Anticipation is the major draw of the latest version of the Ultimate Fighting Championship’s reality television series, “The Ultimate Fighter.”
Not only are the coaches, lightweight champion Anthony Pettis and challenger Gilbert Melendez, due to close the show and end lengthy layoffs with a Dec. 6 title showdown at Mandalay Bay in Las Vegas, the “TUF” winner for the first time will earn a UFC belt.
Pettis and Melendez will be rival coaches of 16 women who will compete, beginning Wednesday on Fox Sports 1, for the UFC’s new 115-pound strawweight women’s division title.
The field was narrowed to two finalists in previously filmed footage shot along with scenes of the fighters living together in a Las Vegas home.
“There was not one boring fight,” said Redondo Beach’s Carla Esparza, a former champion in the Invicta mixed martial arts organization who said the progress in women’s MMA fighting since Ronda Rousey’s UFC debut in February 2013 has been "an amazing experience."
“I’ve seen it when it was almost nothing, when it was a struggle to even find fights for almost no money," Esparza said. "I was just trying to survive. Now, it’s exploding, and we women are getting the appreciation we deserve. We’re all now going for this belt.”
Orange County’s Jessica Penne, another ex-Invicta champion, has fought for eight years “for little to no recognition. … It’s great to see our efforts rewarded.”
UFC President Dana White said last week that beyond signing the 16 fighters to UFC contracts, adding the dimension of putting a belt on the line has amplified the intensity of the “TUF” competition, which White said looked stale last season.
“It’s unlike any other season, with already established fighters,” Penne said. “It will make for a very exciting season.”
She said the strawweights created “drama, friendships and great fights. … I thought it’d be a lot more catty, which it was at times, but there’s also these great friendships that emerge.”
Additionally, Santa Ana native and former Strikeforce champion Melendez (22-3, 11 knockouts) and UFC lightweight champion Pettis (17-2, nine KOs) will build the tension for their title fight.
Pettis has been sidelined since winning the belt in August 2013, by submission over Benson Henderson. A November knee injury caused him to scrap a planned title defense.
Melendez, meanwhile, last fought Oct. 19, 2013, in the fight of the year, a decision over Diego Sanchez. Contract talks followed, and a deal was struck for “TUF” and the Pettis title fight.
“What I like about the matchup is that he’s a fighter, and I’m not a walk in the park,” Melendez said. “I have the tools to beat anyone. … He’s considered a striker. I can strike, wrestle and grapple with the best of them.”
Melendez trains in San Francisco, and frequently consults with his close friends from Lodi, Calif., UFC fighters Nick and Nate Diaz, while training in Gracie jiu-jitsu.
“We became black belts together. … There’s loyalty, family. … It’s more than business, it’s a family thing,” Melendez said. “We train and spar hard. … We might not win every fight, but we always perform and only go out on our shields.”
As for the show, Melendez said: “I’ve watched ‘The Ultimate Fighter’ sometimes and some of these guys don’t take it too serious, but with the title on the line and with these ladies being professionals … it was a pleasure watching these solid fighters.”