Ben Fowlkes
Thursday June 18th, 2009

These Ultimate Fighter Finale events are in some ways like a high school graduation: you have people congratulating you and telling you what an accomplishment it is, but then you look around and see all the people who accomplished the same feat years before you -- from the smug vice principal to your loser older brother in the stands -- and it only reminds you that this is no guarantee of success. (Sorry to burst your bubble, 2009 grads.)

Every main-card fight on Saturday night's T.U.F. 9 Finale features at least one former finalist from the show. They're all in different stages of their careers -- some are on the way up, some starting to drift down -- while at least a couple are in frustrating holding patterns. But it's only the main event that threatens the produce a new top contender for its division.

Diego Sanchez, the very first Ultimate Fighter, now finds himself competing at a weight class 30 pounds lighter than when he started. He has, so he says, "continuously evolved" as he's dropped pounds and added new tools to his repertoire. And he believes the only thing standing between him and his title shot is Clay Guida, who's already dashed the hopes of former T.U.F. winners Mac Danzig and Nate Diaz.

"If I win, I think I'll deserve a title shot right away," said Sanchez. "But if he wins -- well, he's not going to win -- but even if he did, he wouldn't be the No. 1 contender."

Sanchez points to a more prestigious list of opponents to back up his claim, but also admits there's the issue of marketability to consider. Since his 2007 loss to Roger Huerta, Guida has become a noticeably more conservative fighter, using his wrestling to get opponents to the mat and keep them there -- typically not the recipe for becoming a fan favorite. While he's taken some heat for it, he's also notched three straight victories, proving that his style is effective, even if it isn't terribly popular.

"I'm not worried about anything he does," Sanchez said, shrugging off Guida's wrestling ability. "He's just really predictable and kind of robotic."

Predictable, maybe. But if Sanchez wants to move closer to that title shot, he'll have to figure out how to beat that style, becoming the first former T.U.F. winner to do so. It might even prove to be a good lesson for the new crop of T.U.F. winners, reminding them that winning the contract is only the beginning of a long and difficult journey.

Season 9's UK vs. USA approach yielded an imbalanced final group, with three of the four finalists coming from the British squad. In the lightweight bracket, teammates Ross Pearson and Andre Winner will square off, while the welterweight final pits the last American standing, DaMarques Johnson, against Team UK's James Wilks.

The Pearson-Winner lightweight scrap may turn out to be a contest of technical skill versus plain old brutality and will. Pearson has a well-rounded game, but he's not the smooth operator that Winner is; His biggest advantage is that he's always coming forward and doesn't mind getting messy. Whether that will be enough to beat the talented Winner seems doubtful.

Johnson proved to be by far the most dangerous of the American fighters, as well as a team leader, so it's only fitting that he stands alone for them in the finals. Wilks has a good jiu-jitsu game and a decent striking attack built around his sharp jab. If Johnson can avoid getting into a submission wrestling match with Wilks, he stands a good chance of picking him apart and overwhelming him on the feet.

And if he needs any extra motivation in this fight, he need only imagine all the gloating UK coach Michael Bisping will do if the Brit's team sweeps the finals.

Finally, lightweights and former T.U.F. winners Joe Stevenson and Nate Diaz will meet. Both coming off losses, but in the case of Diaz, you'll never convince him that his split-decision loss to Clay Guida was due to anything but exceptionally poor judging, so he might approach this fight with even more of a chip on his shoulder than usual. For Stevenson, however, the situation is dire.

Joe "Daddy" has lost three of his last four, including two straight, to Kenny Florian and Diego Sanchez, coming into this bout. As any fighter in the UFC these days knows, three straight defeats is often the magic number that leads to your contract being cut.

Stevenson swears he isn't concerned about that, though it has to be a lingering question in his mind. Going up against Diaz, he's giving up around five inches in height and a similar discrepancy in reach. He needs a change in strategy and style if he's going to figure out how to beat a tough, resilient Diaz. Stevenson might need at least a little bit of good luck as well.

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