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The Crystal Octagon: UFC 148 picks

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Scott Sawitz


   
 

We’ve waited for this for a long time and while the card has undergone a plethora of changes it’s still fairly solid top to bottom. Time to preview the main card of UFC 148.

Anderson Silva vs. Chael Sonnen

Fight breakdown: It’s perhaps the biggest rematch in UFC history and one that started because no one took Chael Sonnen seriously the first time against Anderson Silva. No one predicted Sonnen would manhandle the champion for nearly five rounds. We all laughed at Sonnen’s antagonistic commentary towards Silva and thought he was insulting the wrong dude. No one but Chael’s camp and family thought he had anything but a snowball’s chance in Hell of going toe to toe with Anderson and nearly winning.

UFC 117 changed all that.

The trash talk hasn’t stopped from Sonnen, either, and in the two years since he lost that fight he’s become one of the more higher profile fighters in the sport. It doesn’t hurt that he’s currently on a two fight winning streak, having submitted Brian Stann and won a remarkably close decision to Michael Bisping, either and he’s facing Silva at the right time in both their careers.

The interesting thing in this fight is that neither fighter has really changed much of their game up in the two years since they last fought.

Silva relies a striking heavy kickboxing approach that is based off fast reflexes and counter-punching with remarkably accuracy. On the ground he has first rate abilities in BJJ as well. Silva may have a glaring weakness in his skill set, takedown defense, but his skills on the bottom are good enough to get him out of danger usually. Silva really excels at sweeps and setting up scrambles on the bottom; he doesn’t get enough credit for it but when it comes to getting out of bad positions he’s been fairly exceptional and finding a way to make them useful to him.

Sonnen is a wrestling heavy submission grappler who is relentless when it comes to taking guys down. Fighting out of a southpaw stance, he has an iron chin and a power double that has gotten everyone he’s faced to the ground. With some professional boxing experience in his past, Sonnen has a wrestle heavy approach set up by his power boxing. On the ground he has had some issues with submission defense but let’s be honest: the guys who’ve submitted him have been first rate submission gurus. No shame in getting tapped by Jeremy Horn or Demian Meia, I think.

The key to the fight hinges on two things: Can Sonnen take him down at will (again) and is Silva skilled enough to pull off a submission from his back (again)? The key to the fight is round four of their first battle. It was Silva’s best round and he did a lot of damage to Sonnen when they were standing. Sonnen got him to the ground but Silva looked his best later in the fight; I said at the time that Anderson wins it in the fifth (and won 20 bucks) based on what he did then. If he’s 100 percent healthy this time he has to mimic that strategy; rock him with strikes and keep the fight standing as long as possible. Silva may have lost the round but the key to winning was established in that stanza.

If he can repeat that then he can win. Sonnen has to go to his strengths and work his smothering top control game on Silva as long as he can. His ability to chain together submission attempts has gotten remarkably more effective since then. He might not be able to submit Silva but he got close two years with that first head-arm triangle attempt and improved on it against Brian Stann when he finished him. That might be the key to the ground game; if Sonnen is going to use that move as his go to submission he could make the champion submit. He has the perfect style to work that particular submission and his unorthodox ways of passing guard or transitioning from mount to side control, as well as his body size and effective reach make it a potential game-changer in the fight.

I think this fight will be closer than anyone thinks and a health Silva against a game Sonnen could turn into the fight of the year … again.

Why it matters: It’s for the UFC Middleweight title. It’s about legacy and rivalry. This might end up being the fight that defines both men.

Prediction: Silva by SD

Tito Ortiz vs. Forrest Griffin

Fight breakdown: What a long road it’s been for Tito Ortiz, the longest lasting man on the UFC roster currently. Ortiz traces his roots back to UFC 13, longer than anyone else on the roster, and unlike a lot of fighters from that time he’s picking his spot to retire against his biggest rival. He made more money with Ken Shamrock, and had the most controversy with Liddell, but Griffin was the one with whom he had the closest fights. So it’s fitting in a way that Tito gets to go out against someone we don’t know is better than him that he’s faced more than once. And thus we get Griffin/Ortiz 3.

We’re looking at fairly similar fights to their first two, just with the ravages of time and wars fought having taken their toll on both men. Ortiz is going to look to take this to the ground and work his ground & pound game. Long renowned for his conditioning, Tito is also still the biggest fighter in the division and his physicality is still going to be a factor here. He might not have the same athletic ability he used to but he’s still going to show up in remarkable shape and push a hard pace for three rounds. And his game plan will be simple: takedowns, takedowns and more takedowns.

When his top game is working, Ortiz can still dominate a fight inside someone’s guard, though getting to the fight to the ground has gotten tougher for him as numerous back and neck surgeries of robbed him on the athleticism that defined his peak period. His standup, a long time weakness, has improved but he’s an average fighter if the fight can’t be taken to the ground. He’s also been stopped twice in a row with body shots; Ortiz tends to carry his hands high to protect his head and neck and it’s been exploited twice. Lil Nog did it standing, Rashad on the ground. Tito has the warrior’s spirit but his body doesn’t have it anymore; it’s why he’s retiring now instead of trying to hold on like Shamrock is.

Griffin is going to keep this standing and turn it into a kickboxing match, where he has the edge on Tito. Griffin has managed to better Tito on the feet in both of their prior fights and look for him to do the same in this one. Griffin is good enough on his back to submit Ortiz, and one of the few light heavyweights as big as he is, but the last two fights against Ortiz have gone similarly because neither fighter has developed anything new to their arsenal in the time between.

And neither has developed anything new since. Tito’s boxing is a little crisper but he’ll get outclassed by anyone with top notch abilities in that department like Lil Nog and Evans did. Griffin isn’t renowned for his technique but he slings enough leather to keep it fun. Tito’s not good enough standing to put him away with anything but the sort of fluky kill-shot he put down Ryan Bader with. Forrest isn’t good enough to take Tito down and grind out a victory. What we’ll have instead is a sloppy kick boxing type fight closer to Demian Maia/Chris Weidman than their last two.

Why it matters: This is Tito’s retirement fight and he wants to go out on a win. A loss to Tito puts Forrest in a similar spot as he’d be looking at retirement talk as well.

Prediction: Forrest Griffin by UD

Cung Le vs. Patrick Cote

Fight breakdown: Patrick Cote is the definition of a fighter always on the cusp of being in the UFC. Outside the organization he hasn’t lost a fight. Outside of Zuffa he’s been one of the best middleweights out there. Inside the Octagon, though, he’s had a fairly pedestrian career. He lost his only title shot to Anderson Silva, and was outclassed while doing so. He’s 4-7 inside the UFC and 13-0 outside it, which is fairly remarkable all things considered.

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Cote is the definition of a guy who’s good enough to be in the UFC but not quite good enough against Top 10 talent … and maybe against Top 25 talent. But his heavy handed style makes him a good fit for fights, and he’s never dull, thus it’s not all that surprising that Cote is back in the UFC. He’s good enough to be the best fighter on the regional circuits but has a hard time once he faces better competition than what he can in places like Jungle Fights.

Le is a guy who made his name outside of Zuffa and found his way into it during the talent exodus from Strikeforce to the UFC. It was always hard to rate Le in the middleweight division because he fought sporadically due to his film career and his level of competition was never top notch. He had all the credentials of a top 10 fighter but never the pedigree of having beaten top tier talent. There’s only so far having first rate martial arts, wrestling and kickboxing credentials can rate you amongst the elite of the division. Eventually you have to get in the cage with the best and prove it. So far he hasn’t as he’s coming off a loss to Wanderlei Silva that was an exciting fight but left him brutalized by a fight many feel is past his competitive peak.

Le has an unorthodox style in which he fights using leg kicks to higher degree and with much more power than most fighters do. He uses leg kicks like jabs and getting inside on him is tough. He has an awkward style to face as Le uses a lot of Sanshou techniques in his setups. He’s an interesting fighter to watch because of how he strikes; he eschews a lot of more traditional boxing and kickboxing stances. His takedown defense is first rate, as well, and the way to beat him is to go take a lot of punishment. The fight with Silva is the best to look at in order for the best plan against him; Scott Smith was getting dominated and caught Le with a fluke punch that put his lights out.

Cote fights a lot like Silva in that he’s primarily a kickboxer with no allusions of his ground game. Cote’s competent on the ground but the power in his hands is what wins him fights.

The key to the fight will be if Cote can take what Silva did and apply it to his own game. He has to make this a war of attrition and get Le to exchange, and then get the better of him during said exchanges. The more this is a brawl, and the more he can bridge the gap and get close, the more he can win this fight. Le has a tough chin but not an iron one; Smith put his lights out and Silva lit him up to the point where the fight was stopped.

Cote can do either of those things to Le.

Le has to get Cote to play his game and keep him at a distance. If he can stay away from Le’s power and light him up with kicks he can win the fight. Le’s leg kicks are tremendous and if he can slow Cote down to the body and legs then he can walk away with a victory.

Why it matters: Cung Le is an interesting spot in the UFC. A loss to Cote coupled with the loss to Silva puts him in a precarious spot. Cote and Silva probably are never going to challenge for a title again; Le was brought in hoping to have at least a push towards the top. It explains the matchup with Silva; a spectacular KO of “The Axe Murderer” coupled with another name and Le can be bandied about towards a title shot. Cote begged on Twitter for another run in the UFC and he has to prove he deserves to be there. A win over Le, especially in spectacular fashion, keeps him in the UFC for another fight or two.

Prediction: Le by TKO rd 3

Dong Hyun Kim vs. Demian Maia

ALL-TIME ARIANNY

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Fight breakdown: DHK is one of South Korea’s better talents but unfortunately is kind of stuck because he’s a very good, but not great, fighter in a division filled with elite ones. He’s good enough to run the table against guys who are good but was absolutely wrecked by the first elite guy he faced in Carlos Condit. That doesn’t bode well to the future because there’s about a half dozen guys who probably will wreck him in a similar manner near the top of the welterweight division. It’s one thing to be able to use a smothering top control game on someone like Nate Diaz, undersized for the division and not known for his takedown defense. It’s another to try it on someone who can stay on their feet and knock you out in one shot like Condit. I like Kim as a long term stalwart in the division, capable of winning enough to get back into outside contention but not quite good enough to pull the trigger at the elite level. That seems to be his ceiling as a fighter and it’ll keep him in the UFC for a while.

Maia, on the other hand, is an elite level middleweight dropping down. It’s an interesting move because Maia’s not exactly a small middleweight; having met him and been in his presence he’s not quite as big as Michael Bisping or Chael Sonnen (the two biggest guys in the division currently) but he isn’t a small middleweight either. How the weight cut affects him is going to be interesting in and of itself; and how it changes his style in a much more athletic division will be interesting too.

When it comes to BJJ there are few as good as Maia. Earlier in his MMA career he was known for doing anything he could to get the fight to the ground so he could grab a neck or a limb and take it home with him. Now he’s refined his kickboxing to the point where he’s almost content to stand and trade his way to a decision. It’s fairly odd, especially considering just how elite his ground game is, but this is a good matchup for Maia.

Kim isn’t a guy known for his standup; mainly his rush to get the fight to the ground as soon as possible. If he follows that strategy he’ll have to deal with Maia’s ground game. I’m not sure if that’s the best idea in the world but Kim went to the ground with Condit, too. Unless his standup has improved to the point where he’s comfortable staying on his feet, and Maia obliges him, I think he takes this to the ground.

Whether his smothering top control is good enough to keep Maia at bay will be interesting to watch; can DHK bring out the grappler that made people crap themselves one more time? If he wants to play the ground game then he could be going home early.

Why it matters: How will Maia react to the weight cut? Can Kim get back on the win streak with a ground centric style against one of the world’s best BJJ practitioners? These questions are going to be answered as well as whether or not Maia is going to just be an elite ground specialist who likes kickboxing more (and does it just good enough). Maia might be able to make a run in this division but if he can’t beat a guy like DHK then he might end up going back to middleweight, where it’s a bit thinner in elite talent.

Prediction: Maia by submission rd 1

Chad Mendes vs. Cody McKenzie

ONE HOT SUMMER

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Fight breakdown: This is such a remarkable mismatch on paper that I’m genuinely shocked it’s on the main card of this event. The last challenger to Jose Aldo against a guy known for quirky facial hair and a stint on “The Ultimate Fighter” are poised to open up the PPV and from the way it looks on paper this’ll be an epic beatdown.

Chad Mendes is a first rate wrestler who is limited enough in the standup department that he mainly uses his takedowns as his first, second and third offensive weapons. Training out of Team Alpha Male with Urijah Faber, Mendes has a first rate collegiate wrestling background and stellar athleticism. So far he hasn’t developed his striking game to match his ground game but it’s steadily improving; he’ll need to show some improvement to get another title shot down the road.

Cody McKenzie, on the other hand, has a really good guillotine. And he sets it up fairly well, despite guys knowing its coming. And … did I mention he has a really good guillotine?

Debuting in the UFC from the “Ultimate Fighter” show, he’s won fans and kept his job in the organization because of his oddball attitude. Training out of Cesar Gracie’s now, apparently, McKenzie is the ultimate one trick pony. All but one of his victories over his career have been via guillotine, crazily enough, and … well … that’s about it. If he doesn’t catch that submission he’s going to lose.

The amazing thing is that everyone knows this and yet he’s still caught very talented fighters with this, especially knowing it’s his first, best and almost only line of effective offense. He’s remarkably effective with it and can apply it from a number of situations. McKenzie might not be a great athlete or particularly elite in any facet of the MMA game but when it comes to the guillotine he’s one of the best in MMA at using it.

Mendes has a fairly easy path to victory here. Do everything but get caught in McKenzie’s guillotine. He should be able to just out-athlete him and finish the fight on the ground but McKenzie has been in a similar spot before with better athletes and has made them tap out so it’s familiar territory for him. Unfortunately for him Mendes is an entirely different level of athlete he’s ever faced.

Mendes has a fairly open path to win: Don’t get caught in his guillotine. He’s superior in nearly every way besides the “catch a guy with a guillotine and choke him out” way, which is McKenzie’s signature finisher like he was a pro wrestler.

If McKenzie can’t sink it in he’s going to take a beating until the fight is stopped or the round ends against Mendes. McKenzie is a nice fighter but not an overly impressive one; Mendes is elite in the division and what this amounts to a rebound fight for him. A win here and its back into the title picture, two fights or so from another shot at the champ. All he has to do is avoid that guillotine and everything else should be smooth sailing.

Why it matters: Mendes is still a title contender, albeit a bit removed from the picture after losing to Jose Aldo in dramatic fashion, and this is a winnable fight that with a finish propels him back into the title picture. McKenzie is not a good fighter, and probably never will win a title or get close to it, but he’s an interesting character who’s never out of a fight as long as someone’s neck is out there waiting to be choked. It always gives him that intrigue in a fight: can he pull it off again with everyone waiting and training for it?

Prediction: Mendes via TKO rd 1

--Scott Sawitz of Inside Fights

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