The UFC will return to Japan this weekend for the first time in more than a decade as UFC 144 gets underway. Headlining the event (which features an unprecedented seven pay-per-view bouts) is a title collision pitting lightweight champ, Frankie Edgar against the surging top contender, Ben Henderson. The co-main event is comprised of a pair of dangerous light heavyweights: Quinton “Rampage” Jackson and Ryan Bader will wage war for a scheduled three rounds.
Frankie Edgar vs. Ben Henderson: Frankie Edgar (14-1-1) has kept his grip on the lightweight title since snatching it from the waist of B.J. Penn at UFC 112 in April of 2010. During the elapsed time he’s again battered Penn and collided with Gray Maynard twice, settling for a draw upon their first encounter, before knocking the Xtreme Couture representative out in their rematch at UFC 136. “The Answer” has looked quite crisp in recent outings, and seems to still be improving with each trek to the octagon. His lightning fast hands, powerful double leg takedown and fluid footwork have made him an extremely tough out for anyone at 155 pounds, regardless of disciplinary base.
Ben Henderson (15-2), in many ways mirrors Edgar. The former WEC champion has been on a tear since migrating to the UFC, disposing of Mark Bocek and two top contenders in Clay Guida and Jim Miller. Coincidentally, his offensive attack is rather similar to the champion’s: he moves very well, utilizes precise strikes, and isn’t foreign to explosive takedowns. Where Ben may have an edge, is the kicking department; “Smooth” appears much more comfortable launching hellacious low and high kicks than Edgar, at this point.
Who dictates the pace here determines who exits the cage with a title to boast of. I don’t see many wild swings in momentum a la the Edgar vs. Maynard bouts. I think these two are so evenly matched that the first to truly draw blood will likely determine where the fight takes place, and both men are capable of winning from any position, while bringing a certain durability to the contest that few fighters rival. I don’t expect cardio to be a player in this bout either, as both of these young men have showcased impressive gas tanks in the past. I see Henderson looking to use his kicks to set up strikes, but I think Edgar’s timing will be as precise as needed. He’ll secure the majority of the fight’s takedowns and do a fair job of controlling and punishing from the top position. Expect a highly technical display of violence here, as Frankie Edgar retains his title after picking up three of the five rounds on the judges’ scorecards.
Quinton “Rampage” Jackson vs. Ryan Bader: On paper, an assessment of this fight is as basic and brief as it comes: we’ve got your classic striker versus grappler collision, and the man able to impose his will early is going to exit the cage victorious.
“Rampage” (32-9) has experienced one of the most storied careers in the history of the sport, and his physical ventures are well documented. Bader (13-2) in contrast, is a relatively green fighter (especially when compared to a guy like Jackson) who’s struggled to prove his worth at the top of the 205 pound food chain. Bader’s got some wrestling to lean on, but Jackson is no slouch, and typically proffers an example of sound takedown defense. Ryan however, doesn’t have much of an answer for Quinton’s boxing; he’s proven a fairly elusive foe in the past, but he can be hit, and a guy like Rampage is well suited for the task of touching his chin. Don’t expect this fight to surpass the 10 minute mark; “Rampage” stuffs a few early takedowns before landing a bomb that puts Ryan to sleep early in the second frame. It’s been well over three years since Rampage rendered an opponent unconscious with his fists, but that ends this weekend, in Japan.
Cheick Kongo vs. Mark Hunt: I’m actually a bit puzzled as to why this match was put together. Mark Hunt needs to pick up a string of wins if he wants to really seize full confidence in himself. At 7-7 his transition from K-1 hasn’t been the smoothest, and part of the reason for the shoddy record is the level of competition he’s been thrown in with. Mark Hunt was never given the opportunity to develop as a mixed martial artist; he was fed to the wolves from the outset.
Cheick Kongo (17-6-2) may not be knocking on the door of title contention, but he’s a bit too experienced and too diverse for a guy like Hunt. A sizeable chunk of the MMA world expects a wild slugfest between these two strikers, but I don’t. Kongo is an intelligent guy inside the cage, and I’m inclined to believe he’s well aware of the one punch power possessed by Hunt. Look for Kongo to utilize his highly underrated offensive wrestling to take this fight to the canvas early. From there, he’ll take top control and dish out some gnarly ground and pound. Hunt’s a tough guy who’s not likely to wilt easily, but by round three the referee will have seen enough punishment to warrant a valid stoppage.
Yoshihiro Akiyama vs. Jake Shields: This fight has so many question marks affixed that predicting a victor is extremely difficult. Akiyama (13-4) will be competing inside the octagon at 170 pounds for the first time, and Shields (26-6-1) will be attempting to rebound from the ugliest year of his professional career. How will Akiyama adjust to the cut in weight? Will the death of his father still haunt Jake Shields? We’ll know in a matter of days; until then, one can only issue baseless guesses.
Stylistically the two match up well. Akiyama brings some precision punching to the fold, and a fair top game, while Shields is a submission machine with a decent double leg takedown. If both men are healthy, both physically and mentally, this one will be a war, if any intangible happens to make itself known, this one becomes a pure coin toss. Come fight time we get to see Akiyama fight for his career and Shields tangle for his pride and placement among the world’s best welterweights. I think Shields has had enough time to shake the immediate distraction of his father’s passing, and I think his will to be the best will overcome Akiyama’s determination to keep his job. Jake Shields snags a guillotine choke from top position in the fights waning minutes.
Tim Boetsch vs. Yushin Okami: After years perched at th top of the division, Yushin Okami (26-6) now finds himself in a similar scenario to that of rich Franklin circa 2007; he’s good enough to foil the careers of just about any contender you can throw in his path, but extremely unlikely to ever truly challenge Anderson Silva. So, what’s a Japanese star to do but bust more heads and work his way back into a position to prove my statement wrong. Boetsch (14-4) however has yet to work his way toward a warranted shot at the title, and really hasn’t proven himself against a top five opponent.
Stylistically, we have another match that showcases fairly similar offensive attacks. While Tim tends to favor the standup exchanges, he usually finds himself rag-dolling foes with powerful wrestling at one point or another. Can he outmuscle Yushin Okami? It’s possible, but I wouldn’t bank on it; Okami is more than proficient enough to thwart Tim’s offense. I think Okami actually uses his range on the feet and slowly wears Boetsch down with a consistent array of strikes. The fight hits the canvas and stays there in round three, as “Thunder” secures mount and unloads on Boetsch for a TKO stoppage.
Hatsu Hioki vs. Bart Palaszewski: Hatsu Hioki (25-4-2) has been recognized as a top featherweight for a few years now. He’s the owner of a potent submission game, and he’s got a soft spot for grinding down his opponents before capitalizing on brief openings. He also looked uncharacteristically flat in his UFC debut, in which he took home a contested split decision win over George Roop. I think chances are Hioki was a tad overwhelmed by the spectacle and it hindered his performance, but I could certainly be wrong.
“Bartimus” (36-14) has some completely different issues: namely, inconsistency. Palaszewski is a brawler at heart, but he’s come a long way in tightening up the holes in his overall skillset. Improved wrestling has helped him keep the fight in his territory (vertical), and lately, he’s parlayed that into some success. After competing at 155 pounds for years, Bart made the move to featherweight, where, one fight in, he’s looked great. Can he keep the momentum going, and follow up his first round starching of Tyson Griffin with another successful outing? I honestly don’t know, and certainly wouldn’t be willing to bet on it. Hioki has been the more consistent of the two; he’s shaken the first (UFC) fight jitters, and he’s fighting on his home turf. Hioki by early third round submission.
Lauzon is known for packing a wallop in his punch and a slick jiu-jitsu attack. He’s also as unpredictable as they come. He’s on fire for fight a, and uninspired for fight b. Being arguably the closest he’s ever been to title contention, one must extend the benefit of the doubt and figure he comes into this fight in tip top shape. In which case, he’s dangerous everywhere the fight goes, especially early, and during scrambles. I think the biggest differential between these two is cardio to be completely honest, and if Joe hasn’t been working on the gas tank that could very well signal his demise if the fight lasts into the third frame.
Pettis is technically superior in the striking department. Hell, he’s significantly superior, and the only thing that keeps Lauzon in the conversation when discussing a slug fest is his one-punch power. That said, while his submissions have looked smooth, I don’t think he’s quite as dangerous once this tussle makes its way to the mat. He also may not be savvy enough to avoid Joe’s tricky takedowns. However, if Pettis keeps the distance established, and takes Joe’s trips away, he’s got the defensive wrestling to fend off the double, or single leg attempts. He’s also a far more mobile fighter who throws with power even in retreat.
I like to see the unexpected, but I don’t think Lauzon has the offensive wrestling or striking acumen required to make that happen in this specific case. I see the predictable happening here, in Pettis peppering and picking up points as Lauzon fades. A big shot on the feet sets up the end and Anthony Pettis wins via TKO in the final moments of the second round.