The Ultimate Fighter may not be the primary way MMA fans get their fix of the sport anymore, but the conclusion of the most recent season showed that there is still plenty of significance to the show. In the finale of the show's 25th season, rising stars kept their promises and, true to its title, redemption was earned by one of the show's former stars.
Here are some thoughts, takeaways, and highlights from the season finale:
The main event of The Ultimate Fighter: Redemption finale featured the debut of Justin Gaethje, the self-proclaimed best fighter in the world outside the UFC. An undefeated former World Series of Fighting champion, Gaethje was not only getting the spotlight in the event but a shot at an instant insertion into the top five of the division.
“I was so happy to be in there,” Gaethje said at the post-fight press conference. “I was so happy to be in the back. I was so happy to walk to the Octagon. I was so happy to hear everyone chanting my name.”
Coming in, Gaethje promised violence and entertainment for fans.
“Fans come for a shot of adrenaline. I build a brand and the brand is violence,” Gaethje said Wednesday on UFC Tonight. “I won’t go for a submission. If I knock him down, I’ll tell him to get back up, so I’ll to be a knock out. If he survives to the fifth, I’ll give him a high five.”
His opponent Michael Johnson didn’t make it to the fifth round and Gaethje delivered on his promises. After Gaethje knocked Johnson to the mat, he walked away and gestured for Johnson to stand up.
Gaethje won the fight, but that victory wasn’t without adversity; Johnson had Gaethje rocked twice throughout the fight.
“He needed to land another one of the shots he did, probably,” Gaethje said. “Once he hit me, definitely flashed me. But just like that I was back in it.”
Gaethje’s resilience allowed him to ultimately outlast Johnson’s barrage before swinging momentum his way. With a win over the fifth-ranked fighter in the division, Gaethje’s name is now officially in the mix.
The immediate focal point for Gaethje is Tony Ferguson, calling for that fight and the interim title shot next. A win would guarantee a shot at champion Conor McGregor and the official title of best in the world.
“McGregor’s not here, so I’m going to get that interim title on my waist and when he comes back, pressure,” Gaethje said. “I pressure people. They think they can take it."
“He has a fantastic left hand, if he touches me with it I’ll go to sleep. If not, you saw what will happen tonight.”
The champion is preparing for a crossover-boxing bout against Floyd Mayweather, but watched the fight and sung the praises of both fighters.
“Real recognize real. That dude is a warrior, I’m a warrior,” Gaethje said. “I only got to do that one or two more times and I’m not going to ask for the money fight, I’m going to be the money fight.”
Redemption achieved for Jesse Taylor
As indicated by its title, the premise of the 25th season of The Ultimate Fighter was redemption; A cast of former show contestants would get another shot at UFC glory.
No one embodied this angle more than Jesse Taylor. On the cusp of an appearance in the finale of the seventh season, a drunken Taylor kicked out the window of a rented limousine and terrorized patrons of a casino. UFC president Dana White removed him from the finale.
Then came a shot at redemption, nearly 10 years later. Taylor reentered the Ultimate Fighter house this season and fought his way to the finale, facing UFC vet Dhiego Lima.
In the second round, Lima dropped Taylor and the dream appeared to be slipping away. An ill-advised submission attempt let Taylor get Lima’s back and lock in the rear-naked choke to secure the win that both eluded and haunted him.
"I can’t put this into words," Taylor said. “I think this is the perfect redemption story."
“I’ve fallen down a lot in life, we all saw it 10 years ago on The Ultimate Fighter 7. I just kept going, I kept grinding. I went over to Russia, I went to Australia I got to see the world and I got a second chance and I wasn’t going to let this second chance go to waste. We all mess up in life. There’s nothing too special about me, I’m a simple guy who went after his dream. If you hit me with a train I’m going to get up and keep going.”
He leaves the show with a UFC contract and an extra $290,000 for his bank account.
It also was a feel good moment of a bygone era in the UFC, when the Ultimate Fighter meant more to the promotion and fans.
Stars of the Night
1. Justin Gaethje – Entered his UFC debut undefeated, promising violence, and delivered with a gritty performance. Out of the three "Performance of the Night" bounses handed out, Gaethje took home two.
2. Tecia Torres – The winner of the third "Performance of the Night" bonus. Earned her first stoppage victory with a rear-naked choke on Julianna Lima, a feared strawweight fighter.
3. Jared Cannonier – During an event that lacked finishes or excitement, Cannonier breathed live into the T-Mobile Arena with a dominant performance over Nick Roehrick.
Justin Gaethje’s finish of Michael Johnson:
Jesse Taylor’s finish of Dhiego Lima:
Tecia Torres earns her first career finish:
1. The UFC is committed to a women’s flyweight division
Hours before Jessica Eye was set to fight Aspen Ladd, the fight was called off. All Eye was told was that Ladd was sick. Months of work in the books for nothing but a paycheck. No release, and no career-reviving win.
Eye did get one piece of good information, though: She would be returning to her natural weight class, flyweight. UFC matchmaker Sean Shelby promised her a fight at 125 pounds on the phone when breaking her the news about Ladd.
"I asked Sean if I could have my next fight at 125 and they [said] yes," Eye said. "I feel like everything happens for a reason, maybe that's why this happened the way it did. For me to go through these motions again here with you guys and keep my weight low."
"Be able to go through this whole week again to prove to myself that I am supposed to be here."
2. The best fighter doesn’t always win The Ultimate Fighter
Jesse Taylor won the season, but was he the best fighter on the show? After thoroughly defeating fellow semi-finalist Tom Gallicchio in the finale, James Krause looked considerably more dominant than Taylor, the man who took home a $290,000 check and trophy for winning the show.
“I know the best fighter doesn’t always win that show, it’s been proven time and time again,” Krause, the only active UFC fighter on the show, said. “The No. 1 pick and all that sh--, that goes out the window. None of that matters."
“That show is a different beast.”
Krause broke down the trials of being isolated from family and being around potential opponents all day, every day. Outside the show, fighters know who their opponent is. On the show, fighters find out with little time to prepare.
“The whole process is flipped upside down,” Krause said. “Opponent, set date, venue, training camp. You have everything planned out. On the show it’s the complete opposite of that. You don’t know who you’re fighting, when you’re fighting. You could potentially be fighting someone you’re talking to and sleeping next to."
“You could be fighting a teammate, somebody from the opposite team. You have no idea about anything.”
While Taylor won and capped a captivating season, going forward he might not be the fighter with the most potential in the future. Just compare the numbers. Krause landed 57 percent of his strikes, connecting on 113 of them, 106 of which were significant. Gallicchio – remember, a semi-finalist on the show – was nowhere close to competing with those numbers, landing 27 percent, 57 total strikes, albeit 53 of which were deemed significant.
Taylor’s numbers on paper are even better, but the fight lasted just six minutes. And he was dropped and nearly finished before an overly aggressive Dhiego Lima put himself in harm’s way and ultimately tapped out.
Krause walks out of the show believing he was the best fighter there He lost to Taylor in the semi-finals and said an unknown staph infection at the time could’ve hindered him.
3. Gimmick seasons of The Ultimate Fighter work
The Ultimate Fighter has lost the significance it once had in MMA and the UFC. In the early years, the show introduced MMA to potential new fans. It gave an under-saturated MMA community more viewing options. It also introduced fans to rising fighters who could realistically become stars in the sport.
Now, there are almost three UFC events every week and other promotions competing regularly. Fans are over-saturated. There are enough big names in MMA that fans aren’t turning to the show to see who the next big star is.
Take Gaethje, who made his UFC debut. Fans knew him from his time in the now re-named World Series of Fighting. As he stood in the cage waiting for the opening bell, fans chanted his name and rallied around him during his remarkable comeback.
Fans didn’t need the show to familiarize them with Gaethje, and Gaethje didn’t need the show.
To breathe life into the franchise, producers have turned to gimmicks and feuds between coaches. These have included crowning the first strawweight champion, the winner getting a shot at flyweight champion Demetrious Johnson, or, in this case, redemption.
And it’s worked. This season felt nostalgic, not because the fighters were familiar faces from the show and UFC alike, but because it captured the essence of the early seasons of the show.