If this was a PPV card people would be complaining … not really sure about what but MMA fans tend to do that a lot. Welcome to being a sport that’s grown with the internet age and never had an era where it wasn’t scrutinized heavily on the web. But on paper it’s one of the best cards of the year, especially since it’s on terrestrial television. Think about it: We get BJ PENN ON FREE TELEVISION WITHOUT NEEDING TO PAY FOR CABLE OR PPV! That in and of itself is pretty rad to me. Now it’s time to break down this weekend’s MMA card.
Fight breakdown: Twice the UFC had an opportunity to put the lightweight title on Fox and instead threw it onto pay per view. Now Benson Henderson has the opportunity to defend his title on terrestrial television against one of the more game opponents in the lightweight division: Nathan Diaz.
Both guys come in as fairly well rounded fighters who can finish in any spot in the cage. The key will be where and that’s where this fight becomes interesting.
Henderson’s a BJJ standout with a first rate TKD background meshed with a college wrestling pedigree. Henderson has cardio for days and puts a rough pace to any fight he’s in. He’s tough to finish, having been choked out in his third professional fight as the lone standout stoppage loss of his career, and is one of the biggest fighters in the division. He throws a lot of kicks and is smooth in everything he does, hence the nickname.
Diaz is a BJJ standout with first rate boxing. Diaz mimics his older brother Nick in that he doesn’t gas in fights and has a chin seemingly made out of cast iron. His only loss that wasn’t a decision was early in his career to Hermes Franca via armbar. A decent sized welterweight but slender enough to make 155 without a problem, Diaz is the lightweight version of his brother but with a bit more professionalism in his approach so far. Whereas Nick doesn’t “play the game” so to speak Nate has; it’s remarkable that he could potentially hold a UFC title before his brother does.
Henderson can take a beating, as can Diaz, so they key to the fight is going to revolve around two things: Henderson’s ability to get top position and his use of leg kicks.
In many ways this fight is going to resemble a weird combination of Nick Diaz vs. Carlos Condit and the first Henderson/Edgar fight. One of the crazy things that neither Diaz brother does is check leg kicks all that often; both will resort to their slap boxing game but stalk down an opponent while taking all sorts of leg kicks without throwing them in return or checking them either. Look for Henderson to throw them and circle away, making Diaz press towards him. Henderson isn’t going to win a war where he stands and trades with Diaz; Donald Cerrone tried the same thing and came away beaten like a drum. Look for Henderson to frustrate Diaz with leg kicks and use them to set up his takedowns. From there his top position game will be a big key to the fight. Henderson will take Diaz down regularly enough during the fight; Diaz has a bad habit of being taken down because of the confidence in his ability off his back.
In a division heavy on wrestling at 155 Diaz is the rare fighter that doesn’t mind being taken down and put on his back. Why? Because he’s an absolute killer there, that’s why. One of the things Nate does better than anyone in the division is fight off his back successfully; he’s pulled off a number of impressive wins off his back and Henderson will have a tough time in a grappling match with him. His guard is lethal; he’s not the sweeping type in that he’s going to get back to his feet as soon as he can by trying to set up scrambles, et al.
If Henderson gets the takedown he’s going to have to be careful. Diaz doesn’t go for sweeps or scrambles; he’s comfortable going for the kill as opposed to a better position, leaving himself exposed to strikes in the process. Henderson can tee off on him but one bad strike and Diaz is going to lock something on. He’s going to be pushing a hard pace, too, but it’s not something that’ll wear out a guy like Nate Diaz either.
Diaz’s game plan is going to be simple. Connect as often as he can, stay standing and look to finish at every possible occurrence. At lightweight he’s been comfortable going wherever his opponent wants. Diaz is like his brother in that he likes to work the body and then move up to the head with his boxing game, as well, so look for him to use his length in that regard as well.
The other thing Diaz is going to do is throw off Henderson with his usual trash-talking, Stockton-saluting brash cage manner. Henderson rarely gets rattled but Nate Diaz is an entirely different beast in that regard.
Why it matters: It’s for the lightweight title, which means a ton, but for both fighters it’s a validation of sorts.
Henderson arguably lost both fights against Frankie Edgar. People aren’t viewing him as a champion in the same way they do everyone else on the roster in a way; it’s hard to argue he’s the best lightweight in the world when you could argue that he lost both title fights. He has to win, and win dominantly, to establish himself. Leonard Garcia did something similar in winning a lot of fights with the judges but not really winning in the minds of fans and pundits. Winning close fights, and arguably close ones at that, doesn’t earn you fans and big paydays. He may be the champion but he doesn’t have a champion’s respect. It’s the difference between Frankie Edgar after his first Maynard title defense and the second; knocking out the Michigan State wrestler gave him that respect he’d been lacking in the same way he got it after dominating BJ Penn after their controversial first fight. Henderson needs a win and needs it above the “arguably out-pointing his opponent” method he’s found himself in as of late.
For Diaz it’s the validation of being a great lightweight. The whole Cesar Gracie camp tends to do the “nobody likes us” angle whenever they lose, or whenever Gracie is on camera, because it works for their camp. It sounds like the MMA version of the Jesse Ventura show about conspiracies, as if it’s a grand conspiracy by state athletic commissions and judges to screw over his camp, but it works for guys like the Diaz brothers because they’re great finishers. They don’t leave it in the hands of the judges if possible because they’re under the impression that if the fight goes the distance they have a strong chance of losing. It’s an insane motivator but for them it works.
Prediction: Nate Diaz
Fight breakdown: After headlining a UFC on Fox card that went against the Olympics Shogun Rua gets another shot on Fox to prove his worth against the best light heavyweight prospect since Jon Jones.
Rua’s game is simple: throw down with a high level Muay Thai striking game and try to finish with strikes. He has an oddly effective wrestling game at times, as well as some vaunted BJJ skills, but Rua is at his best when he can stand and trade. Look for him to go for the big kill early on; once he lands something that rocks his opponent he swarms for the kill. The sooner the better, as well, because Rua hasn’t shown the ability to be truly effective against a game opponent after the first in what seems like forever. He beat Brandon Vera in the fourth but both were gassed after an exciting first round. He came back against Dan Henderson … after Henderson was sucking up so much oxygen that the first 10 rows passed out. Rua hasn’t gone into deep waters with someone who wasn’t nearly as gassed as he was.
The former Pride stalwart has fallen into a pattern; start out super hot and go for the finish, fading quickly. Most times it works as he gasses at the same rate his opponent does; other times he gets the quick finish. And that’s where Gustafsson can win this fight; by not gassing and having a good sized gas tank come the second round.
That’s where Gustafsson can take the win from; by pushing the pace further and surviving to the second round. He has a style of jabbing at range to make Rua frustrated and he has to keep at distance from him. Rua works his magic with one great strike to rock you followed by a swarm to finish. Gustafsson needs to avoid that big strike, land at his usual pace, and take Rua as far as he can. The deeper the water the better for him.
Why it matters: Gustafsson is arguably a fight or two away from a title shot. A win here, especially a big one, and he gets Jon Jones next. Shogun wants another shot at regaining the light heavyweight title and a win here puts him in contention as well.
Prediction: Shogun Rua
Fight breakdown: What’ll happen when Rory MacDonald and his power meet the craftsmanship of B.J Penn’s slick boxing and BJJ games? Lots of fun, hopefully, in what’s a good choice to be fight of the night.
B.J Penn’s game hasn’t changed all that much over the years in terms of how he fights but he was fighting at a higher, more developed level than his peers earlier in his career. The rest of the pack has caught up to him now. He has a slick boxing game, one of the best in MMA, to go with a solid wrestling game and a slick BJJ game. He has remarkable power in his hands and a finishing touch on the ground that’s one of the best in the game. Penn also is crazy flexible and has ways of taking back, amongst others, that only he can pull off because his body is so oddly flexible.
His problems in fights generally tend when his opponents push the pace on him; in major fights he’s gassed, especially at welterweight, so legitimate issues about his cardio remain. He came out like a gangbuster against Nick Diaz in the first round and then faded fast; from the looks of it he’s in the best shape of his career and that could mean something in terms of the pace he pushes as well. If B.J can push his first round pace for 15 minutes he could be a scary man. Look for him to come out fast in the first round; Penn is at his best when he can start out fast, get the advantage, and impose his will. All his wins, especially signature ones over guys like Kenny Florian, have come when he dominates early and doesn’t let up.
MacDonald is a younger version of GSP in his style; he’s a big, powerful striker with good striking and a smothering top game. His game is going to revolve around getting Penn to the ground, getting on top and pounding him out. MacDonald has a really rough cut to make to get to 170 and will come into the cage a significantly bigger fighter than Penn; his game plan is going to involve grinding Penn down and wearing him down, making him carry a significantly bigger fighter’s weight.
Why it matters: Penn retired after the Diaz fight and looks to be in significantly better shape than he’s ever been in during his jaunts to 170. He seems motivated, too, and while he’s been around the fight game for a long time he’s still relatively young and exited his athletic peak a couple years ago. BJ has that mid 30s athletic bubble right now; his body hasn’t quite given out and his body is saying “yes I can.” It’s a dangerous combination. If B.J has that mythical one last run in him it starts with Rory MacDonald. He’s in the phase of his career where he’s looking at the legacy of unfulfilled expectations that he’s accumulated, which is crazy considering he won titles in two divisions against some of the best of his era, and wanting to be mentioned like Hughes, Couture, Franklin, et al.
B.J should be mentioned in that air and I think he might’ve hit that point as a man when you look at wasted youth and try to alter your future. A motivated Penn, hyped up to be fighting on terrestrial television and looking to secure his legacy is something that should make you giddy.
This is MacDonald’s highest profile opponent since Carlos Condit. He’s been running through competition and he’s in the same place Erick Silva was in when he fought Jon Fitch; this is a prospect who’s fed in the shallow end of the pool for some time and now is being thrown into the deep waters. MacDonald was beating Carlos Condit handily when Condit’s last minute heroics pulled victory out of the jaws of defeat, as well. A win here and Rory is probably a fight away from having to choose between fighting a friend or leaving the division, especially a dominant one over what looks like a game opponent in Penn.
Fight breakdown: Mike Swick shook off most of his ring rust against Demarques Johnson last quarter and now steps up against a fighter who’s never dull in Matt Brown. Both guys are fairly well rounded but like to brawl it out.
Why it matters: Swick wants to show everyone he can get back to contender status. Brown is on a solid win streak. The winner moves up the line to a fight or two from someone relevant.