Let’s not mince words here: this is not a great card and may not be a good show, and there’s a reason the PPV expectations are as low for this as for any recent show and tickets are far from sold out in LA for the live experience. I think we’re really starting to see UFC suffer the bite of running more shows than they have stars to fill, and after so many blow-away cards in recent years they’ve conditioned their audience to expect more than a semi-main featuring Ben Rothwell. This show may do 350,000 or less on PPV, unless Machida Karate is a bigger draw than it seems to be so far or the countdown show really hooks people.
* Light Heavyweight Championship bout: Lyoto Machida (c) vs. Mauricio Rua
It should be so much more, shouldn’t it? Machida is an undefeated and rarely even threatened champion with surprising charisma and a unique signature fighting style with mystique and the aura of unsolvability; Rua is one of the legendary fighters of PRIDE still in his physical prime at 27 and coming off of two straight wins against name opponents, one of which won KO of the night, the other fight of the night. And yet this is as flat a main event- let alone a title fight- as you’ll see in UFC, expected to do little by current standards on PPV and nowhere close to a sell out live in LA. The reasons aren’t a mystery: Machida is regarded as nigh-invincible and requires a major star to draw against; Rua is perceived as something of another ex-PRIDE washout hurt by the different UFC rules, damaged goods after knee problems, and who’s racked up his two most recent wins against an old man and a shot fighter. All of this is more or less true, and on a deeper level I think many people subconsciously (and some consciously) realize that even if the PRIDE Shogun shows up, he was almost always screwed stylistically against Machida- it’s just an awful matchup for him.
Everything Machida does is based on elusiveness- he’s the epitome of the old boxing maxims to hit and don’t be hit, to make them miss and make them pay. As a striker his head movement is exceptional and his stance takes full advantage of that, keeping his head as far back from the opponent as any fighter. His foot movement is just as good and he’s willing and able to circle, move out, reset, take his time and force a mistake which allows him to counter-strike. Because of the distance he prefers, his grappling experience (including, unusually, sumo) and his innate quickness he’s also exceptionally hard to take down, clinch or grapple with. He’s just plain hard to reach and harder to catch. Shogun is likely not his superior in any great degree on the mat, and in any case does not have the sort of wrestling expertise needed to force the fight there; even if he were willing to try to pull guard or go for sloppy-just-get-it-down takedowns Machida’s movement and ability to maintain balance for striking will make it exceptionally hard for him to do so without leaving himself open to being clobbered with counter strikes in the process. In essence, Machida’s style functions in the way excellent wrestling does for some other fighters, allowing him to choose the level of the fight; and against Shogun he will almost certainly make it a kickboxing match, a type of fight in which he’s never really been threatened. Moreover, even as a kickboxing match it will likely be held at a certain distance, without any opportunity for Shogun to execute the Thai clinch and use knees. Does anyone think Shogun can win a 4 point striking battle?
Even the PRIDE Shogun would likely never have been able to force Machida into the positions necessary to finish him, where stomps or soccer kicks would have been employable. The post-PRIDE, post-knee injury Shogun with some conditioning questions doesn’t stand any better of a chance against Machida in a 5 round fight in a cage where it’s even harder to corner someone than it is in a ring. Machida is the easy pick here, by 2nd round KO. They say a champion isn’t really a champion until he’s defended his title; this is Machida’s chance to continue establishing himself as the dominant 205 pound fighter of his era, and make himself a star.
* Heavyweight bout: Cain Velasquez vs. Ben Fucking Rothwell
Make no mistake: Rothwell is booked here on the assumption that he will lose, as despite a few solid-but-not-overwhelming performances which seemed to belie some of the hype attached to him Velasquez remains one of the heavyweights UFC is counting on to carry the division into the future. Once Shane Carwin was pulled from this slot to face BROCK! at UFC 106, the selection of Rothwell for this slot made that abundantly clear- Velasquez vs. Rothwell adds no buys, so the only future value to be derived from it for UFC is as a showcase for Cain. Rothwell is very, very solid; but he’s the kind of standard off-the-rack journeyman heavyweight who a future star and potential champion should beat, and I’m guessing that after grazing past defeat last time out after Cheick Kongo hurt him repeatedly, Velasquez will have learned his lesson and will use his wrestling to dominate this one from the outset. 3 round decision for Velasquez. He needs to move his head though, because if he stands in front of Rothwell the way he stood in front of Kongo he can easily be dispatched.
* Lightweight bout: Gleison Tibau vs. Josh Neer
I can’t shake the image of Neer being unable to get off his back against Kurt Pellegrino- he’s rarely looked that bad before, but he’s apparently still got God knows what silliness going on in his personal life and is facing a gigantic lightweight who UFC originally wanted to give a shot against Sean Sherk to in this slot. Add in that Neer appeared more irritated by Batman’s fighting style than his own inability to stand up in that fight, and I have to go with Tibau here. Too big, too good on the ground, and I’m not sure Neer’s learned the relevant lesson yet.
* Lightweight bout: Joe Stevenson vs. Spencer Fisher
I actually really like this fight, and while neither of these guys are likely to be title contenders anytime soon this is probably going to be the most fun and action-filled fight of the televised undercard. Stevenson has looked noticeably better of late now that he’s joined Greg Jackson’s camp, he’s younger and he’s faced the better opposition, so he’s my pick by decision in a fight between two guys who somewhat mirror each other; but realistically, these are two guys who can strike, wrestle and grapple and have a well-deserved reputation for action fights, so no matter how it goes it should be fun.
* Welterweight bout: Anthony Johnson vs. Yoshiyuki Yoshida
Poor Yoshida. He’s a solid grappler and a solid fighter who’s faced a good level of competition with decent results, but UFC is for a second time using him as a trial horse/make-this-guy-look-good opponent against a solid or better striker who’s obviously being groomed for larger things. The first time, against Kos Joshcheck, ended with Yoshida suffering one of last year’s fugliest KOs; this time might be even worse. Johnson doesn’t have the mat skills of Koscheck and has been tapped before, but he’s a gigantic welterweight in his near-physical prime at 25 and is facing a smallish welterweight a decade older than him. Yoshida will be hard-pressed to get this one down despite his judo skills, especially as he’ll have to wade in against a talented kickboxer with 8 inches of reach on him, and he’s not noted for his excellent head movement. This could be fun as long as it goes as Yoshida has the warrior’s instinct to engage and force a fight, but he’s almost certainly physically overmatched here. Johnson might be a bit cautious given the opponent’s style and it being his first time featured on the main card of a PPV, so I’ll say he wins by 2nd round KO. Gigantic head kick.
Spike TV card
* Light Heavyweight bout: Ryan Bader vs. Eric Schafer
I hate to say this, but part of me always roots for Red Schafer. He’s a big jowly lummox from Wisconsin where my family has roots, and if he weren’t ginger and were a bit shorter he could easily pass for a cousin of mine. Hell, he even went to college in the town where my mother grew up and my father lived for a time, and he looks facially a lot like my maternal grandfather. It’s frankly a bit disturbing. I’m honestly not sure what to think of his chances in this one- Bader is younger and a better athlete and his wrestling will easily allow him to decide where this one goes, but he’s also coming off of a major knee injury and has a limited track record at the highest level. I’m going to guess we get the rare non-Wang version of a wrestler eschewing his wrestling, as Bader keeps it standing for three rounds as he did vs. Vinny Magalhaes and wins a mildly entertaining toughman contest.
* Heavyweight bout: Antoni Hardonk vs. Patrick Barry
Kickboxing. Kiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiickboxing. Kick? Boxing! Kickboxing. Not wrestling, not jiujitsu, not judo, not karate, not akido, not kung fu, not tae kwon do, not jeet kun do, not Joe san do, not even SAFTA or ninjitsu. KICKBOXING. That’s what you’re getting and you’d better like it, because that is all these gentlemen do. And I’m all for it, really; it’s a fun striker’s match to kick off the TV portion of the card, there’s apparently some kind of a semi-personal issue on Barry’s part involving him not being regarded as having as much potential as Hardonk when both were students of Ernesto Hoost, and both guys need the win coming off of losses in which they were finished. Barry has the better wrestling in theory with his San Shou background, but he’s lighter, shorter, should probably be a light-heavyweight, and given the background of this one he’s likely to want to prove himself by out-doing Hardonk at what they both do best. That, I suspect, is what will get him knocked out by punches in the first.
* Middleweight bout: Yushin Okami vs. Chael Sonnen
We’re about to find out if you can scream and snore at the same time, because this one could be scary-boring. People have complained about it being banished to the televised-under-no-circumstances undercard, and I can understand the pure sports argument against that decision; but I weep no tears personally over missing this. Maybe, if we’re lucky, their wrestling will mutually negate and it’ll be charmingly sloppy boxing. But I doubt it. Okami, by genocidally boring decision, ensuring that he gets the loser of Henderson-Marquardt in a fight which no one on earth will want to see.
* Middleweight bout: Jorge Rivera vs. Rob Kimmons
Ehhh, Kimmons, 2nd round submission. 9 years is big age gap.
* Light Heavyweight bout: Kyle Kingsbury vs. Razak Al-Hassan
Combined, they’ve lost their last three fights. What? I’ll take Kingsbury just because I hate taking a guy in his first fight back after a bad injury, and I tend to default to picking Trunk Slamchest-style wrestlers.
* Heavyweight bout: Stefan Struve vs. Chase Gormley
I’m sure there’s a good explanation of this somewhere, but I’m personally not entirely clear of why Stefan Struve is in the UFC or why if he is going to be kept on the roster at this point in time he’s fighting on the untelevised undercard of a non-European show. He’s not a bad fighter at all- he’s got wonderful physical gifts and a fighter’s heart- but at 21 he’s clearly years away from his athletic peak or from developing a truly rounded and multifaceted game. He’s also not selling one additional ticket in LA. Gormley has an undefeated record in addition to a vaguely unsavory-sounding last name, but he’s not fought in 17 months. Hard one to call. I don’t think Struve has learned to use his range yet, so I’ll pick Gormley to wrestle him down and ride him to a decision.
Fun fact: In 20 pro fights, Struve has faced men from 14 different nations and three continents. This man needs to be put in JCVD-style low-budget action movies where he kickboxes with dinosaurs or something. Or maybe he can buy the Knicks?
Also, on a side note for anyone who knows me personally, I have finally been successfully peer-pressured into joining farcebutt or facebite or Facebook or whatever it’s called under my full name (Brendan Welsh-Balliett), so feel free to friend me or whatever it is you do on there. I’m still very much figuring it out, and am as likely to accidentally launch nukes at Russia as I am to find you first.
Back with the second installment of these.
5. BJ Penn converts to Juan Manuel Marquez.
Similarities: Technically excellent and physically unimposing fighters who’ve fought their careers out slightly in the shadow of an important rival, in Penn’s case GSP and in Marquez’s, Pacquiao. Both as a result have something of a public reputation as whiners. Both are far from imposing physical specimens, and thus rely on a perfection of technique to achieve results- both are amazingly accurate strikers, and Penn adds his famous jiu jitsu while Marquez is the more varied puncher. Both are probably first-ballot hall of famers who’ve somehow always seemed a half-step behind the top 2 or 3 P4P guys in their eras.
Differences: Penn has a sort of perpetual fog of disappointment around him, a sense that he’s not getting the most out of his career whether through lack of conditioning, or lack of improvement, or insistence in fighting at weights which don’t suit him. Marquez by contrast has probably accomplished now more than had been expected of him early in his career, and there’s really no fight you can point to and say conclusively that Marquez beat himself in through lack of preparation. Penn has fought all over the place weight-wise and sought out the big fights, while Marquez has seemed content at times to hang around at one weight and fight scrubs instead of seeking out career-defining superfights. Oddly enough though, when he does have those fights Marquez has shown the heart of a lion in coming back from adversity (recovering from 3 first-round knockdowns against Pacquiao, for instance) in a way which Penn never really has.
6. Randy Couture converts to Bernard Hopkins.
Similarities: The inspiration for this list and the most obvious comparison, it’s two old men who’ve won multiple titles in multiples weight classes and succeeded far past the age of 40, beating up younger men despite being counted out and written off again and again. Both are possessed of brilliant insight into their respective sports and have demonstrated it as excellent TV analysts, both retain far more of their youthful quickness and endurance at this age than they have any right to, both hit harder than they’re expected to and can be counted on for one unexpected knockdown in a thrilling decision victory (vs. Tarver, vs. Sylvia, etc.), both are really good wrestlers, both have a remarkable understanding of positioning and timing, both have a knack for suckering opponents into fighting their fight. Both (if Hopkins vs. Adamek is made) are likely to win their next fight despite being older than things like weather and the moon. Both have fought just about everyone with a nametag in their weight range at one time or another. Both have retired on occasion, and neither has ever meant it. Both have headlined huge shows, and both are regarded as one of, if not the, foremost fighters of their era.
Differences: One’s Sub-Zero, the other’s Scorpion; they’re palette swaps of each other for all intents and purposes, with biography the only serious difference. Couture was a military man and amateur wrestler who was obviously great from the start (“The Natural”), winning the UFC heavyweight title in his 4th pro fight. Hopkins was a criminal who did prison time (5 years), and who lost his pro debut before dropping down in weight and becoming what he became. If you want to really look for something, Couture is more beloved while Hopkins is more respected; Couture has also won more total titles, while Hopkins dominated middleweight in a way Couture never quite did at any weight class.
Fun Fact: in all the furor over this horrible pro wrestler invading UFC, it’s fun to remember that Randy Couture’s first UFC opponent was this guy.
A few other quicker ones, which are more provisional:
7. Cain Valasquez converts to Jorge Linares
Similarities: Both are fantastic young prospects with awesome reputations and a strong measure of early pro success, marred by one crucial flaw. In Linares’ case, he can’t stay healthy enough to fight consistently; in Velasquez’s, he’s got a chin about which people are starting to ask serious questions after Cheick Kongo cracked it twice. Neither guy is so far exactly a killer KO artist either.
Differences: A vast weight difference, and most importantly simply that each guy is early enough in their career that we don’t really know what they’ll become.
8. Mauricio “Shogun” Rua converts to Miguel Cotto
Similarities: Both have been dominant fighters in their division and at times considered the best regardless of who held the actual titles, and both are defined as fighters by their offense. Both had serious setbacks due to physical injury, Cotto from the illegal and disgraceful beating he received from Antonio Margarito’s loaded gloves, Shogun from a long series of knee problems which kept him out for over a year. Both may be walking into a buzzsaw next time out against Manny Pacquiao and Lyoto Machida, though there are people who are picking both men as underdogs. Both have records with very few goobers, derelicts, butt-scratchers and humanoids on them. Both had a good win last time out, but with real questions attached- Cotto about his durability, Rua as to whether the guy he beat was any good any more.
Differences: Rua has a much better and longer track record against top, top, top opposition; however that record is also suspect for a reason Cotto’s can’t be, given the switch from PRIDE rules to UFC.
9. John Duddy and Julio Cesar Chavez Jr. convert to Kimbo Slice
Similarities: Vaguely ethnic drawing cards whose fame has come from means other than actual in-ring accomplishments, and who owe the careers they have to shrewd promotion and matchmaking. None are really any good, and all either are likely to or already have folded against the first serious opposition they faced.
Differences: Kimbo’s a lot more famous than those other too goofs, and he’s also shown a resilience as an attraction which they haven’t by getting himself on TUF. Heard anything about Duddy recently since the Billy Lyell fight? Me neither.