Near the end of The Ultimate Fighter Season 23’s final episode on Wednesday, UFC President Dana White said the outcome likely produced the best finale matchups in the history of the show. He may be right.
The season was dominated by Team Claudia and decision fights. Team Claudia won seven of the eight fights and all but two fights were decided by decisions. But when it came time for the semifinals, the competition separated itself. Light heavyweights Andrew Sanchez and Khalil Rountree earned first-round knockouts and strawweights Amanda Cooper and Tatiana Suarez won via first-round submissions.
The four fighters will battle for a UFC contract later today in The Ultimate Fighter Finale at MGM Grand Garden Arena before coaches Joanna Jedrzejczyk and Claudia Gadelha clash for the strawweight belt in the main event.
ANDREW SANCHEZ VS KHALIL ROUNTREE
How they got here:
Rountree: Khalil’s path to the finale wasn’t typical, although he entered the house with as much hype as anyone. After losing Round 1 in his fight to get in the house, Rountree responded with the KO of the day by delivering a thunderous soccer kick to Muhammed Dereese. He was then eliminated by friend and teammate (outside of the TUF house) Corey Hendricks but was later given a second chance after Hendricks had to withdraw from his semifinal matchup. Rountree avenged his earlier loss and knocked out Josh Stansbury near the end of Round 1 to advance to the finale.
Sanchez: Sanchez wasn’t supposed to make it far in the tournament. Not because of his skill, but because his matchup to get into the house was against highly touted Jackson-Wink product, Phil Hawes. Sanchez proved doubters wrong and defeated Hawes to instantly become a favorite of the remaining fighters. He beat Myron Dennis to get in the semis and then KO’d close friend Eric Spicely.
WATCH Rountree's fight to get in the house | Sanchez's fight
The matchup: Andrew Sanchez is one of the most experienced fighters in the tournament with 10 pro fights (8-2) including a matchup against the UFC’s Kevin Casey. Sanchez normally fights at middleweight, though, and has weighed in under the 205 limit during the season. Through three fights, Sanchez’s lack of size has not been an issue and he’s used his dominant wrestling to control the fights. His KO of Spicely in the semifinals showed his versatility and officially made him the tournament’s favorite, according to the betting lines. Rountree is a bulky, muscular light heavyweight with vicious knockout power. He showed his leg kicks are as lethal as his punches. Throughout the season he improved his takedown defense by perfectly avoiding an attempt from Stansbury in the semis before getting yet another first-round KO. Sanchez may be favored, but Rountree has the ability to finish any fighter with one shot.
TATIANA SUAREZ VS AMANDA COOPER
How they got here:
Suarez: Suarez used her size to handle Chel-c Bailey and earn a decision win after two rounds in her fight to get in the house. She was tested in her second fight after matching up with Team Joanna’s No. 1 overall pick, JJ Aldrich, but Suarez was able to earn a submission in Round 2. In her semifinal fight against Kate Jackson, Suarez had her best performance yet and took Jackson to the ground before earning another submission win.
Cooper: Cooper had one of the most impressive performances of any fighter to get in the house after submitting Mellony Geugjes via armbar just one minute into the first round. Her second fight, against Jamie Moyle, wasn’t as easy. Cooper took some damage and some thought she lost Round 1, but it didn’t matter. She dominated and bloodied Moyle in Round 2 to earn the decision win. Then came another submission win, this time against Lanchana Green, in her semifinal bout.
WATCH Tatiana Suarez's fight to get in the house | Cooper's fight
The matchup: An Olympic qualifying wrestler and cancer survivor, Tatiana Suarez proved throughout the season why she was the favorite to win the tournament. Her ability to wrestle her opponents to the ground and earn submissions has been un-matched. Equally impressive has been Amanda Cooper. Cooper entered the tournament touted as one of the top strikers but she showed an ability to win fights in any fashion. Suarez is the big betting favorite but it all comes down to a classic MMA matchup between wrestling and a striking.
Jon Gagnon is a digital producer and writer for UFC.com. Follow him on Twitter at @jgagnonUFC