In the coming months, merge is going to be a dirty word for lightweights struggling to scratch it out in a neck-deep division, and the contestants of The Ultimate Fighter 12 could soon find that out.
With an era of consolidation and contraction now upon us, there is almost no room for error as a lightweight under contract with Zuffa LLC. Just over a month after the Las Vegas-based company announced it will shutter the small-guy centered WEC and merge its talent with the UFC, there is overlap between the promotions at 155 pounds.
That means the axe will fall quick for those who don't win, in a game where the margin between spectacular and forgettable is often millimeter-thin.
As the reality show has trudged on, we've seen shorter and shorter shelf lives among TUF competitors. Sure, the standard TUF deal is for three years and eight fights, but that contract can be torn up faster than you can say "heretofore" and "notwithstanding." Earlier this year, the UFC axed its second TUF champion in Efrain Escudero, a winner on season eight.
When Spike TV producers assembled 28 lightweights for a six-week Lord of the Flies, they probably didn't anticipate one byproduct of this season's conclusion: a fresh glut of lightweights waiting for work in mergerland.
One of this season's competitors at this past Saturday's The Ultimate Fighter 12 finale, Nam Phan, may have seen the writing on the wall and bypassed the issue entirely. He fought instead at featherweight, where he got a bum decision against the wild-swinging Leonard Garcia.
So when it comes to the lightweights of TUF 12, who's staying and who's going?
• Jonathan Brookins (12-3): After a gutsy three-rounder against finalist Michael Johnson, this season's winner will stick around for a while, but it probably won't be at 155 pounds.
Prior to the show, Brookins made his living as a featherweight and in 2008 served a one-fight stint in the WEC, where he fought newly minted 145-pound UFC champ Jose Aldo. As it turns out, that fight had a -- pun intended -- striking similarity with the performance he delivered at the Pearl Theater in Las Vegas in that he took way too many punches for those he gave. Against Johnson, he battled back with superior grappling and won a decision. But he won't have that advantage against many of the UFC's top lightweights who are standout wrestlers in their own right. That means a trip back to featherweight, where size won't be as much of a detriment. And while he's a scrappy guy, he needs a lot of work on his standup -- particularly on defense -- before he makes a dent in the UFC.
"I think that's where my sights are set now, to play the part, (and) to really improve in the areas that are necessary to be a competitive factor in the UFC," he said following his reality show win. "I know me and Mike will have future fights here. Now, it's just up to us to pull the trigger and make our way up the ladder."
• Michael Johnson (8-5): After being rejected by Spike TV producers on multiple occasions, Johnson proved he was a worthwhile investment on TUF and won four of his fights on the reality show to make the finals. There, he knocked Brookins down with a hard punch in the first round and appeared to be well on his way to a TKO victory. But Brookins learned his lesson and took the fight down, where he controlled the action and won the remaining two rounds on judges' scorecards. The loss snapped a three-fight win streak for Johnson in regional competition.
Although Johnson's aggressive style will present problems for many of the UFC's lightweights, he's got the opposite task of Brookins in that he needs work on his defensive grappling. If he can't create scrambles, avoid submissions and get back to his feet, he's in a world of trouble against even mid-tier guys. (All of his professional losses with the exception of Brookins come by way of submission.)
"From here on out, it's jiu-jitsu day in and day out," Johnson told MMAjunkie.com after the fight. "I've got to get better off my back. That's my weak part of my game."
• Kyle Watson (13-6-1): A jiu-jitsu coach to standouts such as Matt Hughes, Robbie Lawler and Brian Foster, Watson used his grappling prowess to best three opponents on TUF 12 before eventual winner Jonathan Brookins outpointed him in the show's semifinals. On Saturday, he opened up more on his feet against quarterfinalist Sako Chivitchian and won the preliminary fight on points. While his jiu-jitsu could undoubtedly win him some fights in the UFC, Watson's passive, methodical style is not likely to win the favor of UFC matchmaker Joe Silva, and on the feet, there are just too many guys that could give him a big headache. With the right seasoning he could catch up, but it's not clear whether he'll get that chance.
• Cody McKenzie (12-0): The 22-year-old Alaskan's claim to fame is a guillotine choke he sometimes modifies to catch opponents and put them to sleep. He stuck to that gun Saturday and pulled off the choke on castmate Aaron Wilkinson, who, despite ample foreknowledge that he would contend with such a move, couldn't stop it much less get any offense going. At this point, it's a bit of a question mark as to how McKenzie will fare in the UFC's lightweight division, but with some serious work on his striking and cardio -- counting on first-round submissions in the UFC is like waiting for Publisher's Clearing House -- he's an interesting prospect to watch. (And seriously, wouldn't it just be fun to put him up against triangle specialist Paul Sass?)
• Nam Phan (16-8): In February 2008, I watched Phan take on Saad Awad at a Gladiator Challenger show held at the Los Angeles Convention Center. Awad, backed by what seemed like half of L.A.'s Persian population, had Phan on the verge of unconsciousness only moments after the fight started. That sent both his cageside supporters and a sizable contingent of Phan supporters bearing South Vietnamese flags into a frenzy. Phan eventually regained his composure and took the fight to the ground, where he nearly submitted Awad with an armbar. Awad escaped and turned the pressure back on. Phan battled back and mounted Awad at the end of the first. Then, in the second round, Phan landed a few of his patented body shots and quickly gained mount position, where he pounded Awad out and nearly caused a riot cageside.
The point is, Phan's a gamer. He doesn't always come out on top -- in fact, he's lost to pretty much all of the top-tier talent he's faced -- but he'll always bring a good fight. On Saturday, he soundly outstruck Leonard Garcia and by all accounts dominated the fight. Although the judges were apparently on their PSPs during judgement time, he'll be back and will put on several entertaining scraps in the 145-pound division.