TheMMAReport’s preview of The Ultimate Fighter: Nations continues with a look at Team Australia’s middleweights.
Tyler Manawaroa (10-0)
Tyler Manawaroa is a hard fighter to forget. He has his last name tattooed across his abdomen in case that slips your mind, and he has a 10-0 record that’s impressiveness is heightened by the fact that he’s only 19 years old. Needless to say, if you plan on doing a list of the top Australian prospects, it’s difficult to forget Tyler Manawaroa.
Since starting his professional career in 2011, Manawaroa has submitted six of his opponents – five in the first frame – and knocked out three of them. The combined record of Manawaroa’s ten opponents is 24-41-1, so his level of competition thus far is a bit concerning.
Something that’s been common amongst past seasons of The Ultimate Fighter is that coaches brought some of their training partners on the show, and this is the case with Manawaroa who trains with Team Australia coach Kyle Noke.
Like most young MMA fighters, Manawaroa is well-rounded in all areas. He has blended his striking with his wrestling and jiu-jitsu effectively thus far in his career. What I would consider the strong point in his game would be the jiu-jitsu. Manawaroa has a tremendous sense of when to attempt a submission, and he is usually successful in scrambles.
When I analyze prospects, one of the first things I look at is rate of progression. Great fighters like Michael McDonald, Jon Jones, and Chris Weidman have shown an ability to increase their skill level at a ridiculous pace. Thus far, Manawaroa has displayed that type of rate of improvement, but he has yet to showcase it against UFC-caliber fighters. He’ll have the opportunity to prove himself on TUF: Nations.
Daniel Kelly (5-0)
After what feels like a thousand seasons of The Ultimate Fighter, one would assume that we’ve seen everything, but Daniel Kelly will be the first ever four-time Olympian to compete on the show.
Kelly was on the Australian judo team in the 2000, 2004, 2008, and 2012 Olympics. His resume in judo blows the other judo competitors on the cast out of the water. The answer to the question of has he successfully integrated his judo into MMA is a resounding yes.
Since returning to mixed martial arts competition in 2012, Kelly has submitted Chris Birch and Kym Robinson, knocked out Bor Bratovz, and outpointed Fabio Galeb to win a unanimous decision. His most recent victories over Bratovz and Birch took place in AFC, which is – based on the amount of Australians with AFC experience on the cast – one the Australian promotions that UFC brass keeps tabs on.
Even though he possesses an outstanding judo base, Kelly has displayed his stand-up arsenal in a lot of his fights, and it’s not shabby. He’s a tad slow, but his defense is fundamentally sound and consistently sharp. With that being said, he’s going to have to go back to his foundation of judo to dominate his foes within the clinch and with throws.
At 36 years-old, age does become a question when discussing Kelly’s long-term outlook as a fighter, although the amount of success he has had thus far in martial arts makes him one of the more dangerous contenders in the middleweight bracket.
Vik Grujic (6-2)
When you hear the story of Vik Grujic, it’s hard not to root him. The 36 year-old Bruce Lee fanatic survived a battle with thyroid cancer, and now has the opportunity to become an employee of the premier mixed martial arts promotion.
In the MMA world, it’s been a rough past two years for Grujic as he has lost two of his last three fights, but a 2013 victory over Daniel Way at AFC 5 seems to have been enough to earn him a slot on TUF: Nations.
Against Daniel Way, Grujic was able to secure the first two rounds convincingly with his wrestling. Even though Way was able to get back up to the feet and land some clean combinations, Grujic was took him down time and again and rained down a steady diet of ground and pound.
The blueprint in the Way fight will likely be the one Grujic follows on The Ultimate Fighter. He’ll have to grind out fights by working his opponents against the cage and pursuing takedowns with his second and third efforts on attempts. Grujic does have powerful striking, but he tends to get hit with unnecessary strikes due to defensive issues.
It’s fantastic that a fighter who has faced a serious amount of adversity like Grujic is finally getting his shot on The Ultimate Fighter. Whether or not he achieves his MMA goals is yet to be determined, but his pursuit is certainly worth watching.
Zein Saliba (4-0)
The Australian middleweight portion of Kyle Noke’s team is rounded out with Zein Saliba. In his most recent fight, Saliba defeated his TUF teammate, Vik Grujic, with a unanimous decision. A potential rematch in the house would surely play out differently since the fight took place last December.
Having finished half of his opponents with a submission, it’s no secret that Saliba has made a habit out of turning fights into grappling contests. Saliba has solid takedowns and is brilliant at passing positions. He’s also tough to get out from underneath of. Overall, he’s just a menace from the top position.
The Achilles heel of Saliba’s game would have to be his stand-up. When he’s picking his shots, Saliba is fine, but he runs into trouble when he gets sucked into wild exchanges. Saliba could have some issues against the better strikers in the cast.