UFC 144 is a big event in more ways than one. It’s big because it’s the UFC’s first time being in Japan since UFC 25, which took place nearly 12 years ago. It’s big because it features Frankie Edgar making his fourth title defense against Ben Henderson. Of course, it’s literally big, too- the pay-per-view will have a four-hour time slot and feature seven main card fights.
Seven main card fights, and yet Takanori Gomi and “Kid” Yamamoto still find themselves relegated to the prelims. Who would have predicted that a few years ago? Let’s get on to the picks.
Joe Lauzon vs. Anthony Pettis (#5 LW)
Pettis had his championship hopes delayed by Gray Maynard, then de-railed by Clay Guida in a tumultuous 2011 for the former WEC champ. He hopes 2012 will get off to a better start with a win over the surging Lauzon, who just got done playing the spoiler himself by beating Melvin Guillard in October.
Lauzon presents dangerous power and a slick ground game, but Pettis has the tools to deal with both. Pettis is hard to hit, controls distance well and knows when to unleash flashy techniques that can both punish opponents and score with the judges. Lauzon is not as multi-dimensional a striker as Pettis is, either.
Pettis also showed against Jeremy Stephens that he can utilize a wrestling and grappling-oriented approach. If this one does hit the mat, I expect that Pettis will stay out of trouble, submission-wise. Really, I expect this to be a close fight until Pettis lands some good shots out of the blue and changes the complexion of the matchup at some point.
Prediction: Pettis by KO/TKO
Hatsu Hioki (#3 FW) vs. Bart Palaszewski (#10 FW)
Hioki hardly looked great, but he did get in the “W” column in his UFC debut against George Roop, winning a surprisingly close bout by split decision. Meanwhile, Palaszewski looked excellent his last time out, where he finished Tyson Griffin in three minutes with a determined, aggressive approach.
If Hioki can take Palaszewski down early and often, he’ll win this one with ease. His positional grappling is top-notch and he has some powerful ground-and-pound as well. Look for him to clinch with Palaszewski and try to take him down from there. Of course, with how quick UFC refs have been to separate clinching fighters lately, he may be wrestling with both “Bartimus” and the clock when they’re against the fence.
Ultimately, I think Palaszewski could shock a lot of people here. I’m not sold on him as a bona fide title contender, but I think he can continue the magical run he’s on by clipping Hioki at some point tonight. Hioki is not exactly hard to hit, and if Roop was able to land on him consistently, Palaszewski can definitely land some game-changing strikes. This one’s my upset special, kids. Palaszewski survives some dicey moments and lands big shots for the win.
Prediction: Palaszewski by KO/TKO
Tim Boetsch vs. Yushin Okami (#4 MW)
You can count on a mid-event lull beginning with this bout and continuing into Akiyama-Shields. This isn’t exactly inspired matchmaking, but could make for an interesting (if not exciting) scrap.
Both men would love to do the same thing here: take down their opponent, neutralize his offense, establish good control and chip away with strikes. However, Okami is more likely to be able to follow that game plan, as he is better in the clinch and has great balance, too. Don’t think that Boetsch will have the strength advantage just because he dropped from light heavyweight, either. Okami is a very strong middleweight, as Boetsch will find out if he ends up underneath the Japanese standout.
Boetsch will likely be faced to focus on striking in this one. It’s not a horrible situation to be in, as he is a better and more powerful striker than Okami. However, Okami is so single-minded in his adherence to his tried-and-true strategy that I don’t think Boetsch will find much daylight with which to strike effectively. Okami wins a stifling decision.
Prediction: Okami by decision
Yoshihiro Akiyama vs. Jake Shields (#7 WW)
Two men who have had disappointing UFC runs meet in this matchup. Akiyama has had three of his four career losses in his current UFC stint, and all three have come in a row. He won a narrow split decision over Alan Belcher way back at UFC 100, and was on his way to what looked to be a decision win over Chris Leben when he was submitted with an unlikely triangle choke with just twenty seconds remaining in the fight. Since then, he’s dropped a decision against Michael Bisping and been knocked out by Vitor Belfort, and you have to think he’s a loss away from being cut.
Shields may survive if he loses, but this is still a must-win for a guy who has lost consecutive fights to Georges St. Pierre and Jake Ellenberger, who finished Shields with strikes in a shocking and disappointing loss for the Cesar Gracie-trained welterweight.
Akiyama will cut to welterweight for this one, adding another question mark for a fighter who has already struggled with cardio in his wild slugfests in the past. Another problem is that Shields is completely unlikely to trade punches with Akiyama, and will likely be able to get takedowns without a whole lot of effort.
Akiyama does have power, and Shields has a bit of a suspect chin (though he has great recovery, as shown against Dan Henderson in Strikeforce), but he’s basically hoping to hit the lottery tonight. Shields is the safe pick in what will likely be a very methodical fight.
Prediction: Shields by decision
Mark Hunt vs. Cheick Kongo
Reportedly brought in due to lingering contractual obligations from Zuffa’s purchase of Pride, Hunt has been a pleasant surprise in the UFC, winning two in a row now against Chris Tuchscherer and Ben Rothwell. The Tuchscherer win was a scintillating knockout that saw Hunt calmly walk away as his foe hit the mat, but the Rothwell win was a sloppy war of attrition that saw both men gas while fighting at altitude in Denver, Colorado. Still, for a guy who came into the organization on a five-fight losing streak, it’s been a good run.
Will it continue against Kongo, who has been a mainstay in the top fifteen or twenty for years now? Kongo’s only losses in his last nine fights (spanning nearly four years) have been against Cain Velasquez and Frank Mir. Kongo memorably rocked Velasquez numerous times in their fight, though Velasquez always responded by hitting a takedown and controlling the better striker en route to the win.
While Hunt has 35 pounds on Kongo, I wouldn’t call it a weight advantage. Unless he’s in top position on the mat, Hunt has never shown the ability to use his weight against opponents, and he’s not ridiculously strong in terms of wrestling, either. Kongo, in contrast, will have the cardio advantage, which I think is going to be the most telling aspect of this fight.
There’s a chance, of course, that Hunt lands a kill-shot on Kongo and hurts him bad at some point in the fight. However, I think it’s more likely that Kongo plays it safe, lands some kicks and strikes (knees especially) from the clinch, then utilizes takedowns as Hunt’s cardio betrays him. He’ll eventually get a stoppage later in the fight when Hunt simply can’t defend anymore. Count on seeing Wrestler Kongo tonight.
Prediction: Kongo by KO/TKO
Ryan Bader vs. Quinton “Rampage” Jackson (#5 LHW)
One of the benefits of doing your picks this late is that you get to see the weigh-ins. If I had done so with, say, the Anthony Johnson-Vitor Belfort fight, I wouldn’t have made the same pick. So what should we expect now that Rampage has missed weight by six pounds?
He says he hurt himself in training and couldn’t run as much as he would have liked, which hurt his weight cut and kept him off pace to make 205. That seems likely enough, but at the same time, his cardio and weight are always a question mark, anyway. This really makes me doubt his ability to fight past the opening minutes of the bout.
Don’t forget that Bader will certainly be turning up the pressure, too. If he wasn’t already going to force this fight into a proverbial phone booth, he will try to do so now, for sure. While some think he could strike with Rampage, I wouldn’t advise it. Bader fights a similar, boxing-centric style and Rampage would be able to confidently trade with him as a result. Rampage has some of the best counter-punching in the game, with great defense, movement and excellent power in his hands.
With that said, although I was going to pick Rampage when this fight was first announced, I don’t know that I can do so now. I think Bader will have him on the defensive all night, and even if Rampage can fend off most of his takedowns, he’ll be losing rounds while doing so. I’d like to see Rampage have one last signature moment in Japan, but I don’t think he’ll have the gas to make it happen.
Prediction: Bader by decision
UFC Lightweight Championship
Frankie Edgar (#1 LW) vs. Ben Henderson (#6 LW)
This is a great fight. Edgar has already had a nice run as champ, and to see him against someone not named “Penn” or “Maynard” will be a real treat. The fact that he’ll face one of the most exciting lightweights in the game, Ben Henderson, only makes the fight that much better.
Edgar’s success, in my view, has been mostly about his foot movement. The man never stays still and is always using angles intelligently. One of the reasons the two Maynard fights were so surprising is that I couldn’t believe he allowed himself to get caught so many times. Normally, he is hard to keep up with, difficult to hit, and impossible to corner. Even BJ Penn, who has no lack of power in his hands, couldn’t harm Edgar over a full ten rounds.
This could be a tactical fight, but I think Henderson will really push the envelope. He knows that he has to be aggressive to have a shot to win the title, and if he hangs back and makes it a sparring match, he’ll be giving the fight to Edgar. I don’t know that I see Henderson taking Edgar down, though if he could even lean on him in the clinch a bit, it’ll go a long way toward wearing him down and taking some of the spring out of the champ’s step.
Overall, I just think Edgar is too quick, too smart, and too good to be beaten in this one. Henderson is a great fighter but will just not have enough as Edgar fends off his takedown attempts and out-strikes him, at least in terms of quantity. I think Edgar will win enough rounds to retain his title in what will be a high-energy, fast-paced affair.
Prediction: Edgar by decision
Tags: Anthony Pettis, Bart Palaszewski, Ben Henderson, Cheick Kongo, Frankie Edgar, Hatsu Hioki, Jake Shields, Joe Lauzon, Mark Hunt, Quinton 'Rampage' Jackson, Ryan Bader, Tim Boetsch, UFC, UFC 144, Yoshihiro Akiyama, Yushin Okami