TUF 2 winner Joe Stevenson faces Justin Edwards in the co-main event; in the main event, Cody Garbrandt argues with the wind.
In this “Redemption” season of The Ultimate Fighter, no one needs redemption more than the reigning UFC bantamweight champion.
Cody Garbrandt botched the draft. He and his assistants are steadfastly committed to taking the low road in the interteam conversations. If you’re looking for reasons why T.J. Dillashaw and coach Duane Ludwig left Team Alpha Male, you may just want to check the first six episodes of this season, in which Team Dillashaw has calmly gone about its business while Garbrandt and Justin Buchholz have preened and tried to bait their opposing coaches into extramural combat.
And Team Garbrandt is 0-6. His last chance to avoid a whitewash (excluding the wild-card fight, in which Garbrandt is already guaranteed at least one fighter by default) is Justin Edwards, the last pick in the draft.
Edwards’ opponent is a little better-known. He’s Joe Stevenson, who had a wild, entertaining run in the UFC from 2005 (won TUF 2) to 2009 (beat Nate Diaz and Spencer Fisher). In between, he was on the receiving end of an enduring highlight, spurting blood while B.J. Penn applied the finishing choke in their 2008 title fight.
The 2010s have been less kind to Stevenson. His stature earned him a rare fourth strike, another opportunity in the UFC after losing the dreaded three in a row, but he lost that one, too. He has fought sporadically since then, finally winning in July 2016 for the first time since beating Fisher in October 2009. Another three months, and he would have been forced to go back to his home planet and fight Captain Kirk to the death.
(Incidentally, do NOT Google “kirk spock pon farr.” Just … no.)
So this is the kind of bout we were all hoping to see from this season. Edwards was a little unlucky on his previous TUF stint. Stevenson seemed to be quite comfortable running his own gym and working on TV as a fight coordinator/actor. The one-time contender is still just 34. What does he have left?
We open with Stevenson groaning and grunting on a cardio machine, interspersed with some time travel. He talks about starting in the 1990s. Then we get highlights of his rampage through TUF 2 and the finale against his good friend Luke Cummo. Then more victims — Yves Edwards, Melvin Guillard, Kurt Pellegrino — on his way to the Penn fight. Then a quick mention of his losing streak.
“I found my answers in the bottle,” Stevenson says. He’s been sober for nearly four years.
This is compelling stuff. “To me, the redemption is showing people what I can do sober.”
Over to Justin Edwards’ training. He thinks Stevenson has probably lost a step, so he’s going to use his speed to create angles.
Back to Stevenson for his fight prep. Dillashaw says it’s a unique experience to coach someone with so much experience and knowledge.
Then off to what we’ve been getting from the house this season, which is simply fighters sitting around talking about terrible things that have happened to them. Stevenson’s story is horrific — a mentally ill father, a mother trying to get them out but then arrested for vehicular manslaughter in an accident that killed his aunt.
On a happier note, it’s off to Stevenson’s home video. His four sons wave to the camera, and we see the set of his show Kingdom, on which he’s an technical advisor, fight choreographer and an actor who gets to play himself.
Then a fun moment from the house, a rarity this season. In the kitchen, Edwards asks Stevenson, “Any injuries I should know about?” Stevenson runs through a long list, then shows off a massive divot in his pectoral muscle.
Edwards’ home video shows him working as an HVAC technician in cold Ohio, then commuting to a gym in Dayton, about 80 minutes away. Sometimes he works out at 10 or 11, gets home at 2 and gets up at 6.
On TUF 13, Edwards was a replacement for the homesick Keon Caldwell. He landed a few good shots on Tony Ferguson and took him down twice. But Ferguson won with what Edwards calls “a breakdancing scissor kick to the face.” Dana White’s reaction is more succinct: “Holy s–t.”
We see Edwards choking out Josh Neer, the zenith of his UFC run. He’s motivated. “I don’t think anybody wants it more than me.”
Weigh-in is uneventful for a change. No posturing between coaches. No near-fights.
Ramsey Nijem touts Justin’s chances. Nijem fought him in 2014 and says he’s “tough” and “in shape.”
Jesse Taylor has a more interesting take on Stevenson: “Joe has way too many ninja tricks for him.”
Tale of the tape: Same age, but Stevenson has many more miles on him. Will that be experience or accumulated wear and tear?
It’s only 10:30, so even with the ever-controversial wild-card selection process to come, we have to figure this fight won’t end early. The first minute belongs to Edwards, who staggers Stevenson a couple of times and lands a spinning kick to the midsection.
Stevenson goes for the takedown, and in what seems to be a trend, Garbrandt’s fighter gets a guillotine attempt while the coach optimistically says, “He’s tapping.” He is not.
But Edwards stands and continues to get the better of it. He lands jabs. He lands uppercuts. He goes for another spinning kick that Garbrandt thinks hurt him, but it might have deflected.
With 40 seconds left in the round, Stevenson manages to lift Edwards and get him down. But he can’t hold him there and stop Edwards’ momentum. It’s conceivable that Stevenson won the round with the takedowns, but Edwards’ clear advantage on the feet should be enough.
(Coincidentally, I get an ad for broken air conditioning between rounds. Edwards is fighting like a man who wants to get out of that business.)
Both fighters look tired. They touch gloves again as if mutually agreeing to get another couple of seconds of rest.
Stevenson pressed Edwards to the cage, but Edwards calmly deals with the takedown threat. After a minute, Edwards just unloads like someone in a video game trying to get the finish. Stevenson remains standing, but it’s going to take a lot of offense to change the tune here. He shoots again for the takedown, but Edwards has no trouble.
Then Edwards makes a potentially costly decision. He goes for a takedown, and Stevenson coolly slips his arm around Edwards’ neck for the guillotine attempt. But Edwards slips out and stands.
Repeat in reverse. Stevenson goes for the takedown and gets a decent choke attempt. Stevenson is bleeding on Edwards’ midsection with the look of someone who knows this isn’t going well.
The round ends with another failed Stevenson takedown. The fighters congratulate each other at the horn as if it’s over, but Garbrandt is yelling to get ready for the poorly named sudden-victory round. (It’s overtime. That’s all it is.)
Garbrandt’s wrong. But the good news for him is that his team has avoided the wipeout. Edwards advances.
“There’s something about when someone hits you, your game plan goes out the window,” Stevenson says. He got hit and wanted to hit him back.
We’ve been promised a wild-card controversy, and before we see Dana White on Skype or Facetime or Google Hangouts, it’s pretty obvious what it is. Dillashaw only has one eligible fighter, and Garbrandt will surely object to his selection.
Garbrandt hurts his own cause with two implausible suggestions: Johnny Nunez, who lost in the first round of his fight, and Seth Baczynski, who was overwhelmed by Gilbert Smith. Dillashaw says Joe Daddy and Justin had the best fight of the season so far. Garbrandt looks surprised for a second but then nods.
Dana White rules quickly (at least, in the edited version of this conversation as seen on TV): Stevenson vs. Hayder Hassan. No complaint from Garbrandt …
… until he gets back to his team’s locker room. Then he puts on quite a display of griping about Dillashaw getting his way.
Eddie Gordon, who lost to Tom Gallicchio in the first round of their fight, is ticked off. He’s under the impression that Dillashaw simply got to pick everything. Maybe something was left out in editing, but we’ve seen nothing to give that impression.
“Nothing against Hayder, but it doesn’t logically make any sense,” he says in confessional.
We get another scene of the two teams stuck in the small training center hallway, waiting for permission to walk into the gym and announce the matchup everyone already knows. And Gordon goes public with his complaint, which ought to make the next training session interesting.
“How do you get to pick who comes from our team?” Gordon asks Dillashaw.
“I didn’t!” Dillashaw says.
Coincidentally (or not), Hassan is standing next to Dillashaw, not with the rest of Team Garbrandt. While Garbrandt and Gordon continue griping, Dillashaw shrugs and shakes hands with Hassan.
Garbrandt also manages a Shakespearean monologue questioning Stevenson’s fitness to fight again in six days. Stevenson’s response: “I was ready to go another round, man!” Garbrandt: “I didn’t see it.” Yes, this is the same coach who was yelling at Edwards to get ready for a third round.
The episode ends with Garbrandt hugging Stevenson to congratulate him, then chiding him for agreeing to fight. Concussion history, think of your kids, etc., etc.
Then on TUF Talk, Michael Bisping scoffs at the idea that Garbrandt was acting out of anything other then self-interest — “He couldn’t care less about Joe’s safety” — and we get a clip of Edwards beating up a mustard mascot at a baseball game. Condiments have lousier striking technique than Bryce Harper.