What could be the last Ultimate Fighter finale is set to air Friday.
With the UFC making a move from FOX to ESPN, the fate of the long-running reality series is in question. Though TUF is well past its glory days when it was considered an influential and must-see program, there is still something to be said for its consistency and capacity to occasionally unearth future stars like Robert Whittaker and Kelvin Gastelum, who just so happened to be the coaches of the show’s 28th season.
Gastelum will likely be paying extra close attention as three members of his team have a shot at the TUF trophy and a six-figure UFC contract. Two of his women’s featherweights, Pannie Kianzad and Macy Chiasson are facing off in a tournament final while the heavyweight bracket will be closed out with a bout between Team Gastelum’s Justin Frazier and Team Whittaker’s Juan Espino.
Headlining Friday’s card is a welterweight matchup between former lightweight champion Rafael dos Anjos and top contender Kamaru Usman, another TUF alumnus who is unbeaten in eight UFC appearances.
In other main card action, top-15 ranked bantamweights Pedro Munhoz and Bryan Caraway collide, Darren Stewart welcomes Contender Series contract winner Edmen Shahbazyan to the UFC in a middleweight bout, and women’s flyweight Antonina Shevchenko makes her highly anticipated debut against Ji Yeon Kim.
What: The Ultimate Fighter 28 Finale
Where: The Palms Resort & Casino in Las Vegas
When: Friday, Nov. 30. The three-fight UFC Fight Pass preliminary card begins at 6:30 p.m. ET, the four-fight FOX Sports 1 preliminary card begins at 8 p.m. ET, and the six-fight FOX Sports 1 main card begins at 10 p.m. ET.
Rafael dos Anjos vs. Kamaru Usman
Rafael dos Anjos remains one of the UFC’s smartest, most well-rounded fighters. Will that be enough to overcome the wickedly talented and considerably larger Kamaru Usman?
As good as dos Anjos is, we may have seen his ceiling at welterweight in the Colby Covington fight. Against opponents who are primarily strikers, dos Anjos still has the speed and savvy to win those contests; against powerful wrestlers, his expert boxing and clinch work can be neutralized by consistent pressure.
Usman is an outstanding pressure fighter and like Covington, he’s able to keep his foot on the pedal for 25 minutes. That’s a lot to ask of dos Anjos who visibly tired in the fourth and fifth rounds against Covington. The Brazilian’s challenge will become even more arduous as he struggles to get past Usman’s lengthy jab and stiff right hand.
It may seem obvious to keep bringing up dos Anjos’s last loss to explain why Usman will give him headaches, but chances are that Usman will follow a similar game plan. He’ll have an almost eight-inch reach advantage and even if he doesn’t get a takedown of his own, Usman will be able to stop any of dos Anjos’s attempts to turn this into a jiu-jitsu contest and pick him apart from long range to earn the decision win.
Justin Frazier vs. Juan Espino
Justin Frazier’s lackluster workouts in the early stages of TUF 28 led to him being the last heavyweight selected, but went on to show that even if he’s not winning any fitness competitions, he just knows how to fight. In his two bouts on the show, he was able to display both effective wrestling and top control, and good kickboxing.
Most importantly, Frazier’s versatility allowed him to target his opponent’s weaknesses. That will be a major factor against Juan Espino, who was one of the strongest grapplers on the show. “El Guapo” can always fall back on his wrestling and jiu-jitsu if it comes down to it, so any extended grappling sequences will likely end in Espino’s favor.
Espino showed some pop too in his semifinal bout with Maurice Greene, cracking the Glory kickboxer with an overhand right and a left hook before finishing with a rear-naked choke. The opening rounds of the TUF heavyweight tournament final should be a feeling-out process for both men as they show respect for each other’s power.
I expect Frazier to be just a little quicker on the draw on fight night and he’ll complete his journey from last pick to TUF champion with a finish in the first or second round.
Pannie Kianzad vs. Macy Chiasson
Looking at their respective resumes, it’s Pannie Kianzad who has a major advantage over Macy Chiasson in both experience and quality of opponents. Iran’s first female UFC fighter, Kianzad holds wins over UFC names like Jessica-Rose Clark, Milana Dudieva, and Lina Lansberg, and she’s gone the distance against current Invicta FC bantamweight champ Sarah Kaufman. In comparison, Chiasson has just two pro bouts (though she also spent several years competing as an amateur).
On the other hand, Chiasson was one of the few genuine 145ers in the TUF 28 house and that made a huge difference in her two fights as her physicality combined with her developing skills allowed her to finish both of her opponents inside of a round. She showed off a nasty Thai clinch in her win semi-final win over Leah Letson, which is exactly what you’d expect from a fighter with Chiasson’s measurements.
Kianzad, meanwhile, used her two TUF bouts to show off the guts and standup acumen that made her a fan favorite in Invicta. She seems to relish fights that get down and dirty, and is always a threat to turn around a fight by manufacturing scramble situations. And as much as she likes to brawl, she should be hesitant to do so against Chiasson.
With respect to what Kianzad has already accomplished in her career (and she will make a great addition to the bantamweight roster should she drop back down), the time is now for Chiasson, who has the tools to bully Kianzad and end this fight with strikes.
Pedro Munhoz vs. Bryan Caraway
Two of the bantamweight division’s best ground fighters face off in this one, which could lead to a stalemate on the mat. That’s good news for Pedro Munhoz, who will be more than happy to engage Bryan Caraway in a standup affair.
Munhoz makes up for his short limbs with pinpoint timing on his counters. He also excels at mixing up his attacks and being unpredictable. That makes him a nightmare for Caraway, who is a fairly straightforward striker. If he doesn’t find a way to disrupt Munhoz’s rhythm, he’s going to end up with his lead leg and mid-section getting chewed up.
Where Caraway can win this is if he can goad Munhoz into a jiu-jitsu contest. That might still go poorly for him given that Munhoz is a respected BJJ black belt, but if he can pick his poison, that’s the one he has a far better chance of surviving.
Though it’s never wise to count out Caraway, who seemingly gets billed as the underdog every time out despite his 6-3 UFC record, it’s a safe bet that Munhoz gets the better of him on the scorecards.
Darren Stewart vs. Edmen Shahbazyan
Darren Stewart turned the corner in his last couple of fights, looking more like the unbeaten English prospect that the UFC signed after a 7-0 start to his career. He showed a ton of resiliency in his comeback win against Charles Byrd and he’ll need every ounce of that against the hard-charging Shabazyan.
Fresh off a 40-second knockout win on the Contender Series, the 21-year-old Shabazyan’s longest pro fight in seven outings lasted a little over three minutes. It’s no surprise that the Edmond Tarverdyan pupil is being touted as one to watch at 185 pounds. He comes out of the gates hot, hits extremely hard, and has a nose for the finish.
On the other hand, those characteristics were applicable to Stewart too before he started consistently going up against UFC competition. This is a tough one to call and should be a fun fight for as long as it lasts. Let’s say Shahbazyan’s speed allows him to land something substantial first and he continues his run of first-round finishes.
Ji Yeon Kim vs. Antonina Shevchenko
Ji Yeon Kim missed weight badly on Thursday. In fairness, she accepted this bout on short notice, but you have to wonder if she’s looking for any advantage she can get against the heavily favored Antonina Shevchenko.
“La Pantera” is not your average UFC debutante. She enters the Octagon with a stellar kickboxing and Muay Thai pedigree, and has compiled a 6-0 record in MMA competing sporadically since 2002. Even if takes her some time to lock onto Kim, an agile fighter with good lateral movement, Shevchenko knows how to effectively cut off angles. Once Kim is left with no option but to trade with Shevchenko, the end will be nigh.
This should be a showcase for Shevchenko to show off her skills and eventually force a stoppage with a torrent of strikes.
Kevin Aguilar def. Rick Glenn
Alex Perez def. Joseph Benavidez
Michel Batista def. Maurice Greene
Leah Letson def. Julija Stoliarenko
Roosevelt Roberts def. Darrell Horcher
Tim Means def. Ricky Rainey
Raoni Barcelos def. Chris Gutierrez