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El Dirte Diary - Elimination Fights

By Brett Auten | Knuckle Junkies

"The Ultimate Fighter" season 23 kicked off Wednesday night with a special two-hour episode with 32 competitors (16 women strawweights and 16 men light heavyweights) battling for a spot on the show. This season the coaches will be UFC strawweight champion Joanna Jedrzejczyk along with top-ranked contender Claudia Gadelha.

The next 11 episodes air on FS1, Wednesdays at 9:00 PM local time. Each week showcases a fight between the male and female competitors with the winner of each tournament fight advancing toward the ultimate of goal of fighting in the season finale live Friday, July 8th in Las Vegas. The finale will air on Fox Sports 1 and be headlined by a world title fight between coaches Jedrzejczyk and Gadelha

The St. Louis region was represented on both sides as Ashley "Smashley" Cummins competed for the women and Andrew 'El Dirte' Sanchez competed for the men. Cummins, a St. Louis County Police Officer, trains out of the Wolves' Den and Sanchez, who grew up in Illinois, cut his teeth in the area, making his pro debut for Cage Championships and winning his RFA middleweight world championship in August at the Chase Park Plaza.

Cummins came up short in her chance to make it into the Ultimate Fighter house, losing to Lanchana Green. Cummins was dominant in the first round, getting an early takedown, made it to side control and dropped some nice elbows and left hands. Cummins took her back and continued to work in punches while in half guard. Cummins got to mount briefly and returned to back, working a rear naked choke until the end of the bell. In the second round, Green defended the single leg and delivered a knee to Cummins' midsection. Green landed more knees in bunches and earned the TKO win.

Sanchez secured his place in the house, defeating Phillip Hawes, making him just the fourth fighter from our area (joining Michael Johnson, Justin Lawrence, and Adam Cella) to make it past the elimination round. Sanchez was the No. 1 male pick when Gadelha tabbed him for her squad.

Hawes, out of the famed Jackson-Wink camp in Albuquerque, N.M., was talked up as the next big superstar out of the gym but Sanchez wasn't having it.

Sanchez did a good job stuffing the takedown and dropped dozens and dozens of elbows in the first round. In the second round, Sanchez continued to shut Hawes down and did a solid job controlling the fight.

Knuckle Junkies was able to catch up with Sanchez after last night's airing for a quick Q&A. Look for additional check-ins with El Dirte from time-to-time as the season progresses.

KJ: There was plenty of hype around your opponent (Hawes) yet in the highlights you seemed unphased and controlled the fight from the onset. What do you think the difference was and why were you able to get your hand raised?

AS: "I think with Phil it was more of mental strength than physical. I knew how to control the fight in all situations. I'm comfortable wherever it goes. He's so used to destroying everybody, he has big ego. When I shut him down, it mind-f*cked him. He freaked out. I could look in the corner and saw that he was breaking. If you don't know that there's bad sh*t can happen then bad sh*t will happen in there. When he was going for that single leg and landing those elbows, anyone in right mind would get out. He couldn't let go of takedown. He froze up. I was able to keep cool under the pressure."

KJ: Was there a moment in the fight with Hawes that you thought you may have broke him or definitely swayed the fight in your direction?

AS: "I could see the momentum shift. I was tentative in this first round, feeling this guy out. When momentum shifted and I started getting confident and he started shutting down. He had these giant muscles and I knew he would be getting tired and all along I was gaining confidence. I knew I had this mother f*cker. I heard my coaches yelling "you broke him." I felt good. My confidence soared when he started to back up in that second round."

KJ: You have fought on many different stages and environments. What was it like fighting in the close confines of the TUF gym? What can you liken it to and how would you rate the experience?

AS: "That was hardest part of whole process. You're stuck in a hotel. You don't know who you're going to fight. I'm looking around and all of these guys are twice my size. You have to order room service. You're stuck in your own thoughts. Finally at the gym, I'm sitting there and Dana White is calling out these match-ups and we were the last people he called. My heart was pounding. Me and Mr. So-called Superstar. What if I lose? Why did they match me up with this guy first? Everyone is all on this guys' nuts. I started to doubt myself but at the same time it kept me edgier and safe."

KJ: You are the RFA middleweight champion, yet you decided to tryout for TUF at light heavyweight. What went into that decision and were there any concerns going up a weight class?

AS: "There were definitely concerns. I'm not even a big middleweight. I'm not a reality TV guy and I don't know if I want to be put out there like this. My coaches and support team were like, you can win the show. I felt it was my duty as a fighter to not pass up this opportunity."

KJ: You were the No. 1 male pick. What did that do for your confidence heading into the rest of the season?

AS: "It took a lot of stress away. I knew then I was the big dog. I knew I was the lion. Not because I was picked first, but just looking around I knew I could beat all these guys in the room. At the end of the day, the picks don't matter. It's like rankings. It's flattering and made me feel pretty good."

Graphic by Chris Oth