The best UFC on Fox card yet takes place tomorrow from Key Arena in Seattle, Washington. Here are my thoughts on the fights:
UFC lightweight championship: Benson Henderson (17-2, 5-0 UFC) vs. Nate Diaz (16-7, 11-5 UFC)
After earning upset victories over Donald Cerrone and Jim Miller, Nate Diaz has fought his way to a title shot. It’s remarkable how quickly Diaz has ascended from simply being a good UFC fighter with flaws to being a championship contender. However, Diaz’s recent performances have been just as remarkable. Since moving back to lightweight following losses to Dong Hyun Kim and Rory MacDonald, Diaz has put together a three-fight winning streak. During that streak, he smoked former PRIDE champion Takanori Gomi, picked apart Donald Cerrone, and overwhelmed Jim Miller. It wasn’t just that Diaz scored upsets in his last two fights; he looked very impressive in the process.
Of course, Diaz’s problems as a fighter have never been with his boxing, which he used to batter Cerrone, or his jiu-jitsu, which he used to tap out Miller and Gomi. In fact, Diaz might only have one problem as a fighter, but it’s a critical one – his takedown defense. As I explained earlier this week, Diaz does struggle against opponents who land more takedowns. Generally, this results in Diaz losing by decision, and he is seldom (if ever) in true danger of being finished. Right or wrong, the way judges score fights in MMA is to favor the fighter who lands more takedowns, even above the fighter who lands more strikes and attempts more submissions. This is a trend that works against the Diaz brothers.
Unfortunately for Diaz, his opponent in this fight, UFC lightweight champion Benson Henderson, is a fighter who lands takedowns somewhat regularly. According to Fight Metric, Henderson landed just one takedown in ten rounds against Frankie Edgar, but prior to those fights, landed 12 takedowns in nine rounds against Clay Guida, Jim Miller, and Mark Bocek. Miller and Bocek in particular are not known for their takedown defense, but neither is Diaz. If Henderson could land takedowns regularly against those fighters, there’s no reason to think he wouldn’t be successful landing takedowns against Diaz as well.
There are two trends that work in Diaz’s favor, and should give fans of his hope that he can pull off the upset. One is that Diaz is likely the better boxer. Henderson’s striking, to the extent he uses it, does feature some effective boxing, but is also reliant on kicks. If Diaz closes the distance, as he typically does, he could neutralize Henderson’s kicks and force Henderson into a boxing match. Henderson’s likely response would be to execute a takedown, but if Henderson has a poor game plan, and chooses to engage Diaz with punches, Diaz is capable of picking him apart.
The other trend is that Henderson tends to get caught in a lot of submission attempts. This is a natural result of Henderson’s aggression on the ground; Henderson typically is very active in trying to land strikes and advance position. And Henderson is a fighter who is not afraid of being caught in a submission attempt; he’s known for being extremely difficult to finish with a submission hold. But if Nate Diaz wants to beat Henderson, and Henderson chooses to land takedowns, one possible path to victory for Diaz is to put Henderson in so many submission attempts that he either wins on points or convinces Henderson to abandon the takedown.
Based on the fight histories of Henderson and Diaz, I think the following things are going to happen:
• Henderson will go for takedowns regularly on Diaz, and decline to engage in a striking war
• Diaz will attempt multiple submissions on Henderson
• Henderson will shake off all submission attempts, and land some big strikes on the ground
• Henderson will win by decision
Light-heavyweight top contender* match: Alexander Gustafsson (14-1, 6-1 UFC) vs. Mauricio “Shogun” Rua (21-6, 5-4 UFC)
It’s well established that I’m a big fan of both fighters here. Rua is my favorite fighter, period – he brings all the excitement anybody could want, without any of the bravado or bluster. And on the flip side, Alexander Gustafsson is a fighter I’ve been promoting for a while as a potential star in the UFC. This fight represents Gustafsson’s opportunity to prove that he belongs in the upper echelon of the 205 pound division, and Rua’s chance to show that he’s still capable of winning big fights.
Rua’s stint in the UFC as a whole has been somewhat alarming. There have been brilliant performances – his knockouts of Chuck Liddell and Forrest Griffin, his fights with Lyoto Machida – but there have also been disasters. Rua looked just plain ugly in his losses to Griffin and Jon Jones, and wins against Mark Coleman and Brandon Vera.
At this point in his career, Rua is a fighter whose strengths serve to make up for his obvious flaws. Those flaws are a lack of striking defense, and almost unacceptable conditioning. The conditioning problem is a natural result of Rua’s frenetic pace – often, while Rua is exhausted in a fight, so is his opponent. But when Rua’s aggression is ineffective, as was the case against Jones, it leaves Rua as the only one exhausted.
Rua gets away with these glaring flaws by possessing a very strong chin, great striking power, and a lot of mental toughness. These were on display during his war against Dan Henderson at UFC 139, as Rua ate a ton of huge punches, but kept coming back to put Henderson in trouble later in the fight. So it is that Rua is a very dangerous fighter despite his obvious weaknesses. At the same time, the moment Rua’s chin goes from sturdy to unreliable is the moment Rua’s career as a top fighter will come to an end.
Meanwhile, Alexander Gustafsson is a very well-rounded fighter, who might have the ideal skill set to take into the cage to fight Rua. Gustafsson is very good at striking while moving backwards. This, along with Gustafsson’s height (6’5”), could serve to be the perfect antidote to Rua’s constant aggression. If Gustafsson moves well, stays disciplined, and lands strikes while Rua chases him around the cage, he could easily win on points, or perhaps finish by TKO if Rua’s chin has reached the point that it can’t take any more punishment.
It’s also possible that Gustafsson could take Rua to the ground. Gustafsson was already a solid wrestler when he fought Phil Davis (it’s a myth that Gustafsson was weak in this area before that fight), but he’s only gotten better since then. Rua will always be very tricky to deal with on the ground, since he has an arsenal of sweeps and submissions, but Gustafsson might have what it takes to stifle him.
Ultimately, this could be a “changing of the guard” moment in the light-heavyweight division. I think Gustafsson is the better technical striker, the better technical wrestler, and much better conditioned. If he can prevent Rua from knocking him out, I think he stands an excellent chance of winning a decision. That is a big “if,” since Rua is historically one of the best finishers at 205 pounds, but I’ll take Gustafsson by decision in this one.
(*Since this has been billed as a top contender match, I fully expect the winner will NOT get a title shot, and will instead be passed up in favor of Dan Henderson, Phil Davis, or perhaps Urijah Faber.)
Welterweight match: Rory MacDonald (13-1, 4-1 UFC) vs. B.J. Penn (16-8-2, 12-7-2 UFC)
I’ve been swimming against the current on Rory MacDonald for a while now. At the same time a lot of people have been calling him a future champion, I’ve been saying that he’s way overhyped. I even picked Mike Pyle to beat him, which was embarrassing in retrospect. But I’m not about to change my opinion – I don’t think MacDonald is nearly as good as many seem to believe.
First is MacDonald’s record. His UFC wins are as follows: Che Mills, Mike Pyle, Nate Diaz, and Michael Guymon. Diaz is by far the best win on that list, but let’s face it – Diaz is a lightweight, and MacDonald beat him by throwing him around the cage. This is the resume that screams “future champion?”
And I’ll double down by arguing that MacDonald isn’t as good a wrestler as you think either. You may remember MacDonald taking fighters down repeatedly, especially Diaz. But as it turns out, MacDonald’s takedown dominance has taken place against fighters who have very weak takedown defense. This includes Carlos Condit, a fighter MacDonald lost to, and who is known for having weak takedown defense, just like Diaz. Per Fight Metric…
|Opponent||Takedown Defense||MacDonald’s takedown ratio|
In fact, the single fighter MacDonald has faced with the best takedown defense was Mike Pyle. In that fight, it was actually Pyle who landed two takedowns on MacDonald. Of course, that’s hard to remember since the fight was all MacDonald outside of those takedowns.
Playing the part of “washed up veteran” here is former UFC welterweight and lightweight champion B.J. Penn. We know all about Penn by now – he’s an excellent boxer with outstanding jiu-jitsu, and is often undone by awful conditioning. But he also has very good takedowns and takedown defense, to the point that Penn was actually winning the takedown battle against Jon Fitch… before he gassed out. If fights were eight minutes long, Penn might still be a UFC champion.
But consider this – Penn might actually be a better wrestler than MacDonald, along with being the better boxer AND better grappler. Consider that MacDonald’s only chance of winning might be for Penn to gas out again. That puts this fight in a whole different light, doesn’t it?
So I’m going out on a limb (again) and picking a fighter to beat Rory MacDonald (again). Doing the same thing but hoping for different results? Perhaps, but MacDonald has never fought anybody as talented as B.J. Penn is, and as talented as MacDonald is, I think Penn wins in an upset.
Welterweight match: Matt Brown (15-11, 8-5 UFC) vs. Mike Swick (15-4, 10-3 UFC)
At first glance, this might seem like a fight that easily favors Mike Swick. After all, Swick is a fighter who has put together a very strong UFC record, taking on an opponent in Matt Brown whose record is 15-11, and whose UFC career has generally been against fringe opposition. Brown’s current three-fight winning streak is against Chris Cope, Stephen Thompson, and Luis Ramos – not an all-star cast.
But there are serious concerns for Swick. For one, this is Swick’s second fight since his long layoff with health issues, and in his first fight back, he looked very shaky against DaMarques Johnson. Swick ended up winning by knockout, but he easily could have lost that way as well. Swick is also a fighter who tends to stand and strike with his opponents, and that’s not the way to beat Matt Brown. If you want to beat Brown, the way to do it is to take him to the ground and submit him – Brown has lost by submission nine times in his career.
In a striking war, I think either Brown wins by TKO or it goes to close decision. But I’m not going to pick Brown to win a mild upset here, because Swick does have a couple wins by guillotine choke, a method Brown has lost by three times. Swick has just enough submission skill that I’ll side with him to win this fight. But it’s a close one.
Lightweight match: Yves Edwards (41-18-1, 9-6 UFC) vs. Jeremy Stephens (20-8, 7-7 UFC)
Undoubtedly, there are many fans who have fond memories of Yves Edwards being one of the more talented lightweights in the UFC in 2003 and 2004. Many of those fans are likely picking Edwards to win this fight, for nostalgia’s sake if nothing else. But I feel that’s a mistake. Edwards’s wins since returning to the UFC are against Rafaello Oliveira, Cody McKenzie, and John Gunderson. Meanwhile, he’s been knocked out COLD by Sam Stout, whose “Hands of Stone” nickname is known for being ironic more than anything. I think Stephens wins by either decision or TKO.
Bantamweight match: Raphael Assuncao (18-4, 2-1 UFC) vs. Mike Easton (13-1, 3-0 UFC)
Mike Easton is another fighter I feel is overhyped. While some are calling him a future title contender, Easton almost lost to Jared Papazian of all people. Easton is a notoriously slow starter, tends to eat strikes, and doesn’t use his wrestling and ground game enough. Raphael Assuncao is a quality, well-rounded fighter. If Easton is going to effectively give Assuncao the first round, which Easton is known to do, I have to take Assuncao to win in an upset.
Lightweight match: Ramsey Nijem (6-2, 2-1 UFC) vs. Joe Proctor (8-1, 1-0 UFC)
Nijem and Proctor have both looked fairly impressive in the UFC against low-level competition. This fight effectively determines which fighter will advance to take on more established opponents in the lightweight division. Ultimately, I see Nijem as the more talented fighter, and I think he’ll control this one with takedowns and boxing to win a decision.
Lightweight match: Daron Cruickshank (11-2, 1-0 UFC) vs. Henry Martinez (9-2, 1-1 UFC)
Henry Martinez is a great example of the “Riddle effect.” The Riddle effect is when a fighter looks like a fantastic striker because he fought Matt Riddle. When Martinez then fought Bernardo Magalhaes, he won a very unimpressive split decision. Daron Cruickshank is a much more talented striker, and I like him to win this fight.
Lightweight match: Marcus LeVesseur (22-6, 1-1 UFC) vs. Abel Trujillo (9-4, 0-0 UFC)
You have no idea how much I was looking forward to seeing Tim Means fight again. Instead, we get Marcus LeVesseur, a wrestler who lost to Cody McKenzie’s guillotine choke before beating Carlo Prater by split decision. His opponent is Abel Trujillo, who my research has nothing good to say about. Trujillo has an unimpressive record, and on tape, did not appear to have polished boxing or submissions. If this is a battle of wrestlers, LeVesseur is better at it, so I have to pick him to win.
Featherweight match: Nam Phan (18-10, 2-3 UFC) vs. Dennis Siver (20-8, 9-5 UFC)
I’m a big fan of the matchmaking for this event for most of the fights, but when I see fights like this one, it makes me agree with Quinton Jackson’s idea that Joe Silva “can’t match shoes.” It’s not because Phan has no chance – I could definitely see Phan winning this fight on points. It’s that this fight makes no sense. Why is an established contender like Siver fighting Nam Phan? As for the fight, I have to take Siver to win, either on points or by knockout.
Bantamweight match: John Albert (7-3, 1-2 UFC) vs. Scott Jorgensen (13-6, 2-2 UFC)
Albert’s a fun fighter to watch, but he’s biting off more than he can chew here. Jorgensen’s stock is down after losses to Renan Barao and Eddie Wineland, but those are two of the better fighters in the bantamweight division. Jorgensen is still a great wrestler with a decent jab and straight punch. I see him neutralizing Albert’s offense and winning by TKO or decision.