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The Good, Bad and Strange from The Ultimate Fighter 20 Finale

Duane Finley@duanefinleymmaContributor IDecember 13, 2014

Oct 19, 2013; Houston, TX, USA; K.J. Noons (blue gloves) pauses in the lightweight bout against George Sotiropoulos (not pictured) during UFC 166 at Toyota Center. Mandatory Credit: Andrew Richardson-USA TODAY Sports
USA TODAY Sports

A champion will be crowned.

That was the official tag line for the 20th domestic installment of The Ultimate Fighter and indeed the case when finalists Carla Esparza and Rose Namajunas stepped into the Octagon for the main event of Friday night's finale. Any time there is history to be made in mixed martial arts, the stakes go up significantly, and with a new title in a brand-new division under the UFC banner up for grabs, the battle for the inaugural UFC women's strawweight title crown warranted all the intensity it created in the buildup.

While both Esparza and "Thug Rose" made their respective runs through the tournament look easy, their matchup in the finals was figured to be a hard-fought affair. With the "Cookie Monster's" power-wrestling attack being the polar opposite of Namajunas' slick, "finish from anywhere" style, their collision was projected to be a chess match inside the cage.

With Esparza being a former champion with three times as many fights as her opponent, the California native's experience was a big advantage coming into the fight. Yet, with UFC President Dana White tagging Namajunas as "the next Ronda Rousey," as reported by Yahoo's Kevin Iole, there were a lot of expectations surrounding the Team Grudge fighter coming into the finale.

Their fight would answer any lingering questions, and it was all Esparza once things got underway. The former Invicta champion used her wrestling to dominate the action and secured a rear-naked choke to become the first women's strawweight champion in UFC history.

In addition to a main event that delivered on all fronts, plenty of action went down Friday night at The Palms in Las Vegas. Let's take a look at the good, bad and strange from The Ultimate Fighter 20 Finale.

The Good

Esparza entered TUF 20 as a woman on a mission. 

Sep 9, 2014; Los Angeles, CA, USA; Carla Esparza from Redondo Beach, CA arrives on the Red Carpet at Lure Nightclub for the premier of The Ultimate Fighter women in the newly formed women in the strawweight class. Mandatory Credit: Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA T
USA TODAY Sports

The California native abandoned her Invicta title to enter the UFC's inaugural strawweight tournament on the 20th season of The Ultimate Fighter. Yet, while she cruised through each round of competition with one dominant performance after the next, she wound up being the underdog in her finals matchup with Namajunas on Friday night.

While the hype around Thug Rose was thick, Esparza wasn't shaken in the slightest once she entered the Octagon. From the opening bell, the Team Oyama representative went on the attack with her aggressive style and turned the tides with her solid wrestling skills. Esparza's top pressure was far too much for Namajunas to handle, as Cookie Monster battered the Milwaukee native with ferocity until she tapped out to a rear-naked choke in the third round.

With the win, Esparza not only won the coveted six-figure contract but also became the first woman to ever hoist the UFC 115-pound title above her head. It was a dominant performance and one where she proved her doubters wrong. She's the real deal and it's going to take someone special to unseat her from the strawweight crown.

*** Yancy Medeiros was coming off his most impressive performance to date and wanted to keep his momentum rolling against Joe Proctor. While Proctor came out looking to bring the scrap to the 27-year-old Hawaiian, the former middleweight-turned-lightweight proved too scrappy. He pressed the action and landed a spinning back kick that folded the Joe Lauzon protege to the canvas. Once his opponent was hurt, Medeiros pounced and finished the fight with a guillotine choke to pick up his second consecutive victory.

*** One of the best fights of the nights went down between Jessica Penne and Randa Markos to kick off the action on the main card for the finale event on Fox Sports 1. From the get-go, both women attempted to impose their will, but it was Penne who grabbed Round 1, using a dynamic hip toss to take control of the opening frame. The scrappy Canadian battled back in the second and third rounds, as the two fighters engaged in one slick transition after another on the canvas. When the fight ended, Penne took the split-decision victory.

Jordan Breen @jordanbreen

29-28 Penne in a fun, fantastic fight with Randa Markos. Markos is still raw, but her upside is obvious. Penne's grappling shined as usual.

*** Felice Herrig came into Friday night looking to make a solid statement and mark her arrival to the sport's biggest stage, and she accomplished that by submitting Lisa Ellis in the second round. Although both women had their moments in the opening round, it was Lil' Bulldog who found her groove in the second. She worked a slick transition into a fight-ending armbar to make her first showing inside the Octagon a successful one.

*** With the bouts on The Ultimate Fighter not going on a fighter's official record, Joanne Calderwood came into her UFC debut against Seo Hee Ham looking to keep her undefeated record intact. The Scottish striker came up short on her quest to win the tournament but had a chance to make a statement against her fellow promotional newcomer on Friday night. While Calderwood wasn't able to get the finish, she got the best of the 27-year-old South Korean, picking up the unanimous-decision victory.

Tommy Toe Hold @TommyToeHold

You might say that Jojo went...HAM? #TUF20Finale http://t.co/4RjuRi9Tri

*** Although Tecia Torres came into The Ultimate Fighter 20 with high expectations, The Tiny Tornado had a difficult run through the tournament. After losing her first bout, she was brought back into the mix when Justine Kish had to pull out with a knee injury. Torres initially made the most of her second chance when she defeated Bec Rawlings, but she lost to Esparza in the next round. The 25-year-old Florida transplant came into the TUF 20 Finale looking to make a statement and punished Angela Magana for 15 minutes to pick up the unanimous-decision victory. 

*** While she made a quick exit from the TUF 20 tournament, Angela Hill made her official UFC debut against Emily Kagan count on Friday night. The former boxer-turned-MMA-athlete worked an aggressive game plan that allowed her to dominate the action throughout the 15-minute affair, as she picked up her first win inside the Octagon. While Hill has the talents and style to be an exciting fighter, her overall success in the UFC will hinge on her ability to round out her overall game.

The Bad

It takes more than one incident to validate a stigma or curse, and it took Namajunas getting clobbered by Esparza in the main event to set in stone the particular shadow hovering around TUF standouts.

Photo courtesy of UFC.com

Back in 2008, after Phillipe Nover wrecked shop on Season 8 of The Ultimate Fighter, UFC President Dana White notoriously christened him as the "next Georges St-Pierre" and also compared him to then-middleweight king Anderson Silva. This would take an ominous turn, as Nover was not only defeated by Efrain Escudero in the finale but went on to have a lackluster run in the UFC, losing all three of his showings until the company released him in 2010.

It would also happen again when White named Uriah Hall the "next Anderson Silva" several years later, and he was also defeated in the finals.

While Friday night's main event had nothing to do with Nover, White's claim that finalist Namajunas was the "next Ronda Rousey" brought cause for concern. The Milwaukee native had steamrolled through the tournament with her creative and relentless style, and she was the favorite heading into her bout with Esparza.

Nevertheless, throughout her brief career, Namajunas had never faced an opponent with the wrestling pedigree of Esparza, and that was ultimately her undoing. While Namajunas attempted to be versatile from the jump, she had no answers for the wrestling and top pressure the Cookie Monster put on her. As FS1 analyst Rashad Evans described in the post-fight show, Esparza "beat the brakes" off Namajunas in the finals until she locked in the fight-ending rear-naked choke to become the strawweight champion.

Yet, while the showing did not back up the hype surrounding Namajunas, she's only 22 years old and has plenty of talent to compete with the best in the world. One can only hope that she recovers from the pummeling she took on Friday night and bounces back to be the contender she certainly has the skills to be. That said, there is always the "TUF Superstar Curse" to worry about with her.

Feb 15, 2014; Jaragua do Sul, SC, Brazil; Charles Oliveira (red gloves) reacts after defeating Andy Ogle (blue gloves) during UFC Fight Night Machida vs Mousasi at Arena Jaragua. Mandatory Credit: Jason Silva-USA TODAY Sports
USA TODAY Sports

*** While his performance was outstanding, and there are more reasons than not to put him in the above category, Charles Oliveira missing weight for his bout with Jeremy Stephens was unacceptable. Granted, Do Bronx attempted one slick submission after another en route to scoring the unanimous-decision victory, but that win came with a big asterisk because he came over the contracted weight limit. 

Unfortunately for the young Brazilian jiu-jitsu specialist, this issue isn't a new one. His bout with Stephens on Friday night was his 12th appearance since joining the UFC in 2010, and he has failed to make weight three times. Furthermore, there's no doubting Oliveira's potential, as he's put on some excellent performances inside the Octagon, but his failure to consistently make weight has prevented his status from matching his talent. 

That said, in this day and age, Oliveira has plenty of options to hire a nutritionist to guide his weight. While no fighter ever wants to spend additional money, he has the skills to be a major player in the featherweight division. Yet, that simply will not happen unless he can get his weight cuts under control.

*** Any time a highly anticipated scrap doesn't turn out to be the barnburner it was expected to be, there is an obvious letdown. While KJ Noons and Daron Cruickshank went after each other in the opening round, the former Elite XC champion landed his second accidental eye poke of the bout in the second round that forced Cruickshank to crumple to the canvas. After he told the cageside doctor he couldn't see out of his left eye, Referee "Big" John McCarthy waved off the bout, which made it a no-contest. And while the end result was anticlimactic, it's hard to blame Cruickshank for not wanting to fight a slugger like Noons with one good eye. 

Bleacher Report MMA @BR_MMA

In fairness, Cruickshank’s left eye is currently in a state of revolting.

*** Even though Aisling Daly made relatively quick work, as the scrappy Irishwoman submitted Alex Chambers via first-round armbar, there is going to be an asterisk beside her official UFC debut. The SBG Ireland representative came in heavy at the official weigh-in and missed the overall mark of 116 pounds.

While many things can happen when a fighter is shedding those final pounds during fight week, it is ultimately her responsibility to hit the contracted weight limit. And when you factor in this being Daly's inaugural showing with the biggest organization in the sport, it's a bad look for a fighter who possesses solid talent.

*** Fight nights are a great platform for MMA media members to flex their comedic chops—an exercise I'm certainly guilty of participating in. And while my colleagues have been known to drop a few gems (B/R MMA's Jeremy Botter and Jonathan Snowden are must-follows on fight night), every once in a while a writer will struggle through a rough patch, as was the case with my buddy and recent MMA Fighting signee Marc Raimondi during the bout between Calderwood and Seo Hee Ham on Friday night.

Jeremy Botter @jeremybotter

BAD MARC. BAD. RT @marc_raimondi: The girl is a real Ham.

While Raimondi dropped a dud in his initial attempt at humor, he earned my respect for holding onto the handles and driving through to empty out the proverbial joke bag throughout the three-round tilt. The man with an affinity for club shirts and buzz cuts would rebound later in the card to reclaim his crown as one of the funniest follows on fight night, but his work on Twitter during Calderwood vs. Hee Ham was as bad as it gets—and therefore as good as it gets if you like that brand of delivery.

No disrespect to my man Raimondi, of course, but the only way to get better is to learn from your missteps. This MMA media grind is a rigorous course, and we like to have a little bit of fun with one another when the moments arise.

Marc Raimondi @marc_raimondi

Hope the judges aren’t Ham-handed with this decision.

*** Finally, and on a far more serious note, easily the worst contribution to the event on Friday night went to MMA manager Mike Kogan's Twitter account. During the bout between Jessica Penne and Randa Markos—who is the product of two Arab parents—Kogan's Twitter fired off a few racist comments aimed at Arab traditions and the treatment of women. There is no need to give those comments any further publicity by posting them in this column, but I promise you they were both ignorant and vulgar.

Yet, as soon as the series of tweets caused a stir on Twitter, Kogan was quick to claim that his phone had been taken from the bar he was sitting at and the inflammatory tweets were sent by someone else. "Hacking" and "jacking" of phones has been a common play when someone in the fight community tweets out something unacceptable, and whether you buy into Kogan's excuse or not, those tweets were as pointed and racist as they come. Not only are those comments unacceptable in any realm or format, but Kogan is a public personality in the fight game, and it will be interesting to see how this situation is handled by the fighters he represents. 

The Strange

When fighters go the extra mile to draw attention to their profiles through social media and doing interviews, it's crucial they back up their words with strong performances inside the cage. There is little argument that Angela Magana was the most controversial member of The Ultimate Fighter, as her Twitter feed has turned into a free-flowing roll of insanity over the past two months.

In addition to posting random nude pictures on the social format, she has drawn attention to herself for teeing off with those who interact with her on that particular platform. Magana has taken to calling herself "Your Majesty" while affectionately coining those who banter with her on Twitter as her "peasants." By all means, Magana is far from the first athlete to use Twitter to elevate her profile or to shake things up a bit, but at the end of the day, it all comes down to performing inside the Octagon.

With her bout against Tecia Torres being her first official showing under the UFC banner, the spotlight would never get bigger for the Thailand-based fighter, and she simply didn't show up for the fight. From the opening bell, it was all Torres, who battered Magana with power shots and side kicks for the entire 15-minute affair. Torres was teeing off at will, and Magana had zero answers. When the final bell sounded, the end result was a lopsided victory for Torres, and Magana appeared to be finally at ease, knowing the fight was over.

And that's unfortunate for the TUF 20 alum. For good, better or worse, the TUF 20 cast member has certainly found a formula to garner attention on social media, but that only matters if you can back it up when things go live. Otherwise, it's all just talk, and MMA's educated fanbase doesn't suffer such things for too long.

Plenty of fighters fill the villain or heel role in the sport, but those combatants are able to keep that energy alive because they either win fights or battle like warriors. On Friday night, Magana did neither, and I can't imagine that will bode well for the Twitter sideshow she had created leading up to her UFC debut. 

While she didn't suffer the same lopsided fate as her TUF 20 teammate, Rawlings falls into a similar category as Magana.

The "Rowdy" Australian is a big advocate of brash talk and speaking her mind on Twitter, and she even went as far as to throw her middle finger in Heather Jo Clark's face at the pre-fight weigh-ins on Thursday. To put it simply, Rawlings goes the extra mile to show she's the type who prefers to go against the grain, and she apparently enjoys a good hair coloring as well.

Again, all of these things are fine as long as that energy outside of the cage is turned into a strong performance inside of it. While Rawlings would come alive in the third and final round to score some points and ultimately win the frame, she spent the opening 10 minutes at the mercy of Clark's game plan. Clark tagged her with counters in the first round and controlled all but 45 seconds of the second frame. Rawlings came out far more aggressive and desperate in the final five minutes, and it proved effective for her, but it was too little, too late.

Furthermore, and just so I make myself clear in citing these two examples, I'm all for fighters carving out an original lane in MMA. I truly am. Yet, when there seems to be a lack of balance between the effort to garner attention and the intensity shown inside the Octagon, it comes off as wanting.

Duane Finley is a featured columnist for Bleacher Report. All quotes are obtained firsthand unless noted otherwise. 

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