10:34 p.m: Rising above the reality show fray won't guarantee winners of SpikeTV's The Ultimate Fighter in-cage glory, but if nothing else the format remains a tremendous vehicle for the UFC as it attempts to make new stars out of young mixed martial artists.
No one can be certain of the fighting fate awaiting Saturday's four finalists -- lightweights Phillipe Nover and Efrain Escudero, and light heavyweights Ryan Bader and Vinicius Magalhaes -- but the program's eighth finale in Las Vegas appears to have delivered serious, hard-working, talented competitors.
Forrest Griffin and Rashad Evans proved T.U.F. capable of producing champions and worthy contenders. Then there's the flip side, of course, best illustrated by Kendall Grove, who fell flat after taking a UFC contract.
10:46 p.m: The Final Four are aware they'll become promotable commodities inside the UFC. Whether there is longevity in the power of their name, well, we'll have a much better idea after two more "Ultimate Fighter" champions are crowned.
Time for Bader vs. Magalhaes. Big-time collegiate wrestling versus world-class Brazilian jiu-jitsu. Bader should have an edge on the feet -- though not a wide one -- and you could see him wrestle to stay standing rather than put the chiseled Brazilian on his back.
Oddsmakers have pegged Magalhaes as the favorite. I'm not sure I understand their logic. This feels like a close to even bout, with each man possessing the tools to win, and deficiencies that could cost them.
10:47 p.m: Give me Bader. I think he'll frustrate Magalhaes, especially if it gets past the opening round.
10:49 p.m: Some early feeling out. Single strikes from both. A jab. Or a kick the outside of the thigh. So far Bader is the one moving forward, and Magalhaes seems fine with his back near the fence.
10:58 p.m: Huge right hand from Bader. The punch had enough behind it to push through Magalhaes's defense and clip him behind the ear. Referee HerbDean moves in to stop the fight at 2:18 of the opening round.
No grappling to speak of in the fight. Sometimes fighters feel compelled to put on a show, and in MMA that's come to mean a standup affair. Perhaps that's why Magalhaes didn't even feign a takedown, but he needs to remember what makes him dangerous, and I'm sure he will as he gets more comfortable in his transition from jiu-jitsu to MMA.
11:01 p.m: Bader, the newly crowned light heavyweight "Ultimate Fighter," was mentioned by many closer observers as the man who would prevail at 205. And he showed why tonight. Because his wrestling is so good, he can control where the fight takes place. That's a tremendous advantage, and a necessary tool in a weight class that features wrestlers like Bader who've tuned up their striking.
11:07 p.m: A teammate of T.U.F. 7 finalist C.B. Dollaway at Arizona Combat Sports, Bader received a terrific scouting report on what to expect as he made his way into the house. Priority No. 1 was finding a bedroom secluded enough so that he could get away from all the frat-boy stuff. And he did, picking a downstairs corner room.
Beyond talent, fighters like Bader find success because they realize there's power in doing anything within their means to find an edge. Yet another talented wrestler, now with a 9-0 record, makes a name for himself in the UFC.
11:21 p.m: If there wasn't enough pressure associated with fighting in a T.U.F. finale, Phillipe Nover enters his lightweight tilt against Efrain Escudero knowing UFC President Dana White would love nothing more than finding mixed martial arts' Manny Pacquiao. "Pacman" is a Filipino national hero, and MMA promoters would be smart to cultivate international stars. It's far too soon to mention Nover with Pacquiao -- just as it's premature, as White did, to place Nover alongside Anderson Silva or Georges St. Pierre -- but recognition of MMA's globalism, and that nationalism is a tremendous promotional tool, makes Saturday's lightweight final intriguing for more than the usual reasons. Escudero can be as beneficial to the UFC. He carries Mexican ties, another market White and company have worked hard to infiltrate.
11:24 p.m: The hype is with Nover, but there are holes in his game. He leaves his chin exposed when he punches, and the scrappy Escudero can find the mark.
11:25 p.m: Expect a high-paced lightweight war, one of the better T.U.F. championships we've seen, especially on the canvas if it goes there.
11:26 p.m: Another tossup. And since I picked the dog in Bader, I'll go the other way with Nover.
11:27 p.m: Either way, both men have a future at lightweight, MMA's deepest division.
11:34 p.m: There was some talk that Nover would be the stronger lightweight, but the first clinch revealed Escudero -- the better wrestler -- can control the registered nurse. Escudero isn't giving Nover an inch, having now taken Nover's back. We'll see the value of Nover's newly-earned Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt.
11:36 p.m: Good shots from the top by Escudero, but his aggression gives Nover an opening. After a short submission threat with a triangle, the pair stands. Escudero isn't interested in keeping it on the feet, and another perfect double-leg.
Efrain is in this fight. There's no reason he can't win. In fact, he looks looks like the better fighter through three and a half minutes.
11:39 p.m: At the end of one, it's Escudero. He earns the first, 10-9. Nover hasn't found a rhythm and his hyped physical talents didn't materialize in the opening stanza.
11:42 p.m: The minute's rest between periods didn't provide Nover an answer Escudero's wrestling. Efrain can continue with his game plan and win this fight. We'll see if Nover is sophisticated and, surprisingly, physical enough to change the course of this fight as we hid the midway point.
11:43 p.m: Nover is reaching now, leading to easy engagements in the clinch for the Mexican-American. A stylish trip along the octagon fencing puts Escudero in half-guard. He's content to work from there, and with less than a minute remaining he should be well on his way to taking a two-rounds-to-none lead on the judges' cards. A big double-leg slam punctuates the second. Again, 10-9 Escudero.
11:45 p.m: Nover needs a stoppage if he's going to live up to the hype, otherwise Efrain Escudero is poised to become the third lightweight "Ultimate Fighter," joining Mac Danzig and Nate Diaz.
11:47 p.m: It's clear Nover won't win from his back. He'll need to stun Escudero from the outside. The problem, however, is each time Nover moves forward, Escudero ducks under for a double, or moves to the side and grabs a single. No adjustment from Nover, and three minutes remain.
11:50 p.m: Escudero is playing a tight game, and, much like football, the only thing a prevent defense does is prevent you from winning. Nover's best stretch of the fight comes as he locks up Escudero's right arm from the bottom and fires elbows and punches. A warning from referee Steve Mazzagatti for strikes to the back of the head slows Nover.
11:51 p.m: Less than a minute to go, and Nover forces the omoplata -- a shoulder lock with his legs -- but Escudero easily defends and counts down the final seconds.
11:52 p.m: The bell sounds, give the third to Nover. Final tally should be 29-28 Escudero.
11:56 p.m: And there it is, 29-28 on each judge's card for 22-year-old Escudero. Just a great tactical performance from Escudero, who avoided Nover's striking advantage through superior wrestling.
12:02 a.m: The UFC tonight graduated two strong-willed wrestlers into the ranks of "Ultimate Fighter." Both Bader and Escudero have an opportunity to be groomed and marketed in a way few mixed martial artists can comprehend. Of the two, Escudero seems poised to receive a big promotional push by Zuffa. His entry into the Hispanic market is a no-brainer, and the UFC has yearned for a fighter that could capture the imaginations of Mexican fight fans. Now all either man has to do is win in the cage, and the rest will fall into place.