Monday, April 2, 2007

Lightweights take centre stage as Season 5 of The Ultimate Fighter begins

By Neil Davidson

(CP) - Godzilla, The Bully, Pitbull, Handsome, Mr. Indestructible, and The Murderer.

Meet just some of the cast of Season 5 of The Ultimate Fighter reality TV show, which starts Thursday (10 p.m. ET). After showcasing veteran mixed martial arts fighters looking to make a comeback in Season 4, the UFC turns its attention to promising lightweights under the guidance of coaches B.J. Penn and Jens Pulver this time. Season 5 is devoted exclusively to the 155-pounders, a weight class the circuit is building back up again after a dry spell.

The premise is the same as past seasons, except all the fighters are in the same weight class instead of split into two and the UFC has moved them to a new Vegas mansion. The 16 lightweights are restricted to the house, devoid of TV, phones or Internet, with only trips to train or fight breaking the monotony.

Fights whittle down the field until the final two survivors meet to decide who wins a contract with the UFC. Losers remain in the house and train with the others.

Judging from the first episode, the cast may be all-lightweight but the testosterone level remains heavyweight. And taking a page from Season 3, which was fuelled by the bad blood between coaches Tito Ortiz and Ken Shamrock, there seems little chance of detente between rivals Penn and Pulver this season.

As with Ortiz and Shamrock, the two ignore each other as they wait for UFC president Dana White to arrive at the show's start.

"I didn't care much about him," Pulver told The Canadian Press in an interview. "I never cared about him, he's a smartass, he's a punk. He's got no respect for me and all he did was reiterate it and show it a hundred times over in the show."

Responds Penn: "He's had a good career, no doubt, but I don't have too much time for him."

Nicknamed Lil Evil, Pulver is a bundle of energy who wears his heart on his sleeve.

A native of Hawaii known as The Prodigy, Penn manages to combine his laidback islander personality with a healthy sense of mischief.

"He definitely likes to push people's buttons," says UFC lightweight contender Kenny Florian, who has trained with Penn.

Penn does just that as the two coaches select their teams in the opening episode. But Pulver also shows he can give as good as he gets by the way he works out the fighter in his first training session.

Pulver and Penn will have a chance to show their feelings for each other in the cage, during the June 23 finale of the show. It will be a rematch of their 2002 fight at UFC 35, when Pulver rallied to defend his lightweight title against a favoured Penn.

While the macho antics of some of the cast teased during the first episode come off as hackneyed and tired, the new crop of fighters shows promise:

-Joe Lauzon upset Pulver at UFC63.

-Nate Diaz is the brother of Nick Diaz.

-Gray Maynard was a three-time all-American wrestler at Michigan State with fellow UFC fighter Rashad Evans. He has helped train Penn in the past.

-Allen Berube owns two seafood restaurants.

-Gabe Ruediger is a former World Extreme Cagefighting lightweight champion.

-Manuel Gamburyan is the cousin of UFC fighter Karo Parisyan.

-Noah Thomas is a former U.S. marine who served in a sniper division. He also once won eight fights in one night in a no-holds-barred contest.

The show dispels the belief that all lightweights are small. Corey Hill is a six-foot-four lightning rod of energy and ego. Cole Miller stands 6-2, and fights out of the well-respected American Top Team in Coconut Creek, Fla.

Both men appear to be a handful.

White calls Season 5 the best to date. Pulver agrees.

"Oh man, I was beyond impressed. I was actually motivated to start training because these guys were so good," he said.

Adds Penn: "There are some good guys on there for sure. No doubt guys that are going to make an impact in the future."

More annoying advertising links work their way into the new series, however, with team lineups announced by a fast food outlet while fight recaps continue to come via a mobile phone company.

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