The Ultimate Fighter 21: ATT vs. Blackzilians: Episode 1 Review


The twenty-first season of The Ultimate Fighter series – ‘The Ultimate Fighter: American Top Team vs. Blackzilians’ – debuted Stateside tonight on FOX Sports 1.

The opening episode got under way by introducing this season’s theme: the rivalry between Florida’s two foremost MMA gyms – American Top Team (ATT) and Blackzilians.

The early focus was on the antagonism between gym owners Dan Lambert (ATT) and Glenn Robinson (Blackzilians). Lambert alleges that Robinson established Blackzilians by offering fighters money to leave ATT, while Robinson maintains that the Blackzilians were formed when he and a group of former ATT fighters teamed up with Rashad Evans and Anthony Johnson among others. Suffice to say there is no love lost between the pair, a fact that Lambert is quick to point out:

“I’ll bury the hatchet right now; give me a hatchet, I’ll bury it right between his shoulders”.

As the episode developed, we were given a brief introduction to each of the eight fighters on either team, before watching them arrive to the mansion by boat. Dana White then made his entrance and proceeded to give a rundown of how the season will play out.

There will be twelve fights leading up to the show’s finale. The teams will earn points for each fight won. The first four fights are worth 25 points each, the second four fights are worth 50 points a piece, and the third set of four fights are worth 100 points each to their respective teams. The team with the most points at the end of the twelve fights wins $200,000. There is a further $300,000 up for grabs in the finale. Further adding to the intrigue is the fact that, in order to be eligible to fight in the finale, a fighter must have fought at least twice throughout the season’s twelve fights.

Having explained the process, Dana tossed a coin to decide home gym advantage for the first fight. Luck was with the Blackzilians who won the privilege of hosting the first fight at their Jaco Hybrid Training Center in Boca Raton. Home gym advantage for the remainder of the season will be determined by the winner of each fight.

With the formalities out of the way, the teams got down to talking strategy and deciding who they would select for the season’s debut bout. Lambert opted to pick his best fighters early and selected Michael Graves to represent the team first. The Blackzilians consulted Kamaru Usman about his feelings on fighting first and the NCAA Division II wrestling champ wasted little time in responding, “let’s do it”.

Graves is a 23-year-old, 4-0 fighter who is described as confident and well-rounded by his team. Usman, 27, is a standout college wrestler-turned-MMA fighter. The teams made no real secret of their strategies. The Blackzilian’s gameplan was to take the ATT product down and control him for two rounds. Graves, meanwhile, would aim to defend the inevitable onslaught of takedown attempts while picking Usman apart on the feet.

Michael Graves vs. Kamaru Usman
Fifteen seconds into the fight Graves threw a sloppy left kick to the body, which was caught by Usman who duly dumped the ATT fighter to the mat. Graves was able to work his way back to his feet and separate, however, and landed an oblique kick that buckled Usman’s knee and a front kick which landed flush to the Blackzilian’s face. Usman quickly reverted to the takedown which he successfully completed and held Graves against the cage, at first on the ground and then standing, as Graves worked his way back to his feet. Graves separated and managed a nice knee to the head of Usman from the Thai clinch with about two minutes left in the round. A tit-for-tat stand up exchange ensued for about a minute with Graves using superior footwork and Usman throwing long, looping punches. Usman completed another takedown but graves sprung right back up. Usman held his opponent against the cage for a few seconds before Graves pushed off and fired a knee at the head of the Blackzilian as they broke. Both fighters finished the round standing in the centre of the cage.

The second round began similarly to the first, with a brief striking exchange, before Usman reverted to pressuring Graves against the cage and attempting to drag his opponent to the mat. Graves continued to concede takedowns but did a good job of avoiding damage and getting back to his feet. Usman almost managed to take the back of the ATT representative on two occasions as they struggled against the cage but ultimately failed as Graves stood back up. With about a minute and forty seconds remaining, Usman shot for a single that Graves slipped out of, and in the scramble Graves took the Blackzilian’s back. Usman got to his feet, but Graves clung on and managed to sink both hooks in and work for a rear naked choke from the standing back mount. Usman bent over and waited patiently as Graves gradually slid too high on his back and lost the position, ending up on the bottom in side control with about 30 seconds remaining. Usman dropped a few elbows to the head and a few knees to the body before Graves managed to regain full guard in the closing seconds of the round.

Overall, Graves’ striking looked technically sound and he demonstrated an impressive arsenal of strikes, but he failed to capitalise fully in the stand up battle. Defensively, he was able to get back to his feet every time he was taken down and managed to effectively dig for underhooks and separate whenever he was held against the fence. Usman landed plenty of takedowns but did little other than hold his opponent down once the fight hit the mat. In the end, the judges sided with the superior wrestling of Usman, with two of the three officials scoring the bout 20-18 in his favour. The third judge scored the fight 19-19, presumably scoring the second round for the ATT fighter, who spent a significant amount of time mounted on his opponent’s back towards the end of the fight.

After the bout, Dana White expressed his disappointment in the fight.

“Neither one of these guys fought like they really wanted to win this fight”, White said. “These kind of fights frustrate me. I hope to see guys going for broke in the second fight”.

First blood goes to the Blackzilians then in an intriguing and informative first episode. The gym vs. gym format is a refreshing take on the old style of Red Team vs. Blue Team where loyalties were often thin and it was ultimately every man for himself. These are not just token team mates. There is a real sense of camaraderie among the teams, and a real sense of rivalry between them.

Stay tuned to for updates on how the season plays out.

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