Dana White recently announced that this weekend’s UFC on Fox card would potentially figure out who’ll fight the winner of Jon “Bones” Jones vs. Dan Henderson for the light heavyweight title. It’s a nice caveat to potentially another good night of fights. Now it’s time to break down the main card, televised on Fox.
Mauricio Rua vs. Brandon Vera
Fight Breakdown – It seems like yesterday that at the very least one would consider that Brandon Vera would at least get a title shot in either the light heavyweight or heavyweight divisions. Coming out of the gate with a four fight win streak that included a stoppage of former champion Frank Mir, a contract holdout that took a year off his in-ring career somehow seemed to sabotage his career. He never looked like the killer he had been in his initial four fights in the UFC and now has been treading on “potential” for almost five years now. With a handful of solid wins, Vera has never really brought out the fighter that he was at UFC 65 despite claiming to be either “new or improved” or “fighting like the old me” for what seems like the past couple years. That year off just seemed to take away a lot of the wind in his sails and he’s been a shell of a fighter since. But he talks a good game and is just skilled enough to be a marginal UFC fighter; how much left he has in the gas tank can be debated but the consensus seems to be “not much.” One of Jon Jones’s signature wins was a thorough thrashing of Vera, the type of soul-snatching loss you never recover from, and now he steps up in competition from Elliot Marshall to one of the best light heavyweights in the world in Mauricio “Shogun” Rua.
Rua, coming off one of the greatest wars in MMA history against Dan Henderson, steps into the cage looking for another shot at the championship he held briefly. He’s also on a streak of consistently good health for the first time in years; Rua’s documented knee problems left him looking like a shell of the fighter he was in Pride on occasion. Multiple knee surgeries take years to recover from and starting with the Griffin fight he looked like the fighter of old in his footwork and explosiveness. He’s not the guy that left Quinton Jackson in a heap on the canvas years ago, of course, but he’s probably as close as he’ll get. You lose some explosiveness when you tear an ACL multiple times but Rua’s long road to recovery is over at this point. Which is why the fight with Vera is an interesting one for him to take; Vera isn’t in his league in terms of accomplishments nor is he a top flight talent either.
Vera’s a name, though, and still good at selling fights. Heck, some people thought he had a good chance at beating Jon Jones as well before “Bones” caved in part of his face with elbows. So he has that going for him.
This is a fairly substantial mismatch on paper but it’s not like Vera has no chance at winning either. Vera is the odd matchup problem for Rua because what he’s good at is similar to how Rua sets up his vaunted striking game: the clinch. Vera loves to grab guys in it and go for the takedown and a smothering top game whereas Rua likes to grab the Thai Plumb and unload with strikes. That’ll be the key to the fight; who can exploit the clinch game the most.
Vera has an underrated striking game but he hasn’t faced anyone with the power and diverse style of Rua. Vera has a fairly strong arsenal, focusing on Muay Thai as the basis of his striking game, but he’s facing someone who’s been doing that particular striking style for significantly longer and at a higher level. He can take Rua down off of Rua’s leg kick game and Rua still does enough sloppy things with his boxing, including not utilizing a jab as effectively as he could, that Vera could exploit.
Rua’s gameplan is going to revolve around beating Vera to the punch, keeping the fight standing and if he can stagger the Air Force veteran unload with a fight-ending flurry. Rua is one of the best in MMA at that fight ending swarm set up with a big strike, especially early, and look for him to try and snatch the fight right of Vera as soon as he can.
Why It Matters – Rua may be 1-1 in his last two fights but after the war with Henderson, which many people (myself included) scored for Rua, it’s as if he’s 2-0. No one lost in the epic battle at UFC 139; the fight just happened to have a winner and a loser. Rua’s a functional 2-0 as no one is going to go “oh, but he lost to Dan Henderson” without the context of the fight itself. A Rua win here, especially one where he wrecks Vera in impressive fashion, and another shot at Jon Jones becomes feasible in the near future or maybe after a title eliminator against someone like Alexander Gustafsson. A win here and a matchup with the winner of Jones/Henderson becomes that more feasible.
For Vera he has to win or he’s probably losing his job; unless he comes out and has an epic war with Rua and loses anything short of a victory and he’s fighting on a Titan FC card against Anthony Johnson in the near future. Zuffa will reward a guy who “wars” in defeat but not a guy who shows nothing and has one win in four fights without showing anything in them. Vera’s in the proverbial “do or die” moment in his career right now; anything short of a win or a loss in a fight of the century leaves him on the outside of the UFC looking in. If there ever was a chance for him to finally bank on that potential, to fulfill the promise he had when it looked like more than a boast that he would hold both the UFC light heavyweight and heavyweight titles, the time is now. If not those 11 months he took away from the UFC battling over contracts will leave us thinking that the fighter that he was disappeared with him.
Prediction – Rua by TKO, rd 2
Ryan Bader vs. Lyoto Machida
Fight Breakdown – Lyoto Machida did what no man has done so far to Jon Jones in a title fight: won a round off him. While he ultimately ended up losing the fight, falling to the mat unconscious after refusing to tap to a deep guillotine, he showed some vulnerability in a champion that had looked seemingly unstoppable to that point. Machida himself is a former champion, having knocked out Rashad Evans for the title with Joe Rogan infamously declaring that “the Machida era has begun.” It lasted all of two fights, a controversial win over Rua and then his first career loss to him by KO shortly thereafter. Machida hasn’t fought since he was choked out by Jon Jones and now faces someone who also has history with Jones and his chokes in Ryan Bader.
Bader had a rough 2011 and now looks to be on the rebound. At the beginning of 2011 he was a top prospect in the light heavyweight division, neck and neck with Jones in terms of long term potential. Some thought that Bader would be the better fighter over the long run, as well, and the fight with Jones was to be one where one of the fighters established themselves as a force in the division. Unfortunately Bader got ragdolled by Jones and then choked out, leading to Jones getting a short notice title shot. The rest for Jones is history; Bader would need a while to rebound though.
After being dismantled by Jones, and then shocked in the upset of the year by Tito Ortiz, Bader is on a two fight win streak after dismantling Jason Brilz and outwrestling Quinton “Rampage” Jackson in Japan. He seems to have righted the ship and now we get a natural, organic matchup of top light heavyweights in Bader/Machida. And it’s a really fascinating style matchup.
Bader fights like a younger, more athletic version of Tito Ortiz in that he relies on a strong boxing game to match a stifling power wrestling game. Bader has knockout power in his hands and can stand with nearly anyone in the division if he has to. His striking also helps set up his takedowns; he was an All-American at Arizona State and is effective at getting the fight to the ground. While there he has a smothering top game, predicated on landing power strikes and maintaining top position. Bader isn’t one to go for submissions on top regularly or pass guard; he’s effective in guard or half guard with his striking game and is powerful enough to keep guys where he wants them. He might be the biggest fighter in the division, as well.
Machida has such a unique style, using high level Shotokan karate and counter striking coupled with strong takedown defense, that he presents a matchup problem for every fighter. Machida is remarkably effective in avoiding strikes and landing, forcing fighters to over commit and exploiting that. It can be frustrating to watch as a fan at times, because often times Machida appears to be avoiding the fight and “running away,” but the way he uses movement is remarkable when viewed in a sports context and not a “just bleed” point of view. When he throws he has an awful lot of power behind him as well; Machida doesn’t get nearly enough credit for having one punch KO power. On the ground he’s world class with a black belt in BJJ but he’s never on his back long enough in a fight to have it use it; most of Machida’s opponents keep the fight standing because getting him down is really difficult due to his style and strong takedown defense.
He’s also a favorite of traditional martial arts practitioners to a remarkable degree due to his karate base; the easiest way to annoy one of them is refer to him as “The Running Man” and do the late ‘90s dance whenever mentioning him. Like you know that one guy who watches MMA with you but is way too into something like kung fu? That’s the guy you can drive crazy. One time I upset someone because my impression of Machida’s fighting style was loosely described as “a light slap, running a marathon in the cage and then have imbeciles discuss how dominant you are followed by screaming ‘The Machida Era’ while shaking your head.” If someone’s a big MMA fan and a traditional martial artists practitioner odds are it’ll be jean-creaming time for them; any time you can get a rise out of someone for something this silly i say go for it.
The interesting thing about the fight is the size matchup. Machida has discussed about how he could probably make 185 without a problem in the past in contrast to Bader, who might be the biggest fighter in the light heavyweight division. Both men have KO power but use it differently; Machida lands big shots on counter strikes and Bader has a big looping overhand that has dropped or stopped plenty of fighters. There are two fights that Bader is going to have to watch and gameplan with to beat Machida: Machida/Rua 1 and Machida/Jackson. In both of those fights Machida’s opponents cut off the cage and kept him within short distance. If you can make Machida fight in a phone booth you can land enough to win a fight. Bader needs to get Machida in the clinch, use footwork to cut off the cage and finish takedowns. If he can do that, and get Machida on his back for extended periods of time, he can grind out a win. If he can do what Rampage did against him, which is more of a possibility than emulating Rua’s footwork and striking, he can notch another win.
Machida needs to keep the fight standing and work his counter style. His footwork and movement need to keep Bader at bay, making him lunge for awkward takedowns and setting up counterstrikes. The longer this goes on the feet the better his chances; he has a clear striking advantage and a key to avoiding defeat in that area is avoiding Bader’s power shots. He uses big overhand rights and looping punches to go for the knockout as well as set up level changes.
Why It Matters – It is two top 10 fighters in the division with someone getting closer to a title shot with a win, which gives it meaning. Machida and Bader both have losses to Jones on their record in the recent past, though, so this is another step in what’ll probably be at least two more fights before being back in the title picture as long as Jon Jones holds the title.
Prediction – Bader by SD
Joe Lauzon vs. Jamie Varner
Fight Breakdown – If you had to think of guys who wouldn’t be on a main card of a UFC on Fox against one another, Lauzon/Varner is probably the matchup you thought of in the lightweight division. But it’s oddly compelling for any number of reasons, if only to see if one thing is possible.
If either fighter is capable of becoming a Top 10 caliber fighter in the division, amongst other things, will happen.
Lauzon made his mark in the UFC with an upset of Jenz Pulver, back when a victory over him still meant something, and a fairly capable run on the lightweight season of “The Ultimate Fighter.” Always on the fringes of being a contender, Lauzon would always falter when facing guys in the top tier. And then something interesting happened: he choked out Melvin Guillard in quick fashion and seemed to have made that final jump to contender. He would summarily get knocked out by Anthony Pettis shortly thereafter but the win over Guillard is his highest profile win since he stopped Pulver as an unknown. Lauzon has always been the guy that’s right on the cusp of doing great things and then losing; if you’re elite you generally beat Lauzon on your way up. If you’re not he’ll win. It’s not a bad spot and Lauzon’s a first rate fighter in many regards.
Varner, on the other hand, was considered a Top 10 lightweight for some time during his run as champion in the WEC. Once he won by decision over Donald Cerrone he seemed to lose everything that had one made him a special fighter: losses to Ben Henderson, Cerrone and Shane Roller led to his release from the WEC on the eve of its merger with the UFC. He’s been successful on the indie scene but it’s easy to get lost out there with the sheer volume of talent available. But he still had a name and reputation, which is why he got called up on short notice for UFC 146. It seemed like Edson Barboza was being set up with an easy win; Varner had a name but had washed out of the WEC. And then he came out against the Brazilian with nothing to lose and stopped him in one of the biggest upsets of 2012.
Varner claims to be a new man and looks like he’s been reborn outside the Zuffa umbrella, at least from what we saw against Barboza. Sometimes a fighter needs to be on the outside looking in to rediscover that sort of passion and fire; this fight means a lot more for Varner long term because if he can win, and win impressively, potentially talk of a career resurgence and a title shot down the road could be thought of. And his key to victory over Lauzon is to take this as far as he can.
Lauzon’s a terrific fighter … for five minutes. After that it’s up in the air as his fights tend to come with dominant first rounds, solid second rounds and lost third rounds if he makes it there. For five minutes he’s a world beater, the next five he’s good and in the last five he survives. If there was a guy made for an eight minute fight it’s him; anything after and he’s usually done for. He’s never been able to put it together for 15 minutes but Lauzon is usually a terror to handle in the opening round and manageable thereafter. Lauzon wins usually by stopping guys within the first 10 minutes or so; of his career stoppages only one has been in the third round (Mike Brown in 2004) and he’s only gone to decision once in his career (a loss to Sam Stout). Lauzon is always going for the finish it sometimes bites him; his aggressiveness has caused a number of his losses as well.
Varner needs to weather the early storm from Lauzon and wait for that trademark aggression to come out. Varner has first rate boxing and solid wrestling credentials and take this as deep as he can. If he can weather the early storm he can win the fight.
Why It Matters – This is a good opener for a Fox card, as both fighters are finishers who are rarely in boring fights, and it’s the right kind of fight to try and keep its audience with. The winner of this probably faces someone in the top 10 with a win.
Prediction – Varner by TKO, 3rd
Mike Swick vs. DeMarques Johnson
Fight Breakdown – Two and a half years is a long time for anything. When Mike Swick last competed in the UFC Jon Jones hadn’t made the leap from prospect to elite fighter, Randy Couture was beginning his final run in the light heavyweight division and DeMarques Johnson was a TUF prospect just starting his UFC career. In the near 30 months since then Swick has dealt with a variety of ailments, from an undiagnosed stomach ailment to a tore up knee, while Johnson has flirted with being out of the UFC any number of times. Swick, on a two fight losing streak of his own, finally makes his comeback to the Octagon after being one of the original TUF cast members and finds himself in a similar spot.
And usually when fighters get desperate good things can happen.
Swick’s two losses are a bit of a misnomer though; he lost to Dan Hardy in a title eliminator and then to another top contender back then in Paulo Thiago. Now we look at those losses in a different light given the career struggles of both men as of late but back in 2010 they were top fighters in a division ruled by Georges St. Pierre. Now they’re losses to guys who never really recovered as of yet from losses to GSP, who still holds the title, but back then they weren’t anything to sneeze at. Two and a half years later it comes down to one basic premise: how much does Swick have left?
Major medical problems and ACL repairs can take a lot out of a fighter’s career. Brock Lesnar’s first rate athleticism seemed to go away once he had parts of his intestine removed and how much Swick’s body has been damaged is going to play a HUGE factor in this fight. Ring rust is an issue, of course, but how Swick’s body reacts to the fight will show us everything we need to know about how much longer he’ll be in a cage.
This is a fairly straight forward grappler/striker matchup. Swick has first rate striking skills, and a knack for finishing guys, and will have to keep the fight on his feet. Johnson comes out of Jeremy Horn’s camp and is known for being a great grappler but mediocre striker. Johnson’s best chances of winning are on the mat and therein lies our dilemma for the evening; can he get Swick down and keep him there? Or can Swick keep it standing and get another of his explosive finishes?
Johnson’s also a case of being talented but never really living up to what his ceiling should’ve been; Johnson looked like a world beater on TUF and gave a spirited performance on the finale but since then he just hasn’t put it all together. He looked like he would wind up being so much of a better fighter than he’s turned into; at this point it’s hard to tell if he’s good enough to stay in the UFC much less beat Mike Swick. If Swick finishes him in devastating fashion he could be on the outside looking in; Johnson always seems to win when it looks like he’s not. If there was a case for guy being on that fringe of being talented enough to stay in the UFC Marques Johnson is it; he’s MMA’s “Mendoza Line.”
Why It Matters – Johnson could be back on the regional circuit with a loss, especially an emphatic one, because of the sheer depth of the welterweight division. There are too many talented guys to keep around for someone with Johnson’s talents to keep a roster spot if Johnson can’t put together a winning streak.
For Swick this is the ultimate test of how much he has left in the gas tank. For someone with his pedigree a win over Johnson is a good possibility but if he wins, and does so poorly, what remains of the last act of his career is going to come out on network television. An impressive win and maybe we can begin to consider him a Top 10 fighter in the division once again. Anything else and the big question will be how much of his career did medical ailments, et al, take away?
Prediction – Swick by UD
Tags: Brandon Vera, Jamie Varner, Joe Lauzon, Lyoto Machida, Mike Swick, Mixed Martial Arts, ryan bader, shogun rua, UFC on Fox 4