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UFC 107 Predictions: How Small Can A Big Star Be?

Crap, we’re going long on this one, as long (and likely as accurate) as a JaMarcus Russell deep throw. Odds are I’ll end up picking Manny Pacquiao to win one of the undercard bouts.

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BJ Penn is unquestionably a star fighter: considered probably the best 155 pounder in the world, he’s one of only two UFC fighters to hold titles in multiple weight classes, he’s headlined PPVs before and has for all his flaws the reputation of a bit of a living legend. He’s special- pound for pound special and one-of-a-kind special, the kind of fighter everyone knows will be in the hall of fame for this sport whenever they get around to building a real one. In Diego Sanchez he has in theory a near-perfect opponent for business purposes: an entertaining fighter with several excellent wins including one over a star (Clay Guida) on television recently, a TUF winner from the early days when that meant something, and a guy who brings an odd, larger-than-life charisma into the bargain. It’s a first-time match as well, which always helps. There’s two problems though which will make the performance of this show on PPV interesting to track: there’s not a great track record of lightweight title fights as headliners on PPV without a major co-main like Griffin-Silva, and virtually no one inside or outside the sport gives Sanchez all that much of a chance. We may not learn anything definitive when the buy numbers for this show come back, but given all the overexposure of late we should have at least some understanding of just how many people are willing to see BJ Penn defend his title. 380,000 buys is the prediction there. As for the fights….

Main Card

* Lightweight Championship bout: B.J. Penn (c) vs. Diego Sanchez

When two well-trained, professional fighters go at it wearing small gloves in a sport which has produced an amazing number of upsets in its short life, it’s hard for me to ever pick one guy as a 100% mortal lock. Too much can go wrong, too many odd things happen- Vitor Belfort over Randy Couture by cut stoppage in 40 seconds or whatever it was, Frank Mir over Big Nog by staph infection, Matt Serra over GSP by lucky barroom punch, the list goes on from there. So I give Diego the 5% chance, the exact same 5% I gave to Forrest Griffin against Anderson Silva in a prediction post which opened with “Forrest falls head first into a wheat thresher, dies, the end.”

What Sanchez has going for him is activity level and gas tank, and while BJ hasn’t been falling victim to his failings in those areas as much as he used to his problems haven’t disappeared- many people had Florian even or ahead in his fight with Penn at the time Penn choked him out (some 3-0!), on the theory that Penn just wasn’t doing as much as Florian. That line of thinking has it that he seemed worried about gassing out in a five round fight, and thus left himself open to being outworked since he couldn’t go 100% for 5 minutes of every round. I don’t really agree with that, but all you need are two judges who do and for Diego to avoid getting clapped or choked for 25 minutes, and he could steal a sketchy decision that way. Sanchez has never been finished in 25 pro fights, and his two losses were to naturally larger high-end wrestlers one of whom he faced while suffering from a bad staph infection. If Penn can be the first to stop him, that really is a feather in his cap; if he can’t, that’s Diego’s way out.

With all that said, there’s two ways of analyzing a fight: paper qualifications, and comparison of what the fighters actually do. On paper, Sanchez seems a solid matchup; in the cage, well…it’s very hard to figure out what he’s going to do with Penn even if he is going at it in his crazy-go-nuts fashion to try and hustle his way to a points win. He doesn’t hit particularly hard and his striking, while improved, is still a long ways from world class; he’s not as good as Kenny Florian, not as diverse or as powerful, and Kenny got his ass kicked. There’s no way in hell he’s KOing BJ, and I’m not entirely sure he can even hit him hard enough to make Penn respect him. Penn is a masterful counterpuncher with very quick hands, excellent head movement and surprising power, and Diego will give him chances to dodge and counter. The odds are that Diego’s ferocity and aggression will make Penn back up calmly at first, but by the second round he’ll have adjusted to the timing and be smashing Diego repeatedly when he charges in with short hooks when Sanchez’s hands drop. Sanchez strikes seemingly with the belief that he can just physically overwhelm his opponent, and many he can; but Penn is so superior in his technique that every little opening is exploitable to him. He’s got the master striker’s trait of seeming to be moving through time at a different rate than everyone else with an eerie sort of grace and calm, as though he knows what’s going to happen before it happens. Anderson Silva has it, Floyd Mayweather has it, Roy Jones used to have it, and it’s one of the most amazing things to see in action in all of sports. Diego Sanchez has improved his striking, but he could train with the best from now ’til doomsday, and he’ll never have it.

Grappling wise his BJJ isn’t in Penn’s league right now either, and while he’s a good wrestler he’s also been out-wrestled himself before; it’s almost impossible to see him regularly taking BJ off his feet against his legendary sprawl to get points for the takedown, and even if he does he’s in BJ’s guard which is not a great place to be for a lightweight. The idea of Sanchez tapping Penn doesn’t even need to be discussed. So how does he beat him? About all I can come up with is that he would have to fight an ugly, ugly fight- push Penn against the cage, physically muscle him around, use footwork and make him chase, make him sprawl and defend shots, probably even deliberately foul him to be honest. Anything to make him expend energy, get his heart rate up and the adrenaline flowing, and do it early. Write the first two rounds off, hope he slows in the 3rd, 4th and 5th, and try to outwork him from there. It is the slimmest of hopes, especially since it’s not really how Sanchez fights by skill or inclination.

With all that written, the pick is BJ by 2nd round RNC in a not overly-competitive fight. You know exactly what you’re getting from him these days, and it’s up to other fighters to scale the mountain. Sanchez has the heart and the desire, but he just does not have the skills right now in all likelihood. Penn will likely stun Sanchez at least once with a counter punch in the first against one of Sanchez’s reckless charges, badly enough to make Diego want to try and wrestle; at some point in the second, possible after being hurt again, he’ll probably try a shot which will end up with Penn reversing to top position, and from there it’s a matter of time. It’s very hard to see anyone in the current UFC lightweight division beating Penn.

* Heavyweight bout: Frank Mir vs. Cheick Kongo

I could be dead wrong on this, but it says here that Frank Mir is an accidental conman. A jovial, often likable, ticket-selling conman rather than a mustache-twirling snakeoil-selling 19th century carnival conman, but a conman nonetheless. His resurgence in UFC is based on three wins: beating Antoni Hardonk on the mat, a guy with infamously little ground game who’s probably about to be released if he hasn’t already been, beating Brock Lesnar in Brock’s pro debut, and beating Big Nog who looked and moved like the living dead in that fight due to health issues. Yes, there’s always an excuse for every loss and a way to devalue every win, but the mitigating factors here are pretty darn compelling especially factoring in the results of the second Brock-Mir fight and what a healthy Nog looked like against Couture. Kongo is a really, really big test for Mir, which will amount to: is Mir physically durable enough and has his striking improved to the point where he can hang with Kongo long enough to find a way to get him off his feet? As a pure striker, Kongo is a scary, scary man: he’s fucking huge, he hits fucking hard, he can fight at almost any range and uses all 8 points effectively. He bullies guys and uses his size. He’s only been KO’ed once (by Gilbert Yvel of all people, 5 years ago) and he takes a shot well, and he has a certain ineffable aura of meanness about him- the way he deliberately fouled Mostapha Al-Turk after Turk fouled him was not particularly sporting, but it got the message across loud and clear. He will run right over a guy who doesn’t make him step back in respect.

Mir, of course, will win a ground battle. Kongo frequently looks lost down there especially off his back and is coming off a loss in which he was taken down, pummeled, taken down, pummeled, and taken down again. But can Mir get it there? Kongo’s sprawl is meh, but Mir hasn’t exactly been using his wrestling a great deal of late and his standing defense against a living opponent has been highly questionable, as has his chin. I started off with this fight thinking Kongo was going to kill Mir dead- he’s never been tapped, and after the better-trained version of Lesnar he’ll easily be the best opponent Mir has faced since his apparent career resurgence began. And yet… if you accept that the UFC version of Cro Cop was nothing close to the Pride version for various reasons, than Mir would be fairly easily the best win of Kongo’s career, a career also dotted with losses to late-stage Heath Herring and Carmelo Marrero. That says something for a 34 year old who’s been fighting professionally in MMA for 8 years and in UFC for 3. In some ways it’s a battle of underachievers. There’s apparently also talk that the otherwise inexplicable booking of this fight was intended as a punishment of sorts for Kongo- setting him up with a decent wrestler and arguably the UFC’s second best heavyweight BJJ practitioner as a means of teaching him through experience that he needs to work on his ground game if he wants to compete at the highest level. I have no idea if that’s strictly true, but if it is it tells you who insiders expect to win this one. It’s a fight which gets more interesting the longer you think about it.

I’ve ended by talking myself into Mir. I have a recurring image of him getting Kongo along the cage, forcing him down, and just dominating from top position and eventually locking in a kimura. Alternately, I can see him going down when tagged by Kongo on the feet in order to induce Kongo to come down after him (the old Nog move) and either sweeping him with ease when Kongo gets too aggressive with his GnP, or else just catching him with an armbar off his back. Let’s say Mir SUB Kongo 1, kimura. And if he does, I’ll stop calling him a con man.

* Welterweight bout: Jon Fitch vs. Mike Pierce

No one outside the close families of these two fighters gives a tin shit about this one. It’s sad but true. Few fighters with Fitch’s talent have found themselves drifting quite so badly: not good enough to beat the champion, too good to put in with other top contenders lest he prove a spoiler, too well known to bury on untelevised undercards Okami-style, yet too bland and boring as a fighter to promote as a personality or minor draw in featured undercard fights. He’s become the accidental gatekeeper, the guy used to tell just how real possible fluke winners are. He beat Paulo Thiago after Thiago beat Koscheck; but Thiago won a round of that one and looked good enough to ensure that he’s being treated as a real guy and a developing fighter by UFC. Now Fitch draws Pierce, a relatively inexperienced 2 year pro with a college wrestling background who beat the respected veteran Brock Larson last time out by more or less out-wrestling him in a minor upset. Stylistically this should be different from the Thiago fight of course, but functionally it should serve the same purpose and turn out the same result- Fitch, decision.

* Lightweight bout: Kenny Florian vs. Clay Guida

Odd fight. Florian is like five Jon Fitches at this point, deader than dead at 155 as a title contender following two title fight losses but still alive as a spoiler since he’s certainly not moving down and couldn’t really be taken seriously moving up. On the upside he’s got a bigger name and personality, so he’s at least usable for 3rd fight on the card type fights like this, especially when the top two fights need a little help. And yet, therein lies the issue: if Guida wins this, him getting the next shot at Penn is a pretty decent bet promotionally and probably even makes some sense sporting-wise given Florian’s ability, but for that to happen Guida has to beat a man most people will make the favorite over him. If Florian wins it’s not as though UFC is screwed in the short term with Frankie Edgar and the Diaz-Maynard winner waiting in the wings, but nevertheless it will have the effect of retarding or killing off a potential 155 pound contender and the most popular one at that. In a division in which Penn is the prohibitive favorite over everyone, that becomes an issue- see what’s happened at welterweight where GSP is reduced to fighting the likes of Dan Hardy. It’s going to be a fun fight to watch, but the matchmaking here is quizzical.

I take it as given that Clay Guida can and will take down Kenny Florian. He’s limited as fuck, but within those limits he’s a very strong competitor and he has the virtue of staying close to his strengths, a bit of an anti-Wang. I also strongly doubt that Florian will be able to tap him off his back- Guida seems to be improving in the area of submission awareness, and if he’s a blanket he’s at least a heavy one. Florian’s best stuff off his back is sweeps rather than submission attempts, and I’m seeing Guida stuffing most of that before it starts. If not, he’s in trouble; he’s almost never on his back and there’s not much to say about him when he is, and Florian will tap him if they end up in that position. In some ways then, the dynamic of this fight is a re-run of Guida vs. Sanchez: can Florian, in the Sanchez role, do enough damage while they’re standing to win rounds before he gets taken down? MMA judging being what it is there’s sadly no chance he’ll win a fight off his back despite the likelihood of his elbowing the living shit out of the top of Guida’s head in this one, much as Sanchez did (and was unable to win a round so doing). Florian isn’t as dynamic and hyper-aggressive a striker as Sanchez which could work against him as his slower and more technical style may be easier for Guida to shoot against, but his sweeping ability may make up some of that difference making this more of an up and down fight than Guida-Sanchez.

I’m going to end up going with Florian in this one. I hate (hate hate HATE) the “he has too many weapons and/or ways to beat you” line because it often tells you nothing at all about a fight, but in this case it has some slight validity- standing Florian is stronger and his kicks give him range over a pure boxer like Guida, he’s not helpless off his back, his footwork is probably good enough to frustrate some of Guida’s shot attempts by denying him proper angles to shoot from, and he’s going to have chances to finish the fight in a way which Guida does not have, and which his close adherence to his style doesn’t afford him. Florian would be easily the best win of Guida’s career so far; Guida would be a solid to pretty good win for Florian. Florian RNC 3.

* Heavyweight bout: Paul Buentello vs. Stefan Struve

…On the main card? When Gouveia and Belcher is on the untelevised portion? Queer. I honestly don’t know what to make of Struve at this point- I picked against him last time and was wrong, I think I picked against him previously and was wrong, and I (obviously) am having trouble getting past how unbelievably bad he looked against Junior Dos Santos. Time is proving kind to that loss however given how good Dos Santos has looked and how well Struve has rebounded from it, to the point where he almost seems a little like an MMA Amir Khan- hyped prospect with a memorable trait (for Khan his amateur medal, for Struve his enormousness) who suffered a brutal early loss in a step up fight, only to rebound and look impressive since then. I’m going to take him here, on the theory that he’s probably as good a striker as Buentello is at this point and almost certainly superior on the ground; throw in his physical freakishness and 14 year age advantage, and he’s the pretty easy pick. Hard to figure out how Buentello ended up on the main care of a UFC in 2009, frankly.

Preliminary Card

* Middleweight bout: Alan Belcher vs. Wilson Gouveia

This should be a good one, a damn good one really. Both guys are coming off of high-profile losses, Belcher at UFC 100 and Gouveia to Nate Marquardt in something of a 185 pound eliminator, and are at the stage where they need to prove something. Gouveia is 31; either he starts stringing together wins which will get him money fights, or time’s going to catch him from behind half way there. Belcher is only 25 but he’s already slipped towards gatekeeper/trial horse status, being used as such for both Yoshihiro Akiyama and Denis Kang in their UFC debuts and going 1-1 in the process. He’s on the cusp of having to go re-prove himself in Strikeforce or somewhere. On the ground they’re likely to largely nullify, Gouveia being better but not better enough to get the tap on a survivor like Belcher, and I suspect it’ll likely be mostly a standing affair in any case. Gouveia does gas, but I suspect he’ll win the first two with more precise and heavy striking and top game, and then hang on in the third for the decision win. Belcher really is a talent, but his development seems to have stalled of late.

* Lightweight bout: Matt Wiman vs. Shane Nelson

It’s a good thing I don’t watch many of these at home anymore, because if this makes TV on a set I own I’d be throwing bottle caps, shoes, junk mail, all kinds of crap at the screen. Shane Nelson makes me angry ever since I had to suffer through his last fight live, and Matt Wiman has an almost perfect chickenshit heel face/name combination. A loathsome matchup, this. Wiman’s lost his last two but against better opposition than Nelson’s ever faced, so I’ll take Wiman. Decision.

* Welterweight bout: Johny Hendricks vs. Ricardo Funch

I ended up buying into Jake Rosholt just about the time he definitely proved against Kendall Grove that he was not ready for prime time, so perhaps my judgment on the Team Takedown crew is not the best; but I like Hendricks, like him a lot in fact. He’s far too reckless and overconfident which leads to him giving up takedowns despite an excellent wrestling pedigree (2 time national champion), but he’s got athletic gifts which so far have more than made up the difference. Good gas tank, strong, quick, and more than anything else he has the God-given unteachable power of the punch. He’s got *WHUMP* power, bone-snapping power, Julio Cesar Chavez power- take your heart power. It’s a one-shot eraser he can hit at any time against almost anybody from a variety of angles, and if he’s a Wanger he’s closer to a Josh Koscheck “so skilled it’s almost not Wanging” sort of Wang than some of the more career-destroying varieties out there. All I know about Funch is that he’s an undefeated newcomer out of Team Link with no particular buzz on him. I may be wrong on this, but I think Hendricks has the chance to be special, and while he’ll have to adjust and improve to reach all of that potential I think even at this stage of his development it’ll probably take more than Funch to take advantage of the openings he leaves. Hendricks KO1, horrifying right uppercut of death.

Now watch him Takayama-takedown himself into an armbar in the first.

* Middleweight bout: Rousimar Palhares vs. Lucio Linhares

I always like a good grappling battle on the card, and with luck this’ll make PPV just for the variety. Palhares is younger and very, very skilled (even gave Dan Henderson a run, doing better than Bisping in losing a decision) so I’ll take him by decision.

* Welterweight bout: DaMarques Johnson vs. Edgar Garcia

Garcia, KO. UFC seems to have all but given up on Johnson, not that I would argue.

* Welterweight bout: Kevin Burns vs. TJ Grant

Fun fact: Wikipedia lists Burns’ win over Rumble Johnson as “TKO (Eye Poke)” Additional fun fact: Grant once fought a guy called “Elmer Waterhen” according to Wikipedia; of course, by the time I hit post that may well have been changed to “Amanda Huginkiss” or “Hugh G. Rection” or something similar, for all I know. And yes I’m making dick jokes because there’s not a lot to say about this one. Grant, decision? Yes, let’s say so.

I have no idea why this post is so long. Let’s end it here- this should be a fun show.

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December 10, 2009 Posted by | MMA | , , , , , | Leave a comment

Oh, And

If Jamaican dudes doing country and western dances in chaps to the tune of the Benny Hill theme music wasn’t weird enough, Josh Gross is reporting that Anderson Silva wants to fight Frank Mir.

Andy by 1st round KO if it happens. Which, frankly, it should; everyone likes the occasional freak show fight, both guys would get paid a ton for it, and it’ll continue the making-Silva-a-star process. And what the hell else do you do with Mir now, anyway? I say go for it and let Andy unleash his inner Pacquiao for good.

August 20, 2009 Posted by | MMA | , , | Leave a comment