The new season of The Ultimate Fighter is officially off and running with one of the most heated rivalries in the entire sport headlining the show this year in the first ever team versus team format of the series.
American Top Team - a team with roots that go back over 20 years - was once the only major gym when it came to MMA in South Florida, but that all changed when four members from the team decided to venture out on their own and, along with Rashad Evans and local businessman Glenn Robinson, founded the Blackzilians.
It wasn't bad enough that four fighters splintered away from American Top Team, but the new gym they opened was only 20 minutes away from their old team's front door. In addition to the natural rivalry built on territory, Robinson and American Top Team owner Dan Lambert clearly do not get along, and their disdain for one another only fuels the fighters they represent going into the competition this season.
Every past season of The Ultimate Fighter has been about the individual fighters competing in a tournament of sorts to eventually make it to the finale while earning a six-figure contract to fight in the UFC. This year is completely different because the fighters will still be working towards a chance to fight in the Octagon one day, but the end goal is to get their team a victory that could be work a half million dollars when it's all said and done.
UFC President Dana White broke down the new point structure and how the fights work this season in the debut episode, and it goes like this:
There are 12 total fights on The Ultimate Fighter this season. Each fight carries a different point value, with the total points being tallied up at the end of the season. The team with the most points will win $200,000. The first four fights on the show will be worth 25 points each. The second four fights will then be worth 50 points each. The final four fights this season will be worth 100 points each.
As far as the bout selections go, each fighter is allowed to compete up to three times during the season, which means some competitors may fight multiple times or there is actually a chance that a fighter may not compete at all, just depending on how their coaching staff decides to make the selections. The fights will not be announced until the weigh-ins, which means coaches will choose their fighter without any knowledge of who they may face in the contest. The fighters will find out their opponents when hitting the scale 24 hours before a fight.
The final wrinkle in the new format for the show this season is for the finale. For a fighter to qualify for the finale they have to fight at least twice during the season, and the winner of the Ultimate Fighter finale bout will score their team a $300,000 prize as well as the Ultimate Fighter trophy made specifically for this season of the show. Money, trophies and bragging rights are on the line in MMA's version of North Carolina versus Duke.
With the new format of the show out of the way, it was time for the teams to select the eight fighters who will represent them on the show this season. Lambert and Robinson took their coaches into the war room like it was the NFL draft to assemble the teams that they hoped would bring back the Ultimate Fighter trophy and a whole lot of cash by the end of the season. Judging by the hatred shared between the two owners, this season could cost them money and they'd still be 100 percent on board with one upping each other.
"I'll bury the hatchet right now. Give me a hatchet. I'll bury it right between his shoulders," Lambert said about Robinson.
The coaches and owners all agreed on the teams selected, with the final fighters chosen being:
AMERICAN TOP TEAM
Marcelo Alfaya (16-7, 1NC) Porto Alegre, Brazil
Steve Carl (21-4), Belle Plain, Iowa
Nathan Coy (14-5), Vallejo, Calif.
Michael Graves (4-0), Toledo, Ohio
Hayder Hassan (6-1), Fort Lauderdale, Fla.
Sabah Homasi (8-4), New Brunswick, N.J.
Uros Jurisic (5-0), Ljubljana, Slovenia
Steve Montgomery (8-2), Florence, S.C.
Valdir Araujo (14-5), Gama, Federal District, Brazil
Carrington Banks (3-0), Peoria, Ill.
Luiz Buscape (16-5), Joao Pessoa, Paraiba, Brazil
Jason Jackson (4-2), Kingston, Jamaica
Vincente Luque (7-4-1), Westwood, NJ
Andrews Nakahara (4-2-2), Mogi das Cruzes, Sao Paolo, Brazil
Felipe Portela (8-2), Brasilia, Brazil
Kamarudeen Usman (5-1), Auchi, Nigeria
Once the team selections are made, the Blackzilans head over to Robinson's house for a special viewing party to see their teammate Anthony Johnson take on Alexander Gustafsson in the main event of FOX UFC Fight Night in Sweden this past January. It was a rare treat to see the team's reaction as Johnson popped Gustafsson early in the first round and then opened up with a barrage of punches that hurt and eventually finished the former No. 1 contender in devastating fashion.
Johnson was one of the first major fighters to team up with the Blackzilians when the gym opened up in 2011, so seeing him beat Gustafsson to earn a title shot at UFC 187 against light heavyweight champion Jon Jones was a thing of beauty.
"Anthony just tore him apart," Robinson said about the performance. "To see Anthony go from being cut to destroying Alexander Gustafsson to fighting for the title is amazing."
Riding the high from the team victory via Johnson, Robinson and his team call in Jorge Santiago from Sweden to help them select the first fighter to represent them on the show this season. The final choice comes down to former NCAA Division II wrestling champion Kamaru Usman, who might be an early favorite to carry the Blackzilians on his back this season. Usman is a hard worker with great takedowns and the kind of pressure that's just hard to counter.
"He's got that factor that says 'I don't care who you are, I don't care what you bring, I'm going to beat you," Robinson said of Usman.
For American Top Team, Lambert and his fellow coaches, including team founders Conan Silveira and Ricardo Liborio, ultimately choose Ohio native Mike Graves because he's ready to fight right now, he's got good wrestling and his tenacity is virtually unmatched by anyone in the house. Little do they know that the Blackzilians have chosen the perfect counter to Graves with an even better wrestler in Usman, so right away the fact that the fighters don't know who they are facing until the weigh-ins plays a huge factor.
The weigh-ins go off without a hitch, but it doesn't take long for Lambert and Robinson to start sniping at each other and it's clear they have the loyalty of the fighters they represent.
"Dan's a black belt in Jiu-Jitsu. Glenn's just a fat guy who makes tools. I think it was pretty obvious who would win that fight," American Top Team fighter Steve Montgomery said about a potential matchup between the owners.
The owners aren't fighting during the season, even though I'm sure they'd probably volunteer for the job, but Usman and Graves were competing and because a coin toss gave them the advantage, the fight took place in the Blackzilians' home gym. The winning fighter from each bout will determine where the next fight takes place throughout the course of the season.
The fight itself wasn't a terribly exciting affair, although Usman did a good job controlling Graves over the course of both rounds using his wrestling, ground control and powerful clinch game to earn a majority decision win. Usman gets the Blackzilians on the board first with 25 points while guaranteeing that whoever fights next will also get the home gym advantage.
This season of The Ultimate Fighter is officially underway, although it didn't take long for White to express his dismay in the performances that Usman and Graves gave while hoping to get more from both American Top Team and the Blackzilians in the next bout.
"I'm looking for guys who are going to go in and go for broke," White said.
Can American Top Team get on the board next week or will they have to stay planted in the Blackzilians gym for yet another fight? Find out when The Ultimate Fighter: American Top Team vs. Blackzilians returns next Wednesday night at 10pm ET on FOX Sports 1.