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The Ultimate Fighter Finale Musings

Michael DiSanto, UFC - It is an exclusive fraternity – Forrest Griffin, Diego Sanchez, Rashad Evans, Joe Stevenson, Michael Bisping, Kendall Grove, Matt Serra, Travis Lutter, Nathan Diaz, Mac Danzig and now Amir Sadollah. Those are The Ultimate Fighter winners.

By Michael DiSanto

Sadollah has big shoes to fill

It is an exclusive fraternity – Forrest Griffin, Diego Sanchez, Rashad Evans, Joe Stevenson, Michael Bisping, Kendall Grove, Matt Serra, Travis Lutter, Nathan Diaz, Mac Danzig and now Amir Sadollah. Those are The Ultimate Fighter winners.

Sadollah entered the fraternity by making good on his semifinal win over CB Dollaway, armbarring the former Arizona State wrestler for the second time this year. This time, however, he did it in the first round. It was a great win, for sure, but Sadollah now needs to demonstrate that he truly belongs in that fraternity because the majority of the TUF winners have gone on to great things in the UFC.

Griffin holds a win over a guy who some considered at the time to be the very best light heavyweight in the world, Shogun Rua, and he will challenge for his first world title in two short weeks. Despite two losses in his last four fights, Sanchez has proven himself to be a legitimate contender in the welterweight division. Evans remains undefeated. Stevenson fought his way to a title shot in short order, though he came up short against BJ Penn. Bisping has but a single loss (to Evans) since winning TUF. And Matt Serra knocked out Georges St-Pierre last year to become the first TUF alum to win a world title, though he has since dropped the title in a rematch with GSP.

Those aren’t big shoes to fill. They are HUGE, Shaquille O’Neal-sized shoes.

Of his fellow TUF winners, Sadollah most closely resembles Griffin. He is a skilled standup fighter with vastly underrated jiu-jitsu. But his biggest strength is his heart. He refuses to back down or give up in any situation, just like Griffin. As a result, he is dangerous for every minute of every fight, regardless of whether he is on his feet, his back, covered in blood or getting dominated.

The problem, though, is that he is still extremely raw and inexperienced. In fact, he is a newborn baby in the sport. His win over Dollaway was his second official professional fight. That is a shocking fact that most fans probably don’t know.

So what is next for the newest member of the “six-figure UFC contract club”? One would hope that his management brings him along slowly to allow him to develop properly as a fighter. But it seems unlikely that UFC head honcho Dana White or matchmaker Joe Silva will allow that to happen. They did not treat previous winners with kid gloves, and they didn’t give any such cushion to marketing dream Brock Lesnar. So, Sadollah should expect to be tested early and often.

Normally, I would say that a fighter has no chance at developing a long, successful career if he enters the UFC in his first few professional fights. After all, the UFC is a proving ground, not a learning center. But it is tough to count out someone with the heart and courage of Sadollah.

Da Spyder back in the middleweight mix

Five months ago, Kendall Grove stared into the mirror and asked himself a very simple question: are you all hype or are you for real?

After defeating Ed Herman to win the finale of the third season of TUF, Grove proved that he belonged among the list of future contenders by scoring impressive stoppage wins over Chris Price and Alan Belcher. But the back-to-back first-round knockout losses that followed had to shake his confidence. It’s not like he was dominating either fight and got caught with a homerun strike, ala Drew Fickett over Josh Koscheck. No. He took a real beat down by Patrick Cote and was physically dominated by Jorge Rivera.

Losses like that can ruin a young fighter if he lets doubt creep into his mind. Doubt leads to hesitation. And hesitation leads to losses inside the Octagon.

Grove showed no lingering ill effects from those losses when the action got underway against Evan Tanner Saturday night. He came out aggressively, looking to establish that he was the hungrier, more confident fighter. He expertly controlled the distance of the fight with a very good, snapping jab, creating a puzzle that Tanner never solved. On the inside, where Tanner usually dominates opponents, Grove showed excellent takedown defense and even better elbows and knees. In short, he beat up Tanner in every position on the feet and was able to defend very well once the fight went to the ground.

Adding a former champion on his list of victims is typically a major confidence boost to any fighter. Tanner might be fading fast in the twilight of his storied career, but he remains dangerous enough to expose any pretender. “Da Spyder” certainly didn’t get exposed last Saturday night; proving instead that he is someone to be taken very seriously in the middleweight division.

Time for Tanner and Horn to ask tough questions

Evan Tanner and Jeremy Horn are mixed martial arts living legends. Both men have competed in the sport since its dark days, fighting for a few hundred bucks here and there back when guys like Dan Severn and Ken Shamrock ruled the sport. Tanner is a veteran of more than 40 professional fights, including 17 bouts in the UFC. Nobody is really sure how many professional fights Horn has on his resume – 105, 110, 120 – but we know it is some number north of the century mark, with 13 of those bouts occurring in the UFC.

Actually, it is surprising that after more than a decade of competing at the highest level the two have never faced each other.

Their resume of fallen opponents reads as impressively as that of anyone currently competing in the middleweight division. But both men stand firmly at a crossroad after losing back-to-back UFC fights and not looking particularly good in those efforts.

Tanner is struggling to regain his championship form after taking a two-year hiatus to roam around the country like Cain from Kung Fu, working odds jobs to put food on the table and battling personal demons along the way. He looked like a shell of his former self in a one-sided loss to Yushin Okami back in March. While he looked better against Kendall Grove last Saturday, he still hasn’t come anywhere close to the dominant ground-and-pound, submission specialist who once ruled the division.

Tanner needs to ask himself whether his performance against Grove is a positive step in the right direction to regaining his once-dominant form or whether his long absence, particularly at such an advanced athletic age, deteriorated his skills beyond repair. Only he knows the answer to that question. But the time has come to ask it.

Horn is coming off back-to-back-to-back submission losses for the first time in his amazing career, and he has come up short in four of his last five bouts. Horn is one of the greatest submission artists in the history of the sport, so suffering three consecutive submission losses is almost unthinkable, particularly since the last two were by guillotine choke, something he knows how to defend against in his sleep.

Similar to Tanner, It’s time for Horn for to ask himself a difficult question. Have the 100+ fights worn him down to the point where his better days are behind him? Is he just on a tough stretch where the cards just aren’t falling in his favor? Like Tanner, Horn is a very smart guy. He knows the answer to those questions, nobody else does.

Maybe the right answer is to have these two warriors finally face each other.

McFedries quickly becoming a blood-and-guts favorite

It is difficult to say whether Drew McFedries will ever establish himself as a legitimate title contender. But one thing is certain: this guy is fun to watch.

McFedries is the kind of guy wades into the heart of darkness with guns ablaze. He isn’t going to run, and he isn’t going to hide. McFedries shows up ready to earn his paycheck, win or lose, by thrilling fans with nonstop action.

That was the case yet again last Saturday night. Facing Marvin Eastman, McFedries knew he was the smaller man when he entered the Octagon. He knew that trying to outpoint a skilled kickboxer like Eastman on the feet was a dangerous game plan. The smart thing was to come out and take down the “Beastman,” but McFedries threw caution to the wind, planted his feet and went to war with nonstop punches. The result was another knockout win.

Lister quietly moving up the middleweight ladder

If I were to poll 20 pundits as to who should be ranked among the top 10 fighters in the UFC middleweight division, the answers would vary widely. Anderson Silva would unquestionably sit atop each and every list. Nathan Marquardt, Rich Franklin, Dan Henderson, Yushin Okami, Thales Leites and Chris Leben would reside on every list. It would be very tough, however, to try and get a consensus on the last three names on the list.

Ivan Salaverry, Ed Herman, Jeremy Horn, Rousimar Palhares, Nate Quarry, Martin Kampmann, Ricardo Almeida and Patrick Cote would all argue that they belong among the top 10. But what about Dean Lister? “The Boogeyman” is quietly putting together quite a UFC resume.

In five UFC fights, he has defeated Alessio Sakara, Yuki Sasaki, Jordan Radaev and Jeremy Horn. His only loss came in a three-round decision loss to Marquardt, a perennial title contender. Admittedly, I thought Horn would win Saturday’s bout, as Lister seems better suited for submission grappling tournaments than actual mixed martial arts contests. But his first-round submission win over Horn leaves no doubt that he belongs in the middleweight mix, and submitting a legend like Horn goes a long way towards establishing him as someone who deserves consideration for a top 10 ranking.