In TUF seasons past, the strategy has been to pick off the weaker fighters in the early bouts. But bantamweight champ and current coach Dominick Cruz flipped the script last week when he had control of the matchups. Instead of finding an easy mark, he pitted his top pick - Black House MMA kickboxer Justin Lawrence - against Team Faber's Cristiano Marcello, a Gracie BJJ black belt who's trained Chute Boxe fighters like Wanderlei Silva and Shogun Rua.
"By choosing Marcello and Lawrence, I'm making both those athletes better fighters, because they weren't expecting it," explained Cruz. "There's a lot of eyes on these guys and that's the type of pressure that builds champions."
When it came up to living up to the pressure, 21-year-old Lawrence did not disappoint, meting out his strikes before finishing with a knockout at 3:16 of the second round. The defeat also took down Team Faber's second pick, which Cruz described as the strategic equivalent of "taking out one of their legs."
The first round was a slow feeling-out period: Marcello planted in the center of the cage and Lawrence circled and feinted, trying to find his range on the Brazilian with a 5-inch reach advantage. Combos were few and far between as fighters lobbed single punches and kicks with increasing success as the round wore on, one push kick from Lawrence knocking Marcello onto the mat.
The action heated up in the second, as Lawrence came out with an array of kicks like the ones he wielded impressively in the series premiere. More comfortable with his range, Lawrence's mission was to get in, strike, then move out of danger before he could get taken down into Marcello's world.
Lawrence easily tossed his opponent to the mat once from the clinch and later in the round knocked him down with a left hook. Though Marcello tried to goad Lawrence into playing on the ground, Lawrence refused, forcing the jiu-jitsu player and oldest competitor on the show to stand back up and chase him around the cage.
As the round wore on, Marcello appeared increasingly tired. With Faber yelling for his fighter to keep his chin down, Lawrence began landing his signature left hook at will, each time moving quickly backward to avoid getting tied up -- which also gave Marcello no chance to recover from the peppering punches. Dazed from a good half dozen or so left hooks, Marcello was finally finished with another that laid him out flat on his back.
"I'm sad for sure, I wanted to bring the victory for Faber's team," said the disappointed 34-year-old post-loss, though he had kind words for his opponent.. "He's a great kid and he has a great future."
Lawrence returned the praise, saying "He's a legend, he's got the most experience in the house, and he's a champion." Hear more from Lawrence after his win.