Octagon jitters—it’s an infamous term. The first time a fighter steps into the UFC’s eight-sided cage, there will always be talk of whether the emotional rush and the nerves surrounding his debut will have a profound impact on his performance.

Pundits and fans making predictions on fights will cite the jitters as a reason to doubt a fighter’s chances. And in the aftermath of a defeat, these same jitters will take part of the blame for the fighter’s downfall.

So, following each UFC event, The MMA Corner will look at the fighters who made their Octagon debuts and provide impressions on their performances and their future potential under the UFC banner. In this edition, we focus on the 14 newcomers from The Ultimate Fighter 18 Finale.

Joshua Sampo — second-round submission victory over Ryan Benoit

Prior to his recent addition to the UFC’s flyweight ranks, Joshua Sampo ruled over the 125-pound division of the CFA. He’s one of the more highly regarded flyweights to have not previously competed inside the Octagon, but that all changed on Saturday night when he kicked off the TUF 18 Finale with a second-round rear-naked choke victory over Ryan Benoit.

Sampo was expected to have a hard time with Benoit’s striking, but although he did initially look a bit uncomfortable in the stand-up exchanges, he ended up being the one to score a rattling blow to his opponent. Sampo then outclassed the tough Benoit on the ground in the first and second rounds, transitioning to mount with ease at one point and easily setting up the fight-ending choke with a transition to Benoit’s back in the second stanza.

Sampo has had a strong run that has included victories over Antonio Banuelos, Alexis Vila and now Benoit. He has suffered a knockout loss to Will Campuzano and has never scored a win via any form of knockout in his career, but Sampo demonstrated an adequate striking game against a Muay Thai practitioner in his UFC debut and certainly has the grappling skills to give anyone in the UFC’s flyweight division a fight on the mat. He may eventually contend for the UFC belt, but he’ll definitely settle in as a mid-tier flyweight within the UFC’s roster at the very least.

Potential: Medium to High

Ryan Benoit — second-round submission loss to Joshua Sampo

In May 2013, Ryan Benoit took part in what would end up being an early contender for “Fight of the Year” against Anthony Birchak at MFC 37. Half a year later, the UFC secured his services, but in the lighter flyweight category. Although Benoit is a tough fighter, he came up short in that debut against Joshua Sampo when he tapped to a rear-naked choke in the second round.

Benoit’s Muay Thai striking background gives him a strong edge on the feet, but he wasn’t able to capitalize there against Sampo and was even rocked in an early exchange. Furthermore, he abandoned his technical approach at times to throw haymakers in the hopes of landing a quick knockout or causing a sudden change in momentum.

Benoit’s real strength lies in his toughness on the mat. Granted, he was submitted by Sampo, but he forced several reversals and landed in top position. It was reminiscent of his fight with Birchak in that sense, but just as in that fight, Benoit couldn’t make the most of those reversals.

Benoit’s wins over Joseph Sandoval and Cody Fuller on the regional circuit, and his hard-fought losses to Birchak and now Sampo, suggest that he could make one hell of a gatekeeper for the UFC’s flyweight division. He certainly could test any fighter’s all-around game, but he’ll have to get a foothold in the UFC’s roster before he can establish himself in such a role. There’s a chance a pink slip could be on its way, but if Benoit sticks around for another fight or two, he could become a mainstay on the lower end of the UFC’s growing flyweight division.

Potential: Low to Medium

Drew Dober — unanimous decision loss to Sean Spencer

After a failed bid to make the house on the 15th season of The Ultimate Fighter, Drew Dober finally had his second chance at the UFC. Unfortunately, he couldn’t capitalize against Sean Spencer and suffered the same fate that met him at the end of his TUF qualifying round bout: a unanimous decision loss.

Dober’s biggest disadvantage may have been size. He usually fights at 155 pounds, where he has defeated the likes of Tony Sims and T.J. O’Brien. At the TUF 18 Finale, he stepped up to welterweight against Spencer, who has previously fought as a middleweight. Dober appeared to be carrying a lot of extra weight and slowed considerably as the fight wore on. He didn’t have the speed to match Spencer, nor was he able to score takedowns. The only bright spot for Dober came in the form of a short left hook that he landed regularly, though his punches seemed to lack any pop.

Dober displayed a solid chin against Spencer and fought valiantly, but he certainly doesn’t belong at 170 pounds. If there’s an opportunity for him to shift back to lightweight inside the Octagon, we could see a more competitive Dober win some UFC bouts. However, with his loss, he may have to climb back up from the regional circuit once more to earn such an opportunity.

Potential: Low

Jared Rosholt — unanimous decision victory over Walter Harris

If there’s one division where there’s a clear line between the best and the rest, it’s at heavyweight. Look no further than the fight between Jared Rosholt and Walter Harris for an illustration of this fact. Rosholt managed a unanimous decision win in a miraculous comeback, but neither of these men demonstrated a skill set that will take them far in the UFC.

Rosholt has a decorated wrestling background, but he wasn’t willing to use his wrestling until late in the fight. If he adjusted his strategy to focus more on his wrestling, his potential for UFC success could increase tremendously. Once he gets an opponent to the mat, he has stellar top control and could win plenty of fights via ground-and-pound or three-round wrestling domination.

Rosholt’s chin allowed him to survive what initially looked like a pair of fight-ending knockout blows delivered by Harris. Though he was severely rocked by those punches, he recovered quickly. Rosholt might not have had good head movement in general, but he showed a good eye for ducking under Harris’s strikes after that early scare. Rosholt keeps his hands too low and doesn’t display great striking technique, but he is better at landing kicks and knees.

Wrestling will be the key to Rosholt’s success in the future. If he continues to wait until late in fights to use the best weapon in his arsenal, he could find that it’s too late. If he instead opts to stand and bang with the UFC’s heavyweights, he’s going to be looking up at the lights an awful lot.

Potential: Low

Walter Harris — unanimous decision loss to Jared Rosholt

Picture a man with Phil Davis’s build and striking stance, but who has taken a few more trips to the buffet line, and you have Walter Harris. In terms of appearance, Harris does resemble a heavyweight version of the light heavyweight contender. But beyond the stance and the wide shoulders, muscular frame and long legs, the comparisons end. Harris lacks Davis’s gas tank and high-level wrestling abilities, and he failed to demonstrate much in the way of other skills with which to compensate in his unanimous decision loss to Jared Rosholt.

Harris, whose career wins have all come by some form of knockout with the first two minutes of the opening round, flashed that same quick knockout ability against Rosholt, but he was unable to finish the wrestler off. And when Harris can’t get the early finish, he’s destined to fail. It happened against Chris Barnett and now it has happened against Rosholt.

Harris has good power and worked well in the early moments as he bounced in and out to land his shots. However, after his initial flurry, he faded quickly. By the second stanza, Rosholt was utilizing kicks and knees to get the better of Harris on the feet. Then, in the third frame, Rosholt smothered Harris on the mat. Harris was unable to escape to his feet and even when standing had little left to offer.

Harris may be good for a couple of highlight-reel knockouts against low-level heavyweights, but he’s certainly not going to succeed in a UFC heavyweight division where fighters need more than two minutes’ worth of offensive output.

Potential: Low

Tom Niinimäki — split decision victory over Rani Yahya

The focus of the TUF 18 Finale was on the reality show’s contestants, of which six women and two men were competing on the card. However, the night’s most impressive debut belonged to featherweight Tom Niinimäki. Niinimäki edged out skilled grappler Rani Yahya via split decision.

Prior to the fight, Niinimäki had hinted that he wouldn’t shy away from a ground battle with Yahya. Luckily for fans, the Finn was not kidding. The majority of the bout played out on the mat, and it provided a very thorough test of Niinimäki’s skills. Turns out, he passed with flying colors. He was able to reverse Yahya on multiple occasions and engaged in a very technical grappling match with the ADCC gold medalist. Although Niinimäki did find himself in several bad positions, he was very composed and smart in working his way out of danger. The only concern here is in how willing he is to let himself fall into these bad spots in the first place.

“Stoneface” brought his winning streak up to a dozen fights with the victory against Yahya, and he’s now beaten three notable names in a row (he entered his UFC debut on the heels of wins over Chase Beebe and Walel Watson). Though he didn’t get to show off his striking to a large degree against Yahya, he has been a ranked amateur boxer and has a balanced game in which he has scored almost as many wins by some form of knockout as he has via submission. The Finnish fighter has the skill set to go far in the UFC’s featherweight division, and a win over such a highly regarded fighter as Yahya is the perfect way in which to announce his arrival in the eight-sided cage.

Potential: Medium to High

Raquel Pennington — unanimous decision victory over Roxanne Modafferi

The first of the TUF ladies to hit the cage, Raquel Pennington and Roxanne Modafferi engaged in a three-round battle that ended with a unanimous verdict in Pennington’s favor. The win marked the fourth official victory of Pennington’s career and put her above the .500 mark.

Pennington was hesitant in the earlier moments of the fight, despite possessing a vastly superior striking arsenal. She needed to establish her boxing and dictate the action in the fight, but she seemed too willing to let Modafferi control the fight instead. Only when she finally grabbed the reins in the stand-up did Pennington excel. She was able to utilize her boxing and ground-and-pound, plus some late submission attempts to turn the tide back in her favor.

Pennington can have a tendency to be slow out of the gates, but she needs to work to reverse this trend. Otherwise, she risks being out of the fight before she ever gets going. The 25-year-old may sport a middling record, but she has suffered two of those losses against the likes of Leslie Smith and Cat Zingano. She may not contend for a title, but Pennington can establish herself as a tough gatekeeper in the women’s bantamweight division.

Potential: Medium

Roxanne Modafferi — unanimous decision loss to Raquel Pennington

Roxanne Modafferi entered the TUF house as one of the most experienced members of the women’s cast. The 31-year-old lost to eventual finalist Jessica Rakoczy in the house, but she was still able to fight at the finale. However, she couldn’t find success against Raquel Pennington, who scored the unanimous decision victory.

Modafferi displayed improved striking in the earlier stages of the fight with Pennington. She dictated the action and seemingly had Pennington a bit confused. Once Pennington did find her rhythm, though, things changed. Modafferi did have her head snapped back on a few occasions, which is not good since her chin has always been a weak point. As the fight progressed, Modafferi also slipped back into her typical habit of allowing opponents to put her on her back. Though she does have a dangerous submission game, it’s more common that she gets dominated when she falls into this position, and that’s exactly what happened against Pennington.

One has to look all the way back to 2010 to find an official win on Modafferi’s record. Her loss to Pennington brought her losing streak to six fights, though her opposition in that stretch consists of past and present champions and contenders. Modafferi can be a challenging opponent for anyone, but the bottom line is that fighters have to win fights to remain on the UFC roster. Modafferi has struggled to do that. Perhaps her status as a fan-favorite will allow her to stick around as a gatekeeper to the women’s bantamweight division, but that’s a big maybe.

Potential: Low

Jessamyn Duke — unanimous decision victory over Peggy Morgan

Jessamyn Duke’s run on TUF 18 ended with a unanimous decision loss to Raquel Pennington in one of the most entertaining fights of the season. Although her fight with Peggy Morgan was not at quite the same level, it did result in a better result for the former model. Duke was able to secure the judges’ decision in a three-round battle, though it was not a performance void of mistakes.

At 5-foot-11, Duke is usually able to use her long frame and reach to her advantage against shorter opponents, but she was actually the shorter fighter against Morgan, who had previously fought at 145 pounds and stands 6-foot-1. Duke was still able to find some success in the Thai clinch and displayed crisp striking. On the ground, she was able to set Morgan up for submission attempts, but she also made a poor choice that allowed Morgan to take her back at one point.

Duke’s size and reach is an asset, but she needs to continue to evolve her striking and submission game to take advantage of that. She also needs to avoid miscues in her ground game. She was fortunate to survive when Morgan took her back, and she wouldn’t have been so lucky against an opponent with better mat skills. Duke is still undefeated and could go far in the UFC, but it’s more likely that she’ll settle in as a mid-tier fighter who wins a few before running into a superior striker or grappler that can overwhelm her.

Potential: Medium

Peggy Morgan — unanimous decision loss to Jessamyn Duke

The Peggy Morgan that defeated Bethany Marshall to make it into the TUF house is the Morgan that could go far in the UFC. However, the Morgan that lost to Sarah Moras in the house and dropped a unanimous decision to Jessamyn Duke at the finale is the Morgan we can more likely expect.

When Morgan is at her best, she’s using her size to her advantage. She was able to do so against Marshall, but Marshall was a flyweight fighting up in weight for the reality series, whereas Morgan was dropping from featherweight. Against natural bantamweights, Morgan has failed to use that size. Instead, Moras and Duke exposed Morgan’s tendency to crumble on the mat. Duke threatened Morgan with submissions and was able to survive despite Morgan taking her back. Morgan looked awkward in her attempts to do anything from Duke’s back and couldn’t maintain the superior position for long.

With her ground game standing as a liability, Morgan needs to feature an overwhelming striking attack, but she was neutralized on the feet against Duke and let too many strikes through.

Morgan has thrived in a featherweight division that is severely lacking in high-level talent. At bantamweight, she’ll encounter a significantly deeper pool of talent. She may be able to use her size against inexperienced or low-level foes, but she’s going to struggle against the best the division has to offer.

Potential: Low

Chris Holdsworth — second-round submission victory over Davey Grant

Team Alpha Male has been a source of much success this year, and now it can add an Ultimate Fighter trophy to its list of achievements, courtesy of Chris Holdsworth. Holdsworth captured the honor with a second-round rear-naked choke submission of Davey Grant in the men’s bantamweight TUF finals.

Holdsworth is known for his jiu-jitsu, but throughout the TUF season and in the fight with Grant, he has demonstrated a sneaky power to his striking attack. He has been able to rattle opponents and then go in for the kill. Against Grant, he deftly transitioned to Grant’s back and wrapped up the choke for the finish.

Holdsworth’s combination of high-level grappling and surprising power makes him one of the more promising recent male TUF winners. It’s quite possible that he’ll follow in the footsteps of many Team Alpha Male fighters before him and challenge for a belt, but even if he doesn’t, he’ll certainly settle in as a UFC mainstay.

Potential: Medium

Davey Grant — second-round submission loss to Chris Holdsworth

Every TUF final has a winner and a loser, and this season, it was British fighter Davey Grant who emerged on the losing end. He fell victim to Chris Holdsworth via a second-round rear-naked choke.

Grant displayed good takedown defense for a British fighter, but he could not get the better of Holdsworth on the feet and was too willing to go to the ground with the Team Alpha Male product. Though Grant tends to pick up his wins by way of submission, he was outmatched by Holdsworth in the grappling department. Unfortunately, things weren’t any better in the stand-up, where Holdsworth landed punches and a jaw-rattling kick.

Grant is a better example of what has become the norm for The Ultimate Fighter. He’s good enough to battle his way through a house full of similarly skilled fighters, but he will struggle to find the same levels of success inside the Octagon. He should hang on for a few more fights in the UFC, but he’s not going to out-strike opponents and he’s going to meet adversaries who won’t fall victim to his ground game quite as easily. Perhaps he’ll be able to win enough fights to hang on in the UFC, but he’s highly unlikely to ever flirt with contender status.

Potential: Low to Medium

Jessica Rakoczy — first-round TKO loss to Julianna Pena

Jessica Rakoczy may have been one of the biggest surprises from the women’s half of The Ultimate Fighter. A former pro boxer with a 33-3 record, she entered the TUF house with a 1-3 MMA record. She rode a string of impressive wins into the TUF finals, but she fell victim to a first-round TKO at the hands of Julianna Pena in that final encounter.

Rakoczy’s boxing background still stands as her strong suit. If she can overwhelm opponents with strikes or control a technical stand-up bout, she can find success. However, Pena didn’t allow her to settle into that type of fight. Rakoczy struggles when on bottom, and that’s where Pena put her before raining down punches for the finish.

Unless Rakoczy develops a strong jiu-jitsu game from her back or improves her takedown defense, she’s going to continue to lose fights on the mat. The 36-year-old viewed TUF as possibly her last chance at making a run in MMA, and with the loss, retirement might be in her near future.

Potential: Low

Julianna Pena — first-round TKO victory over Jessica Rakoczy

You don’t have to like a fighter, but you have to respect their skills and heart. Julianna Pena demonstrated her heart and determination throughout the TUF season, and her skills carried her to some surprising victories. Pena concluded that run on Saturday night with a first-round TKO stoppage of Jessica Rakoczy to make history as the first female Ultimate Fighter in history.

Pena’s grinding approach hasn’t changed since her upset victory over Shayna Baszler in the season’s first fight. Pena continued to press forward and stay in her opponent’s face in every fight, including her TKO win over Rakoczy.

Pena was on a two-fight skid when she entered into the TUF house, but she avenged one of those losses while on the reality show and displayed the most consistent game of any of the ladies in the house. The 24-year-old certainly made leaps in her evolution as a fighter during her time on TUF, and she’s young enough to enjoy a long future in the UFC. Opponents tend to underestimate her, which might be one of her best assets. It may be a few years down the road, but Pena will likely contend for a belt at some point during her career, and as the first-ever female TUF winner, she’s a lock to remain with the organization for the foreseeable future.

Potential: Medium to High

Photo: Tom Niinimaki (L) delivers a kick (Esther Lin/MMA Fighting)

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