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Battle lines have been drawn as The Ultimate Fighter Nations: Team Canada vs. Team Australia series kicked off this week, alongside coaches Patrick Cote and Kyle Noke.
Just about everybody noted going into this year that Canada and Australia don't exactly have a long line of rivalry or history the way that past series have showcased, such as when Australia took on England, which was a bitter battle all season long. Despite no historical ties to one another, it didn't take the Canadians and Australians very long living under one snow-capped roof for the animosity to start heating up.
Canadian mixed martial arts has been established for many years, with several top-level stars and champions coming out of the North American country, including notable names like former UFC welterweight champion Georges St-Pierre and head coach Patrick Cote, who has been a title contender in the UFC previously as well. Australia's history with MMA is much more short-lived with a lot less championship acumen to boast about.
Head coach Kyle Noke might already be the most iconic pure MMA fighter to come out of Australia, and even when you mix in neighboring New Zealand and well-known fighters like Mark Hunt, the accumulation of top fighters from the area could be considered a short list.
It didn't take the Canadians long to point this out while getting under the Aussies’ skin on the first day in the house by touting their collective records against a crew of fairly inexperienced fighters by comparison from the land down under. The harsh words only fueled the Australians, but as the first fight in the house showed, experience does count for something.
With close to 30 bouts to his credit, Kajan Johnson put on an impressive performance to eliminate Brendan O'Reilly in the opening fight, and now the stage is set for the Canadians to control the fight selections and start picking off Australians one by one.
For the second fight, Coach Cote moved up to the middleweight division and once again singled out one of his team's favorites to compete next. Middleweight Elias Theodorou was a heavy favorite coming into the house, with his 8-0undefeated record and experience against some very tough competition inside and outside of Canada. Most recently, Theodorou took out highly touted Ohio prospect Travis Clark in his opponent's backyard of Cleveland.
As noted in the final moments of last week's show, Theodorou is also apparently a model in his spare time, and his dedication to looking good might just be the thing that sends the Australians over the edge in preparation for the upcoming fight. Some might actually question if Theodorou's vanity could be his undoing in the fight, but the reality is that this Canadian prospect is as good as they come.
Theodorou mixes a well-rounded game laced with submissions and wrestling, but ultimately topped by a nasty striking game to put his opponents away. During his career, Theodorou has finished five of his eight opponents - three by TKO and two by submission, so he's capable of winning everywhere the fight goes.
On the other side of the Octagon stands a man known as 'Coach' Zein Saliba. The nickname comes from his long history of being a fighter that always wants to help others out whenever they need him, so it's likely when this season is over – win, lose, or draw in his own fight – Saliba will be an Australian favorite.
He carries a 4-0 record into the Octagon, with his background primarily centering around Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. The problem he may have in his upcoming fight against Theodorou comes down to size. Naturally, Saliba is a welterweight competitor fighting up a weight class while being a middleweight on The Ultimate Fighter. Theodorou is a natural 185-pound fighter, so his size and power could be problematic in this one.
When you mix Theodorou's size and power with Saliba's inexperience when it comes to the striking game, this could be a recipe for disaster for Team Australia. Theodorou is the clear favorite here and coach Patrick Cote knew exactly what he was doing in picking one of his top prospects to compete in the second fight of the show, trying to set the tone for the entire season with the first two bouts between the teams.
If there's one thing that's been shown time and time again, however, it's the fact that Australians are as tough as shoe leather and they don’t go away easy. If Saliba can turn this into a ground scramble and avoid Theodorou's striking, he could make this an interesting fight. He could also upset the status quo by sending one of Canada's top fighters home in the opening round.
Expect the heat between the two teams to reach a fevered pitch as well this week after O'Reilly personally went into the Canadians’ locker room to proclaim that while the Australians may not have as much in cage experience, the last thing they are is scared of the team from up north. These are fiery words that could ignite a flame in his own team or serve as motivation for the Canadians to put their boot heel on the throat of the Australians beginning with the Week Two fight between Theodorou and Saliba.