Felice Herrig and the Curse of TUF 20

The Ultimate Fighter 20 Finale took place on December 12th, 2014, and saw Carla Esparza become the first ever UFC Women’s Strawweight Champion of the World. The show also marked the last time that any TUF 20 cast member would get a win inside the octagon.

For two months during The Ultimate Fighter: A Champion Will Be Crowned, fans became invested in sixteen compelling characters. They have since been treated to a series of underwhelming performances and disappointing defeats. Felice Herrig’s loss to Paige VanZant at UFC on Fox: Machida vs Rockhold marked the third time a cast member had fought since the finale, and the third time one had been beaten.

Should I mention the word curse to you, it likely conjures images of witchcraft, gypsies or witch doctors. Magical thoughts of spell and superstition. Yet curses in sport are every bit as common. Snooker, baseball, football, even corporate sponsors Gillette have their own sports related curse. Does the UFC now have its own, the curse of TUF 20?

On March 14th, 2015, Carla Esparza would be the first TUF 20 competitor to step back into the octagon. Her title was on the line as she faced Joanna Jedrzejczyk. Esparza, usually a relentless takedown machine, was unable to drag the underdog challenger to the mat. Her performance was flat and Jedrzejczyk capitalized, beating her up for nearly two rounds before the fight was mercifully stopped.

Esparza didn’t look herself, not on the way to the cage, and certainly not inside it. There was an acknowledgement via twitter following the fight that something had not been right.

“Came out with a loss tonight, no excuses. I didn’t feel myself in there and wish I put on a better performance, but sometimes it’s not your night.”

Almost one month later, April 11th, 2015, TUF 20 quarter finalist Joanne Calderwood faced unknown Ukrainian Maryna Moroz. Like Esparza, Calderwood did not look herself on the way to the cage. Again, just like Esparza, she put in an uncharacteristic performance and was defeated.

Then this past weekend in Newark, New Jersey, Felice Herrig was the third TUF 20 contestant to fight on a UFC card since that season finale. Facing Paige VanZant, Herrig was more experienced, had faced much better competition, and had distinct wrestling and grappling advantages over her opponent. Herrig might have come up short had the two faced each other in awkward and embarrassing instagram dance offs in front of cars, but Herrig seemingly held every other notable advantage.

For the third time, a former TUF 20 contestant lost. Like Esparza and Calderwood before her, Herrig did not just lose, she was overwhelmed and looked nothing like the fighter we had seen in the past.
It was up to Herrig’s close friend, Carla Esparza to take to twitter and suggest that once again, something wasn’t quite right.

“Those of you who have seen Felice fight in the past, know that didn’t look like her in there. It’s been a rough long year for all of us who were on TUF, 4-5 fights in a couple months, and all the stuff that came with it.”

She was right, it didn’t look like Herrig in there, as she allowed her wild opponent to flail all over her for fifteen minutes. There was something more to what Esparza stated though, suggesting that the show had taken too much out of the women who competed on it. It’s a suggestion that holds definite merit.

Leaving your coaches, your friends and family to go and chase a dream in the most insular of surroundings, sharing a house with those who want to snatch it all away from you has to take its toll. Four months on, are we still seeing that play out in the cage, and if we are, why did previous seasons of the Ultimate Fighter not have the same effect?

Unlike previous seasons of the show the stakes were markedly higher. For the winner, the chance to become the first ever UFC Strawweight Champion of the World, raised the bar to a new level. Consider as well that they were all carrying the weight of an entire division on their shoulders, trailblazing a path that the UFC had not laid out before. The pressure was ramped up to the max.

They certainly haven’t become bad fighters overnight. The sixteen women who entered the TUF 20 house were good fighters before they got there, Esparza, Calderwood and Herrig in particular.

Carla Esparza was the premiere women’s strawweight champion in the world before entering the show. Joanne Calderwood was undefeated, and remains the only fighter to have beaten current Invicta Strawweight Champion, Katja Kankaanpaa. Felice Herrig had faced a who’s who of lower weight class women’s mixed martial arts.

It’s hard to believe that those skills have just disappeared, that the show sucked them in, chewed up their ability, and spat them out the other end as worse fighters than they were before.

Instead, the physical and mental tolls that the show took on them should not be downplayed. Lets not either downplay the ability of those they have faced. The strawweights who have come into the UFC organically are skilled fighters too.

Still there is something about the manner of the defeats, about the performances that led to them, that suggest it has been a stressful time for everyone attached to the show.

The next opportunity for TUF 20 cast members to perform in the octagon comes this weekend, April 25th, when Aisling Daly and Randa Markos compete at UFC 186. Both competed on the show, so barring an unlikely draw TUF 20 will have its first winner in the octagon since December 12th, 2014.

Whatever the result, their performances should tell us much about how they have dealt with the pressure and stress that the show applied to them last year.