UFC 121 – Preview and Predictions: The Main Card

As always when there is a European-hosted UFC, a USA-held event follows the week after. This time round the card is pretty huge. Headlining the whole thing we have Brock Lesnar in his third title-defence. Should he come through this one with the gold still around his waist, he will become the most successful heavyweight champion in the history of the UFC. He is currently level with Randy Couture and Tim Sylvia in successive title defences at the weight in the UFC. He is faced with a not-insiginificant threat posed by the challenger, Cain Velasquez, a man who has beaten every opponent faced in his career so far and has only been to a decision once.

Elsewhere on the main card we have a “teacher vs student” battle as Tito Ortiz faces off against his one-time TUF protege Matt Hammill. Former title contender Gabriel Gonzaga faces heavy hitter Brendan Schaub and Diego “nightmare” Sanchez faces Paulo Thiago in a fight that is likely to be his last at welterweight before a permanent move back to 155lbs. The co-main event of the evening sees the UFC debut of the impressive Jake Shields, who until now was the only top 5 welterweight plying his trade outside the UFC. He comes in fresh of a dominant decision win over Dan Henderson at middleweight and it will be interesting to see how he fares under the bright lights of the UFC octagon against Martin Kampmann.

Brendan Schaub 6-1-0 vs. Gabriel Gonzaga 11-5-0 – Heavyweight
In a very interesting fight to kick things off we have Schaub, the consumate athlete (ex-NFL) and ever improving prospect against Gonzaga, the ex-contender. Gonzaga, clearly, has an edge in experience and is far more rounded a mixed martial-artist than Schaub. This fight has been put together to show exactly where the highly-touted Schaub sits in the heavyweight shark tank. Is he a contender or a nearly man? For me Gonzaga has confirmed his status as the nearly man. His stock went through the roof the same night he nearly kicked Cro-Cops head through it, but instead of this being his launching pad to greatness, the fight may only end up being his career highlight. Gonzaga has failed to deliver on much of his early promise and when it has been time to step up his game he has fallen short everytime – with the exception being that great win over Cro-Cop. All of his losses have been by KO or TKO and that is a bad look against someone with dynamite hands like Schaub. Schaub has never been out of the first round and in fact his longest fight was 3mins 45 seconds in his KO loss to Roy Nelson. Gonzaga is a legitimate grappling master, a BJJ blackbelt and ex-mundials champion. I think in this fight we will get to see what Schaub is really made of on the ground in a competitive UFC match. We know from TUF10 that he can hang on the ground. But can he hang with someone with Gonzagas pedigree? If Gonzaga can survive the early onslaught he could do well in this fight. He should look to use his excellent leg kicks to soften Schaub up and keep circling away from those heavy hands. I don’t think Gonzaga is a contender in the division anymore but he is definitely one of the gatekeepers guarding entry into the divisions elite. If Schaub can beat him, he makes a great claim to getting a crack at one of the top 5 guys or possibly a rematch with Nelson (if Nelson loses to Carwin). I think Schaub may shock Gonzaga here, he is athletic and has enough submission savvy to avoid anything Gonzaga can throw his way and has enough power in his hands to put the Brazilians lights out for the 6th time in his career. It will be an interesting match and I think it will take Schaub into the untested waters of the later rounds, but I think Schaub takes it, especially with the gameplanning of Greg Jackson behind him. Schaub TKO rd 3

Tito Ortiz 15-7-1 vs. Matt Hamill 9-2-0 – Light Heavyweight
Tito will always have name value in this sport. He was a great champion and backed up his mouth with wrestling that at the time was among the best in the whole sport. After Anderson Silvas 8, he is the man with the most successful defences of a UFC title (tied with Matt Hughes at 5). Unfortunately for Tito, it isn’t 2006 anymore. MMA has moved on in lightyears since he updated the Coleman and Kerr book of ground and pound and took it to the next level. This match is significant not just for Tito’s (albeit fading) star power. But because it is a teacher vs student matchup. Hamill was Tito’s pet project on TUF3 and were it not for injury he may well have been the guy that went on to win the series and eclipse Michael Bisping. Tito has been unable to get a win since besting a ruined Ken Shamrock 4 years ago. Hamill menawhile has racked up a series of impressive victories and has only really been bested by Rich Franklin and Jon Jones (although the Jones fight was scored in his favour after Jones was dq’d for illegal elbows). Tito is ravaged by injuries and in recent times has gone into fights claiming to be his healthiest ever since he was champ and then saying he wasnt really all that healthy when he loses. I expect more of the same tomorrow night, Hamill should have more than enough to deal with Tito and beat him to a decision win or possibly late stoppage. Theres nothing funny about a great champion trading on past glories and failing miserably to live up to the achievements of his past. There is something very funny about the excuses this particular ex-champ comes up with though! Hamill decision

Paulo Thiago 13-2-0 vs. Diego Sanchez 21-4-0 – Welterweight
Sanchez has gone on record saying he has every intention of going back to 155 and making a run at the title there once more. So this fight doesnt exactly have big implications for the 170lbs division. Both men come in off losses with Sanchez needing the win for his own confidence and Thiago needing it to show he is still relevant at 170lbs. Sanchez has rejoined Jacksons MMA and is showing a renewed commitment to training after his surprise drubbing at the hands of John Hathaway. That victory was underlined even more by the ease with which Hathaway was disposed of by Mike Pyle last week. Sanchez needs to get back to doing what he does best which is putting guys on their back and pounding the living hell out of their skulls. Unfortunately Thiago isn’t the guy to do that to. He is far bigger than Sanchez and probably edges out the submission game of ‘Nightmare’. Hopefully Sanchez masters the cut to 155 and makes a good run at that weight because he is outgunned in the 170lbs division. Maybe now that the invincibility aura of BJ Penn has been exploded he feels more confident to have another crack. In this fight, his last at 170lbs I see him coming off second once again. Although this will give him 3 losses in a row, his vow to drop back to 155 should see him given a stay of execution by Dana and provided he can start stringing wins together at the weight again, he should be a welcome (re)addition to the weight class. In this fight though: Thiago decision

Jake Shields 25-4-1 vs. Martin Kampmann 17-3-0 – Welterweight
Kampmann was impressive in his last outing against Paulo Thiago but he is really up against it in this fight. He is on the cusp of a title shot, but there is little doubt that Shields has been brought into the Zuffa fold as a favourite to challenge for the title. A Shields vs GSP match is surely the dream fight for Dana but the hitman is out to ruin the party (as is that ‘fro haired fraggle Koscheck but that’s another post). There is a slight-feel (for me at least) that Kampmann is being seen by some (Dana) as simply a stepping-stone to a title shot. I don’t think Shields is taking that for granted though and he would do so at his peril. Kampmann is a far more technical striker than him and his ground game is very accomplished. Kampmann has only been beaten 3 times in his career, each time by TKO. Jake Shields doesn’t really do TKO’s but he does do submissions and grinding, dominant wrestling really well. He also has a decent chin which will serve him well as Kampmann should be able to score with some shots. Kampmann will need to up his game even further from the performance against Thiago and control the distance, using footwork and elusive striking to pick up the points against Shields. Unfortunately for Kampmann it looks inevitable that at some point he will find himself taken down by Shields and once there he is really going to have his work cut out. Once in top-control on the ground Shields should be able to really assert his dominance in the groundgame and do some damage on Kampmann. The Dane will tough it out but may falter in the later part of the fight. He has only done 3 rounds 3 times in his career. Shields has done 5 rounds in his last two fights and did so in dominant fashion. Shields has to be the pick here, I’m going with decision. Shields decision

Brock Lesnar 5-1-0 vs. Cain Velasquez 8-0-0 – Heavyweight Title
This is being billed by some as one of the greatest UFC heavyweight clashes ever. It sure has the makings of an epic encounter but it could be over very quickly, which would be a shame. The dream for me here is that this fight goes at least 15 minutes as I’d love to see what these guys are made of when moving into the championship rounds of a fight. The challenger is a great wrestler with a decent collegiate pedigree on a par with that of the champ.What he has that Brock does not is super slick hands and very good striking footwork. Brock has relied on his bulk and athleticism to get him through his fights thus far. He has done this very effectively, except in his last fight when his only friend was the lactic acidosis suffered by Shane Carwin who badly gassed after 5 minutes. We know Velasquez can do 15 minutes (Kongo): Whether he can do 15 against someone like Brock Lesnar is another story.

Brock Lesnar is learning the MMA game at an extraordinary rate. But there are still some fundamental problems that are hard to train out of him. One of those is his tendency to cower under pressure from punches (as exhibited in the Carwin fight). If Lesnar can be sure of one thing in this fight, it is being under pressure from punches! Much is made of Lesnars unstoppable shoot, but Bloody Elbow did a great analysis of this and found that it is very much NOT unstoppable. In fact Heath Herring (!) stuffed one of his shots and Carwin stuffed 3 of them. Given that Velasquez has wrestling skills almost on a par with Brocks, do we believe that he can’t stuff the takedowns too? Assuming he does, how does Lesnar win this fight without putting Velasquez on his back? For all his brutal power, speed and dynamic athleticism, have we seen anything of Brock other than his ability to lay waste to opponents once they are on their back.

This is the dilemma Lesnar has. How does he beat a guy he potentially can’t put on his back? The Bloody Elbow article gives a very compelling argument, and I’d like to add something else to it…. maybe Brock actually needs to work on his wrestling? That statement may seem ridiculous given that wrestling is and always has been Brocks bread and butter, but hear me out: It seems from the analysis I have read in this and other articles that his wrestling dynamism relies heavily on his bulk. He doesn’t switch up his attacks – failed double leg, switch to the single, turn the corner etc… – he just tries to bullrush guys to the floor. If he tightened up his wrestling technique he would be in a much better position to finish the takedowns he initiates perhaps?

What we are lead to believe from various articles and media hype in the run up to the event is that Brock has been working on his striking. He has brought in Pat Barry and has brought in people who can help him deal with the threat he percieves Velasquez poses. But maybe he is missing a key piece of the puzzle. Is Brock considering the possibilty that he can’t take Velasquez down? Also what of Velasquez’ chin? We saw in the Kongo fight that he repeatedly ate big right hands. Kongo of course didn’t capitalise and if he had not resorted to attempting horrible single legs after landing the strikes he would have won that fight. Velasquez though was able to survive the onslaught from Kongo so we know he has a decent chin too. Whether he can survive a full power punch (or even a grazing one) from Lesnar is another matter but is Lesnar skilled enough to land them?

To be honest, I have more questions than answers for this fight. I can see Brocks way to win, and it is the same as it always is: Big heavy hands, takedown, GnP. But with Velasquez we have a guy who more than anyone else Brock has faced has a legitimate chance of not only surviving, but also winning. Carwin should have beaten Brock, every one who saw that fight saw Brock become a little bit more human after that fight. Carwin didn’t land his heaviest punch, if he did that would have been it. As it was we found Carwins physique and training regime do not lend themselves to more than 4mins 30seconds of action. Velasquez can do much more in my opinion.

Don’t get me wrong, I really want Brock to win this. I think he is a great champion and it’s great for the sport having him as champion. He is a megastar. I’m not convined Velasquez has the same qualities in terms of being marketable and pushing the sport forward. But I do think he could take this fight. Despite this I’m all about the Lesnar war wagon and I want the big man to win! Head over heart pick, I’m taking Velasquez TKO round 3 (but WAR EPIC BEARD BROCK!!)

(see my undercard picks for UFC 121 here)

************ Updated with results *****************
Brendan Schaub vs. Gabriel Gonzaga – My Pick: Schaub TKO rd3 Actual: Schaub decision
Tito Ortiz vs. Matt Hamill – My Pick: Hamill decision Actual: Hamill decision
Diego Sanchez vs. Paulo Thiago – My Pick:Thiago decision Actual: Sanchez decision
Jake Shields vs. Martin Kampmann – My Pick:Shields decision Actual: Shields decision
Brock Lesnar vs. Cain Velasquez – My Pick:Velasquez TKO rd3 Actual: Velasquez TKO rd1


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