Two new stars were unexpectedly born Saturday night, when Kelvin Gastelum and Cat Zingano each beat the odds at “The Ultimate Fighter” Season 17 live finale in Las Vegas.
After beginning the season as the show’s last pick, Gastelum turned the heavily favored Uriah Hall into MMA’s latest straw man by upsetting the talented striker via split decision to win the TUF 17 crown. Zingano similarly rocketed out of obscurity and rebounded from a tough first round to TKO Miesha Tate in the third, claiming the chance to coach opposite Ronda Rousey on Season 18 and eventually challenge for her women’s bantamweight title.
As far as plot twists go, these were both better than we might have expected from the UFC’s flagging reality show -- a pair of surprise endings that suddenly made the hoary old institution of “The Ultimate Fighter” feel more relevant as it prepares to jump from the FX Network to the fledgling Fox Sports 1.
Credit Zingano as not only the biggest winner but the biggest catalyst for change. A week ago, she might have been an appropriate pick as a contestant on TUF’s next season, which will jump yet another reality-show shark by having men and women live, competing side by side, when filming begins this summer. Now Zingano will have a full slate of hourlong episodes to introduce herself to the UFC faithful as coach, and she’ll do it starring opposite the biggest sensation of women’s MMA. Not to mention, if the early returns of her gutsy performance against Tate and exuberant postfight interview are any indication, she stands a decent chance of coming off as the more likable half of this particular coaching tandem.
Zingano's participation will offer a fresh angle to fans, who had already heard Rousey and Tate give each other an earful leading up to their March 2012 Strikeforce title fight. In the same way that the caustic feud between Quinton Jackson and Rashad Evans made Season 10 of TUF borderline unwatchable, the Rousey-Tate beef was best consumed in smaller quantities. Our brief glimpses of Zingano’s personality suggest she might not play the trash-talk game, which portends good things for making Season 18 endurable.
Things turned in the exact opposite direction for Hall, who did as much to derail his own hype this weekend as Zingano did to kick-start hers.
Hall came into his bout with Gastelum as perhaps the most highly touted TUF finalist ever, drawing speculation he’d be an instant title contender in the middleweight division.
Unfortunately for him, that narrative fell flat when the 28-year-old member of Team Tiger Schulmann fought as if he wholeheartedly believed it, eventually conceding the decision to the underdog after a performance during which Hall looked great in flashes but entirely pedestrian the rest of the way.
That’s the bad news. The good news is that just like Zingano’s win, Hall’s loss could ultimately prove to be positive, both for himself and for TUF at large.
Why? Two reasons: First, because Gastelum's victory demonstrated that amid all the babble about Hall, there might actually have been more than one noteworthy fighter on this season's show. If TUF's role in the UFC is to produce new faces for the company to promote, then the live finale worked like a charm. Instead of yielding Hall as the one breakout star we were counting on, TUF 17 gave us two interesting prospects (Hall and Gastelum). Make no mistake, that’s a win-win.
Second, as much as we’re all mourning the demise of Hall's myth in the aftermath, the stakes here were actually very low for him. Truth is, he didn’t lose much over the weekend except for the pressure of being “the next big thing” and the opportunity to get locked into the TUF winner’s notorious “six-figure contract.” He’ll still almost certainly get the chance to be a UFC fighter, and now he’ll begin his career in the Octagon under far less scrutiny and likely against far easier competition than if he’d slayed Gastelum in 30 seconds as we all expected.
Think about the alternative for a moment. Pretend Hall blew through Gastelum without breaking a sweat. This morning we’d all be trumpeting him as a contender at 185 pounds and agitating for him to leap into a bout with a top-10 guy. Knowing what we know about him now, how do we think that would’ve worked out for Hall? Answer: not well.
No, far better for Hall to get the time he needs to mature as a fighter and a competitor.
Over time, if he grows and improves and stops fighting like a man who thinks he can’t be beaten, perhaps he can still come to be regarded as TUF 17’s greatest talent, in the same way guys like Kenny Florian and Gray Maynard arguably surpassed the winners of their respective seasons when viewed through the filter of hindsight.
Upsets have long been a mixed bag for “The Ultimate Fighter.” In this instance, wins by Zingano and Gastelum made the end of TUF 17 and the beginning of TUF 18 seem simultaneously exciting.
For a show that appears so intent on running itself into the ground, that was a welcome change indeed.