After international "The Ultimate Fighter" champions are crowned on Australia’s Gold Coast, another final Saturday will determine the US season’s welterweight winner, as the 16th traditional installment of the reality series culminates at the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino in Las Vegas.
The main event features coach Roy Nelson against late replacement Matt Mitrione, who stepped in for the injured Shane Carwin.
Welterweights Mike Ricci, of Team Carwin, and Colton Smith, of Team Nelson, will collide in the final.
The card is rounded out by three intriguing matchups as seasoned heavyweight strikers Pat Barry and Shane Del Rosario will face off, plus Melvin Guillard battles Jamie Varner in a lightweight bout, while Dustin Poirier tangles with Jonathan Brookins in featherweight action.
Here’s a closer look:
Matt Mitrione (5-1) vs. Roy Nelson (17-7)
Former teammates on the 10th season of "The Ultimate Fighter," NFL veteran Mitrione and eventual season winner Nelson, will clash to headline the UFC’s return to Las Vegas.
Mitrione, 34, accepted the opportunity to face Nelson on short notice, replacing an injured Shane Carwin. Ultimately, the matchup we wanted to see is now on the back burner, which is disappointing after 12 weeks of reality television.
Nonetheless, Mitrione is an intriguing replacement with great athletic gifts and a wealth of potential. The Roufusport product has recently spent time in Florida training with the Blackzilians in hopes of bouncing back from his first professional blemish at the hands of Cheick Kongo just over a year ago.
Mitrione built up some momentum with wins over Kimbo Slice, Joey Beltran, Tim Hague and Christian Morecraft, but his limited wrestling pedigree wasn’t enough to earn him the nod against the more experienced Kongo.
Once again, however, Mitrione will enter the Octagon with a sizeable gap in experience compared to his opponent.
Nelson, 36, most recently trounced Dave Herman by first-round knockout at UFC 146. Since winning "The Ultimate Fighter" by knocking out Brendan Schaub, Nelson has finished Stefan Struve and Mirko "Cro Cop" Filipovic, while dropping largely one-sided decisions to elite heavyweights Junior dos Santos, Frank Mir and Fabricio Werdum.
A Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt under Renzo Gracie, don’t let Nelson’s questionable physique fool you. He packs a mean overhand right and his positioning and submission skills on the ground are phenomenal. Perhaps Nelson’s best trait is his iron chin as he’s barely been fazed after eating vicious bombs from some of the division’s heaviest punchers.
Mitrione’s physical tools are his keys to victory against the former International Fight League heavyweight champion. By relying on his conditioning, footwork and speed, Mitrione can pick Nelson apart.
Nelson won’t make it easy as he tries to close the distance, either landing a finishing blow or securing a pivotal takedown. Mitrione’s submissions have yet to be tested in the Octagon, so expect Nelson to put him in uncomfortable positions, coaxing a tapout the moment Mitrione leaves himself open.
Verdict: Nelson via Submission, Round 2
Mike Ricci (7-2) vs. Colton Smith (3-1)
After a compelling season of "The Ultimate Fighter," Team Carwin’s Ricci and Team Nelson’s Smith have made it all the way.
Smith, 24, is a former US Airborne Ranger with a background in freestyle wrestling.
Despite entering the season with an unpolished professional record and limited experience, Smith has risen to the occasion with a grinding wrestling game, cruising to decisions over Jesse Barrett, Eddy Ellis, Igor Araujo and Jon Manley.
Ricci, 26, is a longtime Canadian prospect and a standout at Montreal’s Tristar Gym, home to UFC welterweight phenoms Georges St-Pierre and Rory MacDonald.
A well-rounded fighter who made the move from 155 pounds to welterweight to compete on the show, Ricci’s only two setbacks in professional competition have come against Daron Cruickshank and Pat Curran. Meanwhile, Ricci has rattled off impressive wins over the likes of Jordan Mein and Jesse Ronson on the Canadian circuit.
Ricci’s journey to the final saw him brutally knock out Jason South and Neil Magny, while earning a pair of decisions over Dom Waters and Michael Hill.
Smith is primarily a one-dimensional fighter as he relies on his wrestling pedigree to control fights. Conversely, Ricci, a crafty striker with more experience against a higher level of competition, excels in all areas.
We saw Ricci struggle with wrestling in his close win over Waters, but he turned the momentum when it mattered most in the third and deciding round.
Ricci likely has worked diligently on his sprawl and overall wrestling game in the months leading up to this fight as he also helped St-Pierre and MacDonald prepare for their recent victories.
Smith will pursue a familiar game plan, while Ricci mixes up his dynamic offense, eventually landing a significant combination to become this season’s "TUF" champion.
Verdict: Ricci via KO, Round 2
Pat Barry (7-5) vs. Shane Del Rosario (11-1)
Fans of striking can rejoice as heavyweight kickboxers Barry and Del Rosario should put on a clinic.
Barry, 33, suffered a first-round TKO loss at the hands of Lavar Johnson this past May. Barry is 4-5 since joining the UFC in 2008 and he desperately needs a strong showing to prove he belongs in the Octagon.
Barry has struggled primarily with submissions, but recent knockout losses to Johnson and Cheick Kongo have also raised some questions about his chin.
The New Orleans native is a K-1 veteran and former kickboxing and Sanshou world champion. His most effective work is obviously done standing, but he could meet his match in the form of a WBC muay thai champion.
Del Rosario, 29, made the leap from Strikeforce to the UFC this past May, succumbing to a second-round TKO against Stipe Miocic, the first loss of his professional career. Under the Strikeforce banner, Del Rosario was coming off a first-round submission of Johnson, who conquered Barry earlier this year.
Despite a background in muay thai and kickboxing, Del Rosario has adapted well to the submission game, evidenced by the omoplata he used to put away Brandon Cash in November 2009.
Barry could be the physically stronger combatant, but he’s never been one to clinch up. He will indulge Del Rosario in a kickboxing match, which will come down to who lands the first decisive blow.
Del Rosario has been the more consistent fighter and he should utilize his significant height and reach advantage effectively. Once Barry feels the power from a critical combination, Del Rosario will pounce for the fight-ending submission.
Verdict: Del Rosario via Submission, Round 2
Melvin Guillard (30-11-2) vs. Jamie Varner (20-7-1)
In lightweight action, the power punching Guillard and former WEC champion Varner look to return to the win column.
Guillard, 29, has dropped three of his last four contests. After a pair of submission losses against Joe Lauzon and Jim Miller, Guillard bounced back with a unanimous decision win over Fabricio Camoes. Most recently, he suffered a first-round knockout loss at the hands of former teammate Donald Cerrone.
Formerly a member of Greg Jackson’s New Mexico-based camp, Guillard now represents the Blackzilians in Florida. The judo brown belt has showcased large improvements with his takedown defense and sprawl in recent outings, but he still gives up crucial positions on the ground. Nonetheless, Guillard is better conditioned than ever and his devastating power and cat-like speed still make him one of the division’s most dangerous competitors.
Varner, 28, shocked the world this past August, making his UFC debut on short notice and finishing then-undefeated Brazilian muay thai specialist Edson Barboza in the first round.
The AMA Fight Club product wasn’t so lucky in his next outing this past August, as he succumbed to a third-round submission against Lauzon in a highly entertaining scrap, which earned both men "Fight of the Night" honors.
Varner was actually contemplating retirement after going on a winless skid in his last four WEC fights and losing a decision to Dakota Cochrane on the regional circuit. Just when we all thought he was over the hill, Varner bounced back with an impressive streak, so he still has some fight left in him.
With that being said, he’ll have no answer for Guillard’s quickness and precision. The game plan will likely revolve around his strong wrestling base, but he’ll have a hard time keeping Guillard grounded. Inevitably, Guillard will find a home for an onslaught of strikes, forcing Varner to turtle up in defeat.
Verdict: Guillard via TKO, Round 1
Dustin Poirier (12-2) vs. Jonathan Brookins (13-5)
Red-hot featherweight prospects will kick off the main card as Poirier and Brookins both look to bounce back from losses.
Poirier, 23, a longtime protégé of Tim Credeur, has recently trained at American Top Team as he tries to rebound from his first UFC setback against Chan Sung Jung in a "Fight of the Year" candidate this past May.
With notable wins over the likes of Josh Grispi, Pablo Garza and Max Holloway, the Brazilian jiu-jitsu purple belt has all the tools to become a contender at 145 pounds.
Brookins, 27, won the 12th season of "The Ultimate Fighter" by defeating Michael Johnson in the final. Since securing a UFC contract, Brookins shed some pounds to compete at featherweight, where he has dropped two of three fights. After bouncing back from a decision loss to Erik Koch with a resounding first-round knockout of Vagner Rocha, Brookins would find himself on the losing end again this past June, suffering a submission setback against Charles Oliveira.
A Brazilian jiu-jitsu purple belt anchored at Gracie Barra Orlando, Brookins needs to be weary of Poirier’s sneaky submissions. It remains to be seen which fighter will have the edge standing, but Poirier’s superior ground game should be the difference-maker on Saturday night.