From this weekend on we’re looking what could be the single greatest 30 days in MMA history. This weekend the two very best heavyweights in the world square off on a fairly significant card. Throw in Belfort/Bisping in Brazil, the Chicago card on Fox, Strikeforce’s final show as well as Bellator debuting on Spike TV. Time to start by breaking down this weekend’s PPV.
UFC Heavyweight Championship – Junios Dos Santos (c) vs. Cain Velasquez
Fight Breakdown – The only thing disappointing about their first fight, the UFC’s debut onto terrestrial television over a year ago, is that it ended so soon. Many of us had expected a veritable five round war between Cain Velasquez and Junior Dos Santos. Instead we got JDS landing a punch that wobbled the NCAA All-American before pounding him out early in the first round. Now, a year a later, the two clash one more time for the biggest prize in combat sports.
Neither fighter has changed all that much since the first meeting. JDS is a boxing based fighter with still mainly unexplored grappling skills with perhaps the best power in the division. Cain is a kickboxing based wrestler with cardio for days and shocking amounts of power.
JDS’s way to victory is easy; with his hands. He’s stopped Cain with punches once already and there’s a confidence in that Cain can’t take away. JDS knows he’s given Cain his best shot and Cain couldn’t take it. Look for him to keep the fight standing and make Cain trade with him. Shane Carwin remarked that JDS is incredibly tough to hold down and remarkably strong in the clinch, a high compliment from perhaps the strongest fighter in the division. If he gets taken down he needs to get up quickly; the longer he’s on his back against Cain the worse off he’s going to be. JDS is going to look to sprawl and brawl; forget his comments about looking for a submission. He has 25 minutes to land the big shot; now he can have more confidence in that strategy because he knows he has enough power to put Cain down with one shot.
Cain’s path is a bit more complicated than it was a year ago. He’s felt JDS’s power and isn’t a stranger to how hard the Brazilian hits. Look for him to stay at distance and make JDS come to him, to use less power punches and make him more jab-happy. He needs to make JDS use a more nuanced boxing game as opposed to power punches; if he can get JDS to look to set up combinations he can eat a jab or two to get the takedown. He can’t eat the big shots and do the same; he has a tremendous chin but JDS’s power has proven to be too much for him once.
Cain is remarkably explosive and needs JDS to over commit to power strikes to set up his takedown game. Cain is at his best in top control, working out of guard, and JDS has had some cardio issues in the past. The longer the fight goes the more it’s advantageous for Cain because he has a clear advantage in that department. He’s hittable in the first and gets less so as the fight wears on; if he can drag JDS into deep waters he can pull out a win.
JDS has shown cardio issues in the past, technically, as he looked exhausted after the Carwin & Nelson fights. The one caveat to those fights is that JDS exhausted himself punching both men in the face as hard as he could for 15 minutes; he won’t have that opportunity against Cain, who doesn’t have the chin to absorb 25 minutes of continuous power shots.
Why It Matters – It’s for the biggest prize in MMA, first and foremost, but both fighters have a lot on the line.
JDS ties the record for UFC title defenses held by Brock Lesnar (and others) by a heavyweight with a win here. After a beat down of Frank Mir earlier this year Dos Santos wins here and is eyeing ground no UFC heavyweight champion has ever walked with another victory. He also winds up being the best heavyweight in the world, indisputably, with a big KO win here.
Cain Velasquez was legitimately hurt going into the UFC on Fox fight but didn’t want to pull out because of how important the fight was. He came into the fight with a tore up knee and people have always proclaimed that a “healthy” Cain would’ve put up a much different fight. Cain may have been hurt coming in but it wasn’t his knee that Junior punched, just saying. A win here and what could be the greatest trilogy in UFC heavyweight ranks is set up … and Cain’s road to a third fight with JDS gets infinitely tougher with another KO loss to the champ. It’s hard to justify a third fight between the two if Cain gets mercked again early in the fight, especially if he’s being dominated in the process. It won’t be his last shot at regaining his title but getting another title shot will be that much tougher with a loss.
Prediction – JDS by KO, round 3
Tim Boetsch vs. Constantinos Philoppou
Fight Breakdown – What happens when one middleweight member of Matt Serra’s team falls down? He gets replaced. Thus Constantinos Philoppou steps up on short notice against a man knocking on the door of the elites in the middleweight division in Tim Boetsch.
This is a fairly simple matchup. Philoppou has big time power in his hands going against Boetsch, who also can throw with the best. This will go one of two ways. Either it’ll be a wild, violent brawl or Boetsch will impose his top wrestling game and grind a decision. Philippou’s power might be a bit overrated as he doesn’t have a plethora of violent stoppages in the UFC (the bulk have come in northeastern based Ring of Combat) but he’s shown in the past to be able to stop guys with strikes. Boetsch, on the other hand, drilled Yushin Okami out of the Top 10 with some uppercuts in Japan.
Why It Matters – This was supposed to be Boetsch/Weidman, with a claim to a UFC title shot up in the air, but with Weidman’s injury this is a placeholder fight for Boetsch. Costa is a tough but winnable fight and a big KO here moves him up a notch in the rankings. There’s some improvement in standing for him but a win here for Philoppou and he stakes his claim to a Top 10 ranking.
Philoppou with an upset win here vaults himself into deep waters even further. An upset here can make his career and get him a co-main event for a title shot sooner than later.
Prediction – Boetsch
Jim Miller vs. Joe Lauzon
Fight Breakdown – Sometimes an injury can take a really good fight and make it that much better with a replacement. That’s what Gray Maynard’s knee injury did for his fight against Joe Lauzon; it gave us a fight with almost as much at stake while making it between two guys are never dull inside the cage.
Miller comes out aggressive, looking to use his boxing game to set up his grappling attack. Lauzon does the same, using a more nuanced kickboxing game to go for the kill early.
Both guys are similar in how they attack; they go for the finish, go for it often and generally tend to get it against most guys. The difference is that usually Miller doesn’t have a problem going the distance, grinding a win if he has to as opposed to Lauzon’s hyper-aggressive style. The longer the fight goes the better his odds get; Miller is just as good at the end of fights as he is in the beginning, something Lauzon is the exact opposite.
Miller’s strength will be on the ground as he’s one of the best positional grapplers in the division when he has top control. Miller is remarkably effective when he starts building momentum in a fight; he has a way of grinding guys to the point where they give up something he can use to finish them. It’s workmanlike, nothing flashy, but Miller manages to make it successful. He’s also the definitely bigger fighter in this fight and the longer he has top position the fast Lauzon will fade.
Kenny Florian has described him as the toughest out in the first round in all of the UFC and that’s the truth; Lauzon in the first is so relentless that finishes come often. Lauzon is willing to give up sure ground for a killing strike, as Liam Neeson said in “Batman Begins,” and that’s usually been his weak point. He’s so aggressive in going for the finish that he often gives up better position to do so. He also fades quickly through the fight, usually not making it to the third. He’s only gone the distance once and his win over Jamie Varner was the exception as he won in the third, his first time in the UFC doing so. If he wins it’ll be within the first eight minutes or so, where he historically has most of his wins (and finishes).
The key will be if he can find a time to try to finish against Miller, one of the tougher outs in MMA. Miller has a good chin and never sacrifices his position for a finish; Lauzon is going to have to get him in a bad spot and capitalize on it, something that rarely happens. Miller can be rocked, it’s just difficult, but if he can do it he has to finish him because Miller is fairly solid in recovering his wits.
Why It Matters – Joe Lauzon has always been fairly reliable in that he might not be a Top 10 fighter but if you can beat him you’re probably on your way there. Lauzon beats everyone he should and has only lost to a handful of fairly talented fighters. Lately though Lauzon has been beating a higher caliber of guys; the sort of potential to be an elite fighter has always been there but he just never could pull the trigger for the next step. Jim Miller is that next step. A win here and Lauzon finally steps into the elite, a win away from a title eliminator.
For Miller this is a chance to rebuild his career. His last two losses have been to Nate Diaz and Benson Henderson, who fought over the UFC lightweight title, and otherwise he’s looked like a fairly elite level fighter the past couple years. He’s right at the cusp of being in the top five of the division, only losing to the elites but beating nearly everyone underneath. The list of guys who’ve beaten him is short and fairly remarkable in terms of talent. If you can beat Jim Miller … odds are you’ll be holding or competing for UFC gold soon.
Prediction – Miller
Alan Belcher vs. Yushin Okami
Fight Breakdown – The first time Yushin Okami and Alan Belcher fought Chuck Liddell was defending the light heavyweight title and Nick Diaz was a last minute replacement against Josh Neer … at UFC 62. How times have changed. Oddly enough the more things have changed … the more they stay the same. Both fighters haven’t really changed all that much since their first meeting; they’ve just gotten better at it.
Okami needs to get takedowns, stifle Belcher with top control and avoid any prolonged striking exchanges. He needs to work his clinch oriented wrestling game and grind out a decision. We forget that Tim Boetsch may have stopped Okami in the third but until then Okami was cruising to a boring decision victory on top as he had the first two rounds clinched.
Belcher needs to keep it standing and let his striking game take over. He’s good enough on the ground to get the submission but he’s better on his feet that Okami. It’s where he has the advantage. Look for Belcher to avoid Okami’s clinch game and strike more often.
Why It Matters – Okami wins here and he’s still relevant in the division though far from a title shot. Anderson Silva has already wrecked him once and he’d need to duplicate what Chael Sonnen did after his loss to get back in that same spot. Sonnen may have talked a lot but he went through a veritable murderer’s row to get another title shot. A loss for him and he’s probably a gatekeeper to the elite of the division, a slight step ahead of someone like Rousimar Palhares. Belcher wins here and he’s probably one fight away from a title shot, potentially, as he’s looked quite impressive since coming back off of injury.
Prediction – Belcher
Chris Leben vs. Derek Brunson
Fight Breakdown – Chris Leben was preparing to make his comeback against a guy that made “Czech national wrestling champion” into a Twitter meme ever so briefly. Now he gets Derek Brunson, a middleweight prospect who struggled with his first dip into deep waters against Jacare Souza. Brunson is taking a step back in quality but has an equally dangerous opponent (on short notice, too) in TUF Season 1 standout Leben.
Brunson’s game plan is pretty simple. He has solid credentials, a not quite developed boxing game to go with first rate wrestling credentials and a submission grappling pedigree under Renzo Gracie. He wants to box up Leben and then take him to the ground, grinding out a win. Brunson is still an unfinished product; he’s a guy who would’ve done better in the UFC because he’d have been given more time to develop before taking on someone like Souza. Right now he’s a guy whose ceiling we don’t know and is starting to come into focus. He has all the tools to develop into an elite fighter; whether he will or not we don’t know. This is why Leben is such an interesting fight.
Leben is quite skilled in BJJ and can be shockingly superb off his back but his skill set involves a tremendous chin and wild, power-punch filled brawling. Leben’s specialty is getting fighters off their game and into wild brawls where his puncher’s chance of winning increases the wilder it gets. Leben may swing wildly but he does a lot of good things in his setups to land that big hook. He’s also an incredibly tough out and can take an absolute beating; it says something that for all the knockout artists and heavy handed sluggers he’s faced over the years only Anderson Silva and Brian Stann have managed to put his lights out.
Brunson’s game plan is going to be to stay composed, keep the fight from becoming a brawl where he’s swinging wildly and apply his game plan of top control grinding. He can’t let Leben’s brawling style sucker him into engaging in one because he’s not quite as skilled nor are his hands heavy enough to keep him in it for long.
Why It Matters – Leben was on a fairly solid streak until his personal demons came back to haunt him after the Munoz fight. He claims to be sober and has gone through rehab for pain killers; what kind of fighter will he be now, removed from his demons, will tell us about how much longer he has left in the game. This isn’t his first suspension for something illegal, either, as he pissed hot against Michael Bisping for steroids years ago as well. Many athletes that come back after kicking drug problems and aren’t the same for a variety of reasons; Leben might not be immune to this.
For Brunson it’s another step into deep waters, admittedly not as deep as a Top 10 fighter in Jacare. How he fights here could be a good indicator of how good he might end up being when all is said and done.
Prediction – Brunson