In the aftermath of more than 20 seasons of “The Ultimate Fighter,” one common occurrence has seen a number of combatants on the long-running reality television series leave the confines of Las Vegas where the show is taped and migrate to the training grounds of the coaches who mentored them.
“The Ultimate Fighter,” at its core, is also designed to give mixed martial arts prospects the opportunity to train among the best of the best in the hopes of fighting their way into the Ultimate Fighting Championship.
Jessamyn Duke finds herself in both of those situations. Hence, when some look back negatively onto their time on ‘TUF,’ cooped up in a house with other fighters, secluded from the outside world, Duke finds herself looking back in just the opposite light.
“I knew how good the experience was when I was there,” Duke said. “It improved me as a person; it improved me as a fighter. My whole life changed; it did nothing but good things for me.”
One of those things was bringing Duke, formerly of Kentucky, to Southern California, where she has honed her craft in preparation for her UFC debut against “The Ultimate Fighter” teammate Peggy Morgan on Saturday night’s “The Ultimate Fighter Finale” live at 7 p.m. on Fox Sports 1 from the Mandalay Bay Events Center in Las Vegas.
Duke, along with close friend and women’s MMA pioneer Shayna Baszler and ‘TUF’ men’s bantamweight finalist Davey Grant, have all been recently training at the Glendale Fighting Club under Edmond Tarverdyan. All three were members of Team Rousey on the show, which featured Glendale-trained UFC women’s bantamweight champion Ronda Rousey and archrival Miesha Tate, who will challenge for the title on Dec. 28. On Saturday, Grant (8-1) will face Team Tate’s Chris Holdsworth (4-0) in the men’s bantweight (135 pounds) finale, while Team Rousey’s Jessica Rakoczy (1-3, 1 no-contest) will face Julianna Pena (4-2) in the women’s finale.
“It’s been brilliant,” said Grant, 27, of his time, which has roughly been the last couple weeks, stateside working at the Glendale Fighting Club. “They’ve got a really good gym going on here. It’s really helped [me]. It’s been a blessing.”
Grant has also found temporary refuge at Rousey’s Venice home, where ‘TUF’ assistant coach and longtime Rousey compatriot Marina Shafir, Duke and Baszler also reside.
“She just offered up everything,” said Duke of Rousey, who offered Duke a place to stay, a Range Rover to drive and a gym to train at. “It was almost surreal; the way she cared about us is rare.
“It’s a pretty cool thing. She literally just opened up everything. It’s perfect. We all have the same goals and schedules. … Literally, I have a world champion with me every day. It’s been amazing for me.”
Now, Duke (2-0, 1 NC) fights an opponent in Morgan (2-0) she’s quite familiar with after training together as a part of Team Rousey during the filming of the show, which concluded the first week of July.
“Pretty much, everybody on Team Rousey, we were like family,” Duke said. “It kind of breaks Ronda’s heart to have us fight. It’s our duty to put on the greatest fight possible. It’s our duty to Ronda and to the fans.”
It was a matchup Duke said she and Morgan saw coming from the onset of the season.
“Honestly, I thought we were gonna have to fight at the very beginning [of ‘The Ultimate Fighter’],” said Duke, who believed she and Morgan would have to compete in the season’s preliminary round in which a victory is needed to gain access into ‘The Ultimate Fighter’ house and to truly be a part of the season. “I thought we would have to fight to get in the house, have the two tall chicks fight it out so there could only be one.”
That didn’t happen, of course. Duke defeated Laura Howarth via triangle choke submission in the first round, while Morgan earned a first-round technical knockout of Bethany Marshall. Both were subsequently drafted onto Team Rousey.
Both would lose in the quarterfinal round of the tournament, although their fights were drastically different. Morgan was submitted by Sarah Moras in the first round of their bout, while Duke was part of an epic three-round donnybrook with Raquel Pennington that won’t soon be forgotten.
Duke came out on the wrong end of a decision, but the fight has stood as the best of the season and one that many believe will stand as a hallmark of the first season of “The Ultimate Fighter” featuring female fighters.
“It really is kind of bittersweet,” Duke said. “I think it will always stand out, but it sucks to be remembered on the wrong end of it.
“What I hope is to be remembered for the heart and tenacity I showed. I hope fans will want to watch me again because of it.”
The next step in giving the fans something else to remember her for come Saturday evening, and Duke feels plenty confident.
Duke enters the UFC's octagon at 5 foot 11, looking to cut down the taller Morgan, who at 6-1 will present Duke with the novelty of facing a taller opponent, though Morgan certainly will not enjoy the height advantage she's used to.
“She’s gonna have a slight reach advantage, but only a slight advantage,” said Duke, who will be cornered by Tarverdyan, ‘TUF’ assistant Andy Dermenjian and Baszler, who’s reportedly injured but will fight in the UFC in 2014.
Morgan has won both of her professional fights via decision, having made her professional debut in June of 2012 after having gone 2-0 in the amateur ranks with a pair of second-round stoppages, which also came earlier in 2012.
In that regard, Duke is the more seasoned competitor. She went 5-2 in an amateur tenure that began in October 2010 and all three of her professional fights have come under the all-women Invicta Fighting Championships banner.
Her two pro wins came via stoppage, while her last bout was initially a knockout loss to Miriam Nakamoto on April 5, but was later overturned to a no-contest, as Nakamoto delivered a pair of knee strikes, but the second came illegally when Duke had both knees on the canvas.
Going in, Duke, who boasts a muay Thai and jiu jitsu background, is careful with her words as she wanted no part of disrespecting Morgan, but maintained she was also confident in every aspect. And, in her training following the show, believes Morgan will see a vastly altered fighter.
“I’m 100% different than I was on the show,” Duke said.
Grant enters the show having finished Danny Martinez with a second-round armbar submission to get into the house before submitting Louis Fisette in the second round of their quarterfinal bout. In the semifinals, though, Grant advanced via forfeit, as Team Rousey teammate Anthony Guttierez failed to make weight. The incident was especially upsetting to Grant, who wanted to earn his way into the finale.
“I didn’t want to be known forever as the guy who got to the finale by forfeit,” Grant said.
Nonetheless, Grant has proved himself plenty formidable thus far in his career, as his 8-1 mark has come with eight straight victories all by stoppage, with seven coming by submission via choke.
“I think there’s a lot of ways I could win this,” said Grant, who will be cornered by Tarverdyan along with members of his regular camp from his native England, where he’s previously fought all of his bouts.
Holdsworth ran through his opponents on ‘TUF,’ defeating Fisette (who returned as an injury replacement) via first-round submission and then submitting Chris Beal and Michael Wooten in the first round, also.
So, while the conclusion of “The Ultimate Fighter 18” is coming Saturday, it’s hopefully just the beginning for the likes of Grant and Duke.
“When I started, it wasn’t even an option,” said Duke of fighting in the UFC, as the first-ever women’s fight in the organization wasn’t until February, when Rousey defeated Liz Carmouche. “Even as a dream, it wasn’t something I could put in my head.
“I don’t think it’ll set in until after.”
After, Duke is planning on going back east to Virginia, packing up a car and driving cross-country with Baszler to their native Kentucky and South Dakota, respectively, to make the official move to Southern California.
Unlike Duke, Grant is uncertain about his training future and has no immediate plans to migrate to Southern California.
But all that truly matters at this point is Saturday.
“This is everything for me. This is what dreams are made of,” Grant said. “I’ve worked so hard to get here, I just want to make it pay off.”