Phillipe Nover was the first to hit the ground when Season 8 of "The Ultimate Fighter" started. But he could be the last lightweight standing in the reality TV show's finale Saturday night in Las Vegas.
The 24-year-old nurse from New York fainted seconds into the opening episode as UFC president Dana White was about to launch into his welcome. Nover, who cited the Vegas heat for the collapse, watched the rest of White's introduction from a chair after regaining his equilibrium. The other 31 fighters stood.
It was the only moment of weakness Nover portrayed during the series. He thrashed every fighter he faced and is looking to make it four straight TUF wins when he takes on 22-year-old Efrain Escudero at The Palms in Las Vegas (9 p.m. ET).
Ryan Bader faces Vinny Magalhaes in the light-heavyweight final of the Team Nogueira versus. Team Mir season.
The winners earn a contract to fight in the UFC, joining the likes of Forrest Griffin, Diego Sanchez, Joe Stevenson, Rashad Evans, Kendall Grove, Michael Bisping, Nate Diaz, Mac Danzig and Amir Sadollah.
Season 8 was long on childish pranks and attitude - bad boy Junie Browning got loads of face time - but it was short on originality. So it's no surprise that producers are looking to shake up the series next time out by having a team of American fighters square off against a crew of Brits.
Still the four Season 8 finalists all bear watching in the cage.
And while the TV show format may be getting old, it continues to produce a stream of talent that is making its mark in the UFC.
Griffin, winner of Season 1, is the current light-heavyweight champion and is due to meet Season 2 winner Rashad Evans on Dec. 27 at UFC 92. Stevenson has already fought for the lightweight championship while Bisping is being groomed for a middleweight title shot.
And Nover (whose first name is pronounced Phil-E-pay) is widely seen as the latest TUF star, although Escudero is no pushover.
White and coach Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira have compared Nover to middleweight champion Anderson Silva, mainly because both Silva and Nover are fun-loving individuals outside the cage who throw on the mean switch when they fight.
"When that cage door slams shut, I'm going to be thinking that I'm the predator and he's the prey," Nover said before his opening fight on the show against Joe Duarte. "I'm going to have dinner."
Nover did exactly that, battering Duarte with knees in the clinch. And when the fight went to the ground late in the first round and Duarte took his back looking for a choke, Nover calmly reached back over his shoulder and punched Duarte in the face 17 times with his right hand. Duarte had the dominant position but finished the round bleeding.
"That kid hits like a heavyweight, man," said Nogueira, who as interim UFC heavyweight champion, would know.
Next time out, Nover battered Dave Kaplan to the ground, took his back and choked him out in little more than minute.
"I am the toughest registered nurse on the plane right now," an exuberant Nover said.
Taping of the show ended some six months ago and Nover has cut back his nursing duties from 50 to 60 hours a week to eight. He has also gone from the stress of working in the ER to more relaxed hospital duties.
The rest of the time he trains.
Like the other fighters, Nover had to stay mum on what happened on the show until each episode aired.
"It was very difficult," he said in an interview. "Because when I came back (to New York), I was like in this crazy training mode and I couldn't tell people why. Even when I got back, I couldn't even say I was on the show until the show started airing. It was just a whole big secret I had to lock in."
The show went into production in late May, with 16 of the 32 original fighters spending six weeks locked away in a Las Vegas mansion with no TV, books, telephones, Internet - or any contact with the outside world. They got to leave in late June, with the show going to air in mid-September.
Nover went back to New York. Escudero returned to Arizona, where he attends Grand Canyon University.
A former Arizona champion high school wrestler, Escudero showed he is strong and smart in registering three submission wins on the show. On the bottom, he lured Shane Nelson into thinking he could pass guard and then locked a triangle choke on him.
Nover is a black belt in jiu-jitsu while Escudero, who has not gone the belt route, says he has been told he is at brown belt level. Both are well-rounded fighters but Nover will have a three-inch reach advantage and the strikes to make it pay. The battle may be decided on the ground.
The two took different routes to the show. Nover (5-0-1) was passed over for Seasons 2 and 7 and won his way onto Season 8 after impressing in tryouts held in Boston.
After surviving the taped portion of the show, he enjoyed a quiet moment of being alone in the know when he stopped in front of Madison Square Garden upon his return to New York. Up high was a Spike TV ad on a billboard that asked "Who's the Next Ultimate Fighter?"
"And I stood there for 10 minutes and nobody knew anything," he said with a chuckle.
Escudero, with a 10-0 record, was more of a known quantity going into the series. He interviewed on the phone and was accepted into the cast after going to Las Vegas for another round of interviews.
He knew what to expect inside the house, given his friendships with former cast members Andy Wang, Joe Lauzon, Jesse Forbes and C.B. Dolloway.
Escudero still goes to school, studying criminal justice and sociology in the morning before turning his focus to training. A bit of a thrill junkie, he hopes to get into law enforcement after his fighting days. He has his eye on SWAT.
"I don't want to be a guy that sits behind a desk," he said dryly.
Escudero and Nover both normally walks around at 170 pounds, cutting down to 155 to fight. The TV show marked Nover's first venture at that weight, after stints at welterweight (170) and middleweight (185)
Nover, who used to be heavily into weight-lifting, weighed as much as 200 pounds in his late teens.
"That was basically like a guerilla suit. It was unnecessary weight," he said. "Now I feel just as powerful as I was at 185, as I am at 155 except I'm faster now."
Both members of Team Nogueira, Nover and Escudero are well-rounded fighters who got on well during the show.
"We cooked together, cleaned together, we slept in the same room," said Nover. "He was a teammate. He really acted like a nice guy. And I respect him as a fighter and as a person. It's going to be an honour to fight him. He knows it and I know it, when the cage doors shuts, it's just business. It's nothing personal."
Said Escudero: "I respect the guy but once we step into the Octagon it's time for us to rock and roll."