Sixteen fighters have been reduced to eight, and now it’s time to find out who’s fighting whom in “The Ultimate Fighter Nations: Canada vs. Australia” semifinals.
Coach Kyle Noke’s Australian team will send three fighters through: middleweights Vik Grujic and Tyler Manawaroa, and welterweight Richard Walsh. Representing Patrick Cote’s Canadian squad will be middleweights Elias Theodorou and Sheldon Westcott, plus welterweights Olivier Aubin-Mercier, Kajan Johnson and Chad Laprise.
The coaches sit alongside each semi-finalist to discuss fight selections with UFC President Dana White, who joins the conversation via satellite. Unsurprisingly, all three Canadian 170-pounders want to fight Walsh, the only remaining Aussie. Only one of them will get his way, while two will have to meet in a teammate-versus-teammate semifinal. Walsh, for his part, says he’s wanted to fight Johnson from the start.
The middleweight matchups, on the other hand, seem to be predetermined: Theodorou and Manawaroa want to scrap, as do Westcott and Grujic.
With both teams assembled in the gym, coaches Cote and Noke announce the bouts and the order in which they will take place:
Welterweight Semifinal No. 1: Kajan Johnson vs. Chad Laprise
Middleweight Semifinal No. 1: Elias Theodorou vs. Tyler Manawaroa
Welterweight Semifinal No. 2: Olivier Aubin-Mercier vs. Richard Walsh
Middleweight Semifinal No. 2: Sheldon Westcott vs. Vik Grujic
With Johnson and Laprise set to face off first, the two close friends and sparring partners must decide which coaches from Team Canada will train and corner them. Cote will not train either fighter, leaving Johnson to work with jiu-jitsu coach Fabio Holanda, and Laprise with striking coach “Kru Ash.” To help shore up his ground game, Laprise also recruits Team Australia jiu-jitsu coach Roberto “Tussa” Alencar.
In a confessional, Johnson speaks of his financial struggles and how much he has on the line as he competes on “TUF.”
“I live in the ghetto,” Johnson says. “I don’t know if I can pay rent. I go through periods of time where I don’t have food to eat. I’ve sacrificed everything to get here. My dreams are at stake. My life is at stake. Everything is at stake right now.”
Laprise, who got into fighting “for all the wrong reasons,” came from an abusive household and had to be removed from martial arts classes at an early age for being too aggressive.
“I literally wanted to hurt people,” admits a tearful Laprise, who says his life changed when he found religion. “The reason I fight now is to honor God, and it’s not to hurt people. ... Once I’m done fighting, my goal is to be a pastor, and I’m gonna open up my own fight church where guys can come and train and learn about God after practice.”
Both men make weight without incident and smile through their stare-down, and both profess that, despite their friendship outside the cage, they will be gunning for a knockout inside. When Johnson offers to move over to Team Australia’s locker room for the fight, Laprise quickly accepts. “Ragin’ Kajan” looks for a teammate to join Holanda in his corner but is turned down by Nordine Taleb, who prefers to watch from the sideline.
It’s fight time, and Laprise gets off to a good start by coming forward on Johnson and repeatedly finding a home for his jab and right straight. Johnson lands a few leg kicks early, then begins to catch Laprise with some clean counter hooks. When Laprise lands a short left inside, Johnson shoots a single-leg and gets shoved away. Johnson sends a pair of rights down the center and slaps with a leg kick before having another shot stuffed. Laprise eats a hard right over the top in the final minute, then a Superman punch, but he tags Johnson back with a nice left hook and then denies one more takedown attempt with the help of the fence. Referee Yves Lavigne warns after the round that another cage grab will cost Laprise a point.
Johnson misses with a high kick early in round two and gets popped with a left-handed counter. He takes an overhand right on the cheek and jabs back, then pushes Laprise away with a front kick. Johnson shoots a high double and gets swatted away with a clubbing left hand to the jaw. Laprise isn’t throwing high-volume punches but he is throwing consistently, staying in Johnson’s face and forcing him to circle around the outside. Johnson catches Laprise reaching with a stiff jab, dodges a big right and sticks a leg kick as he moves away. Both welterweights are connecting well with hard jabs as they move to the final half of the round.
The fight appears extremely close until, with 46 seconds left on the clock, Laprise puts his head down and unloads with a thunderous overhand right. The punch lands square on the jaw of Johnson, who drops to his knees and smacks his head on the canvas, absorbing a couple more short punches before referee Lavigne can shove away Laprise.
“I think my jaw is broken,” Johnson tells the doctor, and the blood dripping from his mouth seems to confirm the self-diagnosis. Johnson is inconsolable but nevertheless manages to get off his stool for the official announcement as Laprise has his hand raised.
“Good fight, man,” Laprise tells Johnson back in the locker room. “That was fun.”
“Yeah, it was fun till I woke up,” replies Johnson, who is still distraught over the lack of support Team Canada showed for him. Johnson says it was “like I was fighting everybody;” teammate Aubin-Mercier agrees, as does Australian Grujic, who took it upon himself to shout advice at Johnson during the fight.
In the end, Johnson concludes that the crushing defeat is “just another test.”
“I just don’t know why I’m tested so much,” he says.
Next week, Theodorou and Manawaroa square off in the season’s first middleweight semifinal.