Anytime a six-figure contract is on the line, you can expect some intense battles.
On Saturday night at The Ultimate Fighter 18 Finale in Las Vegas, two UFC contracts were up for grabs as two men and two women squared off to determine who would gain entry into the UFC fold. In addition to the hungry prospects looking to break onto the sport's biggest stage, a pair of top-ranked lightweights traded leather in the main event as Gray Maynard and Nate Diaz closed out their trilogy.
The two fighters initially met during the fifth installment of TUF, with the Stockton representative claiming victory. Their paths crossed again in 2010 as the former three-time All-American wrestler from Michigan State evened the score. The two former title challengers clashed for the third time on Saturday night, and it was all Diaz.
The Stocktonian battered the AKA-trained fighter to score an impressive first-round victory and put the brakes on a two-fight losing streak. The win over Maynard will keep him relevant in the lightweight title picture and puts him back into the hunt for championship gold.
Outside of the main event, the two biggest fights on the card featured a pair of men and women stepping in to become the next "The Ultimate Fighter."
On the men's side, Chris Holdsworth and Davey Grant went to work to decide who would be the last man standing, and Holdsworth got the job done on Saturday night. "Holds it Down" submitted the scrappy Brit with a rear-naked choke in the second round to become the male winner of the 18th season of TUF.
In the historic women's finals, Julianna Pena steamrolled fellow finalist Jessica Rakoczy. The "Venezuelan Vixen" poured it on from the bell and eventually pounded out the stoppage in the waning seconds of the opening round. With the victory, the Spokane-based fighter earned a place on the UFC roster and will head into the next chapter with a solid head of steam.
While the buzz surrounding the card was minimal at best, sometimes the smaller events deliver the most pop. Although the TUF 18 Finale didn't bring the heat from start to finish, there were still a handful of solid performances to note.
Let's take a look at the good, bad and strange from The Ultimate Fighter 18 Finale.
Nate Diaz needed a victory in the worst way to stay in the lightweight title hunt, and that's exactly what he got on Saturday night. The former TUF 5 winner scored a stoppage victory over fellow former title challenger Gray Maynard in the main event of The Ultimate Fighter 18 Finale.
While Maynard dictated the initial onset of the fight with his wrestling, the 28-year-old Diaz swung the momentum with a straight left hand that rocked the former contender. After the California transplant was hurt, Diaz poured it on and battered Maynard until referee Yves Lavigne stepped in to stop the fight.
The victory stops a two-fight skid for the younger Diaz brother and keeps him in the upper tier of the 155-pound division.
What will be interesting to watch is where the former title challenger goes next. Although Diaz has talked about a potential return to the welterweight ranks, he's also shown interest in pursuing another title opportunity. With champion Anthony Pettis out for a solid stretch due to an injury, Diaz could draw a fellow contender if he sticks around the lightweight fold.
With a potentially life-changing opportunity on the line, the fighters stepping into the finals brought a unique brand of hunger. Both Chris Holdsworth and Davey Grant had their eyes on the prize coming into Saturday night, but it was Holdsworth who wanted it more.
The Team Alpha Male prospect poured it on from the opening bell until he sank in a fight-ending rear-naked choke in the second round. With the victory, the Team Tate representative not only locked down a guaranteed spot on the UFC roster but kept his impressive undefeated streak alive in the process.
He will now enter an increasingly competitive bantamweight fold, and his mixture of ground skills and an ever-improving striking game should land him some game matchups right off the bat. He's in a solid camp, has shown steady improvement since the start of the tournament and will be one of the 135-pound division's brightest young prospects heading into 2014.
Where the men's fight was competitive for the better part of two rounds, it took less than one for the women to handle their business.
Julianna Pena wrecked former IBA boxing champion Jessica Rakoczy from start to finish, as the Washington-based fighter used her grappling to put her opponent where she wanted her. Pena moved to full mount and unleashed a torrent of elbows and punches until referee Mario Yamasaki stepped in to call the fight with one second left in the first round.
While Holdsworth will surely take the prospect track, things may be a bit different on Pena's side. There isn't a ton of depth yet in the women's bantamweight ranks. She should grab a solid name in her first post-TUF fight, and it will be interesting to see how she progresses.
Raquel Pennington outclassed veteran Roxanne Modafferi in their tilt to kick off the main card. Both Team Tate representatives were game, but "Rocky" did more damage on Saturday night. Modafferi's movement was good in the early going, but Pennington's power and ground-and-pound made the difference as she picked up the unanimous-decision victory.
Veteran Rani Yahya and newcomer Tom Niinimaki engaged in a tactical ground battle during the preliminary portion of the card. With Yahya being a multiple-time jiu-jitsu world champion, it was assumed Niinimaki would avoid the ground, but that wasn't the case. The Fin used his wrestling to neutralize Yahya's attack and pulled off the split-decision victory.
Former Oklahoma State University wrestling standout Jared Rosholt survived an early drubbing to come back and score a victory over Walt Harris in his promotional debut. "The Big Show" was dropped hard in the opening round but rebounded to claim the final two frames on the judges' scorecards.
The main event featured two former title challengers in desperate need of a victory to keep those hopes alive, and Gray Maynard exited the Octagon in a tough position.
The 34-year-old suffered a tough loss at the hands of Nate Diaz in the rubber match of their rivalry and has now suffered setbacks in three of his last four showings. Maynard once ran an eight-fight winning streak to earn a title shot against Frankie Edgar in 2011; the past two years have come with opposite results.
He was defeated by "The Answer" in their trilogy bout, and while he edged out Clay Guida in his next outing at UFC on FX 4 in July 2012, he suffered a knockout loss to T.J. Grant at UFC 160 in May. A series of injuries and a camp relocation have kept Maynard's world in flux over that stretch, and his loss to Diaz will certainly his back against the wall in the UFC lightweight division.
The 155-pound collective is one of the most competitive divisions under the UFC banner, and for Maynard to keep his elite status and possibly his job, he's going to have to turn things around in a big way in his next outing.
Maximo Blanco showed he didn't have a solid understanding of the rules on Saturday night. He went back flipping across the cage, thinking he had kneed Akira Corassani into submission in the first round of their tilt. Unfortunately for the Venezuelan, the knee landed when the TUF alumnus' knee and hand were still on the ground, which made it an illegal strike.
Referee Mario Yamasaki waved off the fight and then solidified his call after viewing the replay. The fight went to Corassani via disqualification. The setback will spell further trouble for Blanco, who has struggled since coming over from Japan. He has dropped three of his four showings between Strikeforce and the UFC, and the hype he once had has quickly slipped away.
The final entry into this prestigious category goes to the pacing of the card on Saturday night. To stretch a 10-fight card over five hours was a grueling and head-scratching affair. The lengthy breaks between fights made viewing unbearable at times, and even when certain fights delivered the goods, the commercial-filled gap before the next bout clipped any momentum that had been built.
If a card lacking star power wasn't bad enough, the circumstances that befell the preliminaries was on the verge of taking a hard turn south. With a college football game between Iowa State and West Virginia running over into multiple overtimes, the preliminary card was pushed from Fox Sports 1 to Fox Sports 2.
Fortunately for the promotion, the game wrapped up shortly after, and the prelims moved back to their original channel for the third round of the opening bout between Sean Spencer and Drew Dober. Fans were able to tune in to see the final round of Spencer handing out a beating to the promotional newcomer, as the Virginian picked up his second consecutive victory since returning to welterweight.
While it most likely won't have a huge impact on the ratings, things jumping around between two channels because of live broadcasts is always chaotic.
Another turn for the curious came in how the finale card was booked. Historically, the event caps off the season and features the majority of the competitors from the show getting an official shot in the UFC. On Saturday night, the lineup featured the majority of women who competed on the 18th installment, but the men who competed on the show were absent, save for the two finalists.
The only other season that I can remember something like this happening came during the 16th installment, as the fights from that cycle were largely panned by MMA fans and critics.
Duane Finley is a featured columnist for Bleacher Report.