This week's episode of "The Ultimate Fighter" featured the showdown of the top two fighters in the middleweight division as Diego Sanchez defeated Josh Koscheck to advance to a match with Kenny Florian in the middleweight finals.
Last week Kenny Florian defeated Chris Leben in the second round when he opened a bad cut over Leben's eye with a forearm. Florian hit Leben with several stiff punches and forearms which were shown in post-fight highlights.
This week's highlights of the same fight only showed Florian landing two blows in what was portrayed as a major upset. Apparently Dana White and the producers are trying to protect what little value Leben has left after losing twice to smaller fighters. In fact Leben was booked to face Jason Thacker in a dark match on the final show on April 9 to try to build him back up for a rematch with Josh Koscheck.
After his loss to Florian, Leben again began crying outside the gym. Leben came into the show as a bully, but after two humbling losses he found God, at least in UFC terms. He went back into the gym to congratulate Kenny and to thank everyone. He even went out of his way to emphasize that Kenny had beaten him fairly and gained a decisive victory. One hopes that some of Chris Leben's newfound sportsmanship will rub off on his internet fanbase.
With this week's matchup already set, there was no need for an insipid team challenge, so the producer focused on prefight mental preparation and strategy with a few brief snippets related to the recovery of the cut over Forest Griffin's eye and Dana White's preparations for the upcoming final which was basically a product placement segment for the Hard Rock Casino Hotel in Las Vegas.
Bobby Southworth, who Forrest tabbed as his potential replacement, said that he was not happy that his shot at achieving his dream depended on "my boy" Forrest losing his shot. The fighters apparently still haven't fully realized that the team concept was a work to pit them against each other, like a contract proposal from NBA commissioner David Stern.
Koscheck talked about being able to dominate Sanchez with takedowns and added that he had never shown Diego a hundred percent of his ability. Diego talked about having God on his side and going for the neck. Dana White pointed out that while Koscheck had been able to take Chris Leben down, Josh hadn't been able to do much to Leben after the takedowns. White suggested the fight would show what Koscheck had learned since that fight.
The first round opened slowly with both men content to fight standing. Koscheck tried to connect from long range with punches and kicks, apparently trying to capitalize on his superior reach. Diego rushed at Josh and flurried a couple of times, but Koscheck danced away to a safe distance.
Around 2:15, Koscheck took Diego down, but he was unable to establish control on the mat as Diego quickly scrambled to his feet. Around 3:00, Koscheck lunged in and scored another takedown, but as he struggled for control, Diego caught him in a guillotine facelock for several seconds, but Koscheck powered out. Koscheck stood up, but did was slow to attack Diego while he was on the mat, throwing only a kick to the leg.
The final minute turned into a slugfest as both fighters brawled at close range. Diego threw several knee lifts that did not connect, but he got the best of the punches and caught Koscheck in another guillotine facelock. This time Diego got the hold fully locked in. Koscheck would have been knocked out or forced to submit if he hadn't been saved by the horn at the end of the first round.
Koscheck had dictated much of the action in the first round with his takedowns, but Diego had scored the best chances with counter submissions from the bottom, particularly the facelock guillotine at the end of the round, so on balance I thought Diego clearly won this round.
The second round also openly slowly as they resumed fighting from a distance. Koscheck scored with several nice kicks to Diego's arms and legs while Diego caught Koscheck with a couple of good punches during a rare charge. Koscheck tried to go low for a takedown, but Diego again countered with knee lifts.
Midway through the round, Diego caught Koscheck with a knee to the face that briefly stunned him. Koscheck recovered and took Diego down, but again he was not able to establish control or do damage. Diego tried several submission counters, but didn't come close to hooking them. Koscheck eventually stood up with Diego still on his back, but Josh seemed to have few ideas how to attack from there, throwing another belated kick to the leg.
Diego tried for a takedown from the mat, but again ended up on the bottom in the guard. With about 24 seconds left, the referee called for a restart, but he was caught out of position and couldn't get between the fighters. Diego turned and dropped his hands and Koscheck punched Diego in the side of the head, drawing catcalls from the fighters at ringside including fighters from his own team.
Koscheck tried to come in for another takedown, but Diego countered with more knees. At the end of the round they showed a closeup of a huge welt and a small cut under Koscheck's right eye caused by the knee Diego threw in the middle of the round. This round was closer than the first round. Koscheck scored with several kicks and another takedown, but Diego's knee was the most devastating strike of the round. Again I gave the round to Diego, but mainly based on that one outstanding strike.
The third round opened with Diego landing several stiff punches to Koscheck's head. Diego threw another knee, but Koscheck caught Diego's leg and slammed him into the cage with a ferocious takedown that left Diego bleeding from his mouth. At this point Koscheck figured to be well behind in the fight, but he still had enough time left to take Diego out.
Koscheck tried to find an opening with Diego pinned on his back against the cage, but Diego kept shifting his legs and looking for submissions. Koscheck eventually ended up standing with one of Diego's feet in his hands, but again he was unable to strike and actually ended up taking some axe kicks from the bottom. Koscheck dove back into Diego's guard, but he was unable to do anything positive and the referee called for a restart at about 2:30.
This time the referee got in position between the two fighters after being inadvertently cut off by Diego on the restart in the previous round. Many fans and fighters blamed Koscheck for throwing a cheap shot, but it was the referee who was out of position and it was Diego who got in his way.
Diego had lost his mouthpiece, so there was a brief time out to retrieve it and clean it up. During that pause, Koscheck was doubled over gasping for air, but when the fight resumed Koscheck landed a looping right hand and another short, chopping right, one of which appeared to break Diego's nose. Diego was bleeding from both his mouth and his nose with about two minutes to go in the match.
Koscheck took Diego down into the cage again, but was unable to break through his defenses and made no attempt at striking. At one point Diego appeared to be wide open for a facelock, but Koscheck seemed more concerned with traditional wrestling strategies. Koscheck's future in MMA depends on his ability to get beyond thinking like a collegiate wrestler and incorporating more ground striking and submissions.
Koscheck tried to grab Diego's ankles, but he ended up on the canvas on his face with Diego sitting on his head with his arms wrapped around Diego's legs as Diego elbowed and punched his ribs. After the round Koscheck was a mess with purple spots all over his face, though much of that damage may have come from grappling rather than strikes as the knee in the middle of the second round was the only knee that appeared to connect cleanly.
I thought Diego won the first round with near submissions that meant more than Koscheck's takedowns. I thought Diego won the second round because of the big knee strike. Koscheck made Diego bleed from the mouth and from the nose in the final round, but the strongest impression I got was from Diego's punches in the opening moments and his dominance in the final moments, so I scored the fight 30-27 for Diego.
Dana White announced a split decision. One judge had given Koscheck all three rounds, apparently based on dictating the fight despite clearly getting the worst of it. The other two judges scored it 29-28 for Diego, the winner, apparently giving Koscheck round two.
Mike Coughlin of the Wrestling Observer website wrote last week, "If he can't tap a novice like Koscheck then Sanchez doesn't belong in the UFC." It wasn't fair to claim that Diego needed to tap out a former national champion to prove he deserved a UFC contract, especially a fighter who normally outweighs him by fifteen to twenty pounds. Coughlin probably regrets making that comment.
Diego Sanchez and Kenny Florian will meet in the middleweight final, but their wins were even more impressive because neither is a true middleweight. In fact the "middleweight" final could be the last time that either man fights in UFC as a middleweight.
One can understand the decision to stick all the fighters into two weight classes. With sixteen fighters divided into two teams, the limited classes made it easier to create rivalries and follow matchups, but it isn't necessarily a fair way to measure the true talent of the fighters. Sanchez and Florian proved themselves worthy, but they had to overcome unfair size disadvantages to get to the final.
The team concept fell apart when fighters were forced to fight teammates, something that rarely happens in UFC, despite claims to the contrary by Dana White. Both that and the unfair weight classifications could be solved by instead using four teams and four weight classes with each team having one fighter in each class.
Rather than having stupid team challenges, they could fight in round robins by weight class with the winner in each class getting a contract and teams splitting cash prizes based on team points standings. A system like that would engender team spirit and rivalries while preserving the credibility of the weight classifications.
A great fight like Sanchez versus Koscheck demonstrates the potential of "The Ultimate Fighter", but there is room for improvement and the team concept and weight classes are two areas that should be improved if the show is going to return for another season.
Next week's show will feature the two light heavyweight semifinals. Stephan Bonnar will take on natural middleweight Mike Swick in another unfair fight while Sam Hoger will fight for the first time, facing either Forrest Griffin or Bobby Southworth, depending on whether the doctor clears Griffin to fight.