UFC 148 is being talked about for all the wrong reasons. The right reason: why on Earth would the UFC tempt fate by booking Anderson Silva, Demian Maia, and Patrick Cote on the same card?!? And, as a follow-up question, where’s Thales Leites? Was he booked this weekend? Perhaps the UFC knows that even reminding the fans of the awful fights Silva left in the past can’t hurt the buy rate of a fight as epic as Silva-Sonnen II.
There’s no question that this event, even with the final bout of Tito Ortiz (who is now a UFC Hall of Famer), is all about the main event. Whether Sonnen’s trash talk has been about theatrics and gamesmanship or actual malice, the feud between Silva and him has successfully built up a level of anticipation for their rematch that we haven’t seen in some time now. Before we get to their pairing, let’s discuss the other main card fights.
Cody McKenzie vs. Chad Mendes
This is a tremendous mismatch on paper, sure: an overachieving scrapper who earned his way into the UFC through a tumultuous season on “The Ultimate Fighter” against a longtime top ten-ranked featherweight whose only loss was to Jose Aldo in a championship bout.
However, stylistically it becomes a bit more interesting, as Mendes’ base puts him right into danger against McKenzie’s own specialty: the guillotine choke. Mendes’ classic freestyle wrestling technique has been exactly what McKenzie has taken advantage of during his career, as fighters who have been eager to take him down have found themselves tapping shortly thereafter at an alarming rate.
Only two fighters have more wins by guillotine choke than McKenzie, and both of them have at least three times as many career fights as McKenzie has had. His ability to continually tap opponents with a technique that they surely know is coming is uncanny. While I’m inclined to say that a lot of it is simply because McKenzie is simply always looking for a guillotine opportunity (much more than most fighters would), I think there’s more to it than that.
McKenzie has talked about how his technique is different from the norm, even calling his version a different choke completely, saying it’s not a guillotine at all. It’s a guillotine, but with a a different grip and his elbow farther in on his opponent’s throat than what you would usually see. I think what happens is that someone will train guillotine defense and escapes and think that they can work the usual patient and calm approach when they get caught in it, but it’s much tighter and more effective than the chokes they’ve been working through in the gym.
The question not enough people are asking is whether Mendes even needs to take McKenzie down, however. McKenzie has reportedly been working on his striking a lot since he began fighting in the UFC, and has had some pretty good training partners to do so with, including the Diaz brothers themselves. Mendes, meanwhile, is pretty rudimentary with his own stuff, though he has moderate power that McKenzie certainly doesn’t.
I think if Mendes is doing well enough standing, he won’t even bother with wrestling McKenzie to the mat. If he does, he will be extremely careful and work position, position, position. That’s what Mendes does anyway, as a fairly methodical grappler who emphasizes good, solid top control over all else. I would love to see a shocking guillotine for the upset win, but I don’t think that’s going to happen. One thing to look out for here is if McKenzie can drag this into the later rounds and Mendes gets sloppy with his takedowns. That would give McKenzie his opportunity, but I’m not sure it’ll happen.
Prediction: Mendes by KO/TKO
Dong Hyun Kim vs. Demian Maia
It seems like an eternity ago that Maia was an unstoppable submission machine. And in MMA years, it was- Maia hasn’t submitted anyone since he tapped Chael Sonnen (hey!) nearly three and a half years ago. Since then, he’s been “Demian Maia: Positional Grappler.” Nobody wants to see that.
Worst of all, he’s not even trying to be his old self, attempting just four submissions in his last seven fights, all of which have gone to decision. That’s right- Maia, once known as the owner of the best subs in MMA, has attempted four submissions in his last 23 rounds (115 minutes) in the Octagon.
This would seem to put him right where Dong Hyun Kim wants him. The old Maia would be a nightmare of a matchup for Kim, who is a top-control grappler if you’ve ever seen one. Maia used to be death to those kinds of wrestling-happy grinders, and now he looks like chum floating harmlessly in the ocean, waiting to be devoured by anyone with a decent double leg or inside trip from the clinch.
That’s not completely fair to Maia, who is a capable takedown artist himself, particularly with crafty techniques like the lateral drop he used on Sonnen in their UFC 95 bout. However, he has had trouble of late even when he has passed guard against opponents like Jorge Santiago, as he can’t seem to get meaningful offense going. Santiago in particular kept him at bay with an active butterfly guard and upkicks. Now, Kim won’t have that kind of game from the bottom, but he is a very good wrestler and will be harder to take down, too.
In the standup, it will look a lot like amateur hour, with Kim being a bit stiff and awkward, while Maia swats his punches out, often pawing with his right hand instead of throwing meaningful jabs before looking for a not-so-big left hand. To add another wrinkle to this one, it’ll be Maia’s first drop to welterweight, although I think he’ll make the cut without major problems.
While I have doubts that we’ll see the amazing return of the guy who subbed five straight opponents to begin his UFC career (especially with an opponent the quality of Kim), I think Maia can edge this one out with some timely takedowns and good positional grappling. He’ll need to do so, too; he’s lost two out of his last three coming into this fight.
Prediction: Maia by decision
Patrick Cote vs. Cung Le
It’s a shame that Cung Le entered the UFC in November of 2011 instead of 2007 or 2008, when he still looked motivated, his techniques were dynamic, and he was in his mid-30′s, to boot.
Since March of 2008, due to injuries and a few small movie projects, he has only fought three times, losing to Scott Smith (who he defeated in the rematch) and Wanderlei Silva. With his age having crept up on him and his motivation really being questioned over the last four years, you have to wonder what he’s really got left to offer.
Fighting outside of San Jose for the first time since he fought Brian Warren in a Las Vegas-based K-1 event in 2004, Le takes on the returning Patrick Cote. Cote had as bad a stretch as you can have beginning in October of 2008, when his strange bout with Anderson Silva ended with a freak knee injury that sidelined him for a year and a half. He returned only to be submitted by Alan Belcher in Montreal, then lost a decision to Tom Lawlor five months later that earned him his walking papers from the UFC.
Since then, he’s won four fights in a row, although none have been particularly impressive performances, and he’s back in the UFC once again. His style has always been that of a very orthodox striker who carefully sets up power punches while utilizing defense and head movement to avoid punishment. His footwork isn’t tremendous, and he will have a hard time adjusting if Le uses his kicks well to control distance.
Le’s kicks are not always particularly powerful, but they are so unpredictable and he mixes them up so well that Cote may never end up getting comfortable. The last time we saw Cote against a tricky striker, it was Anderson Silva, and Silva really put up a stinker of a fight before Cote blew out his knee, so it’s hard to gauge Cote’s performance that night. He did look like he was trying to play Silva’s game rather than his own- even when he blew out his knee, he was hopping awkwardly (for him) while seemingly trying to replicate Silva’s own movement.
If he makes that mistake here, he’ll be done for. Le may not have a ton left in the tank, but if Cote hangs back and lets him play his game instead of pressuring him and getting inside, he has what it takes to send the French Canadian standout packing. The x-factor here may be the grappling portion of the bout. Cote seems the better classic wrestler and grappler, but in close where Cote will want to be, Le has capable throws and a decent clinch game. I think Cote is the better fighter at this point in the two mens’ careers, but he will let Le dictate the fight to much and pay the price for it as Le pulls off the upset.
Prediction: Le by decision
Forrest Griffin vs. Tito Ortiz
These two have fought twice now, once with Tito winning a decision that Forrest thought he deserved to win, and second time with Forrest winning a decision that Tito believed he had rightfully earned. No matter how you look at it, they’re knotted up 1-1, and this will not only be the rubber match of their rivalry, but also Ortiz’s last MMA fight, to boot.
Ortiz, now satisfied both with what he has accomplished in the cage and that he cannot realistically accomplish much more, nonetheless sees Griffin as someone that he can beat. While much of the MMA world may have lost faith in Ortiz’s wrestling and cardio, to hear Ortiz tell it, he is still as dominant in both areas as ever. Ortiz has never had a confidence problem, which works in his favor in a business where you always need to have a short memory.
Griffin hung around in the top ten for a while, with the high point of his run of quality performances being the unanimous decision win over Quinton “Rampage” Jackson that made him the UFC Light Heavyweight Champion. He lost his first title defense by TKO to Rashad Evans, then was knocked out by Anderson Silva the following summer. Since then, he’s won two out of three (including his second fight with Ortiz), with the loss coming in his latest bout, a KO defeat at the hands of Mauricio “Shogun” Rua.
Griffin’s strengths really give him a good chance to win here. He is a much better striker than Ortiz, who has always been a capable boxer but generally lacks the power to threaten opponents and the variety to keep them off-guard. Furthermore, Griffin’s takedown defense is usually very good, and it doesn’t help that Ortiz has telegraphed his takedowns with increasing regularity over the second half of his career. Instead of imposing his will, he is often shooting to get out of a firefight or to avoid exchanging for prolonged periods of time.
It seemed that the judges favored Ortiz last time because he landed a number of power shots. This time, I think Griffin will tighten up his striking and be a bit less likely to get into drawn-out exchanges with Ortiz. Ortiz isn’t going to out-strike Griffin by volume, and Griffin just has to keep from giving the judges the impression that Ortiz is landing the better quality shots.
If Ortiz could take down Griffin regularly, I could buy into him winning this one. Griffin’s striking defense from the guard has always been suspect at best. However, I don’t think Ortiz’s cardio will allow him to bring Griffin down to the mat in the second and third rounds, where this fight will be won. Griffin will win a competitive fight in a decision that is close, but clear.
Prediction: Griffin by decision
UFC Middleweight Championship
Anderson Silva vs. Chael Sonnen
Here we are, folks. The first fight was one of the greatest comebacks you’ll see in any sport, made possible by the fact that in MMA, you can finish someone at any given time in so many possible ways. The first fight can tell you a lot about not only each fighter’s tendencies, but what might be there to exploit this time around.
A lot of people incorrectly think that Sonnen is predictable and will simply come out and shoot double leg takedowns nonstop. This is far from the truth. Looking at his takedown attempts in the first fight, they came in many varied forms. He shot for takedowns off of a lazy jab, off of a lead overhand left, when catching a leg kick from Silva, after throwing a left that had no chance of landing followed by a quick duck-under of Silva’s counter right hook, and occasionally, with no set-up at all.
He did seem more likely to set up his takedowns well earlier in the bout, as in the fourth and fifth he got a bit lazier and more predictable. He attempted a high clinch takedown after ducking a left hook which Silva easily thwarted in the fourth round. In the fifth, he shot a double leg from way outside without setting it up at all, which Silva again easily defended.
He’s versatile with his attempts both in terms of his set-ups and how he actually completes his takedowns. He likes double leg takedowns for sure, but will also get a single leg with the other hand around Silva’s waist, then “turn the corner” toward the side where he is behind Silva’s knee (usually Sonnen’s left hand-his power side- goes behind the leg). He’ll go for a body lock, then change levels quickly. If he sees Silva with his back too close to the cage, he’ll shoot with or without a good set-up, knowing he can complete the takedown when Silva can’t fully sprawl.
Silva, then, has to counter all of this with good movement. He can’t allow himself to circle right into the cage like he did in the first round of their initial meeting. He can’t be baited into countering punches that Sonnen doesn’t even intend to land, essentially falling right into Sonnen’s trap in the process.
If there’s a light at the end of the tunnel for Silva, it’s that in the fourth and fifth rounds, Sonnen didn’t actually land a real takedown. He swept Silva from half-guard in the fourth and either hurt Silva with a left hand or caused him to slip (Joe Rogan thought it was the latter) in the fifth to get on top. Once Silva warmed up his striking a bit, he was able to keep Sonnen at bay pretty well.
How much was Silva’s rib injury to blame? It’s hard to say. It does sound like a cop-out, but Silva didn’t look like himself, for whatever reason. It’s entirely possible that Silva looked off because he didn’t get to go into “size-up mode” like he prefers early in the fight before starting to get more active. He certainly didn’t look comfortable in the early rounds. He also was hurt from a surprisingly simple one-two by Sonnen in the first round, which may have affected him.
I expect Sonnen to fight nearly the same way this time around. He was not afraid to engage with Silva, and it worked out two years ago. However, when Silva did catch him in the fourth round, Sonnen had to go into desperation mode and did not look good at all. He telegraphed his takedown attempt, swung rather wildly, and generally looked like a guy who was in a lot of trouble. If Silva had not opted to take him down, who knows what would have happened?
I expect Sonnen to take down Silva a few times in this one. On the mat, we’ll see Sonnen doing what he does, which is being extremely active and unpredictable. While Sonnen sticks to certain things- he likes to pass to half-guard and strike from there, and he prefers to pass to on the left, favoring his dominant hand- he is very good at mixing up his strikes. He’ll throw while postured up, while laying on top of his opponent, he’ll throw big hooks, rabbit punches, short elbows, palm strikes to the side of the head, hammerfists, anything that presents an opportunity for him to stay busy.
On the bottom, Silva opted to defend and throw elbows when possible last time, possibly because he had a hard time having an active guard because of his injury. It’s also possible that Sonnen was just so active that he couldn’t get his bearings. I did see that Sonnen not only allowed Silva to control his right wrist for nearly a full minute before the final triangle choke/armbar in round five, but also several times throughout the fight. We’ll see if Sonnen’s learned that you cannot let a BJJ black belt control your wrist. If he hasn’t, he’s asking for another triangle.
Overall, I think this fight will often look very similar. The difference is that Silva will turn it up earlier in the fight and Sonnen will not have the good fortune to hurt Silva early on and take him by surprise like he did last go-round. Furthermore, Sonnen’s rudimentary striking, combined with bad tendencies (he repeatedly ducks down and to his left as he throws, which Silva caught on to and exploited to land a short right elbow that hurt him in the first fight) will not go unpunished this time.
Sonnen essentially has to pitch a perfect game to win. When he’s standing, he has to avoid getting battered, and when he’s on the mat, he has to stay busy while keeping out of trouble with Silva’s submissions. I just don’t think he can do it for 25 minutes. People are talking about how “mad” Silva is, but I don’t think it really matters. He’s taking Sonnen seriously, and he’s not worried about winning rounds, he’s just going to finish Sonnen at some point in a long, long fight.
Prediction: Silva by KO/TKO