Tony Ferguson took the crown of The Ultimate Fighter 13 in dominant fashion, capping off a clean sweep of the reality show tournament with a first-round knockout of Ramsey Nijem.
But for all the promise the 27-year-old has as a welterweight, his ability to grip emotions may be just as valuable. Ferguson was given a heel's greeting during his introduction, a reaction to be expected after a booze-filled outburst at fellow cast member Charlie Rader during the show. We've been missing a villain for a while, though Michael Bisping is on deck for TUF 14.
Three pairs of show castoffs got a chance to shine Saturday at the live finale at The Palms' Casino's Pearl Theater, but only one -- Justin Edwards vs. Clay Harvison -- got the blood pumping. Even then, it was a regional-level fight -- not an encouraging sign for the staying power of this season's contestants.
But that's nothing new these days. Most TUF contestants will work the regional circuit for a return to the big show. The show is still one of the best vetting processes for talent, a vehicle to drive pay-per-view sales, and the UFC needs it to keep the machine running. It's hard to argue, though, that an overhaul is long overdue. This season did not feature an elimination round in which fighters must fight their way onto the show, and it's momentum suffered dearly as a result. Expect eliminations to come back next season, and other format changes, as well.
For Nijem and those invited to the finale, there's a lot of work to be done before they meet the grinder that's the welterweight division.
Who's staying and who's going after TUF 13?
Tony Ferguson (11-2): So Ferguson bludgeons three guys with fists and feet during the taped portion of TUF, and at first bite scoops Ramsey Nijem -- the wrestler who was supposed to get the takedown -- to the mat in Saturday's final.
Nice trick, there, "El Cucuy."
Now concerned about ending up on his back, Nijem fires away with punches, but is getting a bit sloppy on his striking defense. That opens the door for a three-punch counter. A little shy of four minutes into the first frame, Nijem is asleep courtesy of a left hook, and the TUF crown is in the hands of Ferguson. Hello, six-figure contract.
Were he sitting cageside and not recovering from a second bout of diverticulitis, Brock Lesnar would have been a proud papa. Rightly so, because he and his team were the architects of the one-two, takedown-to-punches strategy. Following the show, Ferguson took refuge at Lesnar's gym in Alexandria, Minn., and found the foil to Nijem's aggressive, frequently spazzy punches: take the fight down, and you slow your opponent down.
And the other part of the plan? Connect with your opponent's jaw. (He'll really slow down.)
Now clear of the burdens of constant video surveillance, Ferguson sets out to make a name in the welterweight division. He's got some good traits (head movement, heavy hands, poise under fire) and a bad one (predictable striking patterns) from what we can see. He's bowled through unproven competition, sure. But he has yet to be tested against a strong wrestler or a technical striker. He might be undersized -- he admitted that the lightweight class is an option, but said a fight with Amir Sadollah is a good challenge for his first post-TUF career.
He's on the right track, though, in seeking assistance from Lesnar. Looking outside his comfort zone in Ventura, Calif., and to those with extensive experience in the UFC could make or break his career. We've all too often seen great promise squandered in those in-between times of a fighter's life. There's a reason behind a long line of TUF veterans who've packed up and high-tailed it to gyms in Las Vegas or other major hubs: they're second to none for finding out where you stack up. They're also trying political environments as much as centers of improvement, but that's another story.
A fight with Pascal Krauss, who's inexplicably been M.I.A. since his Octagon debut at UFC 122, sounds like a good first test for Ferguson. Sadollah, too, is a promising fight. You can bet Lesnar's plan will be in effect for that one.
Ramsey Nijem (4-2): He has one of the thinnest resumes coming from the show, but Nijem's tenacity makes up for a lot. He fights like a guy defending his honor; he'll chase you until you're cornered and then swarm. If he didn't smile so darn much, well, he'd be the guy you don't want to run into at the local Dairy Queen.
The dark horse of the show, Nijem overwhelmed three opponents on his way to the final. And he certainly spooked Ferguson enough to be taken down after a few of his flurries found their mark during Saturday's main event. But in the end, a rookie mistake robbed him of the reality show crown; he failed to defend a counter off his jab, allowing Ferguson to find him with a left hook that put him out.
Nijem is a scrappy guy everywhere -- he just needs some more seasoning to round out his technical deficiencies. Ferguson easily took him down, and he's not exactly Matt Hughes. With the knockout, Nijem is one down on the confidence ladder. So it's a matter of building that when he returns to the octagon. As we often see in TUF graduates, those with thin resumes get smart fights -- guys on the downslide or newcomers with padded resumes. The latter sounds like the most likely scenario.
The lightweight division is the destination I'd pick for Nijem. Just prior to the show, he made his debut at 155 pounds and jumped weight for the reality show spot. He should go back; things looked a bit soft on the scale at 170 pounds.
Chris Cope (5-1): He's walked the earth like Caine in Kung Fu, hopping from gym to gym. Now, he's known as that "Woo-hoo!" guy on that reality show about cage fighters. Cope certainly enjoys the attention and can't help himself from sharing the excitement of being on the world's biggest stage. He's rubbed shoulders with a lot of guys who've been there for a while, and he's certainly benefitted from time with such veterans as Josh Koscheck, Brandon Vera, Dominick Cruz and Dan Henderson. But he's still very much a work in progress, though. He was the busier fighter against Chuck O'Neil. But something was missing. Killer instinct, perhaps. Maybe it's constant whooping, or the big smile on his face, or the inability to put O'Neil away, but I got the sense I was watching more of a sparring session than a fight.
In the end, Cope, otherwise known as "C-Murder," got the decision nod. But he may have frustrated the crowd at the Pearl Theater more than he impressed them. Celebrating a ho-hum fight between rounds -- and getting all your friends to do the same throughout -- comes off as laughing at your own lame jokes. Save it for the decision.
Shamar Bailey (12-3): We got a preview of coming attractions in Bailey's loss to Cope in the quarterfinals of the reality show tournament. At 5-foot-9, he was forced to punch up at the 6-foot-1 Cope, and he struggled the whole fight to get a takedown. Cope stayed on his bicycle, sniped with punches, and stuffed shot after shot. The decision easily went his way.
Cope is no Chuck Liddell in the sprawl-and-brawl game, at least yet. But he is a notch above Ryan McGillivray, who couldn't stop a takedown to save his life as Bailey blanketed him for three rounds. Bailey got a good matchup this time around. But he's going to be at a physical deficit almost every time he steps inside the octagon. The welterweights of today are around six feet tall and cut between 20 and 30 pounds to make the limit. If Bailey wants to be competitive, it's crucial he hires a nutritionist, lose some of his bulk, and try his hand in the lightweight division. It won't be a pleasant cut; he's a fireplug at welterweight. But there are few other ways for him to level the playing field.
Oh, and a little more risk-taking from Bailey on the feet wouldn't be a bad idea, either. If he's looking for recent evidence on the success of wrestlers in today's UFC, he can look at Saturday's co-headliner Clay Guida and the fate of his title shot.
Clay Harvison (9-3): From what he's shown thus far, he's not much of a wrestler, not much of a jiu-jitsu stylist, and doesn't have a gas tank for days. But Harvison is good for a slugfest, and matched with others of his fistic ilk, he'll be good for a few shows. Deeper into the division, he'll get chewed up by wrestler-boxers. But throw him a couple of newcomers and get him into a camp with wrestling guru Mark Munoz, and he could be on his way.
Justin Edwards (6-1): The judges say he lost the fight with Harvison, but he deserves credit for a gutsy, exciting performance. As a matter of fact, he was all over the fight in the first round, one big mess of scrambles and knees and takedowns. Sure, his gas tank betrayed him far too early. But he came back and gave Harvison a run for his money. Had he not given up the middle of the fight to exhaustion, there was no question who would have won. He earned a return trip to the octagon. Next time out, he's got to pace himself instead of going nuclear at first bell.