The Ultimate Fighter 28 Finale: What’s Next for the Losers
by Candice Hall
The Ultimate Fighter reality competition show closed out its latest season on Friday with a finale packed full of varied fighting styles and some inevitable stylistic mismatches.
Before main event fighters Rafael Dos Anjos and Kumaru Usman took the stage, two featherweight women and two heavyweight men competed in their respective weight classes to become the winners of TUF 28: “Heavy Hitters.”
As the UFC heads into the last leg of 2018, matchmaker Sean Shelby has his work cut out for himself next year, matching up all the winners with appropriate fights.
But there is one important question after a fight often neglected by the media: What happens to all of the losers?
Here is a look at how the six losers of the TUF 28 finale main event performed and what these performances mean for their futures inside or outside of the UFC.
Flyweight Ji Yeon Kim was the first to fall on the main card. She had missed weight by 4.5 pounds, but the added mass appeared be of little help as she struggled heavily against the pedigreed kickboxer, Antonina Shevchenko. While “Fire Fist” Kim backed up her nickname with hard, single punches, the betting favourite Shevchenko technically outworked her opponent all three rounds, handing Kim a tough decision loss.
Kim has had an unimpressive run in the UFC thus far, with two decision losses and her only two wins coming by way of split decision. Historically, the UFC has not been kind to split decision fighters, and Kim may find herself thrown to the wolves again, as the expanding UFC continues to poach female talent from feeder leagues such as Invicta FC and match these newcomers against weaker talent.
If the UFC decides to port over fresh-faced talent from Invicta, a fight for Ji Yeon Kim against either Brazilian veteran Vanessa Porto or Polish standout Ada Niedzwiedz would be a difficult but valuable test of where the international female flyweights stand in the rankings.
Next up, Darren “The Dentist” Stewart failed to adjust to the constant pressure of the still undefeated UFC newcomer Edmen Shahbazyan. Stewart enjoyed two TKO victories in 2018 before losing this unanimous decision to the green but well-rounded, middleweight prospect. Shahbazyan was able to clinch up and avoid most of the ‘The Dentist’s’ damage while Stewart’s lack of urgency to escape off the fence led him to lose an otherwise winnable fight.
With this loss added to a couple other submission losses in an up-and-down UFC run, Stewart’s hopes on a revival depend on upgrading his offense and defense strategies for grappling transitions. Now that the blueprints are out on how to beat Stewart, other unranked middleweights will no doubt try to continue to use ground work to push Stewart out of his striking comfort zones.
The UFC doesn’t appear to be ready to drop the hard-hitting Stewart yet. But a successful comeback for Stewart would include anticipating his weak areas and formulating more open-ended game plans, while aiming to fight someone with a predictable skill set, such as striker Krzysztof Jotko.
Bryan Caraway lost his second fight in a row this year in a sloppy performance that raised serious questions about his future in the bantamweight division.
Caraway was once ranked as high as #4. But after his unfocused Friday fight full of wild striking, half-hearted takedowns, and an odd stoppage where he didn’t realize he wasn’t defending himself, Caraway’s current #14 rank will most likely not survive the next rankings update.
Caraway told the media in 2014 that he was seeing a sports psychologist to help battle performance anxiety. While he has not disclosed the cause of his current performance issues, a sharp downfall for a fighter in his athletic prime usually necessitates making some drastic changes to both life and training in order to recover. Hopefully, Caraway can identify the source of his problems and get back on track with a tune up fight against an unranked contender when he’s ready.
Pannie Kianzad, a natural bantamweight, could not manage the size of Macy Chiasson in her battle for the TUF 28 featherweight crown. Chiasson emerged as the dark horse of the season, and while Kianzad was the most experienced member of the female cast, Chiasson had natural featherweight power that the smaller Kianzad could not overcome.
Despite being finished with a rear naked choke on Friday, Kianzad has a bright future in the UFC should she choose to remain at bantamweight. With the retirement of legends like Ronda Rousey and Miesha Tate and veteran staples such as Sara McMann slowing down, the women’s bantamweight division appears open for new contenders.
At 26-years-old and with 14 fights under her belt, Kianzad is at a valuable intersection of youth and experience. Beating a veteran such as Sarah Moras or Tonya Evinger could propel Kianzad into the top 15 of women’s bantamweight and set her up for a steady rise upwards.
Justin Frazier, who was TKO’d in 2012 by future UFC heavyweight title contender Derrick Lewis, experienced a different kind of loss on Friday when he was submitted in the first round by TUF finalist Juan Espino in a straight armlock.
In the heavyweight division, there is no shortage of knock-out artists, and Frazier appeared to fit right in with 7 of his 10 wins coming by way of TKO. But with the rise of talented grapplers such as Espino, the co-main event fight outcome showed that it’s getting harder for heavy hitters in the UFC to survive on punches alone.
TUF runner-ups are traditionally offered contracts by the UFC even after their loss. But there is a rising trend of fighters, like Sage Northcutt signing with ONE FC, agreeing to interrupt their UFC run in order to work on their flaws in smaller promotions. After he was controlled easily by Espino, Frazier seemed like he would be well-suited to this plan – to put his UFC dreams on hold while he takes the time to fix the holes in his ground game.
Nonetheless, the UFC may have other ideas for him as they continue to fill out and promote heavyweight as their marquee division. Greg Hardy, Dana White’s favourite NFL player-turned-UFC fighter, will need a fight soon. A fight against a more experienced fighter like Justin Frazier could be the one that makes or breaks a rising star.
Rafael Dos Anjos dashed his welterweight title shot talks when he lost a unanimous decision against renowned wrestler Kumaru Usman in the five-round main event. Dos Anjos, who was previously similarly smothered by wrestler Khabib Nurmagomedov in lightweight competition, demonstrated once again that he needs to improve his wrestling defense in order to be competitive at the highest level in any division.
Size also appeared to be an issue for the Brazilian against “The Nigerian Nightmare.” Although Dos Anjos is an accomplished jiu jitsu black belt, his dangerous kimura attempts were stifled by Usman’s heavy top game and ability to explode out of submission attempts.
While Dana White passed on the idea of making another division in between 155 (70.3 kg) and 170 (77.1 kg) lbs in October, saying, “It’s all just talk. I never even considered it,” a stacked lightweight division and growing list of undersized welterweight fighters makes a compelling case for the creation of a new, intermediate weight class.
With possible matchups such as Kevin Lee and Donald “Cowboy” Cerrone, Rafael Dos Anjos would be a fine addition to a competitive 165 lbs (74.8 kg) division.