07 October 2011

UFC 136

Between August 27 and November 12, every single UFC championship (injuries permitting) will be defended. We've already seen three go down, with Anderson Silva, Jon Jones and Dominick Cruz all defending and retaining their belts, and this Saturday we have two more up for grabs. And on paper from top to bottom, this is a great night of fights that's not limited to a USA versus [Insert Foreign Country Here] theme like the UFC Rio card. In fact, this is a card where going over the Spike prelims feels like a necessity just to get over how incredibly deep the card feels from a fight quality standpoint. Another thing to note is that this is the fourth Saturday in a row to have a fight card, and then we get a two week break before another five week stretch, which includes the UFC's debut on FOX. Maybe during one of those weeks when I write about what's going on in class (1), I'll also delve into the UFC's over-saturation problem.

(1Yes, I still do that.

Demian Maia vs. Jorge Santiago - Maia is a jiu-jitsu whiz while Santiago seems to always choke in the figurative sense whenever he's in the UFC, as he only has a 1-4 record. I suspect that will go to 1-5 since Maia has improved his stand-up to levels that are just above competent, and he possesses a much better gas tank than Santiago. Hopefully, it's not boring like many of Maia's recent fights have been since he uses his grappling to neutralize his opponents as opposed to submitting them, but I suspect Demian Maia will win by unanimous decision.

Jeremy Stephens vs. Anthony Pettis - While Joe Silva is the booker and matchmaker for the UFC, Jeremy Stephens seems to have a spell over him in order to book his own programs. Stephens MO of late has been to call someone out on Twitter either just to fight or for ducking him, and then, magically, Silva schedules the fight. It's such a simple concept that so few fighters seem to realize: if a fighter wants to get people to see a fight, the UFC will make it happen. Meanwhile, Anthony Pettis has had a rough 2011 considering how well his 2010 ended. His guaranteed title unification fight got thrown out the window following the draw between Frankie Edgar and Gray Maynard on January 1. Instead of waiting for those two to settle things, especially considering how the second rematch was postponed from its original Memorial Day booking, Pettis opted to keep busy and put his title shot on the line in a losing effort against Clay Guida. In order to stay relevant in the title picture, Pettis needs to win against Stephens. I suspect he will; Pettis is more dynamic with his striking, even if he doesn't possess his opponent's knockout power, and he has a much better ground game. Stephens has shown a weakness for submissions, too: half of his losses have come via submission. His best bet is to take the fight to the ground, and Anthony Pettis will win by choke late in the second.

Nam Phan vs. Leonard Garcia - This is a rematch from a fight last year where Garcia took the bout on short notice, got winded, and clearly lost the fight as Phan overwhelmed him on several occasions. However, two of the judges saw something very different than the rest of the world and awarded Garcia the split decision. Both guys are known for stand-up wars, but Phan has a more disciplined approach and Garcia swings for the fences on every single punch. While neither guy has a weak chin, Garcia has proven to be able to take a punch to the mush more than once. Phan has a tendency, sometimes through no fault of his own, to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. The two will approach the match-up with a Fight of the Night bonus in mind, but Garcia will take the decision, mostly because he'll have a full training camp and gas tank to back him up this time around.

Melvin Guillard vs. Joe Lauzon - Take a look at Joe Lauzon's record in the UFC. J-Lau has one fight that's gone to a decision in his entire career. He either wins in the first half of the fight or he gasses and gets overwhelmed by his opponent. Lauzon has a tendency to be a great first round fighter that can't put things together enough to take on the upper echelon of the division. In essence, he's a fun guy to watch, but he's a gatekeeper. That's really why this fight makes no sense. Melvin Guillard is on a five fight win streak and is already (probably) the number three contender in the division. There is no upside for him. If Guillard wins, it's a lateral move and he's no better off than he was before in the mythical UFC rankings, and if he loses, well, that's it until he builds up another five wins in a row. Meanwhile, Lauzon's stock will shoot into the stratosphere should he submit Guillard here, and submissions are Melvin's weakness. But ever since he started training with Greg Jackson's camp, Guillard has finally put all of the pieces together to live up to the potential that his long career has suggested. Melvin is 28, too, so it's not like his 40 fight career means that he's over the hill. The likely scenario here, despite the fact that I'll be rooting for Creepy Joe to get a submission, is Melvin Guillard knocking Joe Lauzon out, maybe in the first but likely in the second round.

Chael Sonnen vs. Brian Stann - I make no apologies for being a huge Chael Sonnen fan because I'm also a huge pro wrestling fan, and Chael Sonnen is the best trash-talker in sports. There's no one in wrestling, MMA, boxing, football, baseball, hockey, basketball, soccer, rugby or anything else who can speak with the eloquence and audacity of Chael Sonnen. He's a breath of fresh air in a sport so self-conscious about being collectively perceived as a bunch of barbarians that few attempt to stand out as personalities for fear of being disrespectful. Not Chael Sonnen. Granted, it's doubtful that he believes half of the things that he says (2), but the fact that he has the gall to say it at all speaks to the confidence the man has in his ability to back it up.

(2) The Nogueira brothers feeding a carrot to a bus has even become a bit of a running joke that grows in absurdity every time he makes reference to it.

It's too bad that his opponent, Brian Stann, is an American war hero, negating the opportunity for Sonnen's usual pre-fight banter. Instead, we have to focus on each fighter's ability. Sonnen is the best wrestler in the middleweight division who only loses when he has a brain-fart that leaves him open to submissions, especially triangle chokes. Stann is a constantly improving stand-up artist and grappler, with a weakness in takedown defense. Matching the two together creates an interesting fight, but one I think is academic in Sonnen winning. No doubt, Stann will eventually fight for the championship, but for now, Sonnen will take the fight by decision, no doubt calling Anderson Silva a jerk after winning. With any luck, the two will then coach FX's first season of The Ultimate Fighter and subsequently headline a stadium in Brazil for the blowoff. It'd be even better if said season also served as a tournament to crown a champion in the new 125 lbs. flyweight division, but beggars can't be choosers.

Kenny Florian vs. Jose Aldo (c) for the UFC Featherweight Championship - The stories of this fight are the health of the champion and whether or not the challenger is a guy that chokes in high pressure situations. Jose Aldo didn't look as good as he usually does in his defense against Mark Hominick in April, and given how good he usually looks, it's made people question if Aldo is for real or not. But that fight appears to be a hiccup more related to Aldo's trouble making weight than a condemnation of his stamina or ability. Considering those factors, it's impressive how dominant he was in the fight against Hominick, even if he wasn't as dynamic as he's demonstrated in the past.

No offense to Hominick, but he's no Kenny Florian, one of the smartest fighters in the game who is also one of the most well-rounded. MMA is a battle of inches, and each of his major losses that Dana White called "chokes" last year were anything but. He lost to a much bigger and much stronger Sean Sherk back when Sherk was a fighter that mattered. In his second attempt at the belt, he faced the greatest lightweight on the planet with a shoddy game plan when BJ Penn submitted him. Florian's last loss was to the guy fighting for the lightweight title on this very card who is still technically undefeated. Those guys all are (or were) very good, and losing to each of them doesn't make Florian a choker as much as it does a guy who lost each of those fights on that given night.

So here's the question: what if Aldo's first defense in the UFC wasn't a hiccup? Aldo has lingering issues stemming from a neck injury last December, and getting thrown on one's head and suffering from spinal compression doesn't just go away. Jose Aldo has the advantage on the feet as he continues to approach Anderson Silva proportions in his ability to move his head and kick people in the face. Both guys are fairly even on the ground. If what happened to Aldo last time happens here, then Florian will win because he's a much better fighter off his back than Hominick. If that happens, I'd also be fine with it because Florian is an excellent representative of the sport. But those are both big ifs. As much as MMA is a game of inches, Jose Aldo is starting a few feet ahead of his opponent, so I predict that Aldo will TKO Florian in the third round. It'll be a long time before Florian gets another shot, too.

Gray Maynard vs. Frankie Edgar (c) for the UFC Lightweight Championship - These two fought to a draw back on January 1, and Maynard is the guy who handed Edgar the sole loss of his career. There are any number of acceptable ways to score their last fight, but the fact remains that it was close in every conceivable way. Maynard clearly destroyed Edgar in the first to the point that a case could be made for a 10-7 round. Edgar came back and a similar case could be made for him winning each of the final four 10-9 with two or more of the rounds going Maynard's way. When a fight is that close, a draw is a perfectly acceptable outcome. Heck, draws should be happening more based on the asinine 10 point must system in place, which is a poor fit for MMA, but judges are too scared they won't be asked back if they score too many fights or rounds that way.

Here's how this fight breaks down based on the career trajectory of both guys. Maynard is a guy that started at a very high level by utilizing his wrestling better than anyone in the sport outside of Jon Jones. He has power in his hands, but he doesn't know how to use them. Of his 11 wins, only two are finishes, both early in his career. Maynard's picture will appear in the eventual MMA dictionary under the term "grinder" next to Jon Fitch and Antonio McKee. However, his improvement has only been incremental. Compare that to Frankie Edgar. Every single time he's stepped into the Octagon, he's shown a vast array of improvements. His foot work, his wrestling, his takedown defense, his grappling, and his ability to land punches have all grown by leaps and bounds. The Frankie Edgar that fought Gray Maynard in 2008 is not the same fighter while the Gray Maynard that fought Frankie Edgar in 2008 is virtually identical.

It's very possible that Gray Maynard is the guy that has Frankie's number. I don't see it that way. Despite being undersized for the division, Frankie Edgar gets the job done and improves each time he fights. Frankie Edgar will retain the title by unanimous decision, finally putting the Maynard question behind him and going on to face the winner of the November 12 Ben Henderson vs. Clay Guida war. Against either of those guys, though? I don't like Edgar's chances. But that's a story for another time.

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