The first fight of The Ultimate Fighter 26 is officially in the books, as No. 1 seed Roxanne Modafferi punched her ticket into the next round with a dominant performance over No. 16 seed Shana Dobson.
It was a bit of redemption for Modafferi, who struggled during her previous performance on The Ultimate Fighter 18 and in her lone fight in the UFC afterwards. With Modafferi going on to the next round, the tournament will move forward this week with Invicta FC veteran DeAnna Bennett taking on Armenian fighter Karine Gevorgyan.
Gevorgyan is definitely one of the lesser-known athletes in the competition, fighting out of Armenia with a 3-2 record that has seen most of her fights take place in Europe. All of Gevorgyan's previous wins have come by submission, as she has a background in judo, but she also has a strong striking game to compliment her grappling skills.
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Perhaps the biggest problem that Gevorgyan will face this season, however, is the language barrier that will separate her from the rest of the team, not to mention head coach Justin Gaethje. Now Gevorgyan isn't the first fighter to join the reality show without speaking much English, but it never makes the situation any easier. It was just two seasons ago that Japanese fighter Hiromasa Ogikubo joined the show without much English in his vocabulary and it definitely made it tough for him during training sessions with coach Joseph Benavidez. Ultimately, Ogikubo was still able to fight his way all the way to the finals, and that's the same kind of result Gevorgyan wants in this tournament.
While Gaethje will do his best to communicate with Gevorgyan to get her ready for the fight, Bennett already knows what's expected of her in this tournament to crown the first ever women's champion at 125 pounds.
Bennett was a highly touted prospect at flyweight when she joined the roster at Invicta FC. Through her first eight fights, Bennett was undefeated with a string of victories against some very tough opposition, including Colleen Schneider and Jennifer Maia, and she even holds a win over current top five-ranked UFC women's bantamweight star Julianna Pena.
With the UFC having a thriving women's strawweight division, Bennett opted to drop down to 115 pounds to attempt to catch the promotion's attention, but unfortunately, she didn't find the same level of success. Bennett dropped her next three fights in a row, including a championship matchup against Livia Renata Souza. While her most recent losses were both split decisions, Bennett just didn't find the same level of success after moving down to 115 pounds, but now she's back at a more natural weight class as she competes for the inaugural women's flyweight title.
While the fight this week will pit Team Alvarez against Team Gaethje, the tournament style format, with the competitors already seeded before the action even begins, will create some interesting matchups as the season moves forward. Unlike most seasons of The Ultimate Fighter, where the coaches are able to select the matchups, which means in most cases there won't be a teammate versus teammate situation until much deeper into the tournament, that's not the case this year.
Because the new season of the show is set up as a standard tournament with fighters slotted into numbered positions, there's a potential for numerous matchups in the second round where teammate will be forced to fight teammate. It's an unavoidable side effect of this particular format and that will certainly weigh heavy on the minds of some of the competitors this season.
While Alvarez and Gaethje will undoubtedly attempt to foster a sense of team unity in training, it's impossible to ignore that a fighter could be sparring someone one day and then matched up to fight them a few days later. Of course, teammates have almost always ended up facing each other over the past 25 seasons, but this time around, after the opening round finishes, a fighter could be forced to face a teammate in every matchup until making it to the finale. Will that force some fighters to hold back in training and not show every trick up their sleeve? Will that cause tension amongst some of the competitors as they start looking at this tournament and realizing who they might be fighting in the next round?
It's all something to think about as the next episode of The Ultimate Fighter picks up this week.
As training continues, the first injury will also occur in the upcoming episode with one competitor suffering the ills of a hard grappling session that ends with a shriek of pain. It's nearly unavoidable for someone to suffer an injury during the season, and this is no exception. The real question then remains whether or not the injured fighter will be able to continue in the competition. Considering the first-round matchups are still getting underway, it's even that much harder knowing your name could be called at any moment to step into the Octagon whether the fighter is 100 percent ready or not.
When it's all said and done this week, it comes down to the fight between Bennett and Gevorgyan, as each one looks to make an impact in the tournament.
For Bennett, the strategy comes down to her ability to dictate where the fight takes place. Bennett has a very strong ground game and her wrestling could be the difference in putting Gevorgyan on the ground, where she's not typically on the bottom. Bennett obviously has a huge edge in experience, but that also ratchets up the pressure of expectations in the fight.
Meanwhile, Gevorgyan is a dark horse in this competition - relatively unknown and really separated from the rest of her housemates due to the language barrier. She possesses very strong striking with a solid judo base, but her best chance to win this fight will likely come on the feet. Gevorgyan swings hammers with her fists, and if she’s able to surprise Bennett with her striking, that could be her best path to victory.
Who will be moving on to the next round of the tournament? Find out on the newest episode of The Ultimate Fighter tonight at 10pm ET on FS1.