When Court "The Crusher" McGee stands opposite Kris "Savage" McCray on Saturday night, fans of mixed martial arts will be 15 minutes (at most) away from answers to a couple intriguing questions.
First and foremost, The Ultimate Fighter: Team Liddell vs. Team Franklin finale will determine who gets the six-figure Ultimate Fighting Championship contract and is guaranteed a multiple-fight stay in the organization. After 11 seasons, though, some of the sizzle is off that question because we've repeatedly seen the show's "losers" receive contracts and go on to even bigger things than the winners.
Nevertheless, the subject is creating some minor buzz here at the Palms Casino Report. I rode the elevator to my room with two lovely ladies (that sounds misleading—sadly, we parted company before arriving at my room) who had decided McCray would win "because of his dimples and nice smile."
How's that for an unassailable assessment?
For the record, the so-called skirts and makeup (which might've qualified as body paint) said "we're professionals." But their elevator demeanor said...well...the same thing.
Additionally, we'll find out what wins (this time)—grit, experience, and grim determination or more obvious athleticism, power, and flair.
McGee's much-discussed battle with substance abuse has to give him a mental edge and a rather large star in the toughness category. Plus, the dude has shown some relatively polished grappling on the show and via a resume that features a couple impressive entries.
One is a submission stoppage of current UFC fighter and TUF Season Nine runner-up, DaMarques Johnson. The other is a unanimous decision loss to 108-fight veteran Jeremy "Gumby" Horn.
On the other hand, you have McCray—who proved himself a rugged customer as well, but an untested one getting by on more raw ability and less technical proficiency.
No chicken heart could possibly (A) answer the bell for five fights in five weeks; and (B) emerge victorious with a spot in the final. There's also the matter of his six-year stint with the United States Army Reserve—so the 28-year-old has his own set of cojones with which McGee must contend and he looks to have the better tool kit.
It seems like an excellent pairing and both emcees (get it, McGee vs. McCray?) sound like they're ready for the rumble.
Yet, as of the media conference call a few days ago, it's no longer the bout I'm most anxious to see.
That's because Keith "The Dean of Mean" Jardine thoroughly stole the teleconference show a few days ago. Consequently, the 34-year-old has me wondering if he might repeat the thievery at the TUF finale.
To be fair, all four gladiators—Jardine, McGee, McCray, and Matt "The Hammer" Hamill—acquitted themselves extraordinarily well. It truly is astounding how many of these fighters are eloquent, thoughtful individuals considering they earn their keep by caving in the skulls of others and absorbing similar punishment in return.
Everyone involved on Wednesday gave respectful and seemingly sincere responses to sometimes-pointed questions.
Both McGee and McCray emphasized a common bond between all the participants in the house and a desire to help each other succeed. Each also acknowledge that this season's villain (Jaime "The Chosyn 1" Yager) wasn't a teddy bear, but was portrayed as a much bigger jackass than he really was.
McGee jumped at the chance to defend the afro'd one, apparently wanting to chime in before McCray—Yager's buddy—had a chance. For his part, Savage admitted his friend could be "a bit of an ass****" when confronted in a group, but was much more receptive to criticism in private.
Meanwhile, the Hammer gets bonus points for smoothly navigating the disjointed conversation despite his hearing impairment.
Not that he needed them after his stellar performance—when pressed on the controversial win over Jon "Bones" Jones via disqualification for illegal elbows, Hamill owned up to the reality of the evening.
He said he didn't feel like he won, that he was disappointed Jones had taken him down because nobody had ever accomplished the feat, and that the whole experience was a "wake up call."
How refreshing is that in this current climate of self-delusion, false bravado, arrogance, and flat-out deceit?
Notice I'm not restricting that climate to professional athletics (cough, Representative Joseph Linus Barton and the rest of Washington).
So, when I say Jardine swiped the spotlight, I don't mean it was by default.
A proud member of Greg Jackson's Submission Fighting gym in Albuquerque, the Dean of Mean spent a good 30 minutes as the focus of the proceedings. During his time, he demonstrated a cerebral flourish at complete odds with his in-cage persona.
Or maybe it's totally consistent, given his reputation for unorthodoxy.
Regardless, the former top contender gave several hints that better days might be ahead of him. That his short stay near the top of the light heavyweight pecking order might've been no fluke.
Jardine spoke more than once of being in "a better place" than he's ever been. He insisted that he was "at the bottom in a good way" with a chance for a fresh start.
That might sound odd since the 205-pounder isn't exactly wet behind the ears—in experience (this will be his 24th MMA engagement) or age.
Except the season vet made a fascinating point—he called his recent losing jag a "slump." It sounds simple, but what a revelation.
Standard playground rules dictate the winner of a fight is the winner, period. That's the way it's always been—no shame in losing if you go down swinging, but there is no mystery why you went down.
There is no bad luck or bad timing or other mitigating factors; two men (typically) enter and whoever leaves standing is the stronger, tougher man.
End of story.
Of course, the Octagon isn't a playground. These are professional athletes paid to compete and entertain like any pro ballplayer, which means they must do their jobs despite ripples in health and/or confidence.
So why couldn't a string of losses be a slump rather then a slipping over the edge of his prime?
Many would say that's wishful thinking, that four losses in five fights and the wrong ends of three excruciating knockouts are proof-positive of an irreversible decline.
Honestly, they have an argument.
But so does Jardine.
He said he'd been training hard as ever and felt good stepping into the Octagon, but the results weren't cooperating. More importantly, he said he and his coaches had figured out the element holding him back—he called the defeats "learning pains" as he tried to clean up his awkward boxing. The janitorial mission was successful as the Dean said he understands for the first time "what it is that makes me difficult to fight and I can summon it when necessary."
What was the magical fix?
The fan of indie art house flicks and foreign films played that one close to his vest. He revealed only that "it was like I read a how-to boxing book."
A few other highlights:
—Even when he beat Forrest Griffin and Chuck "The Iceman" Liddell, he knew "in my heart, I wasn't the fighter I wanted to be...I wasn't ready to carry the UFC torch."
—His loss to Quinton "Rampage" Jackson was particularly demoralizing because one judge told him the late knockdown cost him a battle that was already his, but that such was the double-edge to his popularity: "I wasn't dancing around trying to preserve the win...I was coming to finish the fight."
—His favorite television show is "Breaking Bad" on AMC and he jumped at the chance to make a cameo, though he has no plans to leave the MMA game "to film the A-Team."
—He'd rather be somewhere "reading a book" than doing all the promotional stuff.
—He's "never been more excited to fight."
Okay, so we've all heard that last one before and history tells us to take it with a planet-sized chunk of salt. This time, though, it sounded more credible.
Which leaves two possibilities.
Either Keith Jardine is an accomplished salesman or an already dangerous athlete is about to add another apex predator to the deep waters of the light heavyweight division.
And I can't wait to find out.