The round of 16 is drawing to a close, and with three fighters from coach Joe Warren’s squad already eliminated, the former Bellator champ’s hopes rest solely on Evan Cutts.
The 22-year-old “Butcher” has been selected as an opponent by the No. 2-ranked Cristiano Souza, a capoeira stylist training under Randy Couture. Despite Souza’s unbeaten record and favorite status, underdog Cutts maintains belief that he will pull off the upset, and his coach agrees.
On the other side, Couture is equally confident in Souza, whom he touts as too athletic and powerful for Cutts to handle. Couture draws up a game plan centered on “Soldier Boy” striking first, while the Brazilian hopes to capitalize on mistakes.
“I watched Evan’s fight,” Souza says, “and I want to fight him because I don’t think his striking is on my level.”
Warren tells Cutts that his wrestling or jiu-jitsu alone won’t be enough to win Cutts the fight, but a combination of the two could work. They devise a grinding game plan wherein Cutts will neutralize Souza’s strikes by working takedowns and clinching on the fence.
Eric Scallan, who was eliminated by Joe Riggs on last week’s episode and is still sporting the black eye to prove it, does not like his teammate’s chances against Souza.
“Warren tries to get all of us brainwashed and convince us the sky’s the limit, and you can fly. Sometimes you can’t fly,” says Scallan. “Evan’s standup isn’t there, man, and if your only chance of beating a guy is doing some funky submission, that ain’t good. Soldier Boy, he ain’t a joke, man. He’s a killer.”
Come fight time, it looks as though Scallan’s prediction is on-point. Souza stuffs Cutts’ first takedown attempt and proceeds to bomb the American with relentless hooks against the cage. Cutts covers up under the assault and somehow stays alive despite being tagged with dozens of punches.
When Cutts falls to his rear at the base of the fence, Souza follows him down. Cutts nearly snags an armbar, but Souza snuffs it out and continues punishing with ground-and-pound. By the time Cutts regains guard and works back to his feet, Souza looks tired and Cutts hits a late takedown.
Souza is still connecting with left hooks at the start of round two, but this time Cutts is able to get in close and work knees to the body on the fence. Souza has no escape and remains trapped against the cage, taking knee after knee, until Cutts botches an inside trip and winds up on his back. Souza pounces on top but can’t keep control, and Cutts is able to stand and hit another takedown in the last 80 seconds.
Cutts is working for a rear-naked choke when Souza flips around to top position, much to the dismay of Warren. The coach’s tune changes a few seconds later, however, when Cutts throws up a triangle choke and pulls Souza down, forcing the Brazilian to submit.
“Physically, my face hurts a little,” Cutts says after his comeback victory, “but my heart is ready to explode, man. I’m just so excited.”
There’s only one fight left in the elimination round, and it features two-time NCAA Division I All-American Eric Bradley against highly touted Californian prospect A.J. Matthews.
“The last time I had an opportunity like this, it was in my hand and I let it slip out,” Bradley explains. “So, my goal is to come in here and just dominate the whole way through.”
Bradley’s coach, Greg Jackson, says his charge is one of the best wrestlers he’s ever seen, but Couture asserts that Matthews has “everything he needs” to come out on top. The fourth-seeded Matthews is eager to fight Bradley, whom he calls “the toughest guy in the house.”
“I respect that he chose me, because he could have picked easier fights,” Bradley tells the camera. “I feel like he picked someone that doesn’t match up to his style very well at all.”
Bradley tells teammate Sam Alvey about how his promising MMA career was derailed when he and fellow wrestler-turned-fighter Patrick Cummins were sentenced to jail for burglary -- or, as Bradley describes it, “I got in trouble for pranking some fraternities.” The former Penn State University wrestler says jail was “the worst, but it’s kind of like this.”
Bradley has previously trained with Couture in Los Angeles and Las Vegas, a fact which the former UFC champ says will benefit Matthews. There is little doubt in the Xtreme Couture camp that Bradley will try to wrestle his way to a win, which is precisely the plan over on Jackson’s side. Matthews is still nursing a shoulder injury sustained in the preliminary round, but Couture tells him to gut it out.
“It’s one of those stupid, little naggers. We all get ‘em, every time you go through camp,” Couture says. “You never go into a fight at 100 percent. It just doesn’t happen.”
Matthews starts slow against the southpaw Bradley, who takes advantage of the tentativeness and hits an early takedown. Bradley keeps back control as they stand and holds it through the middle of the round, but Matthews cuts him badly above the eye with over-the-shoulder elbows and eventually escapes. When Matthews tries to close the gap on the feet, Bradley instantly shoots a single-leg and uses it to control the remainder of the round on the fence.
Thirty seconds into round two, Matthews connects with an uppercut but immediately surrenders another takedown at the foot of the fence. Matthews stands and sprawls on the follow-up double-leg; Matthews keeps after it and wraps up his opponent on the fence again.
“He’s not trying to finish the fight,” Couture fumes from the corner.
Matthews hits Bradley with what coach Jackson deems “a blatant elbow,” but Bradley just stays glued to Matthews’ legs, not giving any room for escape or offense. While Matthews scores with a couple good knees and punches in the final moments of the fight, it’s Bradley who takes the unanimous decision.
“Whoever picks him has an uphill battle,” Jackson says of Bradley after the fight. “I will almost guarantee you that, after that performance, he’s so good that nobody’s gonna pick him.”
Next week’s episode will see the start of the quarterfinals, where Frank Shamrock’s team will be represented by three fighters. Jackson and Couture will each send two, while Warren will continue on with underdog Cutts.