MMA / Editorial

The Ultimate Fighter 21 Finale Preview & Predictions

Ariel Shnerer / July 11, 2015 - 9:46pm

The Ultimate Fighter 21: American Top Team vs. Blackzilians has come to an end, but we still need to determine which team wins $300,000 and a “TUF” trophy on Sunday night, as The Ultimate Fighter 21 Finale emanates from the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas.

In addition to the tourney final pitting American Top Team’s Hayder Hassan against the Blackzilians’ Kamaru Usman, the card also features an intriguing main event between well-rounded longtime contender Jake Ellenberger and fast-rising striking dynamo Stephen Thompson.

Note: Prelims will air live on Fight Network in Canada at 7 p.m. ET

Here’s the full breakdown:

Main Card (TSN4/TSN5/FOX Sports 1, 9 p.m. ET)

-Jake Ellenberger (30-9) vs. Stephen Thompson (10-1)

The 30-year-old Nebraska native Ellenberger headlines opposite the 32-year-old South Carolina native Thompson in a welterweight duel.

A former NCAA Division II wrestler based at Glendale Fighting Club, Ellenberger rebounded from a string of highly disappointing setbacks this past February by submitting Josh Koscheck at UFC 184. He previously dropped bouts against Kelvin Gastelum, Robbie Lawler and Rory MacDonald. At one time considered one of the top contenders for the title, Ellenberger flashed his championship potential in stoppage victories over Mike Pyle, John Howard, Jake Shields and Nate Marquardt, but he’s seemed increasingly hesitant to pull the trigger over the past two years.

A Kempo karate and kickboxing black belt, the flashy southpaw Thompson is riding a four-fight winning streak over Nah-Shon Burrell, Chris Clements, Robert Whittaker and Patrick Cote. He’s tasted defeat just once in his career — a frantic April 2012 decision against Matt Brown. A multiple-time kickboxing world champion, Thompson has trained all over the continent to perfect his craft, working with the likes of Firas Zahabi and Georges St-Pierre in Montreal, and Ray Longo and Chris Weidman in New York.

If Ellenberger can successfully employ wrestling in this fight, he’ll have spurts of success. It’s unlikely he can hold down the scrappy Thompson for long periods of time, so they will inevitably return to trading strikes, where Thompson’s accuracy, speed, timing and volume will create countless openings to land clean. Ellenberger can take a punch, but Thompson’s striking is on another level. I expect this to be his breakout performance, as he bludgeons Ellenberger in the second stanza.

Verdict: Thompson via KO, Round 2

-Hayder Hassan (6-1) vs. Kamaru Usman (5-1) - TUF welterweight final

Bragging rights are on the line in The Ultimate Fighter welterweight final when the 32-year-old American Top Team representative Hassan battles the 27-year-old Blackzilians member Usman.

Hassan issued a challenge to Usman on the very first episode of the season, and they finally butt heads on Sunday night.

The Florida native Hassan defeated Andrews Nakahara, Felipe Portela and Vicente Luque on the show, while the “Nigerian Nightmare” Usman punched his ticket to the final with wins over Michael Graves and Steve Carl.

This is a classic striker versus grappler matchup, as Hassan excels on his feet, while Usman is a three-time NCAA All-American wrestler. If Usman can take this fight into deep water, I expect him to grind his way to a close decision. However, an emotional Hassan will come out guns blazing and I predict his fistic fury will get the job done early.

Verdict: Hassan via KO, Round 1

-Michael Graves (4-0) vs. Vicente Luque (7-4-1)

In another clash of rivals from this past season of The Ultimate Fighter, the 24-year-old Ohio native Graves meets the 23-year-old New Jersey native Luque.

American Top Team’s Graves dropped a decision against finalist Kamaru Usman in his first appearance on the reality show, but he submitted Jason Jackson on the second-last episode of the season. Meanwhile, the Blackzilian Luque submitted Nathan Coy, but he lost a split verdict against Hayder Hassan in one of the best fights of the season.

Graves is a talented kickboxer with a solid wrestling base, while Luque is a Muay Thai specialist armed with a Brazilian jiu-jitsu brown belt. Both are talented prospects who should become fixtures in the organization, but I think Graves will resort to his wrestling to wear down his foe down the stretch, earning a hard-fought decision in the process.

Verdict: Graves via Decision

-Jorge Masvidal (28-9) vs. Cezar “Mutante” Ferreira (8-4)

The 30-year-old Florida native Masvidal returns to the welterweight division against the 30-year-old Brazilian Ferreira.

A hardened veteran from American Top Team, Masvidal is highly experienced competing against world-class competition all over the globe. The sharp boxer has secured career wins over Joe Lauzon, Yves Edwards, Satoru Kitaoka, K.J. Noons, Tim Means, Michael Chiesa, Pat Healy, Daron Cruickshank and James Krause. He’s coming off a razor-thin losing effort against Al Iaquinta this past April.

The winner of the inaugural season of The Ultimate Fighter Brazil, the Blackzilians’ Ferreira got his UFC journey off to a great start with a trifecta of victories over Sergio Moraes, Thiago Santos and Daniel Sarafian, but the 3rd degree BJJ black belt lost two of his last three outings, outpointing Andrew Craig, while suffering devastating knockouts at the hands of C.B. Dollaway and, most recently, Sam Alvey.

Masvidal is a fighter who always manages to fly under the radar, but he’s tremendously well-rounded. His boxing is his go-to weapon, but he’s also a shark on the ground, his takedown defense is nearly impenetrable and he can’t be broken. He’ll give up some size and raw strength, but Masvidal should have the advantage everywhere skill-wise. He’ll repeatedly find a home for his hard jab and multi-strike bursts to procure a dominant three-round decision.

Verdict: Masvidal via Decision

-Michelle Waterson (12-4) vs. Angela Magana (11-7)

In women’s strawweight action, the 29-year-old Colorado native Waterson makes her long awaited promotional debut against the 31-year-old California native Magana.

Nicknamed “Karate Hottie,” the fan favorite Waterson is a former Invicta Fighting Championships atomweight champion, so she’ll likely be giving up some size. The Jackson’s MMA product is a karate black belt with her biggest career win coming by way of fourth-round submission over Jessica Penne in April 2013 to win the Invicta title. In her most recent appearance, however, Waterson succumbed to a third-round submission against Herica Tiburcio this past December.

Conducting most of her training in Thailand, Magana is primarily a Muay Thai fighter with questionable takedown defense, grappling and conditioning. She’ll be in desperation mode following a three-fight losing streak against Jessica Eye, Stephanie Eggingk and Tecia Torres.

Waterson will have a rough time adjusting to the level of competition in the UFC, particularly at 125 pounds. However, this is the perfect opponent for her to flourish in her debut, as Magana poses few threats she hasn’t encountered before. Odds are inflated here, as Waterson shouldn’t be such a big favorite against anyone, let alone a veteran of 18 pro fights. Nonetheless, she should get the better of Magana standing while mixing in occasional takedowns and controlling the positional game to emerge triumphant on judges’ scorecards.

Verdict: Waterson via Decision

-Maximo Blanco (11-6-1, 1 NC) vs. Mike De La Torre (13-4, 1 NC)

In what should be an exciting featherweight scrap, the 31-year-old Venezuelan Blanco clashes with the 28-year-old San Diego native De La Torre.

Prior to competing in North America, Blanco was a staple in Japan’s Pancrase organization, winning the lightweight title and earning a reputation for violent knockouts. He hasn’t quite found the same success since, losing four of his next five fights. But he’s back on the winning track after stringing together a pair of decision wins over Andy Ogle and Dan Hooker last year.

The MMA Lab’s De La Torre made his UFC debut on short notice as a lightweight in April 2014, losing a contentious decision against Mark Bocek. He was submitted by Brian Ortega in his sophomore appearance, a result later overturned to a no-contest due to a failed drug test, then rebounded this past February with a first-round stoppage of Tiago Trator.

Under the watchful eye of Greg Jackson, Blanco has transformed from a firefighter blitzing for the finish to a more meticulous combatant who focuses more on his wrestling. De La Torre is a well-rounded opponent capable of finishing everywhere, but Blanco is durable. I expect the fight to play out all over the place, as Blanco consolidates takedowns with his striking flurries. His completed takedowns could be a difference maker in an otherwise cutthroat scrap, earning him a narrow decision.

Verdict: Blanco via Decision

Preliminary Card (Fight Network/FOX Sports 1, 7 p.m. ET)

-Caio Magalhaes (9-1) vs. Josh Samman (11-2)

The 27-year-old Brazilian Magalhaes tangles with the 27-year-old Florida native Samman in the featured prelim contested at middleweight.

The Nova Uniao-based BJJ black belt Magalhaes is on a four-fight tear, defeating Karlos Vemola, Nick Ring, Luke Zachrich and Trevor Smith since dropping a decision against Buddy Roberts in his June 2012 UFC debut.

Samman is on a roll of his own, having stopped Kevin Casey and Eddie Gordon in successive octagon appearances. The BJJ brown belt is a versatile kickboxer and it would be in his best interests to avoid over-engaging on the ground. Magalhaes is still dangerous standing, but Samman should land cleaner combinations if he can keep it standing, which is his blueprint to a decision win.

Verdict: Samman via Decision

-Russell Doane (14-4) vs. Jerrod Sanders (14-3)

The 28-year-old Hawaiian Doane faces the 35-year-old Oklahoma City native Sanders in lightweight action.

The former Tachi Palace Fights and King of the Cage champion Doane extended his winning streak to three with UFC wins over Leandro Issa and Marcus Brimage, but he’s looking to rebound following a unanimous decision loss against Iuri Alcantara in September.

Sanders’ back is against the wall as he’s winless inside the octagon, suffering first-round stoppage setbacks against Yosdenis Cedeno and Pedro Munhoz last year.

Doane will batter Sanders standing before they hit the deck. It won't take long for an opportunity to present itself and when it does, Doane will unleash his venomous submission game, catching Sanders in the first round.

Verdict: Doane via Submission, Round 1

-Trevor Smith (12-6) vs. Dan Miller (14-7)

In a middleweight pairing, the 34-year-old Washington native Smith tackles the 34-year-old New Jersey native Miller.

“Hot Sauce” Smith has alternated wins and losses since joining the UFC, beating Brian Houston and Tor Troeng, while suffering losses against Ed Herman, Thales Leites and Caio Magalhaes.

The BJJ black belt Miller competes for the first time in over two years. He was last seen suffering a first-round TKO loss against Jordan Mein in March 2013. Miller has struggled with the upper echelon of competition dating back to his UFC debut in 2008, beating the likes of Matt Horwich, John Salter, Joe Doerksen and Ricardo Funch, while conceding defeats against Chael Sonnen, Demian Maia, Michael Bisping, Nate Marquardt and Rousimar Palhares.

Inactivity is always a concern after such a prolonged layoff, but Miller should have a clear-cut advantage in the grappling realm. He’ll get an exhausted Smith down eventually, immediately snatching a choke to prove he still has some fight left in him.

Verdict: Miller via Submission, Round 3

-George Sullivan (16-4, 1 NC) vs. Dominic Waters (9-2)

The 34-year-old New Jersey native Sullivan meets the debuting 25-year-old Californian Waters in a welterweight matchup.

The four-time defending Cage Fury Fighting Championships beltholder Sullivan dispatched Mike Rhodes and Igor Araujo inside the octagon last year, but he suffered his first UFC blemish this past April when he succumbed to a third-round submission against Tim Means.

The David Terrell-trained BJJ purple belt Waters is on a three-fight winning streak, most recently submitting Jack Montgomery in March. Some observers may recognize the former U.S. Marine as Roy Nelson’s first pick on the 16th season of The Ultimate Fighter.

Sullivan is the vastly superior kickboxer and his takedown defense is usually on point. It’s a tough undertaking for Waters, who steps in on short notice for the injured Marcio Alexandre Jr. Sullivan will put on a striking showcase, dissecting the UFC newcomer over three rounds.

Verdict: Sullivan via Decision

Preliminary Card (UFC Fight Pass, 6:30 p.m. ET)

-Darrell Montague (13-4) vs. Willie Gates (11-5)

In a clash of flyweight California natives, the 27-year-old Montague faces the 28-year-old Gates.

Formerly the Tachi Palace Fights champion, Millenia MMA’s Montague has never had his hand raised in the octagon, coming up short against John Dodson and Kyoji Horiguchi.

Even in defeat, the MMA product Gates impressed many observers with his effort against John Moraga in his UFC debut this past December, which snapped his five-fight winning streak.

Gates is the rangier competitor, but Montague will enjoy a speed advantage. It will be competitive, but timing and aggression should carry Montague to a victory.

Verdict: Montague via Decision

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