‘There’s no way to prepare for that show’: Ultimate Fighter finalists reflect on journey

  • MMA columnist for ESPN.com
  • Analyst for “MMA Live”
  • Covered MMA for Las Vegas Sun

The 29th season of The Ultimate Fighter will officially come to its conclusion on Saturday, at UFC Fight Night in Las Vegas.

Bantamweight finalists Ricky Turcios (10-2) and Brady Hiestand (5-1) and middleweight finalists Bryan Battle (5-1) and Gilbert Urbina (6-1) will square up with a guaranteed UFC contract on the line. The TUF finals will take place on the main card of the event, which is headlined by a featherweight bout between Edson Barboza and Giga Chikadze.

Competing on TUF is an experience unlike any other in the sport. Contestants had to earn their way through the reality series, which was filmed earlier this year in Las Vegas, and required them to fight multiple times. They also lived away from their families, with little interaction with them during the process, for an extended period of time.

ESPN spoke to each of the four finalists ahead of the biggest fight of their respective careers.

Describe your experience of filming the show

Turcios: The isolation factor of the show is what stands out the most, and it makes it such a unique experience. I had some ideas, but I never expected what it was actually like. All of us, in the house, away from our families, that was the most intense part of it. Fighting is already an intense situation, and then you add in the fact we have no contact with our outside families. All of that isolation, it really allows you to dive into your ‘me time.’ I was diving into my thoughts, meditating, diving into my heart and mind — and that time wasn’t just great for my martial arts but for my life in general.

Battle: Learning from a world champion like [coach Alexander] Volkanovski, being surrounded by awesome fighters in the house, it was an incredible experience. It taught me the proper level of focus it requires to make it at the highest level in this sport. Volkanovski has to be dialed in at every moment and every second of his fight. And outside of the fights, you’re usually not living with the guy you’re fighting of course, so you’re able to vilify them. On the show you realize everyone is just like you, just trying to make it to the next level. It kind of brings a reality to the fight game that wasn’t there before for me.

Urbina: There’s no way to prepare for that show. You go out there and put everything on the line. The mental and physical demands — it’s wild. You don’t have your regular team around you. You don’t have those connections and you can’t really talk to people about your game plans because you might fight them. It’s crazy. It’s like trying to hide what you’re about to do in a fight. Me and my three brothers, who will be in my corner, we’re always talking about what we’re going to do and strategy. There were times I would say, ‘I shouldn’t even be here. I could have fought my way into the UFC another way.’ But this was my journey.

Hiestand: It’s kind of crazy, the further I get from the show the more my perspective changes. When you’re on the show, things get annoying, but the biggest thing I took away from the show are the relationships. Obviously, the coaches. Alex Volkanovski is the coolest dude in the world. He’s such a great coach and athlete himself. All the other coaches. And then the relationships I built in the house. I still talk to them all the time.

What was the most memorable non-fight moment from the show?

Battle: The one that will always stick out for me was me and Ryder [Newman] streaking through the Apex. That didn’t make TV, but it was pretty memorable. I think we’re the first people to ever streak through the Apex. I was very disappointed it didn’t run. I would have been kind of happy, if I hadn’t immediately told everyone when I got home. I figured, ‘This is definitely going to get on the show, so I’ll just get out ahead of this. I’ll tell everybody I went streaking on the show.’ And then I never went streaking on the show. I could have just not told anybody.

Hiestand: The snakes. The snakes freaked me out. [TUF Coach] Brian Ortega pranked our team by putting these massive, 200-pound snakes in our locker room. I was the first one through the door and I saw these snakes. I freaked out and crawled out of the room because I fell over after seeing them.

Urbina: I would say just basking in my own mind. Getting to know who I am. I’ve spent a lot of time throughout my whole life with my brothers. Whether it was wrestling or whatever we were competing in. I always had someone to talk to my whole career. Being out there, it forced me to talk to myself, internally. I wasn’t about to let any of these guys know my game plan. I didn’t know those guys. I’m a tight-knit guy. And it taught me I’m capable of doing things on my own.

Turcios: The coolest part — they never showed it on the show. There was a day when we went to the Apex to watch a UFC Fight Night live and in person. And it just so happened, that week, [UFC veteran] Donald Cerrone had come in and trained with us. So, we were like, ‘What’s up Cowboy? You’re a legend. This is awesome.’ And then Cowboy goes, ‘Yeah, I was fighting Diego Sanchez this weekend, but I got a late replacement, Alex Morono.’ And I look at Cowboy and go, ‘What? You’re fighting Alex Morono? That’s my best friend in life! We’ve been boys since we were 15 years old! And you’re fighting him on short notice here in Las Vegas?’ I had no idea because we were in isolation with no contact with the outside world.

I actually ended up fighting my first-round fight that Thursday, I won, and then on Saturday we went to Volkanovski’s house to hang out and he goes, ‘Surprise guys, I got us VIP, we’re going to the Apex to watch the fights!’ So, we got to watch the whole card top to bottom. Morono got the knockout over Cowboy, and I surprised him at the Apex. We got to see each other for 60 seconds, 90 seconds, I just gave him a big ol’ hug. I told him, ‘Bro, it’s like we’re in a dream right now.’

For me to have won on Thursday, then two days later I go as a surprise guest to a UFC card and my boy happens to be fighting a legend on short notice. And then he wins. It was an incredible memory.

Who is the most happy and excited about you making the finals, other than yourself?

Urbina: My dad, Elias. My dad has always been my biggest mentor, for me and my brothers. It wasn’t just me and my brothers motivating each other, it was our dad. He planted those seeds that we could play in the NFL or the NBA if we really wanted. We haven’t always been blessed with the best connections to make it in sports, but we stuck with wrestling and it translates well into fighting.

Turcios: The ones that come to my mind are my little nephew Jaycob and my little niece Bella. It’s such a treat to be there for them. They’re both young kids and they’ve been telling me their elementary school is behind me. They’ve shown photos to their teachers, classmates. They’ve told me, ‘Oh man, all of my teachers and classmates are really big fans of you.’ The joy of the children — it’s amazing. I’m just thankful to be able to be a role model for my niece and nephew, and all of the other kids, too.

Battle: My dad is the most excited. My coaches are close second, wife is third. But definitely my dad. He’s been my No. 1 supporter in life. We’ve been through this whole journey together. I couldn’t tell him how I did after filming the show, because you’re not allowed to tell anyone. But he raised me, so he’s pretty good at reading my body language and everything. In the last episode, when I made it to the finals, I was at a viewing party with my family and friends. They assumed I had lost the fight but no one knew for sure. And once I won the fight, everyone blew up, my dad included, and that was one of the most amazing moments of my life.

Hiestand: My brother, Bryson. He just had a baby a month ago and has been watching me every step of the way. He’s always been in my corner. I hang out with him every day, talk to him every day. He’s a year-and-half older than me and my only brother, so we were pretty tight growing up.

Besides yourself, which contestant from this season has the best chance of eventually becoming a UFC champion?

Hiestand: Out of everyone, I would say Mitch Raposo. He’s young and showed a lot of potential in his fight. I think out of all the guys, he looked well beyond his years. And even though he lost on the show to a really good wrestler, he showed some good skills. And he’s small for the weight class. I could see him getting into the UFC as a 125-pound fighter and making it there.

Battle: I’ve got to go with the young guys Brady Hiestand and Mitch Raposo. Both of those guys are so talented and so young. They’re as good as I am now, but six years younger. I’ve said this to a lot of people, watching Mitch and Volkanovski spar was a pleasure. All of the little adjustments they would make on the fly, and how fast they moved. The show was full of guys who were capable of being a champion, but I definitely think Brady and Mitch have the best shot.

Urbina: You know, I would definitely say Tresean Gore. He’s a man of God, like I am. He would lean on God every day, all day. It helped me realize we’re all created equal, we’re all blessed. I thought Tresean definitely stood out. He caught me by surprise. He caught me during a time I wasn’t as motivated as I could have been, because of all the things the UFC deprives you of on that show. Tresean has that will power and that message and it’s just meant to be. The good people rise. I do hope to fight him again one day though!

Turcios: If I could only pick one right now, it’s my boy Mitch Raposo. I know he came up short in the first round, but I believe he has infinite potential. Obviously, that fire will burn deep in his heart. Sometimes that happens in martial arts. You take that lick. But I remember even going into the show, Mitch was one of the toughest competitors on the show. He was in fantastic shape. He’s got great technique, top to bottom. And I really do believe he has great, great, great potential. When we were training in the house, he was one of my best training partners. And I really respected him for that because even though he came up short, he stayed on weight and stayed focused the entire time.

What kind of fight are you expecting on Saturday?

Turcios: To not give away too much information, I’m prepared for an ultimate war with Brady. I believe this fight between us has the potential to be an all-out amazing fight, even one that joins the ranks of Forrest Griffin vs. Stephan Bonnar [from season one]. Obviously in this game, at this level, it sometimes comes down to who makes the first mistake. I’ve stayed disciplined in my whole training and I plan on staying disciplined in the fight as well.

Hiestand: I expect a lot of energy from Ricky. He has a lot of personality and I see that coming out in this fight. But the thing is, I know I’ll keep calm, cool, collected, make sure everything is on point. I’m going to make sure my pressure is good and I’m going to impose my will on him. My grappling and even my striking — I believe I’ll make him stay on his back foot and eventually he’s going to wilt under it.

Urbina: To be honest, I was just watching Griffin vs. Bonnar and said, ‘This is me and Bryan Battle. We’re reliving it.’ Two big boys, squaring up, leaving it all on the line.

Battle: I’m expecting a great fight. I’m expecting Gilbert to really bring it. He’s a wild dude. He has a big repertoire of weapons. It will be high-pace and a lot of action through the conclusion of the fight.

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