The Ultimate Fighter 17, episode 1: Sonnen-chanted evening …

Funny: I Googled “sonnen chanted” to see if anyone else had used that, and Google asked me if I meant “sonnen cheated.”

Yes, it’s The Ultimate Fighter‘s 17th season, in which we’ll see if a move to Tuesday nights can re-invigorate the ratings.

First, let’s clear up one misconception: Season 16 was not the worst season of the show. Last season’s fighters were interesting, at least until they got into the cage. Season 13 is still the worst by far — boring fights, boring fighters, boring coaches.

So this season, they’ve re-branded. The intro talks about the tough tournament (Bellator execs surely aren’t amused — they somehow wrangled ad time near the end of this two-hour show and tossed out their “toughest tournament in sports” mantra) and the atmosphere, as if re-introducing the series to viewers. The photography is more cinematic in nature, like a 30-for-30 documentary rather than TUF. The graphics, aside from the TUF logo itself, are redesigned, bold and spare. Dana White looks like he’s speaking into the camera from The Blair Witch Project.

And Chael Sonnen is here, figuring he might at least be able to win a war of words with Jon Jones even if he has no chance in his  undeserved title shot. (I still like the idea of having Sonnen coach against and then fight Forrest Griffin, leaving Jones free to fight an actual light heavyweight contender like Dan Henderson, Alexander Gustafsson or pretty much anyone who has actually won a fight at 205 pounds at a level above Gladiator Challenge.)

One more complaint about this season: The 14-man, single-class tournament with a prelim round and a wild-card bout is the dumbest format this show has ever used. It’s far smarter to use a “wild card” to bring back a talented fighter (maybe Costa Philippou, Che Mills or Ryan Jimmo, to name three fighters the show lost) who loses in the prelims. As it stands now, a fighter can win the prelim, lose in the first round, win the wild-card bout, win the quarterfinal and then step in for his fifth fight in a few weeks. Might as well go back to the UFC 1 format and just have these dudes fight three times in one night.

But I’m writing a book about The Ultimate Fighter, I’m a professional, and I still like this show. Like Saturday Night Live, it’s worth sitting through the low points to see the high points. So off we go (bios at Sherdog and the official TUF site) …

We start at Palace Station casino, as if thumbing our noses at UNITE HERE, the labor group that has taken its dispute with the UFC-owning Fertitta brothers to anti-MMA advocacy. Some lawmakers in New York actually seem to think their objections are related to MMA, making them either gullible or dishonest.

Another change: Family members will be there for the eliminations. Before the show is done, we’ll meet many of them. Some will be in the hotel rooms sharing last-minute bits of inspiration. Some will be cheering for their kids like it’s a Little League game, and the kids won’t get ice cream if they lose. Some will get camera time like A.J. McCarron’s girlfriend.

But we still have our pre-fight coaching awkwardness, with Sonnen and Jones left alone in a room. Except for the camera crew. Sonnen yaps. Jones says little. I think we’ve set a tone.

Fortunately, things get moving in a hurry …

FIGHT 1

Jake Heun (3-2): Lots of friends in his hotel room and the gym. He says on his bio he used to drop Chris Leben in practice.

Adam Cella (4-0): Says he used to be 250 pounds, but then he saw a fight and decided to get in shape. Girlfriend gets screen time.

Heun slips on a kick and looks awkward. He gets Cella down, but Cella grabs the arm and flips to get the armbar. Winner: Adam Cella, armbar, first round

FIGHT 2

Zak Cummings (15-3): Took Ryan Jimmo to five rounds, which isn’t bad.

Nik Fekete (5-1): Michigan State wrestler, like Gray Maynard and Rashad Evans. Camera crew went to his house, another TUF novelty.

Dana’s excited, the coaches are excited, and we … oh, it’s over. Fekete threw a kick and left his hand down, as Sonnen neatly dissects for us afterwards. Cummings lands one punch, and down goes Fekete. It’s stopped quickly, and Fekete is grappling with invisible opponents as he comes to. Didn’t see an exact count, but it’s less than 10 seconds, easily. Winner: Zak Cummings, TKO, first round

FIGHT 3

Eldon Sproat (3-1): He’s from Hawaii and does rodeo. Didn’t mention that on his bio, which will provide 10 seconds of dull reading. He never had a silver platter to eat off of. Maybe that should be the bonus instead of a Harley.

Kevin Casey (5-2): Dude has already fought Matt Lindland? Best friend was Rickson Gracie’s son. Mom is emotional.

Another TUF novelty: After 2-3 seconds, we go to some stylized slo-mo highlights. Casey gets cut over his eye, dripping blood all over, but he’s the far superior grappler. Winner: Kevin Casey, rear naked choke, round unknown

FIGHT 4

Scott Rosa (4-1): Dana’s amused by his prefight show of shadowboxing for every camera on the premises but impressed that he knocked out James Irvin. He also fought Jan. 18, so we’ll guess he doesn’t win here.

Tor Troeng (15-4-1): Swedish academic’s son who looks at MMA as another problem to solve. Fourth fight was a main event against Mamed Khalidov, so some European promoters must think highly of him.

Highlights only — yeah, Troeng solved that problem. Winner: Tor Troeng, rear naked choke, round unknown

FIGHT 5

Clint Hester (7-3): From Georgia!

Fraser Opie (10-5): Sounds like a 70s sitcom character, doesn’t he? Actually from South Africa.

Hester has a boxing background and lands a hard body blow, then wows the coaches with his grappling, including a big slam. Jones likes him a lot and is already coaching him during the fight. Winner: Clint Hester, unanimous decision

Any thoughts about going to the TUF house, Clint? Yeah, he compares it to federal prison, though he points out he’s never been there.

FIGHT 6

Ryan Bigler (9-3): Another fighter to make his way from Guam to TUF. He has a buddy in his hotel room reading an inspirational quote and then mangling the name “Churchill.”

Robert “Bubba” McDaniel (20-6): 26 fights? And he fights for Greg Jackson, where he has often been in camp with one Jon Jones. He weeps after a long hug with his sister.

Bubba’s wrestling and Jones’ coaching carry the day. A man with a huge beard is very happy. No, it’s not Roy Nelson. Winner: Bubba McDaniel, TKO, second round

FIGHT 7

Josh Samman (9-2): Beat Chris Cope. We meet him in his hotel room making out with his girlfriend. Wait, is this Cinemax?

Leo Bercier (7-2-1): Native American, talks about the miserable life on the reservation. Press release says he’s fighting Feb. 15 in Maximum FC, which could bode ill for his chances in the prelims.

Samman takes Bercier down and takes the women’s tennis approach to ground-and-pound, going “Hyuhn!” with every punch. Bercier has no defense whatsoever, and Dana and Jones get a little impatient waiting for Samman to finish it. Winner: Josh Samman, TKO, first round

Sonnen chases after Samman to congratulate him. Jones and Dana smirk, thinking he’s “politicking.” I’m guessing it went like this ..

Hey, great fight. Listen — can you help me with this “pound thing? I have the “ground” part down — I had Anderson Silva on his back for 23 minutes. But then he just submitted me like it was a white-belt grappling contest …

FIGHT 8

Kito Andrews (9-2): Team Alpha Male fighter. We see him with his kids, of whom he just won custody. They cling to him while he tells them to be good kids while he’s gone. He grew up on food stamps, powdered milk and Spam. Even Danny Downes can’t find a way to be snarky about this. We’re going to have to save the snark-offs for Episode 2, when these guys start acting like idiots in the house. (Well, Dana finds a way, saying Andrews must be used to fighting because he’s divorced.)

Kelvin Gastelum (4-0): He’s a bail bondsman and the youngest fighter in TUF history, Dana tells us, at age 21.

Highlights only: Kito’s son gets some interview time, saying Kito has always wanted to be on the show. Kito lands good body shots, but Kelvin does better in Round 2. Sonnen says it was close, but Kelvin wins. We see Kito’s sons react in disappointment. They go over to tell him they’re still proud of him. What a nice family. Seriously. I’m thinking of starting a business so I can hire this guy and coach his kids in soccer. Winner: Kelvin Gastelum, decision

FIGHT 9

Jimmy Quinlan (3-0): Wrestler and jiu-jitsu guy.

Mike Persons (3-0): From Stockton, like the Diazes (not that they’re mentioned), and he works at his friend Steve’s store. Seriously, that’s pretty much all they say about him.

Highlights only: Jimmy is a really good wrestler. So say Jones and Sonnen, and they should know. Like Jones and unlike Sonnen, he also does the “pound” part. This whole bit lasted about as long as an ad. Winner: Jimmy Quinlan, TKO, first round

FIGHT 10

Uriah Hall (7-2): Only losses are to Chris Weidman and Costa Philippou. That’s serious. From Jamaica via Queens, where he was getting teased a lot and went to a counselor who happened to have a martial arts place next door.

Andy Enz (3-0 – the show claims he’s 6-1): Hey, remember the “nap-jitsu” dude who tried to irritate people in the TUF 16 house? No? Well, anyway, Enz beat him.

They devote a bit more buildup to this one, so we get to see Hall’s pecs bounce in slow-motion. I’m not used to the slo-mo, and I’m not used to seeing the dads and granddads yelling at their kids like hockey parents.

As the fight starts, we cut away to Sonnen, who says he just wants fighters with heart and determination, because then we can find a way to get it done. First, apply to the Nevada commission for a therapeutic use exemption …

Hall lands serious strikes, get him down, gets back up, lands more serious strikes, etc. Enz is showing heart and determination, but he’s also getting his butt kicked. (Well, his head and body, to be more precise.) Hall looks like a middleweight Jon Jones — long-limbed and much quicker than his opponent. Enz manages a reverse into Hall’s guard, at least, and he narrowly slips out of a triangle just when it seemed his eyes were in the back of his head. Round 1 ends, and Sonnen stands to yell “Outstanding!” Yeah, it is.

We see more of Enz’s family yelling at him like he’s a soccer player who won’t get orange slices if he loses, and we’re into Round 2. Hall seems surprised Enz is still standing in front of him, and Hall ends up having to pull himself out of a submission or two. Sonnen likes Enz but says he “ran into a hammer known as Uriah Hall.” Winner: Uriah Hall, decision

Hall waits for Enz to finish hugging his family, then sportingly congratulates him.

See, Dana? This is why you do the wild card after the PRELIMS! You could have both these guys in the house!

FIGHT 11

Gilbert Smith (5-1): We start in his hotel room, where he tells his family he has resolved not to be afraid of his dreams.

Eric Wahlin (4-2): Lost his first two, won his next four. He says he doesn’t know how he’s been making his child-support payments, and his house is being taken away from him. Can we take up a collection?

Dana thinks Smith looks like Tyson. No, he looks nothing like Tyson Griffin. Oh, the other one? Yeah, maybe. They’re painting Smith as the overwhelming favorite, which often means we’re going in a different direction.

Not this time. Wahlin shows some submission skills, but Smith turns Wahlin’s head purple with an arm triangle. Dana thinks Wahlin may have been punching rather than tapping, but in Wahlin’s state of consciousness, no one really knows or cares. Winner: Gilbert Smith, arm triangle, first round

FIGHT 12

Nicholas Kohring (3-0): He’s 22. He has braces. He has that Millennial mumble. His fiancee has a Goth vibe. His mom talks a lot.

Luke Barnatt (5-0): Nearly two meters tall. That’s 6-foot-6. Quit a nice job to do MMA and says he’s forgotten what it was like to have money. He’s surprisingly not subtitled even with a thick Andy Ogle-style accent, but the producers must figure that if we can understand Kohring, we’ll understand anyone.

The coaches like Luke’s reach, but Nicholas shows a willingness to get inside and swing. We switch to highlights, and Luke ends the first round flipping Nicholas to the mat. That’s about it — Jones says Luke looks like “top 3.” Nicholas looks like another guy who could’ve deserved another shot. Winner: Luke Barnatt, decision

FIGHT 13

Dylan Andrews (15-4): Beat Shonie Carter in 2010. High school rugby player from New Zealand via Australia. Dana says he grew up in a “marijuana growhouse.” Again, no Diaz reference?

Tim Williams (7-1): “The South Jersey Strangler”? Dana: “He looks like he strangled a few people before he came here.” He has wild scars and close-cropped hair.

Andrews looks terrified of the Strangler, but as Williams charges, Andrew drops him. Strangler fights through it. Dana says if someone needs to be replaced, he may bring back the loser of this fight. Again, Dana … format!

Chael says it was close and could’ve gone to a third round, but … Winner: Dylan Andrews, decision

FIGHT 14

Collin Hart (4-1-1): Californian. Nicknamed “The Dick” to Dana’s amusement. All he does is sleep and train. And work. And go to bars.

Mike Jasper (5-0): Quarterback of a semipro football team, Dana says. Lots of green in his tattoos.

The slo-mo replay starts with a missed kick. Jones says it’s an awesome fight and that Collin’s dirty boxing reminds him of Randy Couture. Before you have time to think this is going to be dull, Hart drags Jasper to the ground and gets the tap. Winner: Collin Hart, rear naked choke, first round

And we’re not done. Coin toss, Sonnen wins, picks first fighter … the bloody Luke Barnatt. Sonnen says he picked him based on conditioning.

Jones answers with Clint Hester.

Sonnen: Uriah Hall (says he likes Jones, but things happen for a reason)
Jones: Josh Samman

Sonnen: Zak Cummings
Jones: Bubba McDaniels

Sonnen: Tor Troeng
Jones: Gilbert Smith (he says he was sending a message “Pick me, pick me,” and Jones must’ve picked it up.)

Sonnen: Jimmy Quinlan
Jones: Collin Hart

Sonnen: Kevin Casey
Jones: Adam Cella

Sonnen: Kelvin Gastelum
Jones: Dylan Andrews, who gets the “last pick” ribbing but says he gets to fly under the radar.

We still have eight minutes left in this episode. Fighters on Team Jones, led by Josh, already have an idea of who they want to fight and in which order.

The fight announcement … after a Bellator ad … is Gilbert vs. Luke. What?

Josh isn’t happy. He says Team Jones can’t sweep the fights if they lose the first one. Check out the big brains on Josh.

But Josh is right. That’s a dumb, dumb strategy. You want to boost morale by taking out the other team’s top pick? OK, but when you lose, you give up control. And the other guy had first pick.

Sonnen rhymes for a bit and makes some speech about fists instead of emotions. But the ace card they’re holding is a big-time knockout, which Dana says is one of the nastiest he has seen in the sport. We see someone loaded into an ambulance.

A seriously injured fighter and Chael Sonnen? Don’t show this to the New York legislature. But the rest of us should be intrigued.

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