The Ultimate Fighter 23 Finale: Preview and Predictions for the main card


Written by @NickRiznerMMA

Joanna Jedrzejczyk vs. Claudia Gadelha

As to be expected with any new weight class, the Women’s Strawweight division had some serious question marks upon its creation. The most pressing of which being who – if anyone – would emerge as the clear cut leader of the pack. Rose Namajunas was heralded as the 115 pound Ronda Rousey after her string of submission on The Ultimate Fighter. Ultimately, she was bested by the top ranked Carla Esparza in The Ultimate Fighter Finale,  earning the 10-2 Cookie Monster the inaugural UFC Strawweight Championship.

Just one day later, two of the top contenders to be left off the TUF cast list squared off in a title eliminator to see who would face the new champion. The fight was between Polish Muay Thai specialist Joanna Jedrzejczyk and Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu practioner Claudio Gadelha. This was poised to be a classic matchup of striker vs. grappler and that’s exactly how it played out. It was a battle of Joanna’s striking prowess vs. Claudia’s ground game and both fighters had their flashes of success. Joanna dropped her at the end of the first. Claudia scored her takedowns. But in the end, Joanna won the split decision. She went on to win the belt, defend it twice, and cement herself as the queen of the division.

Finally, following a heated rivalry on The Ultimate Fighter, the rematch is here, and the bad blood is at an all-time high. The important thing to focus on is who’s stronger in their area of weakness. Will Joanna be able to stuff the takedowns and escape the ground game? Will Claudia be able to hang with Joanna on the feet? Whoever finds more success will undoubtedly win the fight, especially in a five rounder. This is a tough one to call, but I’ve gotta give the edge to Joanna. Claudia got the takedowns in the first fight, but didn’t do much in the way of damage. Joanna continuously fought back to her feet and peppered her with combinations.

In a five round fight, I see Claudia’s cardio coming into play. This is especially true in an emotional fight. Joanna should be able to fight her way out of bad positions and light Claudio up whenever a window of opportunity presents itself. This should be a great fight. I actually had Claudia winning the first. But for the rematch, I’m going with the champ.

Nick’s Pick: Joanna Jedrzejczyk (-120 via 5Dimes)

Andrew Sanchez vs. Khalil Rountree

This year’s light heavyweight TUF Finale fight follows an all-too-familiar story lines. It’s a battle of favorite vs. underdog. Front runner vs. comeback kid. The one everyone expected to be there vs. the one everyone counted out. And I’m fully invested. Khalil Rountree had a difficult journey to the finale. Not just physically, but emotionally as well. First, in a unprecedented opening affair, Khalil was forced to fight his friend and teammate from outside of the show, Cory Hendricks. The bout carried a tremendous emotional burden on both men, and ultimately, Hendricks had won via submission.

In a not-so-rare circumstance, a fighter pulled out mid-competition and a slot opened up for a previously-eliminated fighter to return. Khalil Rountree was selected. In a much rarer circumstance, he was asked to again fight a teammate – this time Josh Stansbury, one of the members of Team Joanna that he had grown close with in the show. Khalil Rountree prevailed and amazingly earned his spot in the light heavyweight finale.

Standing across from him is Andrew Sanchez, the first pick for Team Claudia. He was likely the favorite heading into the season and breezed his way through the tournament, winning via uannimous decision in the elimination round and knocking out Eric Spicely in the first round of their semi-finals fight. Rountree has tremendous heart, as evident by his performance against Josh Stansbury, but I feel like Andrew Sanchez will be too much for him tonight.

Nick’s Pick: Andrew Sanchez (-170 via 5Dimes)

Amanda Cooper vs. Tatiana Suarez

I’ll be completely honest, I wasn’t sold on Tatiana Suarez in her first fight. She seemed to receive high praise from both coaches, but I just didn’t see what they saw in her. Nevertheless, she was selected as the first strawweight pick for Team Claudia and has proceeded to grapple her way to the finals. In fact, she’s the only finalist with two stoppage victories this year, first submitting JJ Aldrich and then Kate Jackson in the semi-finals. Shows what I know…

Amanda Cooper is playing the role of underdog in this evening’s affair. As the third of four female picks, she wasn’t expected to make it this far. She began the competition by defeating Jamie Moyle via unanimous decision. She followed this up with a submission victory over the British striker, Lanchana Green. Now, she’s one win away from winning The Ultimate Fighter, and that’s the sort of motivation that pushes you to new levels. But alas, I have learned from my mistakes in the past. I am no longer doubted Tatiana’s ability. I fully expect her to run away with this one, by submission or a one-sided decision.

Nick’s Pick: Tatiana Suarez (-400 via 5Dimes)

Ross Pearson vs. Will Brooks

Don’t sleep on Ross Pearson. Oddsmakers are all but counting him out, with most outlets having him as a three-to-one underdog. Unfair, to say the least. Let’s not forget that he is a 19 fight veteran of the UFC, making his fight with Will Brooks his 20th Octagon appearance. That level of experience is difficult to understand or prepare for.

Now, I’m not taking anything away from what Brooks accomplished in Bellator. He strung together a tremendous resume winning his first ten fights and his most recent eight. If it wasn’t for a flash knockout to Saad Awad back in 2013, he’d have a flawless record with three successful title fights to go with it. But there’s quite like the UFC. The lights shine a little brighter. The crowd doesn’t sound quite the same. There’s a whole new level of nerves and anticipation. How will Will Brooks respond to these surroundings? It’s difficult to say. But I’m taking the dog in this one. Ross Pearson is an imposing force and likely the most difficult opponent Brooks has ever squared off against, save Michael Chandler. I believe Brooks has a bright future ahead, but like his Bellator counterpart, Eddie Alvarez, I believe he will fall short in his promotional debut.

Nick’s Pick: Ross Pearson (+310 via 5Dimes)

Doo Ho Choi vs. Thiago Tavares

Doo Ho Choi, aptly nicknamed The Korean Superboy, is the baby-faced 25 year old hailing from Busan, South Korea. After beginning his professional career with a 2-1 record, he has one every fight since, eventually earning his way to the UFC in November of 2014. The debut didn’t last long. After just 18 seconds of action, he put Juan Puig away with a heavy right hand. His reward? A hometown fight against the always-dangerous Sam Sicilia.

It was another right that kicked things off against Sicilia early. A minute later, it was a right that put him away. This time, he was rewarded with a Performance of the Night bonus for his efforts. Now, he’s one of the top prospects in the featherweight division, set to take on a Brazilian submission specialist with the ability to tap any opponent. This is clearly a test to see where Choi stands. If he can secure a victory over another veteran – this time one who won’t be looking to slug with him – he’ll likely be on a fasttrack for the belt. If he can’t, he’ll have to wait a while before an opportunity like this presents itself again. I believe Choi passes the test tonight. I believe this kid is the real deal.

Nick’s Pick: Doo Ho Choi (-225 via 5Dimes)

Joaquim Silva vs. Andrew Holbrook

This is the battle of the undefeated up-and-comers. Both men are preparing for the sophomore Octagon appearance with zero losses on their records and a whole lot to prove. Silva, who is 8-0 with seven stoppages to his name, is a BJJ practitioner with plenty of knockout power as well. He won his UFC debut last September by edging out a split decision over Nazareno Malegarie at UFC 191.

Similarly, Holbrook’s debut ended in a split decision victory as he got the 2-1 nod from the judges in his bout against Ramsey Nijum nearly one year ago. Both fighters are natural finishers and I doubt the split decision is sitting well with either. Look for this to be a war no matter where it takes place. I’d give Silva  slight edge in the striking, but if it goes to the mat, it’s really a coin flip. This may simply come down to who makes the first mistake and who is able to capitalize on the opportunity. In a fight like that, I’m favoring the better striker.

Nick’s Pick: Joaquim Silva (-125 via 5Dimes)

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