THE ULTIMATE FIGHTER REPORT 8/31 – Benavidez vs. Cejudo, episode 1: Teams chosen, Pantoja vs. Morena, Kara-France vs. Mitchell

By Bryan Kern, MMATorch contributor

UFC programming returns tonight with the 24th installment of TUF – “The Ulimate Fighter: Tournament of Champions (Team Benavidez vs. Team Cejudo).”

This time around we have two former Flyweight title challengers in Joseph Benavidez (24-4-0) and Henry Cejudo (10-1-0) as they coach 16 Flyweight Champions in a tournament that will see the winner face the UFC Flyweight Champion and pound for pound king, Demetrious “Mighty Mouse” Johnson (24-2-1) at the finale event on Dec. 3.

Follow along as I recap the events and happenings from each show every week, along with an analysis and breakdown of the fights that take place during this tournament.


Episode 1: “The Tournament Begins”

– Episode 1 begins with the usual warning then goes straight into a video package with a highlight reel of Demetrious “Mighty Mouse” Johnson. Dana White is explaining the purpose of the tournament and what’s at stake at the end of the season. They played a lot on the fact that Demetrious Johnson is the best pound for pound fighter in the world which is nice to see. After all, he is as long as Jon Jones carries that asterisk

– Next we have some candid Vegas footage with our first fighter introductions.

Terrence Mitchell. He is The Alaskan FC Flyweight champ. Fighting out of Alaska

Next on screen is Brandon Moreno. He is fighting out of Tijuana and is the World Fighting Federation Flyweight champ.

Next we have Nkazimulo Zulu. He is the Extreme Fighting Championship Flyweight champ. He hails from South Africa.

– It cuts to all the fighters entering the gym, we get a few more introductions.

Adam Antolin. He is the Tachi Palace Fights Flyweight champion.

Ronaldo Candido. He is from Brazil and is the Flyweight champ for Shooto South America.

Hiromasa Ogikubo. Flyweight champion for Shooto Japan.

– The gathering in the gym is friendly everyone is wearing their belts over their shoulders, they seem to just be shooting the breeze awaiting the grand entrance from White and the coaches.

– Right on cue, the Boss and the boys bust through the doors. Do damage to the doors yet, but its only a matter of time.

– Dana explains to the fighters why they are all there and why this is going to be the biggest and baddest TUF yet. They introduce the judges, Joseph Benavidez (24-4-0) and Henry Cejudo (10-1-0). They give their take on the season and how they are looking forward to helping these young guys achieve a dream. Dana says to the fighters; “this is the greatest fucking thing we’ve ever done, I hope anyways, that’s up to you.” I really hope this season lives up to the hype. The majority of these guys are finishers historically and even though they are apart of smaller promotions, they have reached the point where its time for them to step it up to the big leagues. They’re the best in their division and their styles and skill sets should make for some quality battles this season. They bring out Demetrious Johnson to give the guys a pre show pep talk. Flaunt the fact he’s the baddest man on the planet and then leave. Literally… her was there all of five minutes.

– They break up into training squads. The coaches and their coaching staffs will evaluate each fighter in a class type setting. They work drills, cage work, mitt work, some light sparing and rolling in the cage. Joseph Benavidez and Henry Cejudo share what they’re looking for in these evaluations and who is catching their eye. We quickly learn that one of Cejudo’s training partners is Brandon Moreno. Moreno speaks very highly of Cejudo and how they have a close relationship inside and outside of the cage. It seems as tough Cejudo had helped Moreno out in a time of need a one point. He considers him a brother. This could get interesting come time for picks. Cejudo shares his feelings for Moreno, they are obviously very close.

– We go into the team picking and match making portion of the show. Before the show matchmakers for  gave each fighter a rank and then matched them with an opponent for an elimination style tourney. Team Benavidez won the coin toss to determine who gets first pick. Once the pick is called out, his opponent followed. Below I’ve included the team picks and match ups in the order they were announced.

Team Benavidez – Team Cejudo

(3) Tim Elliot (16-6) vs. (14) Charlie Alaniz (8-1)

(1) Alex Pantoja (16-2) vs. (16) Brandon Moreno (11-3)

(4) Demacio Page (19-10) vs. (13) Adam Antolin (11-3)

(2) Yoni Sherbatov(5-0-1) vs. (15) Eric Shelton (10-2)

(7) Ronaldo Candido (6-0) vs. (10) Jamie Alvarez (6-1)

(6) Matt Schnell (9-2) vs. (11) Matt Rizzo (9-2)

(5) Hiromasa Ogikubo(15-3) vs. (12) Nkazimulo Zulu (7-2)

(9) Kai Kara-France (12-5, 1 NC) vs. (8) Terrence Mitchell(11-2)

Match #1 will be: (1) Alex Pantoja (16-2) vs. (16) Brandon Moreno (11-3)

It should be noted that Cejudo flipped when it was announced his training partner, Brandon Moreno would have to fight his own #1 pick Alex Pantoja, neither can believe it. also Dana thinks Ogikubo looks like Sakuraba.

– After the teams are picked and the fights announced, Dana goes over how the tournament format will go. After that he has one more “this is going to be the best season ever” speech. He reiterated several times, “whatever you need, we’ll provide” when talking to the fighters. I don’t remember such a strong emphasis on that in previous seasons so maybe that plays a factor in how this season pans out.

  After commercial break, the fighters are filmed arriving to the house. The usual takes place; They find rooms, discuss the nature of the situation, make small talk, all seems to be well… For now.

– There is some hard language barriers in the house with Ogikubo speaking little ti no English at all. Maybe this will limit the petty drama throughout the season. Nkazimulo Zulu shares some cultural info and they hang their belts up in the living area. Despite no real “big names” this is a stacked tournament for sure

– The next scene is Team Benavidez arriving at the Gym. Benavidez is discussing how he plans on training his team. He expects it to be a rather easy time, explaining that these are established champions in other promotions and that they’ve earned the right to face the best fighter on the planet. He is simply there to help sharpen their skills and teach what he can. The team seems to be off to a good start, interactions and training seems normal and they all have a team huddle and chant at the end.

  Next we see Team Cejudo in the gym. Cejudo says he wants to start by building relationships with his fighters. The immediate tone is set by Jamie Alvarez saying that he didn’t want to be on Team Cejudo originally, but has since realized how much he can learn from him. Other fighters echoed that initial feeling but all in all, they seemed optimistic with the fact that he is there coach. Training for seems to go fine. Very intense, I’m sure that’s Henry Cejudo’s Wrestling background coming into play. They also have a little huddle and chant at the end and that’s that.

– Returning to the show we have Alexandre Pantoja talking with his opponent Brandon Moreno, discussing life back home and such. Despite language barriers between the two they seem to be able to communicate fairly easy, however, there was some confusion regarding a Christmas tree and a pinata.

– We now see some home footage of Brandon Moreno. He goes over where he’s from, what he has accomplished and what home life is like. We get some more footage of him, his wife and daughter.  He discusses how they are his life and his motivation to fight, he eats a few grasshoppers and it cuts to Dana sharing some facts about Moreno while showing fight footage of him. I hope they keep the theme of showing the fighters background. If they’re expecting the audience to tune in this season, and to actually invest their time into someone who is unknown and all of a sudden fighting for a world title, they need to create that character interest.

– We then cut to Brandon Moreno’s training session. Despite being the youngest member of the tournament he has some skills. He’s well rounded in his striking, seems to be quick and is very confident. They didn’t show much of his ground game which likely means it’s not his strong suit. He discusses how the language barrier may be a small issue but for the most part he understands what he is being instructed to do.

– We return with the focus on Alexandre Pantoja. He gets the same treatment, some background about his family back home. He trains in California, Away from his family in Brazil, he says that’s the toughest part of being a fighter. Dana shares that he is from the RFA which is a promotion that has sent numerous fighters to the UFC. He also talks about how he is a submission machine and may have the best Jiu-Jitsu in the house.

– We cut to Henry Cejudo explaining his emotions towards the first fight. His number one pick Pantoja against his training partner, someone he considers his brother, Brandon Moreno. Cejudo speaks with Pantoja and tells him he wont be able to coach him in the fight. It’s understandable as to why he doesn’t want to be involved, but he also needs to do his job as a coach, so hopefully this type of circumstance doesn’t happen again.

– We come back from break and jump into the Weigh-ins. Cejudo Repeats that we may see the number 16 seed (Moreno) upset the number 1 seed (Pantoja). Both fighters are on weight and ready to go. The anticipation for the fight is high. The favorite for the fight is obviously Alexandre but a few think that Moreno can pull off the upset. We get a little pre-fight warm up footage with their testimonials before they square off.

(1) Alexandre Pantoja (16-2) vs. (16) Brandon Moreno (11-3)

Round 1:  They start off in the center of the cage, both men extremely fast in their exchanges. Pantoja connects early with a flurry, Moreno answers right back with one of his own. Both of these guys are landing slick combinations in close. Moreno seems a tad faster to the punch. Pantoja will press the action and have his moments but Moreno is definitely getting his strikes off faster and more frequently. We see a flying knee attempt from Moreno that doesn’t connect, a good show of athleticism though. They are relentless, Pantoja is throwing wildly which is allowing Moreno to counter well. Vicious body shot from Moreno that hurts Pantoja. He recovers. Holy s*!t One guy will throw a combination and the other will answer right back immediately. This is an intense fight. Both men are opened up and bloody. With a minute left in the round both men slow down a bit and throw somewhat more conservative shots but they still have some heat on em. Man they are laying it on. Bell signals the end of round one. Round 1 winner: Moreno? 10-9

That’s a hard round to judge. I want to say Moreno seeing how his output was a little faster and he landed a bit more. He also landed a vicious body shot that had the coaches yelling that he had hurt Pantoja, if that’s he case he wasn’t able to capitalize and get a finish. The two beat each other up in that first round, they both have opened up cuts on one another. Solid round from both

Round 2:  Back to the center of the cage. The pace is still high which is the absolute best thing about this division. Moreno fires first. Crazy exchange that ends in a head kick for Pantoja. Moreno is still active however keeping his movement all around the cage. Moreno finally lands a take down, first of the fight I believe. Pantoja gets back up rather easy only to be picked up and slammed hard by Moreno. Some light ground and pound and they’re back to their feet. Its clear that Pantoja has the advantage off his back.  More bombs are thrown, both guys getting noticeably tired but still keeping the speed. Pantoja lands his first take down, Moreno attempts to get back up but Pantoja controls his back. The tide has turned, Moreno is tired and Pantoja is taking advantage by being heavy and keeping the pressure when he has him down or against the cage. He works in some decent clinch work before being separated for a mouth piece. Back at it and Pantoja takes it back to the ground. He lays in some decent ground and pound while maintaining top control. Hes working for position takes his back and boom!!! sinks in the rear naked choke for the tap.

WINNER: Alexandre Pantoja by RNC Round 2

After the fight, Dana and the coaches give their views and feedback on the fight. All three agree that the 2 were evenly matched going in to that second round. That was an absolute war. These guys brought it and made sure they left it all in the cage. Brandon was spectacular in the opening frame but Pantoja had the smarts to come back and take advantage of an opening he saw. One can only hope that the fights for the remainder on the season play out like this. It was awesome.

– After the fight we get some footage of the teams in the back celebrating the victory and mourning the defeat. Henry Cejudo gives praise to Pantoja’s performance while complimenting his training partner, Moreno. Benavidez has some inspirational words for Moreno and shares his sentiments on the fight.

– After the fight we get some footage of the teams in the back celebrating the victory and mourning the defeat. Henry Cejudo gives praise to Pantoja’s performance while complimenting his training partner, Moreno. Benavidez has some inspirational words for Moreno and shares his sentiments on the fight.

Both competitors say they are proud that they made it this far. Moreno’s face is a mess. He took a beating at the end of the fight.

– They come back and immediately turn the focus to the competitors in the next fight.

– It starts with Terrence Mitchell saying he is on weight, which is good. I would hate to see a fighter miss weight on TUF. Kai says he respects Terrence Mitchell and they are cool, but when it comes to winning the tournament, it’s his time.

– Kai Kara-France is featured first. He is from New Zealand and is the Chaos Fighting Flyweight champion. He has been training in martial arts since he was a child and has been competing since age 15. He trains in Thailand at the famed Tiger Muay Thai. He says he trains everyday and from the looks of it, that’s true. He goes into a story about his friend and training partner back home who passed away. He said, making it in the UFC was a dream they both aspired to achieve and he is dedicating his journey and winning the tournament to him. In his training he discusses how he is well rounded and isn’t worried about the height disadvantage in the fight (Mitchell stands at 5’10). Cejudo says that he is nervous about Kai’s confidence and demeanor. Feels he isn’t sure of himself. Something like that will surely knock a fighter off his game. Lets see if that’s the case

– Next we get a look at Terrence Mitchell. He hails from Anchorage Alaska, and is the Alaskan FC Flyweight champ. He has a son with his girlfriend. He says that his family and friends are his motivation. He seems to have a good support system back at home with his family. His passion for MMA started when he and his brother watched the first season of TUF. He trains out of Legacy Jiu Jitsu in Alaska. He says that the public has no idea how big MMA is in Alaska. His highlight reel has some impressive finishes, a few subs and a clean head kick KO. Mitchell is huge, 5’10 is outrageous for a flyweight. He has a clear height advantage over Kai and the rest of the roster. He’s riding an 8 fight win streak. The coaches are trying to get him to utilize his reach in the fight specifically in the striking department.

– We get back to some weigh in footage both men are on point. This match is the closest match up in regards to their rank. Dana says Mitchell’s reach will play a big part in the fight, but Kai brings in the experience and world class Muay Thai.

– After an awkward stare down Benavidez pointed out that Cejudo has missed weight on several occasions. Cejudo says that its true, but come December 3rd he’ll make weight and force Benavidez to quit. Not sure who I pick yet for this bout. It’l be interesting to see how how their wrestling styles play against one another. They come back for some quick warm-up footage. The coaches are confident, the fighters are prepped, they get ready for the walk outs and we’re off.

(2) Kai Kara-France (12-5, 1 NC – 9th seed) vs. Terrence Mitchell(11-2, 8th seed)

Round 1: These guys come out and size each other up. Mitchell with some jab feints. They start throwing kicks and Kai connects with a mean over hand right. He seemed to have stunned Mitchell, backs him up against the cage and unleashes a flurry. Kai knocks Mitchell down, avoids an up kick, lets him back up only to deliver an even nastier overhand right to finish The fight.

Winner: Kai Kara-France by KO Round 1

– The coaches talk with Mitchell in the back. He’s upset that he has to stay and train for another 5 weeks and hes already out of the competition. He really didn’t do anything in the fight and it ended badly for him. He’s going to need to refocus and continue to improve and maybe he’ll find himself in the octagon sometime down the line. Kai on the other hand looked brilliant and will be able to showcase what else he has down the line.

– Dana breaks down the fights and the status of the tournament and we get a stare down for next weeks fight. Its going to be. (5) Hiromasa Ogikubo(15-3) v. (12) Nkazimulo Zulu (7-2)

– That brings us to the end folks. We have Team Cejudo up 2-0.


Two fights that, even though they played out totally different, were fun for TUF standards. All in all I enjoyed episode 1. I’ll be fully behind this season if the product comes across more fighter-oriented. They need to build a likable opponent for “Mighty Mouse” and they have a short time frame to do so. Especially since the winner of this season is going to be kept under wraps until right before the actual finale. It’s completely possible for them to do so. They just need to play their cards right and hope they get good fights out of it.

I’ll be back here next week to share my thoughts and recap episode 2.

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