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UFC 103 Predictions: Old Time Something Come Back Again

UFC seems to have staged an accidental theme card with this one, as UFC 103 features the returns of Vitor Belfort, Frank Trigg, Hermes Franca, Vladimir Matyushenko and Mirko Crocop (on a serious full time basis), 4 of the 5 of whom are in featured matches on the televised portion of the card including in both of the top two bouts. It’s an ambitious move by UFC likely motivated partly by when people were ready to fight, but which all the same shows confidence that the name UFC itself will be sufficient to draw a solid buyrate- even opposed by a major boxing show, and despite the probable unfamiliarity of current casual audiences with some of these fighters. Whether or not that contention proves correct will be very interesting; I’m predicting 400,000 buys for this show which I would regard as a solid success though not a home run. I’ve not seen the countdown show which is reportedly excellent, which usually helps and may with luck boost the final number even higher. UFC 102 was reported in the 420,000 range, with what was regarded as a weaker countdown show, but a stronger main event.

Main card

* Catchweight (195 lb) bout: Rich Franklin vs. Vitor Belfort

There are many great quests in the world of popular entertainment: Dragon Quest, Team Quest, Quest for Fire, Prime Minister’s Quest-ion Time and so forth; but few can match the Quest For Old Vitor for the passion and persistence involved. They say, in days of yore, that the man stood nearly ten feet tall as a demi-God in stature, that his blows could smite the heavens themselves, and mighty Achilles and brave Heracles fled at the first note of his roaring. Or maybe they just said he knocked a bunch of dudes out quick, I forget. Either way Old Vitor is one of the great myths of modern MMA, a half-remembered creature from another era (and another weight class) whose achievements have grown with time and the telling to such a stature that they’ve even survived years of butt-scoot losses and gassed-out suspicions of quitting. Hope springs eternal as they say, and Current Vitor does just enough of an impression of his predecessor for fans to hang their yearning on. His last fight, a 0:37 second oblastication of Matt Lindland, was just that sort of performance. But (and there’s always a but with Vitor), here’s the rub: 37 seconds tells you very little and often hides more than it reveals, especially in this sport. Vitor’s got heavy hands and quick ones, and always did; it’s one of the things Old and New Vitor share, and when big men throw hands in little gloves anything can happen. Old Vitor once beat Randy Couture in in 49 seconds with a punch. 49 seconds! Randy Couture! It’s less impressive when you remember that fight was a cut stoppage and Randy destroyed Vitor over more than 23 minutes of their other two fights, finishing him twice.

If Vitor is a mystery Rich Franklin is anything but. Where Vitor has fought all over the place, Franklin has fought only in UFC since 2005. Where Vitor has lost to people he never should have and beaten people he never should have, Franklin has been entirely consistent in losing to only 3 people in his whole career (Lyoto Machida, Anderson Silva and Dan Henderson) at least two and probably all three of whom will be the equivalent of first-ballot hall of famers. Where Vitor has bounced around in 3 different weight classes, Franklin has stayed solid at 185 until forced to move up by age and inability to beat Anderson Silva. Where Vitor’s physical gifts are undeniable but his dedication, mental toughness and conditioning (and conditioning… methods….) are suspect, Franklin has taken a solid but not overwhelming amount of natural talent and married it to an unbending and ruthlessly dedicated conditioning and training program. Franklin is the prize in hand; Vitor is what’s behind door number two. With Rich Franklin you know precisely what you’re getting right down to the gameplan, and it’s a fighter who’s good enough to beat all but the very, very, VERY best in the world: solid standup which can be a bit sloppy at times but is varied and powerful, good clinch work, decent wrestling and solid grappling particularly defensively, excellent cardio, and high-level cage awareness and calm during the fight. The last time we saw Rich Franklin in the cage, he calmly and methodically broke down one of the most feared strikers of all time, Wanderlei Silva, over a period of 15 minutes to win a deserved and impressive decision. He fought through some punches which stunned him, didn’t get rattled in hard exchanges, paced himself, and never deviated from his plan. It was a professional performance at the highest level.

Of course, Old Vitor knocked out Wanderlei in 44 seconds.

Some spells are very hard to break, and I’m picking Vitor to win by decision. Franklin is the safe pick and the logical pick but Vitor strikes me as, on his day, the kind of striker with whom Franklin has a lot of trouble, varied and physically superior. If Belfort has 2 rounds of his best work available he should win this, and I’m betting that in his first match back in the UFC, in a main event, he will. Prepare to say you told me so.

* Heavyweight bout: Mirko Filipović vs. Junior dos Santos

And speaking of quick KO wins and who knows what they mean, here’s the guy who made Fabricio Werdum’s ears wiggle in 91 seconds last October. Mike Coughlin mentioned on his 5 Star Radio podcast that unlike the Old Vitor/new vitor dichotomy, Cro Cop’s deal is a more straight forward he’s got it/he’s lost it question, one we really don’t have an answer to right now. He beat Mostapha Al-Turk; great. Lovely! But two fights before that he was getting pounded by Notastar Overeem only to be saved because Overeem was overcome by an insatiable desire to cockpunch poor Cro Cop, and that last time the big man really looked like a killer was just over three years ago in PRIDE at the Openweight Grand Prix. Meanwhile in his two UFC fights so far Dos Santos has looked sensational, and he does represent a first-rate camp; there’s a pedigree there. All the same, he’s fought less than 3 minutes in the Octagon.

I really want to say that Mirko wins this with a decapitating Cro-Kick; it would be wonderful to see him still have enough of it to stage a real UFC run. But I have to go with Dos Santos here, for this reason: Crocop does not like being backed up, does not like it at all; and so far what we’ve seen of Dos Santos has been an aggressive but disciplined striker who goes after opponents and tries to take them out, a fighter who puts physical and mental pressure on the opposition. If Dos Santos can do that I don’t think he’ll give Crocop time to set and get off his most devastating shots, and Dos Santos has excellent handspeed and (so far) the gas to throw many shots in a reasonable defensively responsible manner. If he keeps that up, moves in and pressures CroCop, he can simply outwork a man 10 years older than him who’s a pick-his-spots stalker by inclination. It would be a gameplan not entirely dissimilar to what Cheick Kongo used, although Dos Santos has so far not shown the clinchwork and leg kicks to completely replicate that performance. It should be noted here, I’m a newer MMA fan; I missed a lot of Mirko as the wrath of God in PRIDE, so for me it’s probably easier (though not necessarily more correct) to see Crocop as a fighter whose physical decline prevents him from executing as he once did.

X-factor here: Dos Santos has never fought anyone with the legend and mystique of Cropcop before. He’s only 25; there is a chance that he may simply seize up mentally and go into vapor lock, unable to execute. It happened famously with GSP against Matt Hughes and while I have no idea if Dos Santos is that sort of fighter, it’s always a concern in these kinds of matchups. If he starts the fight out throwing aimless jabs on the outside instead of imposing himself physically, it’s a very bad sign. He’d better gameplan as well because if he circles to his right into the CroKick, that’s trouble.

* Welterweight bout: Martin Kampmann vs. Paul Daley

European kickboxing explosion! As you might expect when one of the fighters is nicknamed “Semtex”. On the feet either man can win; on the ground, well, Semtex has been defused 5 times in the grappling, the same number of Kampmann’s 15 wins which have come by that method. I’ll take Kampmann here in what should be an excellent fight, on the theory that if he gets in trouble standing or needs a breather when hurt he can get it down and control things. Daley’s only KO loss was a medical stoppage due to an injury, so I suspect he’ll hang around to lose a competitive decision. This one could be hard to score with Daley controlling standing exchanges and Kampmann controlling on the ground in even measure.

* Welterweight bout: Josh Koscheck vs. Frank Trigg

Like smashing two mirrors together. Both were top level amateur wrestlers, both are decent strikers who’ve improved noticeably over the course of their careers, both tend to portray themselves as loudmouthed dickheads for promotional purposes, both need to stay the fuck away from Georges St. Pierre. Koscheck is younger, maybe a little stronger, probably has the better submission defense; on the other hand he’s coming off the first legit KO of his career, and there’s times when that messes with a fighter’s psyche. Some decide to go back to basics which for Koscheck will be his wrestling- ordinary a good idea especially since Koscheck has developed some worryingly Wangtastic tendencies of late, but Trigg may still have the skills and athleticism (and size, given his fights at 185) to nullify that. Then what? If Koscheck can pass that mental test however, I think this fight is his- if it turns into a kickboxing match then I think he’s got a power advantage, one of the few things which separates the two men. My hunch is that Koscheck cracks Trigg pretty good in an exchange at some point, follows him down, and gets a RNC for the win. Call it 3rd round. For Trigg to win he has to hope that Koscheck hasn’t been training his wrestling as much of late, and that he can get in and shoot to take the fight down, and control from the top. That, or the inevitable puncher’s chance. The faster the pace, the more it probably favors the younger man.

* Lightweight bout: Tyson Griffin vs. Hermes Franca

Y’know, if Tyson Griffin could finish people at the world class level he’d be a superstar by now. At age 25 he’s won 5 fight of the night awards (and a submission of the night) in 8 UFC fights, and has wins over the likes of Marcus Aurilio, Gleison Tibau, Tiago Tavares, Clay Guida, Duane Ludwig, and Urijah Faber. His only losses are to Frankie Edgar and Sean Sherk, not exactly scrubs, and both of those were close and competitive decisions. Hermes Franca is a very good fighter, but he’s also the kind of guy who Griffin more or less runs right over at this stage of his career as Griffin is younger and likely to be stronger, faster, and have better cardio. As much as Griffin has troubles finishing people at times, he’s also never been finished. Another 3 round decision win looks likely here though Franca might gas and be finished late. Expect a furious pace and a fun fight.

Preliminary card

* Lightweight bout: Efrain Escudero vs. Cole Miller

Always tough to pick against an undefeated fighter, but I think Miller’s more advanced at this stage of his career and should be able to get the win here.

* Middleweight bout: Drew McFedries vs. Tomasz Drwal

Never been much of a Drew McFedries fan; he’s good at what he’s good at, but bad at covering up what he’s bad at, and thus easy to exploit. Drwal’s the pick.

* Lightweight bout: Jim Miller vs. Steve Lopez

Miller, in what appears to be a keep busy fight.

* Lightweight bout: Rafaello Oliveira vs. Nik Lentz

Olivera’s got a decent rep and Lentz is a late replacement, so I’ll take the Brazilian.

* Welterweight bout: Rick Story vs. Brian Foster

Story, seems a higher caliber wrestler and a guy with his head screwed on tighter (and yes, this far down the card my research is largely wikipedia-based).

* Light Heavyweight bout: Eliot Marshall vs. Jason Brilz

Not sure Eliot’s solved his big wrestler issue yet. I’ll take Brilz.

* Light Heavyweight bout: Vladimir Matyushenko vs. Igor Pokrajac

Matyushenko is ancient, but historically he’s a class above the level Pokrajac has competed at so far. Matyshenko is the pick.

* Lightweight bout: Rob Emerson vs. Rafael dos Anjos

I like Rob Emerson, and I hope they don’t cut him when Dos Anjos wins a decision.

All in all, I expect this to be one of those little UFC cards where the lack of big names creates low expectations, but the fights themselves leave everyone who does watch happy by the end of the night.

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September 16, 2009 Posted by | MMA | , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Oh No! Who Could Have Forseen This!

Three examples of a larger point today, about injuries and outcomes:

Let’s start with Arsenal. Fans have been saying this entire season that Arsenal have been hobbled badly by injuries, and just wait until all of our hurt players come back- we’ll be a force then. An example from today at Arseblog: “…imagine this formation with Arshavin and Walcott in place of Eboue and Bendtner and with Cesc in the centre of midfield.” I don’t mean to pick on Arseblog here, this is simply the most recent example of this I’ve seen.

I don’t buy it, and never have. The premise is that Arsenal’s injury woes are somehow uncommon or unexpected, a freak occurrence which is unlikely to be repeated and thus has little predictive value for the future performance of the team. There’s two major problems with this line of reasoning. The first is that while this year’s team have had a few freak injuries which were largely unpredictable in that they happened to usually durable players (like Cesc, or Kolo’s malaria), there have also been players like Robin van Persie with very long histories of frequent injury who have been almost totally healthy all year long. The uncommon and possibly unrepeatable outcomes have been on both sides of the ledger, so it’s difficult to say that Arsenal’s luck has been exceptionally bad from the standpoint of reasonable expectations of player health.

The second major problem is the assumption that injuries are usually non-predictive events. Arsenal are, in fact, a team full of fragile players: Diaby is rarely good for more than 2 or 3 games at a stretch, Eduardo, sadly, has suffered minor issues after the majority of games in his comeback after a year away, Rosicky’s problems are well known, RVP is usually injured for substantial stretches, Gallas has suffered his share of pulls and muscle problems and such (and is now over 30), Walcott has natural issues with his shoulders which have put him out more than once for extended periods- the list here is substantial and no doubt you can add to it. In all of these cases, there’s a track record of repeated injuries of a similar character which arise from the normal conduct of play, the sort of things which a player is simply going to have to do in order to perform. A non-predictive injury would be one like Cesc’s, where there’s no history of similar injury, or one like the tackle which put Eduardo out for a year which was exceptionally vicious. When Diaby, for example, misses several weeks with a muscle strain, that’s simply to be expected based on prior performance; if that sort of thing was in fact not repeated next year, THAT would be a freak occurrence because of how far it would depart from reasonable expectations.  Assuming that next year’s Arsenal will have a better track record of health than this year’s is an expression of hope, not reason.

So what, you may ask? That’s our second example. Take this article as an example of what happens when people fail to take into account the overall team-wrecking effects of having star players with major injury histories which are ignored.

(Aside: I just wiki’ed Eric Lindros, whose page as of right now has been edited to read “Eric “Biggest Waste of a Hockey Player Ever” Lindros (born 28 February 1973 in London, Ontario, Canada) is a retired professional ice hockey player.” Lol, as the kids say.)

The article attempts to defend the acquisition of Lindros on the grounds that what was traded for him ended up being no big deal, and that Lindros was ok. This is foolish analysis on the face of things, since Pavel Brendl’s eventual flameout was not known at the time, and therefore his perceived value could have been used to acquire many other players than Lindros; the trade shouldn’t be evaluated just on the basis of what each player did, but on the potential value of what each asset in the deal could have been used for at the time.

That niggle aside, the real problem with Lindros wasn’t the trade, but what Lindros did when he was with the Rangers. Wiki has the stats; you’ll note a good first year, healthy, followed by a healthy second year with a major statistical collapse, and then a third injury ravaged year before he left the team. If you’d been watching regularly (I had season tickets at the time), you’d have seen a player who was playing in a totally different fashion than he had previously in order to shield himself from further injury (Lindros had a history of concussions which ended his career, for those who don’t know), who had given up his physical style of play and was avoiding certain positions in order to minimize his risk.

The problem for the Rangers then was twofold: firstly they had ended up trading for a player who, even when healthy, was not at all the player he had been before his injuries became a constant risk, and the similarities for Arsenal fans to the situations with Eduardo, Risicky, etc. should be obvious; the second was a much more insidious cost, which is usually still not recognized. Read that article again, and focus on this sentence: “Losing puck-mover Kim Johnsson was somewhat more painful, though not the franchise-magnitude sacrifice Bondy would have you believe compared to the potential upside of Big E. “

That’s everything wrong with this mentality in one line. By the time he reached the Rangers, Lindros had suffered seven reported major concussions. SEVEN. Each concussion suffered predisposes the sufferer to a greater risk of another- was it at all reasonable to assume that a player who had suffered 7 major concussions in 8 NHL seasons was unlikely to suffer any more? But because Lindros was big and strong and had a good touch, people continued to fall in love with his “upside”- even the author of this article, 5 years after Lindros washed out of New York due to…a concussion.

Lindros was at all successful with the Rangers because he changed styles to minimize his risk, becoming less effective but more durable; this was entirely predictable based on his history, because the only other option for him was to continue to suffer debilitating injuries which were likely to be career-enders. While he was still somewhat effective, the unjustifiable assumptions (which were not his fault) that any day now he would play just like he did in Philadelphia ended up hamstringing the team for years on end, as they budgeted and made player moves around the idea that big number 88 was going to give them far more than he was physically able to do. The result was three years of failure in which the team finished 11th, 9th, and 13th in the conference, with no playoff appearances. The implications for Arsenal here should again be fairly obvious.

A final example to illustrate probability and outcomes. Take the fighting world, where these distinctions are usually clearest: at UFC 95 recently, Paulo Thiago fought Josh Koscheck. Kosckeck, a striker and wrestler who had previously fought the current champion, was a heavy favorite in that fight and considered a top-5 welterweight in the world; Thiago was considered a less experienced and less well-known UFC debutante reliant on his jiu jitsu. So of course Thiago knocked Koscheck clean out in the first round with a two punch combo.

And yet, anyone who gave the matter much thought would realize that if these two were to rematch, the smart money would all be on Koscheck. He has a far greater skill level, a stronger track record, more options in a fight; that Thiago knocked him out despite a demonstrably lesser skill level is what is colloquially called a lucky punch, but should be understood more specifically as an unlikely but possible outcome. Let’s say you could get those guys to fight 100 times under identical conditions- odds are, Thiago knocks Koscheck out, say, 8-10 times out of a 100; maybe he submits him another few times, ekes out a few decisions, etc. Kosckeck still probably wins 60-80% of those fights based on greater demonstrated ability. That doesn’t make Thiago’s victory hollow, or unimportant; it makes it an uncommon outcome which was always possible, but which it would be foolish to bet on happening more than a small fraction of the time.

An even better if less recent example would be the two Georges St. Pierre vs. Matt Serra fights. GSP, clearly the more talented of the two, got knocked out in the first round in their initial encounter; in their second, he humbled Serra badly and destroyed him in the second round, and not once since then has there been any talk of a third meeting- for many reasons, one of the biggest of which is that UFC matchmakers and most fans instinctively understand the concept of possible but unlikely outcomes, which because they’re so infrequent, have little predictive value for the future.

To summerize: Arsenal have been badly hit by injuries this year, it’s true; but they have not been more badly hit than might have been expected given the histories of their players, and if you’re banking on them being substantially more healthy next year, you’re either assuming they’ll have substantially different personnel, or else you’re counting on a miracle.

February 25, 2009 Posted by | MMA, The Arsenal, The NY Rangers | , , , , , | Leave a comment