UFC 155 Preview and Predictions

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.

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UFC on FX 6 Preview and Predictions

Know that because this fight card features a lot of fighters making their UFC debut, I’ll be relying on statistics and brief scouting sessions for a few of my picks. Some of them are probably best taken with a grain of salt.

Featherweight match: Ross Pearson (13-6, 5-3 UFC) vs. George Sotiropoulos (14-4, 7-2 UFC)

The main event of UFC on FX 6 features the two coaches of The Ultimate Fighter: The Smashes, as UK coach Ross Pearson will be taking on Australian coach George Sotiropoulos.

I feel Pearson has key advantages that will make it difficult for Sotiropoulos to win this fight. One is that, if this fight is standing, I think it clearly favors Pearson. Sotiropoulos has had some success with his boxing, but generally against opponents who are poor strikers. Pearson may have been knocked out in his last fight, but he’s a better striker than most of the fighters Sotiropoulos has faced in the UFC, and has a much better chance of finishing with strikes. The other advantage is that Sotiropoulos is likely to have difficulty getting Pearson to the ground.

Pearson has very solid takedown defense. He was taken down a few times by Junior Assuncao, but it seems all Assuncao did in that fight was try to take Pearson to the ground. Sotiropoulos might bring that kind of determination to this fight, but if most of this fight is defined by Sotiropoulos trying and failing to land a takedown, that’s not something that bodes well for him. Now, if Sotiropoulos does succeed in getting the fight to the ground, he will probably be in control. Pearson doesn’t have a long history of being out-grappled, but he hasn’t really fought any grapplers either.

I like Pearson to win as a very slight underdog (might be the favorite by the time of the fight). When Sotiropoulos put together seven consecutive wins in the UFC, his wins were defined by his ability to get the fights to the ground and impose his terrific submission game on his opponents. Pearson profiles as a fighter Sotiropoulos will have a difficult time doing that to, so I’ll take Pearson to win by decision.

Middleweight match: Hector Lombard (31-3-1, 0-1 UFC) vs. Rousimar Palhares (14-4, 7-3 UFC)

Palhares is a very talented fighter, but bizarre things happen in his fights sometimes. Against Alan Belcher, Palhares did everything but finish his trademark heel hook, but the moment he lost it, it almost seemed as if he said “OK. My heel hook didn’t work. You can finish me off now.” The same thing happened against Nate Marquardt; the moment Palhares lost the heel hook, he looked to referee Herb Dean in disbelief and promptly got knocked out.

The point is that I really doubt Hector Lombard is going to lose this fight by heel hook. Lombard has excellent judo, and has never been stopped in a 35 fight MMA career. He’s probably going to force Palhares into a striking match, and while Palhares has heavy hands, I don’t like him to out-point Lombard over a three-round fight. Perhaps Palhares could win a decision based on Lombard just being relatively inactive, as happened at UFC 149 (although I disagreed with the decision that gave Boetsch the win in that fight). On the flip side, Lombard could just win by knockout. That’s my pick – Lombard by KO.

Welterweight match: Brad Scott (8-1, 0-0 UFC) vs. Robert Whittaker (9-2, 0-0 UFC)

This fight is the finals of the welterweight tournament of The Ultimate Fighter: The Smashes. As far as statistical prospects go, Scott and Whittaker grade out very similar. Scott has slightly more upside, but Whittaker grades out slightly better as of right now. Both fighters profile as guys who could have a fairly successful UFC career, but will probably fall short of title contention. Both fighters are aggressive, usually either finishing or being finished. In the end, I like Whittaker to win what could turn out to be a back-and-forth fight.

Lightweight match: Colin Fletcher (8-1, 0-0 UFC) vs. Norman Parke (16-2, 0-0 UFC)

This is the lightweight finals of The Smashes, but unlike the welterweight final, my numbers do significantly favor one guy. That guy is Colin Fletcher, otherwise known as “The Freak Show.” Fletcher is a submission specialist, but has shown flashes of competent striking and a well-rounded game. Most importantly as far as this fight is concerned, both fighters usually win by submission, but Norman Parke has two losses by submission as well, while Fletcher has none. I don’t think Fletcher will develop into a UFC title contender, but I do think he’s the most likely fighter to achieve a high ranking out of those competing on The Smashes. Fletcher by submission.

Featherweight match: Chad Mendes (12-1, 3-1 UFC) vs. Yaotzin Meza (19-7, 0-0 UFC)

I could have easily written “squash match” instead of “featherweight match.” Sadly, Hacran Dias was supposed to fight Mendes at this event, but was forced to withdraw. Fighting on short notice is Yaotzin Meza, a teammate of Benson Henderson fighting out of Arizona. From what I’ve seen of Meza on tape, he has decent takedowns and a good guillotine choke, but sloppy striking and middling takedown defense. That’s a decent skill set for a fighter to have as the opponent of a prospect fighting on the prelims of a UFC show, but this is Chad Mendes we’re talking about. Meza isn’t going to take him down, and the guillotine choke isn’t going to work. Mendes by whatever he wants.

Light-heavyweight match: Joey Beltran (14-8, 3-5 UFC) vs. Igor Pokrajac (25-9, 4-4 UFC)

If you’re wondering how Joey Beltran is still in the UFC, you’re not alone. I think he has a decent chance here though. Igor Pokrajac is less polished striker and more brawler, and tends to take more strikes than he dishes out. Pokrajac’s biggest threat is his power, but Beltran has a reputation of being able to take punishment and just keep coming. Sure, Lavar Johnson stopped him, but that’s a fighter with some of the heaviest hands in the sport, and Johnson still needed to hit Beltran a ton to stop him.

Don’t worry, I’m picking Pokrajac to win this fight, since I feel he’s just the better fighter. But I think Beltran has more upset potential than he’s being given credit for.

Welterweight match: Seth Baczynski (18-8, 4-1 UFC) vs. Mike Pierce (15-5, 7-4 UFC)

Mike Pierce is the kind of fighter who doesn’t quite have the talent to compete with the best at 170 pounds, but is very difficult to beat for anybody else. He has a solid wrestling base, with good striking and submissions. He also likes to clinch a lot, and his fights can be pretty ugly to watch as a result. Seth Baczynski has some upset potential here, since he’s an aggressive striker who I could see winning on points. But Pierce is a big step up in competition for him, and will likely prove to be too much for Baczynski in this one.

Welterweight match: Ben Alloway (12-3, 0-0 UFC) vs. Manuel Rodriguez (9-3, 0-0 UFC)

This is another fight featuring a submission specialist against an opponent whose losses are all by submission. Manuel Rodriguez debuts in the UFC with six submission wins, while his opponent, Ben Alloway, has lost by submission three times. I wasn’t enamored with what I saw of Alloway on tape, and he was even threatened in his Smashes fight against Valentino Petrescu. Alloway is listed as the favorite to win this one, but unless Rodriguez is just an awful striker, I like his chances here. Rodriguez by submission.

Lightweight match: Brendan Loughnane (5-0, 0-0 UFC) vs. Mike Wilkinson (7-0, 0-0 UFC)

I know very little about either man here, but Wilkinson has had some success against tougher competition, while Loughnane has never fought a quality fighter outside of The Smashes. I’ll take Wilkinson to win by submission, and perhaps be a fighter to keep an eye on for the future.

Light-heavyweight match: Cody Donovan (7-2, 0-0 UFC) vs. Nick Penner (11-2, 0-1 UFC)

I know the UFC runs a lot of shows, and needs a lot of fighters to compete on these shows… but come on. I don’t want to be too negative about Cody Donovan or Nick Penner, but neither fighter has really proven he belongs yet. Can we get fighters who have at least won a few fights against decent competition first, before the UFC signs them to a contract? Penner by decision, I guess.

UFC on Fox 5 Preview and Predictions

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
Che Mills 33% 2/0
Carlos Condit 42% 3/0
Nate Diaz 48% 7/0
Michael Guymon 55% 2/0
Mike Pyle 72% 0/2

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.

Week 14 NFL Picks Against The Spread

No explanations here, just picks. In most cases, I don’t have a specific reason for making a pick, I just feel one of the teams is good value.

Usual disclaimer applies – I’m publishing these picks for entertainment purposes only. If you make any bets using these picks, you do so at your own risk.

Picks are in BOLD.

Thursday Night Football

Denver at OAKLAND (+10)

Sunday Day Games

BALTIMORE (+2) at Washington
KANSAS CITY (+5.5) at Cleveland
SAN DIEGO (+7.5) at Pittsburgh
TENNESSEE (+5.5) at Indianapolis
New York Jets at JACKSONVILLE (+2.5)
Chicago at MINNESOTA (+3)
Atlanta at CAROLINA (+3.5)
Philadelphia at TAMPA BAY (-7)
St. Louis at BUFFALO (-3)
Dallas at CINCINNATI (-3)

Sunday Evening Games

MIAMI (+10) at San Francisco
New Orleans at NEW YORK GIANTS (-5)
Arizona at SEATTLE (-10.5)

Sunday Night Football

Detroit at GREEN BAY (-7)

Monday Night Football

HOUSTON (+3.5) at New England

Week 12 NFL Picks

Obviously, three of this week’s games are already in the books. I hope I won’t need expert persuasion skills to convince you that my Thanksgiving picks were 1-1-1 against the spread. Houston -3 was a push, Washington +3.5 was a win, and New York Jets +6.5 was an embarrassment.

Fortunately, there are still 13 more games to play this week, and that means it’s time to make some picks.

CINCINNATI (-8.5) vs. Oakland

Last week, I picked the Raiders to cover at home against the Saints, thinking the Raiders could score enough points on a weak Saints defense to keep the game close. Instead, the Raiders got annihilated. This week, the Raiders play a somewhat similar opponent in the Cincinnati Bengals, who have a shaky defense like the Saints, but also have some offensive firepower in the form of Andy Dalton and A.J. Green. And with the Bengals at home this time, I have to think the Raiders are in for a long day again.

CLEVELAND (+1.5) vs. Pittsburgh

It’s very difficult to know just how good Charlie Batch is in relation to Byron Leftwich at this point. Both quarterbacks are a blast from the past. But if the Steelers’ offensive performance last week against Baltimore is any indication, this one could be upset city. The Browns do play decent defense, and if they can hold Pittsburgh to something in the neighborhood of 13 points, I think even Brandon Weeden and the Cleveland offense can muster enough points to win the game.

INDIANAPOLIS (-3) vs. Buffalo

After I picked the Colts to cover the spread against the Patriots last week, I had a feeling I’d made the wrong pick. After all, the Colts were on a winning streak, so their stock was up, and they were in New England, a place where teams lose by improbable margins sometimes. Fast forward to this week, and the Colts are just a 3 point favorite at home against Buffalo. As much as I can see the Bills running up the score on the awful Colts defense, I can see Andrew Luck doing the same thing to the Bills defense.

DENVER (-10) at Kansas City

I have an aversion to picking teams that are favorites on the road, especially if the team is favored by double digits. But I just can’t bring myself to take the Chiefs here. On one side, we have Peyton Manning and a blossoming defense in Denver. On the other side, we have a team that can’t decide whether it should play Matt Cassel or Brady Quinn every week, and a team that just lost to the Bengals 28-6. I have to take the Broncos here.

JACKSONVILLE (+3) vs. Tennessee

I get the thinking behind the Jaguars being the underdog here. They have the worst offense in the NFL, and now are forced to turn to their backup quarterback. But that backup quarterback, Chad Henne, is better than Blaine Gabbert in my opinion. And I don’t think the Titans should be a road favorite against anybody.

CHICAGO (OFF) vs. Minnesota

It’s Saturday, and this game is still off, but I’m willing to take the Bears regardless. That’s because, as a Vikings fan, I know better than anybody that bad things happen in Chicago. Since the Bears are likely to be undervalued after their stinker of a performance in San Francisco, that makes this pick even more of a no-brainer for me. And the idea of Christian Ponder taking on Chicago’s defense makes me nervous.

TAMPA BAY (+1) vs. Atlanta

What does it say about the Falcons that they’re only a 1 point favorite on the road despite being 9-1? This is a team that has skated by in a lot of its games, and now they’ll be taking on a quality Buccaneers team. I think Atlanta could be in for a rude awakening in the second half of the season as their record regresses to reflect a team that is good, not great.

SEATTLE (-3) at Miami

Again, I’m sticking my neck out by taking the road favorite, but my logic here is simple. Ryan Tannehill is a rookie who has had a mostly rough season as Miami’s starter so far. In this game, he’ll have to take on one of the tougher defenses in the league in Seattle. And after the Dolphins scored a combined 17 points against the Titans and Bills, both of whom play awful defense, I’m going to need a lot more than 3 points to side with them here.

SAN DIEGO (+1) vs. Baltimore

I can see a lot of people putting money down on the Ravens as only a 1 point favorite in San Diego. But when I think of a flawed east coast team like Baltimore going all the way to San Diego, where the Chargers have a decent defense and some offensive firepower, I see it ending poorly for them. This is a classic “trap” game.

NEW ORLEANS (+1) vs. San Francisco

Finally, I’m picking the Saints to cover the spread! I’m anticipating that Colin Kaepernick will be San Francisco’s quarterback, and my opinion on Kaepernick will be that he’s overrated until proven otherwise. I see the 49ers struggling to keep up with the high-octane Saints offense in this one, and that’s a recipe for a young quarterback like Kaepernick to throw multiple interceptions. So I like the Saints to score the upset here.

ST. LOUIS (+1.5) at Arizona

While I’ve been waiting for the Chiefs to give Ricky Stanzi a shot at quarterback, the Cardinals have decided to give a shot to their third-string QB, Ryan Lindley. Unlike Stanzi, however, I have yet to see a shred of statistical evidence suggesting Lindley has a decent chance to be a good QB in the NFL. Last week’s 64 yards on 20 pass attempts was not inspiring. And the Rams play decent defense. This could easily be a 13-3 type of win for the Rams, but I definitely like them to win, and I’m getting points? Sign me up.

GREEN BAY (+3) at New York Giants

I keep waiting for the Giants’ stock to fall enough for them to be a good value. Surprisingly, it hasn’t happened yet. The 3 point spread is indicative of a public opinion that these two teams are roughly equal in team strength, and I just don’t see it. The Packers have turned their season around after a shaky start, and Aaron Rodgers is still one of the top quarterbacks in the NFL. Green Bay has to be considered one of the leading contenders to represent the NFC in the Super Bowl. Meanwhile, the Giants are an above-average but sub-elite team, although they seem to have a knack for winning in the playoffs. But this isn’t the playoffs.

PHILADELPHIA (+3) vs. Carolina

I talk about NFL teams like stocks a lot of the time, because I think it’s telling in terms of deciding which teams to pick. As a 3 point underdog at home to the Panthers, the Eagles stock has hit rock bottom. The team is on a long losing streak, and Nick Foles has been, to put it gently, disappointing so far. But just as I’m not going to let Colin Kaepernick’s monday night performance get me too excited about his future, I’m not going to let Nick Foles’s stinker in Washington make me give up on him. I say Foles turns it around this week, and the Eagles beat the Carolina Panthers.

Week 11 NFL Picks

Amazingly, my picks against the spread last week didn’t end in disaster after I put them on the internet. 8-6? I’ll take it. Here are my picks for week 11:

MIAMI (+1) at Buffalo

To make this pick, I first looked at the weather forecast for tonight in Buffalo. It’s going to be about 38 degrees, which is cold, but not so cold that it motivates me to change my initial pick of Miami. Many are likely squeamish to pick the Dolphins after they got creamed by Tennessee (of all teams) last week, but I see it as a good “buy low” moment. And the Buffalo defense has a way of making teams look better.

PHILADELPHIA (+3.5) at Washington

Last week, I mentioned that there were three quarterback changes I wanted to see. Nick Foles starting instead of Michael Vick was one of them, although I would have preferred for the Eagles to have simply promoted Foles instead of Vick being concussed. But I think Foles will make the Eagles a better team despite being a rookie. It helps that the Washington defense gives up huge passing games almost every week. I like the Eagles to cover in this one.

DETROIT (+3.5) vs. Green Bay

Home underdog special! The vast majority are likely to see the Packers as only a 3.5 point favorite and jump all over it. I understand the sentiment, but Matt Stafford and Calvin Johnson are both performing at a high level, and the Packers defense is only OK. I can totally see the Lions giving the Packers a very tough game in Detroit.

ARIZONA (+10) at Atlanta

The Falcons may have been undefeated as of last week, but I think their loss to the Saints illustrates that they’re merely a good team, not a great one. They’ve had to skate by in a number of games this year, including a very narrow win against the Raiders. Put simply, I’m not sure the Falcons should be a 10-point favorite against anybody. I don’t like Arizona to win this game, but I do like Arizona to cover.

CAROLINA (+1.5) vs. Tampa Bay

Home underdog special #2! Picking the Panthers didn’t work too well for me last week, as they got embarrassed by the Denver Broncos. This week, they’re the underdog again, but by only 1.5 points against a quality Tampa Bay Buccaneers team. But it’s hard for me to get over Tampa Bay giving up the most passing yards per game in the NFL this season. I say Cam Newton bounces back in this one and the Panthers win outright.

CLEVELAND (+7.5) at Dallas

It’s not that I think the Browns have a great chance of winning this game. It’s that the Browns pass defense is actually pretty good, and the Cowboys have had real difficulty scoring a lot of points this season. Say the Cowboys end up winning 16-10… you can see that happening, right? Well, if that’s the final score, then the Browns cover. I just don’t like the idea of taking Dallas to win by more than a touchdown.

ST. LOUIS (-3) vs. New York Jets

It seems clear that the Jets aren’t going to Mr. Tebow anytime soon. That means I have to take the Rams in this one. St. Louis has a much improved pass defense this season, which means we’re likely to see Mark Sanchez struggle to move the ball once again. Meanwhile, the Jets defense has gone from very good to fairly average without Darrelle Revis. I think the Rams win this game and put a lot of people in the Jets organization on some very hot seats.

INDIANAPOLIS (+9.5) at New England

Last week, the Patriots were the favorite by 11 against a team with offensive firepower in the Buffalo Bills. New England won by six. This week, the Patriots are the favorite by 9.5 against a team with offensive firepower in the Indianapolis Colts. I just can’t take the Patriots to cover that kind of point spread as long as they have such a porous defense.

JACKSONVILLE (+16) at Houston

That’s a lot of points! It’s totally warranted, as the Texans are the most complete team in the NFL. Great defense, good offense. But that’s a lot of points! Let’s say the Texans win 24-10. If that’s the case, the Jaguars cover. And I get that this is Blaine Gabbert against a ferocious defense in Houston. Houston absolutely should win this… but I’m just not comfortable with that kind of point spread.

KANSAS CITY (+3.5) vs. Cincinnati

Home underdog special #3! With game results like the Bengals’ destruction of the Giants last week, it’s easy to think they should smash Kansas City this week. It’s also easy to forget that the Bengals defense is not good. I say Matt Cassel looks better than usual (which is to say, not horrible), the Chiefs lose 20-17, and there continues to be much gnashing of teeth in Kansas City.

OAKLAND (+4.5) vs. New Orleans

Home underdog special #4! It seems like I pick against the Saints every week. But don’t forget just how bad the Saints defense is. They’re… really bad. And this is a dome team going outdoors against a Raiders team that, for all its flaws, can put some points on the board. I like Oakland’s chances in this one.

SAN DIEGO (+7.5) at Denver

I’m torn about this one. On one hand, I do think the Broncos are a much better team than the Chargers, on both sides of the ball. On the other hand, they’re favored by more than a touchdown, and that makes me nervous. I’m taking the Chargers to cover the spread here, but I don’t like it.

PITTSBURGH (+3.5) vs. Baltimore

Home underdog special #5! Yes, Byron Leftwich is a huge downgrade from Ben Roethlisberger. But what would the point spread be if Roethlisberger was healthy and playing? Pittsburgh by 3.5? Is the drop from Roethlisberger to Leftwich really seven points? It very well might be, but I’m going to lean towards “no” at this point. The Ravens might be coming off their annihilation of the Raiders, but their defense has been quite mediocre without Ray Lewis and Lardarius Webb, so I think the Steelers can win this one outright.

SAN FRANCISCO (whatever the line is) vs. Chicago

This game has no line posted yet, but I have a feeling the 49ers will be underrated after playing the Rams to a tie. The Bears have a phenomenal defense, but the 49ers defense is still very good, and Chicago is a team much more prone to turning the ball over than San Francisco is. With the 49ers playing at home, I think the stage is set for a nice bounce back performance.