Wednesday, 2 November 2011

UFC 138 - No big names but plenty to get excited about


The UFC is making the trip to the UK for the first time in roughly a year. I am genuinely excited by the fights. The card has a bitter-sweet taste to it as it is perceived by many to be considerably weaker than the average UFC event, but nevertheless offers UK fight fans the opportunity to see some elite fighters in the flesh. After a preamble about the pros and cons of the card I'll talk through my picks for UFC 138

UK fans could be forgiven for feeling hard done by with the card brought to the UK in the UFC's sole visit to Europe of 2011. The proceeding four events featured four title bouts and would have included five had George St. Pierre's knee not been damaged. A week after Chris Leben and Mark Munoz battle it out to determine who is next in line to be leapfrogged by Chael Sonnen for a title shot at Anderson Silva, the heavyweight title will be decided live on Fox. UFC 138 features two fights between fighters vying just to be in the mix. Most US journalists are not even willing to fly out to the UK to cover the event. I must admit I feel a bit miffed at the mistreatment myself, but since UFC 138 must air via tape delay and is therefore not sellable as a pay-per-view, the UFC will be less willing to use up a title fight. The good news though, is that a smaller stock of high profile fighters has left room for both established and up and coming European talent. My picks for the most interesting bouts are the Stockholm-based Congolese fighter Papy Abedi against powerful one time welterweight contender Thiago Alves and the UK's best shot at a title match up, Brad Pickett fighting scary Brazilian submission machine, Renan Baroa.

Munoz vs Leben

The main event of UFC 138 features Chris “The Crippler” Leben and “The FilipinoWrecking Machine” Mark Munoz in the organisation's first non title five rounder. In my opinion this fight pretty well represents the sport's past verasus the sports future. In Leben you have a fighter who “likes to bang”, throwing wild power punches and making use of a strong chin to walk through opponents attacks and in Munoz you have a guy who came in as a wrestler and is methodically addressing the weaker areas of his game to become a well rounded mixed martial artist.

I am seriously impressed by Mark Munoz's ability to reinvent himself, learning quickly from losses and poor performances. He will always be able to rely on an ability to out wrestle the majority of fighters in the middleweight division, with the probable exception of Chael Sonnen. But there were worries earlier in his career that on the feet he kept his hands too low and wide, leaving him vulnerable to punches through the middle. In recent fights, particularly in a bullying performance against Damien Maia, he has shown crisper, tighter Muay Thai and used that improved stand-up to set up his shots. That ability to better integrate his wrestling base into an MMA context is what makes Munoz one of the most exciting contenders in the division.

Leben on the other hand is more of a brawler with a career long tendency to try and bring fights to where only he could be comfortable; brutal messy brawls. Leben has pretty solid wrestling and underrated ju jitsu but rarely will you see him call upon those in the course of a fight. Plan A has been pretty effective for Leben with knock-out wins over notable opponents, including Wanderlei Silva, where he changed his game plan from walking forward with his chin out throwing hooks to walking forward with his chin out throwing straight shots to counter Silva's wide wild striking.

I do not expect this fight to go all five rounds, but if it does I expect Munoz to last the better of the two. He will use his wrestling to control the fight, leaning on “The Crippler” and beating him up on the ground. On the feet he will use more cautious but nevertheless powerful punches and quite possibly take advantage of Leben's gaping defence.

Here's a link to the trailer for the fight, watch Leben walk forward and eat big shots from Akiyama from the beginning, I think it will be a different story if he tries that against  Mark Munoz.

I am predicting a third round stoppage for “The Filipino Wrecking Machine”.

Pickett vs Barao

Both Renan "Canon" Barao and Brad “One Punch” Pickett come into this fight after disappointingly missing out on high profile bouts earlier in the year. Picket might have fought ex WEC champion Miguel Torres and Baroa might have fought Dominic Cruz's most recent victim Demetrious Johson.

Pickett represents probably the UK's biggest hope of a UFC belt, with the 135lb division and this fight is an opportunity for him to announce himself to mainstream fight fans, having established himself as a force in the now defunct WEC, notably defeating Demetrious Jonhson and Ivan Menjivar. In his last outing, against Menjivar he showed great heart, composure and a solid (ish) chin to walk through some heavy punishment in the second round to very nearly stop his opponent and snatch a unanimous decision victory.

Baroa is relatively unproven in top level fights outside of Brazil and Pickett might well be the toughest test he has faced yet, despite Barao being unbeaten in his last 26 fights. He trains with fighters like Jose Aldo and Marlon Sandro so he will undoubtedly enter the cage with a solid camp under his belt.

Quite simply, this promises to be a cracking fight. Brad Pickett is a powerful boxer who pushes a frenetic pace, can take punishment and has ground skills too. Despite having a dangerous submission game, I do not expect Pickett will want to role with Baroa. Pickett will most likely try and keep this fight a standing slugfest, taking advantage of his power, pace and ability to absorb damage to cause damage. For his part, Barao has proved himself strong in all areas of his game then most opponents he has faced so far. He has a decided advantage on the mat and may look to move the fight there if he doesn't feel he can stand and trade with the Brit.

I expect the more battle hardened Pickett to end Barao's 26 fight win streak with a decision win in a gruelling stand up war.

Abedi vs Alves

This fight between Papy Adebi and Thiago “Pitbull” Alves is tough to call and incredibly intriguing. It is a battle of two massive welterweights. Alves has more than once failed to make the 170lb weight limit and this Adebi's first fight at the weight class, having previously fought at 185lb. One time welterweight contender Alves is 1-3 in his last 4 UFC fights, including a mauling from champ GSP and a 3 round 'lay and pray' from Jon Fitch. Abedi is currently unbeaten in his young MMA career, but this is without doubt his toughest fight so far.

The Congolese-Swede Adebi has a strong judo base, a submission wrestling pedigree, powerful slams and an improving stand up game. Alves has very few secrets in his game. He is a big, strong kick boxer with chopping leg kicks, knock-out power and and solid take down defence. His downfall has been an inability to switch game plans when things are not going his way and to get up off his back if an opponent manages to put him down.

Abedi has not really been tested on the European circuit so far and it will be interesting to see how he deals with a seriously top level fighter in Alves. This is by no means a classic striker versus grappler match up, since Abedi has a pretty well rounded MMA game. However, the Stockholm based fighter will almost certainly try to get this fight to the ground as quickly as possible where he can work his brutal ground and pound and avoid the vastly superior Muay Thai of the Brazilian. Alves will be well aware of this and despite his being dominated by elite wrestlers Fitch and St. Pierre, I do not expect Abedi to be able to man handle him to the same extent. To take down an elite fighter like Alves, Abedi will have to create opportunities to get close enough to shoot using strikes. However, Papy has so far shown himself to be much more comfortable as a counter striker and would tend to be happier on the outside, rarely coming forward to press opponents. Alves might well be quite comfortable coming in with tight flurries and getting out again without committing himself too much.

While I am excited to see how Abedi progresses in the UFC, I think Alves will be too much too soon for him, handing him his first defeat via knockout, probably in the 2nd round.

A bit more from the card...

The rest of the card has some pretty intriguing match ups and British fighters to look out for.  Here's a link to The Finest Hour: UFC 138, which visits some of the British fighters who will be appearing.

Vaughan Lee looks like an exciting fighter, unbeaten since he moved down to his natural weight class at 135lb. I was pretty excited to hear a brummie accent chatting about UFC as well. A non-fight fan friend of mine wondered if American fighters would be less intimidated by such a friendly regional accent...

Rob Broughton makes a quick come back after dragging Travis Browne into a punishing three round fight at the end of September. His opponent Philip De Fries is a BJJ specialist and has won all his previous bouts by submission (with the exception of one no contest). It is a bit of step up of De Fries, but I would expect him to try to take advantage of Broughton's suspect cardio and possibly cause an upset.

Even though the biggest names in the sport are not flying over to Birmingham for UFC 138, I am excited about a card that matches some top prospects with experienced campaigners and gives some underrated British talent a high profile show case.

1 comment:

  1. I agree. This was a fairly weak card at the start and the several injuries and replacements have only made it worse. There are still some fights I'm interested in seeing though, and I suppose those who get to watch this on non-PPV don't have much to complain about.

    I'm particularly impressed with Brad Pickett, who has a suprisingly good ground game (see his rare peruvian necktie finish of Dietz) compared to other strikers who have come from British mma.