp: Monday. Chiesa goes in to meet with Dana White. They agree that he’ll go home to see his family and attend the funeral, then return. Maybe it’s cliche, but it’s what his dad wanted.
We meet Vick. He grew up poor and takes fighting very seriously. Strategically, Cruz wants him to stay busy so he doesn’t fall prey to Cruickshank’s takedowns. But Cruz also gives him a grappling crash course with the help of Lloyd Irvin, whose team and supporters typically deafen fans at DC-area MMA cards. Enthusiastic folks.
Cruickshank: “Some people are born fighters and some are raised fighters. I’d say I’m both.” His parents have martial arts backgrounds. Faber is training him to defend specific submissions that Vick might try. A little strange considering that Cruickshank says Vick considers himself a boxer.
Cruickshank seems overconfident. But we know the producers aren’t telegraphing anything because the fight is live.
Chiesa returns. He found out that his dad hung on to see him fight last week, then rapidly declined a few hours later.
Weigh-in: Thursday 4 p.m. That’s Pacific time, so we know the editors have had a little more than 24 hours to put this together. Ogle says Cruickshank has been kickboxing since he was born and will be going for KO of the season.
Again — we have to remind ourselves that the producers are not telegraphing things. We have no idea if the overconfident fighter is getting come-uppance.
“And we welcome you live,” Jon Anik says. Backstage with Cruz and Vick, then Faber and Cruickshank.
Vick is the tallest fighter in the competition at 6-3, Anik tells us. They offer up “keys to victory,” and Vick’s are to use his reach and keep his back off the fence. Cruickshank needs to control the center of the cage and push the pace.
Cruickshank charges in with uppercut. Vick high kick. Cruickshank spins. Vick charges. Curickshank leg kick, then spinning back kick, then charges for a takedown.
And Vick knocks him out cleanly with a knee.
Vick and team celebrate. Then the camera gets close into the huddle around Cruickshank, where referee Herb Dean is telling him to relax. He got caught. Fight’s over.
The official word: knockout, 2:16 into the round. Anik comes in to do a postfight interview. Vick says his knee was supposed to be a kick, but it worked out pretty well.
Anik also talks with Cruickshank. “What happened at the end of the fight?” “I don’t remember too much,” he says with a smile. The smile fades when Anik asks if it’ll be tough to stay focused for the next 12 weeks. Yes, 12 weeks in the house and the gym, with no chance of fighting again unless someone gets hurt. Reality has set in.
Back from the break, Anik talks with Dana, who says Faber underestimated Vick. Then Dana walks across the gym, like Stephen Colbert going for an interview, to do the fight picks.
Cruz throws everyone a curve. He calls up No. 1 pick Justin Lawrence, then says Faber can pick whichever guy he wants. Dana says he’s never seen that before. Faber jokes, “Shall we do the finals now?” Then he tentatively asks his team who’s ready to scrap. No one is. Faber asks Lawrence to make a pick, and he takes Marcello.
So things are off to a pretty bad start for Faber. But Chiesa’s week puts that in perspective.