We see the final opening-round match of the tournament on Episode 8 of “The Ultimate Fighter 26,” the reality series inching ever closer to crowning the inaugural Ultimate Fighting Championship women’s flyweight titleholder.
Team Gaethje has already put four of its representatives in the quarterfinals, and Emily Whitmire aims to become the fifth. Christina Marks, who is coached by former UFC lightweight champion Eddie Alvarez, stands in her way. The competition has been difficult for the eighth-seeded Whitmire, as she has had to persevere through an uncomfortable rib injury. She has been aided by the physical therapy staff at the UFC’s newly constructed performance center.
The rib will no doubt be an inviting target for Marks, who fancies herself a muay Thai stylist. Knowing she prefers to strike, Alvarez also tends to the grappling side of the sport. However, he recognizes the fact that his time with the fighters is short when considering how long it takes to master the finer points of Brazilian jiu-jitsu. Marks is shown shadowboxing in the Octagon; it turns into a shadow-grappling drill in which she focuses on moving from the floor to her feet while controlling the head of an imaginary opponent. It becomes clear that Marks plan to use her grappling as a defensive measure.
Whitmire’s injured rib has been part of the narrative all season. While it has yet to derail her hopes, it has hindered her inside and outside the cage. Back at the fighter house, Whitmire shares a story from her youth in which she locked her mother out of the house and threw her clothes out the window. It provided a glimpse into her tumultuous childhood and showed her struggling through a laugh and the resulting pain from her injury.
Another season-long storyline has been the dysfunctional relationship between Alvarez and former Invicta Fighting Championships titleholder Lauren Murphy. Eliminated from the competition in an upset loss to Nico Montano, Murphy has struggled to remain part of the team. Now, tempers have finally boiled over. After speaking with teammates, Murphy decides it would be in the best interests of all involved to align herself with Justin Gaethje’s rival squad. Murphy’s stablemates show no hard feelings, as she works out with Team Gaethje and plans to inform Alvarez of her decision at the gym. The conversation does not go well.
Murphy tries to make the encounter as peaceful as possible. Writing out cards for the coaches, Murphy tells Alvarez that her being on the team is not working out. The former Bellator and UFC champion is not pleased with the decision and asks Murphy what she thinks Gaethje has to offer. Alienated by the question, Murphy begins to raise her voice. Alvarez walks away and confuses her with Barb Honchak, shouting “Barb’s going to the blue team!” Murphy offers an expletive in his direction while informing him that she is not Honchak. Subtracting Murphy ultimately proves beneficial for Alvarez. He outswims Gaethje in a long-distance race and lays claim to the prize money. Alvarez’s team splits the winnings, pocketing what would have been Murphy’s share.
With the coaches’ competition out of the way, the fight between Whitmire and the ninth-seeded Marks arrives. It is over before it ever gets going. Injured rib and all, Whitmire marches across the Octagon and launches an overhand right that forces her counterpart to react. Though the blow did not inflict any damage, it opened up an easy takedown for Whitmire. Once on the floor, she looks to secure a dominant position while Marks attempts to shrimp away and get back to her feet. The Team Alvarez rep induces a scramble but leaves an arm vulnerable. Whitmire seizes the opportunity and locks on a fight-ending armbar less than a minute into the bout, meaning Team Gaethje members will occupy five of the eight spots in the quarterfinals.
Next week’s episode will feature the first two quarterfinal matchups, as Whitmire battles Roxanne Modafferi and DeAnna Bennett faces Sijara Eubanks.