Why Season 20 of 'The Ultimate Fighter' might be can’t-miss TV

Kevin Iole
Yahoo Sports

For several years, Pat Barry has bragged to anyone who would listen about his girlfriend, Rose Namajunas.

After a UFC victory over Shane del Rosario in a heavyweight fight in 2012, Barry recounted his first meeting with Namajunas, which occurred at Roufusport Mixed Martial Arts Academy in Milwaukee.

The 245-pound Barry found himself sparring with the 115-pound Namajunas. Before Barry could get ready, Namajunas belted him in the face.

"I walked over and I was like, 'Hi, I'll just take it easy,' and, 'Boom!' she hit me in the face," Barry told Yahoo Sports in 2012. "She hit me and I was like, 'What the [expletive] was that? How do you hit that hard?' So I say to myself, 'OK, maybe that was a fluke.' And then, 'Boom!' again, this time with the right hand. And I'm like, 'Oh my God! I love you.' She hit me, with the big glove on, so fast and so hard, I could smell iron. I could taste iron. I felt like I'd just licked the refrigerator.

Carla Esparza gave up the Invicta strawweight belt for TUF 20. (Getty)
Carla Esparza gave up the Invicta strawweight belt for TUF 20. (Getty)

"When she hit me with the third one, and believe me, it was harder and faster than the first two, I'm like, 'The first one was nice. The second one made me love you. But this third one, I'm about to bust your head off [in sparring].' "

Namajunas is now one of 16 women in contention for the first UFC strawweight title that will be decided on Season 20 of "The Ultimate Fighter."

The show debuts Wednesday on Fox Sports 1 with a noticeable difference. On all but one of the previous seasons of TUF, the fighters were largely newcomers who were trying to prove they were good enough to compete in the UFC.

The series has developed champions and stars, but it's just as notable for the zany antics and the flameouts.

But in Season 20, it's all about the fighting.

"We have the baddest 16 women in the world in this weight class on this season," UFC president Dana White said. "If you look historically at 'The Ultimate Fighter,' we've had guys trying to see if they're good enough to be in the UFC or if they're even good enough to do this professionally. You've seen it over the years, there are always guys on the show who are trying to decide if fighting is even what they want to do.

"But we have a different level of athlete on this show now. They're the best in the world and it completely changes everything. You're going to love this season."

White, of course, is a promoter and rarely does a season start when he's not pumping it up one way or another.

He's paid one of the fighters the ultimate compliment by comparing her to women's bantamweight champion Ronda Rousey, of whom White can't say enough good things.

White has made such comparisons before and been spectacularly wrong. During the filming of Season 8, he said repeatedly that he thought he'd found another Anderson Silva, referring to the longtime middleweight champion. It turned out that was Phillipe Nover, who went 0-3 in the UFC and was cut.

White is adamant that one contestant on Season 20 is far closer to Rousey than Nover ever was to Silva.

"I've never seen an athlete like Ronda Rousey and I never thought I'd see one again, but believe me, man, she's on this season," White said. "One of these women is going to become a huge, huge star."

He wouldn't say who it is and spoil the season. But fighters Carla Esparza, who gave up the Invicta strawweight belt to join the TUF 20 cast, and Namajunas, along with coach Gilbert Melenez, said the level of competition is high.

Melendez, who will challenge Anthony Pettis for the lightweight title, said the women on the show are good enough to make the division rival the depth and talent of the men's lightweight class.

"There's a stable of some extremely talented fighters here and I was pretty impressed," Melendez said. "First and foremost, they're true fighters. They're willing to get in there and scrap, and every fight was really entertaining. They held their ground and went for it."

Female fighters haven't received the respect their male counterparts have historically gotten, particularly in the U.S. Before the UFC added the bantamweight division, women were rarely featured in MMA or boxing on American television.

'We have the baddest 16 women in the world in this weight class,' UFC president Dana White said of TUF 20. (Getty)
'We have the baddest 16 women in the world in this weight class,' UFC president Dana White said of TUF 20. (Getty)

Rousey became one of the sport's biggest stars in a short time period and it could occur again if White is correct about one of the fighters. But Namajunas said the women aren't fighting with something to prove or with a chip on their shoulders.

She said it's more than that.

"I think women naturally have more of a fighter's spirit," she said. "We have more passion. We're more fiery and we have more emotion. That spirit that we have is what you need to be a great fighter. You can be as logical and calculated as possible, but it's kind of boring if you don't have any passion behind it.

"You can't be great at something if you don't love what you're doing. I guess there are some women who feel they have something to prove, but mostly, we have a natural passion to fight and I think that's what you see."

Esparza said not all women have the mental makeup to be fighters.

"For the longest time, I'd go to the gym and it was all guys and no other women there," she said. "It takes a special breed of woman to want to do that and keep fighting through that. It's only recently that there are rewards for women in this sport. None of us who have been around for any length of time did it for the money, because there wasn't money to be made.

"There was no recognition, no money, not much of anything. We did it because we loved it."

White said they reconnected with one very important fan this season. It had been nearly 10 years, during the filming of Season 1 in 2004, that UFC CEO Lorenzo Fertitta attended every fight during the taping of "The Ultimate Fighter."

White said Fertitta began a new streak with TUF 20.

"Lorenzo's got a lot of [stuff] going on, but this season is so good, he was at every single fight for the first time since the first season of TUF," White told Yahoo Sports. "He saw those first couple of fights and he wasn't going to miss.

"This is no [expletive]: This is really a great season and I can't wait for you to see it. I know what we have there and these are some great fights."

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