I’ll be heading out of town for the next week and a half, and won’t have access to this blog, so I decided to just get my preview post and predictions out now. In the likely event that injuries force changes or cancellations to some or all of these fights, I apologize in advance for my inability to break those fights down.
UFC heavyweight championship match: Junior dos Santos (15-1, 9-0 UFC) vs. Cain Velasquez (10-1, 8-1 UFC)
It seems like last month I was writing about how excited I was to watch Junior dos Santos take on Cain Velasquez in the first UFC broadcast on network television. I saw it as an evenly matched battle between two very aggressive heavyweights, who were going to clash until one of them went down.
Clash they did, but it only took 64 seconds for Cain Velasquez to go down, as dos Santos clubbed him with an awkward overhand right to win the UFC heavyweight championship. Now that dos Santos and Velasquez are set to rematch, I feel a little bit differently about how they match up.
Dos Santos is a very good boxer who has mastered the art of landing hard strikes on his opponents without eating strikes in return. He takes the center of the cage, moves forward aggressively, and mixes up powerful punches, landing to both the head and body of his opponent. He succeeds in his aggressive movement by also possessing fantastic takedown defense; dos Santos has very rarely been taken down in his MMA career, and when he does go down, it’s typically only seconds before he gets right back on his feet.
When I sift through the data on dos Santos, I’m left at a loss as to what his weakness as a fighter is, or if he has one at all. If I really wanted to nitpick, perhaps I would say that he can be countered, and is only good at avoiding his opponent’s strikes, as opposed to being amazing at it, like Anderson Silva or Lyoto Machida. Dos Santos does have one loss by submission, but that was very early in his career; many great fighters have been submitted by somebody random in their early career, and this shouldn’t be held against dos Santos. From what I can see, there are no holes in his game.
Facing dos Santos is Cain Velasquez, a wrestler who has transitioned to mixed martial arts about as well as any wrestler ever has. Like dos Santos, Velasquez has a very aggressive and effective boxing game, although his defense standing is closer to average than good. But what defines Velasquez are his takedowns and ground and pound. Velasquez takes his opponents to the ground early and often, and when he does so, he typically wastes no time in establishing top position and tearing his opponents apart. Ask Antonio Silva, a top ten heavyweight who was decimated by the ground and pound of Velasquez back in May.
But while I felt this fight was a toss-up 13 months ago, now I have to favor dos Santos. That’s because dos Santos’s best strength as a fighter – his high rate of power punches – corresponds nicely to Velasquez’s glaring weakness as a fighter: his chin. When Velasquez was staggered multiple times by Cheick Kongo at UFC 99, I didn’t think too much of it. After all, Kongo is a striker, and Velasquez was still early on in his MMA career at that point. But when Velasquez was knocked out by dos Santos, that seemed to confirm that Velasquez does not have the ability to take punches very well. Until that KO loss, Velasquez was able to hide this weakness by using his wrestling to completely stifle the offense of his opponents.
And while dos Santos’s biggest strength corresponds to Velasquez’s biggest weakness, I have no idea if Velasquez will be able to use his best asset – his takedowns and wrestling prowess – to neutralize the game of dos Santos. Again, dos Santos is rarely taken down, and perhaps has never been taken down and held down in an MMA fight.
It’s possible that Velasquez will succeed where others have failed, and find a way to take Junior dos Santos down and control him on the ground. It’s also possible that Velasquez can hit dos Santos in the right spot with a power punch, and win by knockout. But if he is able to accomplish either of those things, he’ll be the first. Until a fighter manages to show that there is a hole in the game of dos Santos, I have to pick him to win. Dos Santos by knockout.
Lightweight match: Joe Lauzon (22-7, 9-4 UFC) vs. Jim Miller (21-4, 10-3 UFC)
For a while, the criticism I and many others had about Joe Lauzon was his lack of wins against UFC-caliber talent. At one point, Lauzon’s list of UFC wins included Curt Warburton, Gabe Ruediger, Jeremy Stephens, Kyle Bradley, and Jason Reinhardt. Of those five, only Stephens has had anything close to a prolonged or successful UFC career. Since then, Lauzon has strengthened his resume with wins over Melvin Guillard and Jamie Varner, although he also lost by KO to Anthony Pettis.
Make no mistake about Lauzon – he’s an average UFC lightweight who is being promoted as a title contender. Lauzon is very aggressive, and his fights rarely go to decision, but sometimes, his aggression works against him. That was the case in his UFC 123 fight against George Sotiropoulos, where Lauzon faded before being submitted in the second round.
I don’t think Lauzon’s aggression will work against Jim Miller. Miller is coming off the worst performance of his career in a loss to Nate Diaz, but his ability to defend submissions should be a great asset here. Usually, when Lauzon wins, it’s when he can take a dominant position on the ground early, use strikes to force the opponent into a mistake, and submit him. That’s not happening against Miller, a very tough fighter who is very hard to submit. Sure, Diaz did it, but he did it with a relentless attack over most of two rounds; Lauzon is usually breathing very heavily by the end of the second round.
Lauzon might put together a series of strikes and submission techniques that finish Miller early. I think it’s a lot more likely that Miller calmly weathers an early storm, and controls most of the fight with superior striking and grappling. I’ll take Miller to win by submission here.
Middleweight match: Tim Boetsch (16-4, 7-3 UFC) vs. Costa Philippou (11-2, 4-1 UFC)
When this fight was originally scheduled as Boetsch vs. Chris Weidman, I immediately chalked it up as a win for Weidman. Boetsch can be dangerous in a number of ways, but he’s also a fighter who’s been winning by the skin of his teeth. In his last fight, Boetsch won a close decision against Hector Lombard, and only seemed to win due to Lombard’s relative lack of activity. In the fight before that, Boetsch clearly lost two rounds to Yushin Okami before delivering a sensational comeback. It’s been a “Cinderella” run for Boetsch… and now, with Costa Philippou as his opponent, the run might last one more fight.
There’s a lot I like about Philippou, and a lot I don’t like as well. I like Philippou’s competent boxing, improved takedown defense, and all-around game. I like that he trains with Matt Serra and Ray Longo, the same men who train Weidman. What I don’t like is that Philippou doesn’t have great power, and doesn’t have great defense, either. Outside of a TKO win over Jared Hamman (which says nothing about Philippou’s power), Philippou’s wins have all been close. He won a split decision against Jorge Rivera, and competitive unanimous decisions against Court McGee and Riki Fukuda.
Boetsch isn’t the most polished striker, but he can be effective, and he hits harder than Philippou does. If the fight goes the distance, I think it will be close, but I favor Boetsch. Since I also think Boetsch is more likely to win by knockout than Philippou is, he has to be my choice to win. Boetsch by decision.
Middleweight match: Alan Belcher (18-6, 9-4 UFC) vs. Yushin Okami (27-7, 11-4 UFC)
Belcher is a fighter who has recently been winning despite glaring holes in his game. Against Wilson Gouveia, Belcher won by TKO, but took a surprising amount of strikes in just three minutes. Against Patrick Cote, Belcher was in a very close fight before he suddenly slammed Cote on his head and subsequently won by rear naked choke. In his most recent fight, Belcher was taken down by Rousimar Palhares, who quickly grabbed Belcher’s leg and tried to bend it in all sorts of unnatural ways. It’s a credit to Belcher that he was able to defend those submission attempts, but the problem is that he allowed Palhares to put him in that situation in the first place.
Namely, Belcher’s problems are his striking defense and takedown defense. He can get away with those flaws against fighters like Gouveia, Cote, Jason MacDonald, and even Palhares, but I doubt he can get away with those flaws against Yushin Okami. Okami is the kind of fighter who will fight at a slow pace, and attack when Belcher makes a mistake. I can easily see Okami catching one of Belcher’s kicks, and using that to land a takedown. I can easily see Okami scoring a bunch of points by landing jabs and straight punches. I think this is where Belcher’s ascent in the middleweight division is stopped. Okami by decision.
Middleweight match: Derek Brunson (9-2, 0-0 UFC) vs. Chris Leben (22-8, 12-7 UFC)
A lot of people like Derek Brunson and think he can be a good middleweight in the UFC. I don’t see it. Brunson’s wins are against fighters like Nate James and Lumumba Sayers – fighters who are decent, but probably not worthy of the UFC. Most damning is that Brunson was knocked out in his last fight by Ronaldo “Jacare” Souza, a fighter who previously had no wins by knockout in 18 fights. If Souza can knock out Brunson, so can Chris Leben. Leben by KO.
Bantamweight match: Brad Pickett (22-6, 2-1 UFC) vs. Eddie Wineland (19-8-1, 1-2 UFC)
The most evenly matched fight on the card in my opinion. Pickett’s advantages are that he fights at a higher pace than Wineland, and is more aggressive at landing takedowns. Wineland’s advantages are better defensive striking and takedown defense, and better KO power. I think Pickett’s relative aggression will serve him well, and he’ll land just enough strikes and takedowns to win a close decision. But I can easily be talked into picking Wineland instead.
Bantamweight match: Byron Bloodworth (6-2, 0-1 UFC) vs. Erik Perez (12-4, 2-0 UFC)
Perez is off to a great start in the UFC, with first round finishes of John Albert and Ken Stone. I was looking forward to his third UFC fight being against an established veteran at 135 pounds. Instead, his opponent is Byron Bloodworth, who was knocked out by Mike Easton in his UFC debut last year. Bloodworth might have one of the best last names in the sport, but he’s the perfect example of a fighter I feel should have proved himself more on the regional circuit before getting a shot in the UFC. Until Bloodworth proves he belongs, I have to take Perez to win by submission.
Lightweight match: Melvin Guillard (30-11-2, 11-7 UFC) vs. Jamie Varner (20-7-1, 1-1 UFC)
Let’s try this again…
Varner is a very aggressive fighter who wins by submission more often than not. Guillard is a very aggressive fighter who wins by knockout more often than not. Unfortunately for Guillard, he has a long history of losing by submission, and Varner has never been knocked out. Varner by submission.
Lightweight match: Michael Johnson (12-6, 4-2 UFC) vs. Myles Jury (10-0, 1-0 UFC)
While most people see this as an easy fight for Michael Johnson, I think people are underrating Myles Jury. I agree in that I think Jury should have gotten an opponent who is a little lower on the UFC totem pole. But Jury is a good wrestler whose wins are primarily by submission, and Johnson has had trouble on the ground in the past. In the end, though, Johnson is the better striker with more power, and his takedown defense should be good enough to stifle Jury. I’ll take Johnson by decision, but say that Jury has a lot of upset potential here.
Heavyweight match: Phil De Fries (9-1, 2-1 UFC) vs. Todd Duffee (7-2, 1-1 UFC)
Phil De Fries might have the most unimpressive 2-1 record in the UFC. His wins were over Rob Broughton and Oli Thompson, and his loss was a first-minute knockout against Stipe Miocic. Todd Duffee is a flawed fighter, but he really should be able to win by first-round KO in this one. Duffee by KO.
Flyweight match: Chris Cariaso (14-3, 4-1 UFC) vs. John Moraga (12-1, 1-0 UFC)
This is a very good fight that’s likely to be overlooked. I’m very impressed with what I saw of Moraga on tape – he’s a good, aggressive striker with a strong wrestling background. He also has a good ground game, and his only loss was by decision to John Dodson – no shame there. Cariaso can win this fight if he keeps it at distance and picks Moraga apart with kicks, but I think it’s more likely that Moraga lands more strikes and takedowns. Moraga by decision.
Featherweight match: Leonard Garcia (15-9-1, 1-3 UFC) vs. Max Holloway (6-1, 2-1 UFC)
When Garcia was supposed to face Cody McKenzie, I had a real dilemma on my hands. Am I actually going to pick Leonard Garcia to win a UFC fight in 2012? Then McKenzie got injured and was replaced by Max Holloway. Crisis averted. Holloway is far and away the better boxer than Garcia is. Holloway by decision.