Like it or not, The Ultimate Fighter (TUF) kicks off its 30th numbered season today (Tues., May 3, 2022) on ESPN+ with bantamweight rivals Julianna Pena and Amanda Nunes serving as coaches this time around, leading squads of Heavyweights and Flyweights through the familiar tournament format.
We start at the hotel, where Juliana Miller has a teary FaceTime conversation with her grandmother. Then we go to TUF 2 competitor Bobby Maximus, who’s confident that his experience will help his endeavor to become the oldest tournament winner.
Over to Nyle Bartling, who makes one last call to his partner before the producers confiscate his phone. Kathryn Paprocki does the same.
Meanwhile, Pena and her team are strategizing and doing research on the competitors. She’s leaning towards big-show experience over pretty records. Nunes has her own brainstorming session going; in a nice segue, we go from her mentioning Mohammed Usman to a scene of the man in question calling his brother, UFC champion Kamaru.
After a few more snippets of the coaches’ discussions, we finally get the title card proper. A slow-mo montage of everyone entering the gym follows, then a monologue from Dana White over footage of Pena’s and Nunes’ Octagon accomplishments.
In the gym itself, Forrest Griffin shows up to give a pep talk, praising the virtues of taking chances in life. He flips the coin, which gives Nunes first pick.
Heavyweights: Mohammed Usman, Zac Pauga, Jordan Heiderman, Bobby Maximus
Flyweights: Helen Peralta, Juliana Miller, Hannah Guy, Chantel Coates
Heavyweights: Eduardo Perez, Chandler Cole, Mitchell Sipe, Nyle Bartling
Flyweights: Claire Guthrie, Brogan Walker, Kaytlin Neil, Kathryn Paprocki
Coates and Maximus are the final picks, and they take it in different ways. Coates is unhappy, while Maximus just sees it as an opportunity to prove people wrong.
The teams get their first introduction to the house, resulting in a mad scramble to claim rooms. Neil seems confident that if a fight breaks out, it’ll be between a Flyweight and Heavyweight thanks to the latter’s freedom to eat whatever they want without worrying about weight management.
Sipe grouses about Usman pulling out of a fight with him in favor of fighting a “bum” three weeks later. Miller commiserates, complaining about her recent decision loss to Guthrie.
Team Pena gets the first training session. She decides to have the men and women train separately due to the size difference. She also describes her training style as “aggressive.” Coates is a fan, at least.
We don’t go too in-depth, instead switching over to Nunes’ squad. Sipe gives her a positive review, then it’s off to the fight announcement.
Pena gets to decide the first matchup, so she elects to pit Zac Pauga against Nyle Bartling.
We start with Pauga’s prep. He’s a former “senior criminal investigator” who quit just five months before the show after struggling with UFC veteran Markus Perez in his most recent fight. His home video shows off his very cute family as he explains that he does the cleaning in exchange for his wife supporting him quitting his job.
Pauga was actually a member of the Houston Texans who then went to rugby before financial concerns led him to law enforcement. The closest gym wound up being Elevation Fight Team, and we see him training with UFC contender Curtis Blaydes alongside footage of him mashing faces in the cage.
Over to Bartling. Nunes is confident in the matchup thanks to Bartling’s wrestling prowess. Bartling confirms that pressure and takedowns are the plan.
Rather than go into his home video and backstory, though, we go back to Pauga. Pena’s very aware that Bartling wants to grapple, as is Pauga, who says he can win “any kind of way.”
Okay, now we get to see Bartling’s story. He’s a small-town pig farmer from Nebraska and, to my delight, we do get footage of newborn piglets. His home video includes a lovely Valentine’s Day party his girlfriend put together, plus some night hunting with his brother Dylan.
Bartling explains how he accidentally shot himself in the foot in April 2020, complete with a deeply unpleasant photo. This, we explains, was the impetus for him to fully commit himself to MMA.
Over to the weigh-ins. Bartling hits the scale at 245, which is about par for the course in his career. Pauga, a longtime 205er, isn’t much smaller at 241.5.
Our first Ultimate Fighter Flashback of the season is, unsurprisingly, the legendary first clash between Forrest Griffin and Stephan Bonnar.
We’re already at fight day with 20 minutes left in the episode, so I’m thinking this one may go the distance.
265 lbs.: Zac Pauga (Team Pena) vs. Nyle Bartling (Team Nunes)
Round one: Lots of feints early. Bartling low kick, Pauga body jabs. Bartling shoots behind an overhand right, no dice. One minute in. Jab from Bartling, chopping right from Pauga. Bartling left hook, shoots, denied. Pauga with a nice knee on the break and he follows with combinations, moving to turtle when Bartling shoots. Some solid punches before they separate. Trading shots near the fence. Huge overhand right stings Bartling, who shoots in response two minutes in. Pauga initially defends with the whizzer, then uses the fence to try and stand. Jockeying for position. Two minutes to go.
Pauga opens up on the break. Clean jab and he sprawls on another shot. Both try to throw in the clinch and Pauga slips, allowing Bartling to take top position. Scarf hold for Bartling, landing punches. One minute to go. Pauga turns to his knees, eats a knee, lands his own on the break. Pauga tries to rush before the bell. 10-9 Pauga.
Round two: Bartling shoots early, rebuffed again. Both jab the body. Right cross by Pauga, eats a leg kick in return. One minute in. Pauga 3-2. Better shot from Bartling, lands a left on the exit, eats a right. Pauga goes low-high with 3-2s, then eats a nut shot. Big overhand right by Bartling when they resume and he walks into counters trying to follow up. Low kick connects, jump knee does not two minutes in. Labored overhand right to level change rebuffed again. Bartling lands an overhand right, shoots, denied. Body kick lands for him. He’s actually outworking Pauga here. Two minutes to go.
Solid counter right from Bartling into another shot. Pauga sprawls and fires hammerfists. Bartling left hook on the way up. Another overhand right to a shot and this time Pauga drops some heavier shots as he defends. These boys is gassed. One minute to go. Awkward stalemate that ends when Pauga stands and drops more shots. Bartling looking like a dead fish and he surrenders half guard. 10-9 Pauga.
Final result: Pauga def. Bartling by unanimous decision
Pauga praises Bartling’s toughness ahead of a standing ovation from his locker room. Bartling’s taking the loss poorly and seems close to a breakdown out of disappointing himself and, he fears, those behind him. His teammates are there for him, at least.
Pena’s next matchup pits her first Flyweight pick, Helen Peralta, against Team Nunes’ third in Kaytlin Neil. Peralta is confident in Pena’s assessment of the matchup, while Neil’s leaning on her experience. Highlights for the rest of the season include hatchet throwing, silly string, Sipe and Usman beefing, one of the huskier lads landing a wheel kick, and somebody getting diagnosed with a “complete tear.”
See you next week!