Conor McGregor truly is the hardest working man in MMA.
A few weeks after knocking out Chad Mendes in dramatic fashion and winning the UFC interim featherweight title, “The Notorious” threw on a pair of dark sunglasses, an oceanic patterned suit and stepped onto the set of The Ultimate Fighter 22 as a head coach. The opposing coach on the show was none other than McGregor’s good buddy Urijah Faber.
These guys love each other so much they couldn’t help but get into a friendly wrestling match backstage at the UFC 189 weigh-ins.
— FOX Sports: UFC (@UFCONFOX) July 11, 2015
Sarcasm aside, the boiling rivalry between McGregor and Faber—two men who might never cross paths in the Octagon—is the main selling point this season. Let’s face it: The show has grown stale over the last few years, void of world-class talent and coupled with your typical reality show shenanigans.
However, this season opened with promise as McGregor, Faber and UFC President Dana White took center stage to explain the setup. As previously announced, McGregor and Faber will not be fighting after the season concludes. The show will consist of all lightweights competing for a six-figure UFC contract and a custom Harley Davidson motorcycle.
Everything will revolve around a United States vs. Europe twist. A total of 32 fighters fought to get into the TUF house, but only 16 made it in a slew of customary preliminary bouts. McGregor will serve as the head coach of the eight remaining Europeans, and Faber will coach the American half.
It didn’t take long for McGregor and Faber to exchange pleasantries. Faber asked McGregor if he truly believed he was afraid to step into the cage with him. McGregor swiftly responded, “I believe I’d kill you stone dead.”
“I don’t see Urijah as a competitor, he is just there. He is not on my level. I smoked his teammate [Mendes],” said McGregor.
While McGregor is still soaring on cloud nine from undoubtedly the biggest win of his professional career, “smoked” isn’t the word Faber would use to describe the fight.
“Chad Mendes kind of stepped in and saved the day on a short two-week notice to fight for the world championship against a very tough guy,” said Faber. “It’s rough seeing one of your good buddies—someone you’ve mentored—get in there, throw it all on the line and come up short.”
As the attention shifted back to the fighters competing on the show, casual fans got their first glimpse at grappling phenom Ryan Hall, an Abu Dhabi Combat Club bronze medalist. He made quick work of preliminary opponent Johnny Nunez, who succumbed to a heel hook early in the first round. The victory was even more impressive considering Hall didn’t even break a sweat, which is huge in TUF’s tournament-based format.
Perhaps the best fight of the episode was the back-and-forth standup scrap between Europeans David Teymur and Thibault Gouti. Teymur, a former K-1 kickboxer, came out on top of most of the striking exchanges. Gouti stuck around in the fire on the feet and even secured a takedown in the second round, but it wasn’t enough to convince the judges he deserved the decision nod, as Teymur picked up the win and earned entry into the house.
Next up was early favorite Thanh Le, who looked more like Cung Le in his preliminary fight against Andreas Quintana. Spinning back kicks, roundhouse kicks, spinning hook kicks—Le put on a two-round spectacle highlighted by a straight right hand knockout.
Things didn’t go so well for Europe’s Artem Lobov, a friend of McGregor’s. The champ was on the sidelines cheering Lobov on in a two-round slugfest with Medhi Baghdad, a Black House fighter who has trained with Anderson Silva and Lyoto Machida. Baghdad appeared to be the more technical striker, while Lobov ate strikes like cookies and threw bombs.
White, McGregor and Faber appeared to agree that the fight should have gone to a third round, but the judges handed a majority decision to Baghdad in two.
The next American attraction saw Julian Erosa fight off the takedown-heavy offense of undefeated lightweight Jason Soares. While Soares pushed the fight with his relentless wrestling, Erosa was doing more damage from every position—top, bottom, against the fence and standing. When the takedowns didn’t work, Soares looked like a fish out of water. All three judges scored the fight for Erosa.
In a European grappling affair, Saul Rogers caught Paulo Boer in a rear-naked choke in the second round after a guillotine attempt in the first failed.
Billy Quarantillo looked to be in complete control early in his fight against Brandon Ricetti. He locked in a body triangle and spent most of the first round trying to secure a rear-naked choke. The decision to go for the submission without causing any striking damage came back to haunt Quarantillo, who had completely burned out his legs by the second round after working so hard to hold the body triangle.
Ricetti had the look of a fresh fighter in the second round as he secured a takedown and unleashed a salvo of ground-and-pound for the comeback TKO.
A pair of first round finishes for the European fighters followed with Frantz Slioa submitting Martin Delaney with a rear-naked choke and Abner Lloveras beating Vlado Sikic after a verbal submission.
Sikic was forced to call it quits due to a shoulder injury. His shoulder appeared to dislocate in the fight, and he made several desperate attempts to pop it back into place. It was an unfortunate ending to what was shaping up to be a really good fight.
Another fight of the night nominee came in the American clash between Jason Gonzalez and Tim Welch. It was a highly-competitive contest that displayed the well-rounded skills of both men. The fighters opened things up with wild standup exchanges, followed by a takedown from Gonzalez. Welch quickly reversed the position and took over the first round with strong top control and ground-and-pound.
However, the second round belonged to Gonzalez, who dropped Welch with a kick to the liver and finished the fight with ground strikes.
A couple of quick finishes followed with Tom Gallicchio submitting Mike Flach in the first round by rear-naked choke and Martin Wrzosek submitting Djamil Chan by a—surprise—first round rear-naked choke.
Sweden’s Martin Svensson used his grappling to pull out a decision win over Mohamed Gabinski. It was a grappling battle that took three rounds for the judges to render a verdict. Gabinski appeared to have an escape for every submission attempt, but in the end, Svensson was able to win the battle of position.
In one of the more uneventful bouts of the evening, Sascha Sharma put on a wash, rinse and repeat performance of takedowns and top control against Sean Carter. Outside of a flying knee landed by Carter late in the second round, Sharma dominated the fight en route to a unanimous decision.
Things quickly picked up in the lopsided fight between American hopefuls Austin Springer and Chris Gruetzemacher. To quote an old wrestling analogy, Springer was beaten from pillar to post by the significantly larger and more technical fighter in Gruetzemacher. Springer certainly deserves a lot of credit for hanging in there and taking his lumps.
But this is The Ultimate Fighter, not WWE’s Tough Enough.
The first episode of TUF concluded in bloody fashion as Brennan Sevin and James Jenkins turned each other’s faces to mush with a fisticuffs version of Russian roulette. Jenkins started the fight off like a snail on the ground and finished throwing haymakers in style to win a unanimous decision.
The final 16 contestants moving into the house are listed below.
Team Faber (United States)
- Ryan Hall
- Thanh Le
- Julian Erosa
- Billy Quarantillo
- Jason Gonzalez
- Tom Gallicchio
- Chris Gruetzemacher
- James Jenkins
Team McGregor (Europe)
- David Teymur
- Mehdi Baghdad
- Saul Rogers
- Frantz Slioa
- Abner Lloveras
- Martin Svensson
- Marcin Wrzosek
- Sascha Sharma
New episodes of “The Ultimate Fighter: Team McGregor vs. Team Faber” air every Wednesday night on FOX Sports 1 at 10 p.m. ET.