Sixteen fighters were gathered from around the world to compete on the show, as the women’s 125-pound division kicked off with the toughest tournament in sports.
Coaches Eddie Alvarez and Justin Gaethje were selected to lead the teams in a tournament that was pre-seeded by UFC matchmakers before the season got started. The list of fighters included Ultimate Fighter alums, a UFC veteran, a former Invicta FC flyweight champion and a laundry list of top competitors all looking to make a name for themselves by working their way through the tournament until one would stand tall as the best 125-pounder in the world.
There have been plenty of twists and turns along the way already, so let’s take a look at some of the highlights through the first five weeks of The Ultimate Fighter season 26.
Perhaps the most inspiring moment to take place thus far on this season of The Ultimate Fighter was the return of Roxanne Modaferri, who was the first women’s competitor to compete on two separate seasons of the reality show. Modaferri originally appeared on season 18, where she was coached by former women’s bantamweight champion Miesha Tate, but despite her veteran experience, she was unable to move past the opening round in the tournament.
Modaferri then fell short in her lone fight in the UFC before she was released from the promotion in 2013.
Fast forward to four years later, and Modafferi had rebounded as a flyweight while competing in Invicta FC, scoring wins in four of her last five fights. At the tryouts for the latest season of the show, Modafferi even got some words of encouragement from UFC President Dana White as she looked to show off her improved skills to not only get a second shot at the show, but also prove that she was ready to contend for the women’s flyweight title.
Modafferi was then honored with being ranked as the No. 1 overall seed going into the season and she lived up to the praise received from the UFC matchmakers as she made short work of No. 16 seed Shana Dobson in the opening fight of the season. Modafferi is definitely one of the most inspirational fighters to compete on the show and one to watch as this tournament keeps rolling forward in the coming weeks.
Another highlight during the early part of this season was the addition of the new UFC Performance Institute in Las Vegas, a facility that has already played a pivotal role in at least one fighter not being forced out of the competition due to injury.
While it’s not uncommon for fighters to suffer through one ailment or another during the season, Emily Whitmire didn’t even get the chance to compete in her opening round matchup before injuring a rib during a grappling session with her team. Whitmire was left writhing on the floor in pain after it felt like she may have broken a rib, which would have certainly knocked her out of the competition.
An X-ray revealed that there were no broken bones, but that didn’t mean Whitmire was in any less pain from the strain in the muscles surrounding her ribs. That’s where a visit to the Performance Institute paid off, as Whitmire was able to get some much needed physical therapy from the on-staff team to help her get back into fighting form.
While the injury definitely slowed Whitmire down, thanks to the help she received in therapy from the Performance Institute, she will still get the chance to compete when her opening round matchup is finally called over the next few weeks.
The fights this season have already showcased some of the top talent in the tournament, but in the early going the higher seeds were dominant through the first few fights.
But the past two weeks have finally resulted in some upsets, which also produced a pair of top prospects to watch as the season moves forward.
No. 14 seed Nicco Montano was relatively unknown when the season began but she announced her presence with authority in a matchup against UFC bantamweight fighter Lauren Murphy. Montano was able to use a strong striking game and incredible wrestling defense to keep Murphy at bay over two rounds to earn a unanimous decision victory. It wasn’t a flashy finish, but Montano proved by knocking off the No. 3 overall seed in the tournament that she’s a name to watch from here on out.
In the most recent fight, No. 12 seed Sijara Eubanks was almost offended by how low she was ranked when the season began, so she took out her frustrations on No. 5 seed Maia Stevenson in a dominant performance from start to finish. Eubanks used her world-class grappling skills to take Stevenson down multiple times in the first and second rounds before locking up a kimura to finish the fight. Eubanks is also one of the bigger women competing this season, so combining her strength with her devastating ground game makes her a potential favorite to make it deep in this tournament.
While all of the favorites have been impressive, DeAnna Bennett deserves praise after her lopsided win over Karine Gevorgyan in the opening round of the tournament. At one time, Bennett was an undefeated prospect who appeared to be the next big thing in Invicta FC, but she then suffered three straight losses before making it on to TUF. Bennett proved with her opening round performance that she’s still one of the most dangerous fighters in this tournament and one who is poised to make it all the way to the finals.
BEST COACHING MOMENTS
There was no better coaching moment this season than watching former lightweight champion Eddie Alvarez sit down and help Ariel Beck back from a panic attack ahead of her fight with Montana Stewart.
In one training session ahead of the fight, Beck broke down and had to excuse herself from the gym as she suffered from extreme attack of anxiety. With tears streaming down her face, Beck was struggling to maintain her focus while preparing for the biggest moment of her fighting career.
That’s when Alvarez offered her some words of encouragement while also telling her a story about his own personal shortcomings during arguably the toughest defeat of his career. Alvarez retold the tale of his fight at UFC 205 last November, when he walked into Madison Square Garden as the incumbent lightweight champion taking on the always outspoken Conor McGregor.
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In front of a packed house inside the arena and millions watching around the world, Alvarez suffered through an incredibly tough two rounds before he was finally finished by TKO as McGregor celebrated his win as the new lightweight champion. Alvarez was thoroughly embarrassed and disgusted with himself after a bad showing on the biggest stage of his career. A couple of days later, Alvarez was able to remind himself that while the loss was a tough pill to swallow, he still had his family by his side and the people that loved him the most would never leave him no matter what results he faced inside the Octagon.
Those words of encouragement helped Beck to realize that her fight against Stewart wouldn’t define her as an athlete nor would it mean that she was an abject success or failure based on the outcome.
Another great moment from the opening episode of the season was Roxanne Modafferi reuniting with Miesha Tate as she prepared for her first fight in the tournament. Tate joined the show as an assistant coach after working with Modafferi throughout season 18. In that season, Modafferi failed to live up to her own expectations, so she definitely entered the flyweight tournament with a chip on her shoulder.
Tate not only helped Modafferi prepare for the fight, but she also worked the corner as the crafty veteran pulled off an impressive TKO finish. As Modafferi embraced Tate after the fight, it was a truly cathartic way for the fighter and coach to come full circle after season 18.
REASONS TO KEEP WATCHING
As the first round continues to roll forward, next week’s episode could be one of the most intriguing of the season as former Invicta FC champion Barb Honchak gets into action for the first time. While Honchak was ranked as the No. 2 overall seed, coach Eddie Alvarez absolutely believes she should have been at the top after her long reign as a former flyweight champion. On the flipside, Honchak is 37 years old and hasn’t competed in two years, so it will be a pivotal moment for her career when she steps into the Octagon next week.
With only a few more fights in the opening round remaining, it will also be interesting to see how the quarterfinal round begins to unfold with a couple of the matchups already determined. Montana Stewart is set to face off against upstart contender Nicco Montano while DeAnna Bennett will have her hands full with noted grappler Sijara Eubanks.
Those two matchups alone, based on the performances we witnessed in the opening round, will make for some must see television in the coming weeks on The Ultimate Fighter: A New World Champion. In addition, it will be interesting to see if there are any more upsets in the making as the tournament rolls forward. Can favorites like Modafferi and Honchak make it all the way to the finals, or will a new contender rise up to become the first ever UFC women’s flyweight champion?
It will all be worth watching as The Ultimate Fighter: A New World Champion moves forward into week six and beyond.