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The final episode of The Ultimate Fighter: Team Edgar vs. Team Penn has officially arrived, and with two semifinal fights to go, there's still a lot of action to get to before the competitors pack their bags and go home to their families.
This season has been filled with a lot of memories; unfortunately very few of them have come from the actual fights taking place during the year outside of some very exciting finishes during the opening round matchups. With a 'win first' attitude attached to all of the quarterfinal fights, the semifinals have been much stronger thus far, as Eddie Gordon and Corey Anderson advanced to the finals so far, with two more fighters joining them this week.
Roger Zapata will return to action with a chip on his shoulder after skating through the quarterfinals with possibly the most controversial win in Ultimate Fighter history. Now when he was handed the decision over Ian Stephens, he celebrated before getting out of the gym as quickly as possible so the judges couldn't possibly change their minds. Back at the house, he bragged about his win, but even months ago when this show was actually being filmed, there's no way Zapata didn't feel the sting of reality setting in as the entire red team, and probably even a few of his own teammates, said he didn't win the fight.
Now as he heads into the semifinals, taking on Dhiego Lima from Team Edgar, Zapata not only has extreme motivation to prove all of the doubters wrong, but with a new baby waiting for him at home who was born just days before he left for the competition, making it to the finale takes on a whole new meaning.
Lima is going to be an incredibly tough test for Zapata to pass, however, because he came into the show as one of the most experienced and gifted athletes to join The Ultimate Fighter. Lima comes from American Top Team in Georgia, where he's worked with fighters like Brian Stann, his brother Douglas, and even featherweight Cole Miller at different times in his career, and he's a handful for any fighter in the UFC, much less on this reality show. Still, he did show a few weaknesses in his opening bout against Tim Williams before pulling off the miraculous second round comeback to win the fight by submission.
It's hard to bet against Lima in this situation because he has the experience edge, he has the talent edge, and while the pressure is surely on him to perform, the Georgia-based fighter can go out and leave it all in the cage before getting a nice long rest to get to the finale. Lima has to be the odds-on favorite to face Gordon, and that could mean three members of Team Edgar in the finale before the light heavyweights step into the Octagon.
The 205-pound semifinal pits two of the strongest competitors from the show against each other in a bout that could have most certainly been the last match of the year if selections and the tournament played out differently. Matt Van Buren allowed a personal rivalry with Chris Fields to dictate how he fought the last time he walked to the Octagon because after all the trash talk and all the hype, to go out and lose would have been devastating.
So instead of swinging for the fences and looking for the knockout, Van Buren played it safe just to make sure he walked out the winner. He got the victory, but also landed on UFC President Dana White's bad side, which is a place no fighter ever wants to be in.
He's joined by his opponent Dan Spohn, who rocketed to the top of the Ultimate Fighter's all-time greatest knockouts list when he sent Tyler King crashing to the mat with an emphatic thud in his preliminary round bout before a slow, grinding win over Todd Monaghan to get him to the semifinals. Which Spohn shows up for the semifinals? Do White's words of encouragement two weeks ago fire up Spohn to fight a different fight this time around?
On paper, Spohn should coast to the finale based on his skill level and overall MMA game. He's a powerful striker with a compete arsenal of weapons at his disposal, including heavy hands and some jumping knees that can put any opponent's lights out. While it didn't end up being a very engaging fight, Spohn also showed how good he can be on the mat when he put Monaghan on his back and kept him there for the better part of 10 minutes a few weeks ago.
Van Buren has plenty of potential, but the crystal ball looking into his future is much cloudier than Spohn's. The San Diego-based fighter has all the tools to do well in this fight, but as good as he looked on the ground against Fields, can he out wrestle Spohn? Even with his long reach and boxing, can he deal with the speed and the power of the Ohio native?
If Team Penn hopes to have a finalist, Spohn is by far their best hope and he's got a better than average chance to get the job done against Van Buren. Then again, with White's warning about showing up to prove these fighters want to really be in the UFC, these two could both go out looking to put on a Forrest Griffin-Stephan Bonnar-like fight and that means it's anybody's contest to win.
When it's all said and done, the two winners will move on to face Anderson and Gordon at the Ultimate Fighter Finale on July 6 in Las Vegas alongside their coaches, Frankie Edgar and BJ Penn, who face off in a five-round featherweight main event.