The Ultimate Fighter 18 made history with its debut on Wednesday, as the show hosted female fighters for the first time ever. The fights were all outstanding, but they had to start somewhere.
The first female fight in TUF history took place between Jessamyn Duke and Laura Howarth. So, in this weekly installment, Bleacher Report will talk to Duke and get her thoughts in the aftermath of each episode.
This week, we will talk about the tryouts, the lead-up to the elimination round and all of the opening-round fights, as well as the picking of the teams by coaches Ronda Rousey and Miesha Tate.
B/R: Before we talk about the show, let's talk about the tryouts. I'm sure a ton of female fighters from several different weight classes showed up with the intent of making the show. Describe the setting and the process during the tryouts.
Duke: The tryouts were in April and I had literally just fought the week before against Miriam Nakamoto. I was really motivated to do well because at that point it was still a loss (later turned into a no-contest). There were about 50-60 girls that showed up to the tryouts.
We did mat work where we grappled and then they did cuts. Then we did mitt work and they did cuts again. It was intense. By the time we got to the interview phase, at least half the girls were cut.
I did really well at the tryouts and made the interview process. After that, we didn't know if we got cut yet. We were left in the dark and had to train to be ready, we were really in the dark.
About eight days before the show, I got the call that I made it, so that's how long I had to really prepare for that elimination fight.
B/R: Going back to the interview phase, what did they want to talk to you about? Was it more like background/interesting stories or more fighting experience?
Duke: They said the most important thing was to be yourself and talk. You're going to be talking a lot on the show, so they asked a bunch of things. They asked about my fight that just happened, why I wanted to be on the show, what I brought to the show, what I thought it would be like living with guys in the house. They wanted to see your overall persona that you would bring on the show.
B/R: When you arrived in Las Vegas, how long did it take from when you got there to when you actually found out whom you were fighting, and what was it like just waiting in the hotel?
Duke: We were for two or three days at least and it was total radio silence. The only people we had contact with was the production people. Our focus was to cut the weight and make weight. We stayed in our hotel room the entire time. If we needed anything, the producers would get it for us. Once in a while we would go out to do an interview or see someone in the hall, but everything was really isolated.
We had weigh-ins the day before the fight and that is finally when we learned whom we would fight. Everybody is sizing each other up at the weigh-ins and everybody made weight. That's when I finally found out I was fighting Laura Howarth. Then we went to the gym, met the coaches and went right back to the hotel. We weren't allowed to leave our rooms other than that!
Plus, when we did interviews, even though the producers knew Cat Zingano wasn't going to coach anymore, we still were asked questions to keep our reactions legitimate when we actually found out Miesha Tate was replacing her. Everything was legitimate.
B/R: Let's talk about your actual fight now. You fought Laura Howarth and defeated her with a first-round triangle choke. How were you feeling in that fight and how do you think you performed overall?
Duke: I was overall pretty happy with my performance. I was happy with my striking, but wished I was more accurate. She was kind of running away from me, so I didn't get full exposure there. Then we clinched and went to the ground, which was fine. I knew she was a wrestler, so I figured she would do what she did on the ground and just hold me there.
I think I have a good guard and I have more submissions than knockouts on my record anyways. I could tell I was the superior grappler once I got a hold of her. I almost got an armbar, but she defended it well. Once I rolled her back into my guard, I heard Manny Gamburyan scream two minutes. I figured I needed to get off my back to win the round, but I felt her reach, so I jumped on the triangle choke that ended the fight.
I really wanted that finish; I wasn't letting go until I got something. Dana White's speech before the fights started really fired me up and got me motivated. I wanted to finish my fight and set the bar high. Luckily she tapped, and I was ecstatic!
B/R: You were the first fight of the entire day, so you were able to see all of the other ladies fight. Who had the best performance in watching the rest of the elimination fights and what was the biggest shocker when watching your fellow ladies?
Duke: Yeah it was great, right after I won, they let me sit in the stands and watch, which was a huge advantage. I got to watch and scout everybody!
When I actually watched them all, I picked three ladies that I thought were the biggest threats: Shayna (Baszler), Jessica (Rakoczy) and Raquel (Pennington). I figured coming in that Shayna and Raquel were the biggest coming in because we fought on the same Invicta card before. That being said, once I saw Jessica's fight, my coach who was at the taping came up to me and said, "She's going to be a threat."
I knew Jessica was a great boxer, but watching her scrambles and submission defense was impressive. She was tenacious and relentless, so that was the biggest shocker that won. She got the omoplata and just started cranking even though she didn't know fully what she was doing. That's when I knew she was going to be tough.
I would definitely say the biggest shocker of them all was Tara LaRosa losing. She was the most experienced fighter and a pioneer of this sport, but Sarah Moras went out there and outworked her. I think everyone expected her to make it in the house.
B/R: So it's time to pick teams, and you are the second pick of Ronda Rousey (fourth overall). What were your first thoughts on meeting the coaches? Who did you want as a coach? What are you going through when the coaches start to pick?
Duke: A couple of years ago, Ronda and I were on the same amateur card and stayed in touch a little bit. Nothing crazy, but once in a while we'd Facebook or Twitter each other. Last year, I was in LA and actually trained with her and her team a bit. They were super welcoming and it was awesome. We really got along, Ronda and myself.
When we got to the gym, we got random corners and luckily I got her coaches in my corner. I meshed well with all of them. I knew from then that I wanted to be on Ronda's team.
After the fight, I went up to Marina Shafir and Ronda and said, "I know you gotta do what you gotta do, but if you pick me I will give you 110 percent for the next six weeks."
I know that there was strategy and they had ideas of what they wanted to do, but I figured letting them know that I would give them my all would show them how ready and willing I was to perform for them.
Fast forward to the team selections. Ronda actually won the coin flip, but she choose to pick the first fight. I was nervous, but I knew Shayna would be picked first overall, but Tate choose her friend Julianna Pena and Shayna was left for Ronda to take. That's when I got really nervous that I might get picked by Tate, not that there's anything wrong with Miesha, but I had my heart set on Ronda's team.
My heart was pounding, I was so nervous. I could hear my heart beating through my ears. Then she took Sarah Moras and in my head, I went, "Yes!" Then I was like, "Oh God, Ronda, pick me please!"
Luckily Ronda took me with her next pick and once I heard my name, all of this stress got released. Plus, having Shayna on my team was great because she was my homie coming onto the show. We been on the same Invicta card and have trained before. Plus, I look up to her. So being on Shayna and Ronda's team was ideal for me, I knew I'd learn a lot.
B/R: In watching the female picks, even though Miesha had the first pick, Ronda got the top three fighters in my power rankings in Shayna, Peggy Morgan and you. What do you think of the rationale in Miesha picking the way she did?
Duke: I think Ronda based her choices around who was the most well-rounded and most coachable. She wanted to know how we responded in the corner and to the coaching. The girls she took (Shayna, Peggy, Jessica and myself) were my top four, she thought we were the strongest fighters. We were bigger, had better attitudes and were better overall fighters.
As for Miesha, I don't know, we didn't get to talk to her a lot. She took Julianna first because they were friends, so that didn't shock me. I think she took Moras because she beat such a huge name in LaRosa. Plus, she's a wrestler and so is Miesha, so that similar style was attractive to her.
So, I don't really know Miesha's rationale, but I definitely know Ronda's.
B/R: So we immediately got our first fight, and Ronda matched up first picks Baszler and Pena. Why do you think she did that?
Duke: I don't think Pena should have been the overall No. 1 pick. Tate just took her so she didn't hurt her feelings. Shayna was the real No. 1. I actually thought Pena was one of the weaker fighters there, so I think in Ronda's mind Shayna was really taking on their fourth-ranked fighter. So it was our best versus their bottom fighter.
It's funny though, the editing made it look like they took a minute or two to pick the fight, but really it took them a long time to make a decision on the matchup. When it came down to it, they were going for the "sure thing" to win by having Shayna fight Julianna, because they saw her as the weakest link as well. Ronda, in her mind, went No. 1 vs. No. 8.
B/R: Well thanks for your time, Jessamyn, and I look forward to your thoughts on next week's episode.
Duke: Thanks, it's been a pleasure!
Come back to Bleacher Report next week to read Jessamyn Duke's thoughts on the second episode, including life in the house, living with men for six weeks and the fight between Shayna Baszler and Julianna Pena.
Note: All quotes were obtained firsthand by Bleacher Report.