The thirtieth season of The Ultimate Fighter opened up with Juliana Miller having a tearful phone call with her mom and grandmother, who she noted as “going downhill fast.” Then cut to 43-year old Bobby Maximus, who called the show “one of the most gruelling psychological ordeals” you can go through.
If you’ve followed TUF at all in the years since its inception back in 2005, you know the drill. Fighters are cut off from friends and family, cooped up in a Las Vegas mansion, and must fight their way through a tournament to earn a UFC contract. It’s six weeks in real time, but will play out over the next couple of months for viewers at home. For TUF 30, it’s women’s flyweights and men’s heavyweights ready to throw down — and aside from Maximus and Miller, there are a few standout names, including Mohammed Usman, brother of UFC welterweight champ Kamaru.
There’s only so many quirks you can add to the TUF format to mix things up. Other than that, the show lives or dies on the strength of its fights, and its personalities. It’s too early to know where this latest season will fall, but the UFC has wisely allowed for some breathing time between seasons. There’s also a legitimate grudge match story between this season’s coaches, Amanda Nunes and Julianna Pena. Pena won The Ultimate Fighter 18; she also recently dethroned Nunes to claim the UFC women’s bantamweight championship.
Episode one of The Ultimate Fighter 30 sees Forrest Griffin, winner of the original Ultimate Fighter, address the fighters early, taking on the role of Dana White. He talks about the success he had after seizing the opportunity to appear on The Ultimate Fighter, and hopes some of the fighters from this season have the same experience. Claire Gutherie and Helen Peralta are the top two picks for the season; Maximus goes last, and blames it on his age — adding that he doesn’t care, in slightly less polite terms.
Then it was time to watch a Keystone Kops inspired introduction to the house, with UFC hopefuls practically falling over each other to check out the new digs. This gives way to the first fight being announced: former police officer and ex-football player Zac Pauga is set opposite Nyle Bartling, who coach Amanda Nunes describes as a good wrestler.
The Ultimate Fighter 30 Episode 1: Pauga vs. Bartling
With the usual behind the scenes clips and training footage behind us, we get to the first fight of the season. Two undefeated heavyweights in Zac Pauga and Nyle Bartling, 5-0 and 6-0 respectively. Bartling fires an overhand and chases a single-leg takedown attempt about 45 seconds into the fight, but Pauga pulls free.
Pauga is keeping his stance nice and compact, rips the body, shakes off another takedown attempt, and hurts Bartling as he’s backing up! Bartling shoots for a leg, out of sheer desperation, and Pagua drops hammer fists, although he’s warned for hitting the back of the head. Somehow, Bartling survives, and manages to land a throw near the midway mark. Pagua works his way back up, and at center, Bartling throws a straight, changes levels, and shoots again; while Pagua initially stuffs the attempt, they go down a moment later with Bartling in side control. Pagua rolls to his knees, gets to a three point stance, eats a knee to the side, and finally escapes.
Round one is in the books, with Pagua coming close to a finish. Round two opens with Pagua looking comfortable on the feet, while Bartling throws a wild hook then shoots immediately after. At issue is Bartling telegraphing his entries; once you see him swing, you know the takedown is coming. A minute or so later, Pagua sprawls and stuffs another takedown attempt. Along the fence, Pagua digs the body, then eats a kick to the groin. The ref reminds Bartling that “you own that weapon.” Not that it was ever in doubt, it’s more whether he can control that weapon.
Another wild punch from Bartling, followed by a takedown attempt, just past the midway point of the round. No dice. Another with just under two minutes remaining, and Bartling holds onto the leg for a bit this time before Pauga pulls free. There’s an obvious concern here: if Bartling’s takedown entries aren’t enough to get the relatively inexperienced Pauga to the ground, how is he going to fare against more seasoned competition? Pauga for his part gets a lot of hammer fists in during the second half of the round, and winds up getting on top in the final minute. He can’t do much from half guard, but when the horn sounds, he’s in a dominant position. He takes it on the scorecards with all three judges awarding him the fight.
Official Result: Zac Pauga def. Nyle Bartling by unanimous decision
After the win, coach Juliana Pena proclaims that “he was 6-0 and you took that 0 away. You did that,” celebrating Pauga’s win, and apparently forgetting that these exhibition fights won’t be reflected on the athlete’s pro records. An upset Bartling says he let everyone down; Dana White makes a brief appearance, but it’s Forrest Griffin announcing the next match-up: Helen Peralta vs. Kaytlin Neil. Both fighters, who will compete next week, have fought for Invicta, with Neil also having a Bellator MMA fight under her belt.