A belated Happy Christmas to those of you taking the time to read this. I hope Santa brought you all the gifts you wanted and you are firmly making your new years resolutions to get straight to the gym as soon as the last of the Turkey and the festive booze supply has been exhausted. If you are one of those people who are kid free (or fortunate enough to get a baby sitter) and will be seeing in the new year in style – fear not. You are not missing out on the last UFC of the year, as the show is taking place on Friday 30th and not on the big day. That’s right, on New years eve-eve, the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Vegas plays host to the last UFC event of the year, and the big show is closing 2011 with not so much of a bang as a sonic boom. Despite the lack of marquee names, there are some fantastic fights lined up right through the card, culminating in the much anticipated return of Brock Lesnar. Lesnar will face elite K1 striker Alistair Overeem, the first of the strikeforce heavyweight roster to make the jump over to a UFC event. With the best part of 600lbs of man mountain colliding in the Octagon for the headline fight, fans can be sure that they are in for a treat on the penultimate night of the year and the last big MMA event of 2011.
The supporting event sees Nate Diaz make his second (re)appearance at Lightweight after he decided to bring his 170lb run to an end. After a superb submission win against Japanese MMA legend Takanori Gomi (Diaz bros 2- Gomi 0) he faces Donald Cerrone. Cerrone has had one of his best years in MMA since joining the UFC from the WEC – going 4-0 with a hat trick of fight bonuses in his pocket to underline the fact that he means business more than ever before. Diaz will be looking to steal his momentum and make his own run into 2012 with the title in his sights. On the Aired Prelims of the show, we will see the only UK fighter on the card – Ross Pearson – make his featherweight debut against the dangerous Junior Assuncao.
So with a tonne of fight chat to get through and a truck-load of turkey sandwiches in my over-stuffed stomach, let’s get into the picks.
Manny Gamburyan 11-6-0 vs Diego Nunes 16-2-0 – Featherweight
Diego Nunes came to the US fight scene on the back of some storming performances in his native Brazil. Undefeated in 13 fights with all but his debut getting into the second round, he rode a tidal wave of hype. Since appearing in the WEC and now the UFC however, he has found finishing fights a lot harder, with EVERY one of his 6 fights on US soil going the distance. His two fights in the UFC have been very tough fights against the vastly experienced former champion Mike Brown and the vastly experienced nearly man Kenny Florian. His opponent on Friday is a former TUF 5 contender and also faced Mike Brown, chalking up his biggest win with a huge KO. Gamburyan, like his cousin Karo Parisyan, has strong judo background forged at Hayastan with Gokor and Gene Lebell. Nunes is the archetypal Nova Uniao fighter, he has decent muay thai and a strong BJJ base. Against Florian he was supposed to be cannon-fodder and – weight cutting issue excuses aside – made the perennial contender look pretty ordinary, despite dropping the decision. Gamburyan will no doubt go head hunting and Nunes needs to be very careful to avoid his power. Nunes has a lot more finesse in his striking and in avoiding the big shot, he will create angles from which he can apply his own striking game effectively. Nunes can wrestle pretty well, but I fancy Gamburyan to win any clinches and hit the takedowns. But on the floor Nunes is wiley enough to survive and either get up or reverse the position. I’m not sure he will find the finish, but Nunes should be able to hold his own and squeak a decision win here. Where that leaves Gamburyan is anyone’s guess, but his position will certainly be tenuous if I’m right. Nunes decision
Matt Riddle 5-3-0 vs Luis Ramos 19-7-0 – Welterweight
All Matt Riddles fights have taken place in the UFC and he has put in some decent shifts in the Octagon, not least his fight of the night performance against the undefeated Benoist last time out. Ramos has been fighting since 2001 but hasn’t really exploded onto the worldwide scene like so many of his Nova Uniao team mates. His UFC debut was at UFC 134 in Rio where he was KO’d by Erik Silva in 40 seconds. The worldwide audiences haven’t had too much time to see what Ramos’ striking game is all about but the stats show that he has only got 4 of his 19 wins by TKO. Despite the quality of his camp, I don’t think Ramos will be surprising Riddle and in fact, I don’t like Ramos’ chances at all. Riddle should prove to be too strong a wrestler for the Brazilian to impose his game. A stoppage from the American seems unlikely, but it isn’t too much of a leap of the imagination to see him taking a wrestle-stomping decision win. Riddle decision
Jacob Volkmann 13-2-0 vs Efrain Escudero 18-3-0 – Lightweight
Since dropping to Lightweight Volkmann has gone a perfect 4-0. The possessor of a stifling top game and some impressive and relentless takedowns, the festively named “Christmas” will be looking to extend that against Escudero. Escudero was released from the UFC back in 2010 and went 5-1 outside the organisation. He returns to the big show as a late replacement for TJ Grant. Escudero has a strong submission game but Volkmann is making huge improvements in his own submission game, and coupled with his wrestling advantage he looks to be the firm favourite in this fight. This one looks like it will go the distance though, as Volkmann dominates each round with his wrestling and relentlessly hunts the choke. Escudero’s savvy on the ground will see him through the sticky spots, but he won’t have an answer for the takedowns and control of his opponent. Volkmann decision
Dong Hyun Kim 14-1-1 (1 NC) vs Sean Pierson 11-5-0 – Welterweight
Kim was handed his first loss in devastating fashion against Carlos Condit. He has been lucky in a few fights and had his loss against Parisyan overturned due to Karo’s positive drug test post fight. Despite this, there is no doubting the mans talent and he has pretty much steam-rollered most of his opponents. He has superb Judo, executed perfectly and when he is on top he is very hard to throw off. He rarely looks to submit, but always looks to pass guard and pound. He is a huge favourite in this fight, but Pierson should not be overlooked. A BJJ purple belt and National wrestling champion in his native Canada, his grappling credentials are solid. He possesses a tighter striking game than Kims and he will need to use it effectively: Prior to running into mega-tonne puncher Ellenberger in his last outing, Pierson was on a 6 fight tear with 4 coming by way of KO. Kim will do what he always does and Piersons job is to find a way to avoid getting put on his back. He may have some success early doors, but the end seems inevitable as Kim slowly asserts his dominance. The prelims are looking to be a long old show if my predictions are accurate as I’m seeing this one go the way of the previous 3 – Kim decision
Anthony Njokuani 14-5-0 (1 NC) vs
Danny Castillo 12-4-0 – Lightweight
Njokuani is a fierce striker who won 3 back to back KO of the night bonuses in the WEC before he transitioned to the UFC. Since that feat though, he has had a patchy run, going 2-3. His last performance against Andre Winner in the UFC was – according to Joe Rogan – his best ever and he managed to land over 100 strikes throughout the 3 rounds against Winner who is no slouch on the feet himself. Against Castillo he finds himself fighting someone whose star is on the rise. Castillo is a team AlphaMale product and despite posting 3 losses, all have come against top opponents. His last defeat was to Jacob Volkmann where he was simply outclasses in the wrestling department. His only loss to strikes was against Anthony Pettis. Njokuani is certainly the more dynamic of the two fighters, but Castillo’s wrestling has the potential to stifle his game. I’m not sure how the betting lines are running on this one, but if you are into your UFC flutters, I’d look to put your money on Castillo. Castillo decision
Ross Pearson 12-5-0 vs Junior Assuncao – Featherweight
Fan favourite Pearson is often described by American MMA hacks as “gritty” and I guess that is a description he wouldn’t be offended by. He has a lively stand-up game, a decent chin and is as tough as they come. His conditioning is great and provided the cut hasn’t affected him too much, I see this a decent fight for him at the weigh. Assuncao had a prior run in the UFC but came up short against Nate Diaz and Kurt Pellegrino and was given his marching orders. He is now undefeated since November 2008 with a 7 fight win streak, but he has not been facing top level opponents like Pearson. With a black rope in Capoeria and a blackbelt in BJJ Assuncao seems a reasonably rounded fighter, but he lacks the integration of wrestling into his skill set to really piece each range together. Pearson transitions from striking to wrestling well (even for a Brit!) and even has a few submissions on his resume, albeit not at the highest level of competition. Big wins over Dennis Siver and Spencer Fisher showed what Pearson is made of, as he used played to his strengths and used his conditioning and great striking to surprise and frustrate the veterans. Despite losing last time out to hot prospect Edson Barboza, some would dispute the decision and he certainly lost no credibility in defeat with the fight earning him a fight of the night bonus. A lot rests on how Pearson copes with the cut as if this impacts his cardio then he will have trouble imposing the sort of game he normally uses, but if all is well. I can see Ross winning this convincingly and I’m going one step further and predicting he stops Assuncao, handing the Brazilian his first career stoppage to strikes. Pearson TKO rd 3.
Nam Phan 17-9-0 vs Jim Hettes 9-0-0 – Featherweight
Hettes is an undefeated prospect with all 9 of his career wins coming by way of submission. A judo and BJJ specialist he made his UFC debut against Alex Caceres, defeating him with a rear naked choke in the second round. Against Phan he faces a different proposition: A lightening striker with pinpoint accuracy who can get in and out scoring points and effectively avoiding and defending takedowns. If Hettes gives his opponent room to move, Phan can and will win this convincingly. If he is to continue his momentum, Hettes needs to close the distance and pen Phan in, forcing him to engage in the clinch where he can impose his will. Saying it and doing it – as always in this game – are two different things and Phan will have something to say about Hettes’ plans. I see this going a bit like Phan vs Garcia 2 with Phan utilising his timing and movement to score points on the feet and slowly take away the momentum of his opponent. It is extremely unlikely that Hettes possesses the sort of durability of Leonard Garcia and we should see Phan post a decent stoppage win here. First loss for Hettes and a lot of lessons learned. Phan TKO rd 2
Vladimir Matyushenko 26-5-0 vs Alexander Gustafsson 12-1-0 – Light Heavyweight
Matyushenko isn’t an old-timer in the league of the incomparable Randy Couture, but he is very much an underrated veteran of the game. He has been campaigning as long as the Natural in MMA (since ’97) and is a former IFL champion. He also face Tito Ortiz for the UFC belt back at UFC 33. Since rejoining the UFC in 2009 he has quietly notched a 4-1 record and his lone defeat was to Jon Jones. His career defeats are pretty much all to legends of the game – Vernon “tiger” White, Ortiz, Arlovski, L’il Nog and Jones make up the full list of men to hand the Belarusian defeats. He may be getting on, but he should not be written off. His opponents lone loss came against Phil Davis at UFC 112. He has looked impressive in his victories and has never gone the distance in any of his 13 fights. Matyushenko will look to impose his wrestling in this match, but to do so he has to navigate the greater reach and height of his opponent. Gustafson has excellent boxing and absolutely destroyed Matt Hamill – himself a decent wrestler. This is a tough fight for both men and both present challenges to their opponent. Matyushenko showed against Jason Brilz that he isn’t just a wrestler and if you sleep on his power, then you will – well erm… go to sleep!! I am leaning towards Gustafson here, purely because I think he is much more polished on the feet and should be able to utilise his superior skills in this area, coupled with his range to make this a tough night for “the Janitor”. Gustafson decision
Jon Fitch 23-3-1 (1 NC) vs Johny Hendricks 11-1-0 – Welterweight
Fitch returns after a long layoff due to shoulder surgery to once again try to stake a claim to contest the UFC title. The landscape has changed a little in the last year though, with the emergence of Diaz, Condit and Ellenberger as legitimate contenders. Hendricks is a legit opponent for Fitch, despite the obvious disparity in experience. He is a 4 time all-American Div 1 wrestler and 2 time national champion which actually trumps all Fitch’s own achievements in wrestling. However this isn’t a wrestling match, it’s MMA. Hendricks has showed that he has head-smashing power in his strikes, something Fitch has always lacked and this adds an interesting dynamic to the match. Someone with big power who is arguably a better out and out wrestler than Fitch poses an interesting question of the AKA representative. There will be many people who can’t wait to jump on Fitch based on his performance here, and there can’t be too many pundits that are predicting anything other than a large dose of “the usual” from Fitch. Hendricks has a golden opportunity to blast himself right into the mix at 170lbs if he can out-Fitch Fitch, even more so if he can actually stop Fitch before the clock runs out. I have to confess that I really want Fitch to lose. I totally respect his ability to impose his will on almost everyone he fights, but it is like a slow death watching him fight. This is the reason he doesn’t get the shot that – on records alone – he more than deserves. The likelihood of him changing his formula now seem slim, but if he doesn’t want to keep getting the fights he DOESNT want, he needs to come up with a way of making his method more effective and start finishing guys. I am getting off point, but it’s hard to write about Fitch without having a rant about him, because he is a highly skilled fighter but he’s just so boring to watch. Back on the task at hand, I’m backing Hendricks. It is almost certainly the wrong pick, and if you are betting money please don’t listen to me. But I’m hoping that somehow my backing will encourage Johnny to channel his inner Anderson Silva and land a bomb that puts the lights out on Fitch and make him a little less relevant than he is right now. Because there are some decent fights for GSP about now, and I for one don’t want to see GSP and Fitch fight again anytime soon. Hendricks TKO 1 (but really Fitch Decision!)
Nate Diaz 14-7-0 vs Donald Cerrone 17-3-0 (1 NC) – Welterweight
Fight of the night anyone? If any fight on the card other than the main event is going to deliver, it’s this one. Both men are dynamite on their day and capable of winning on the feet or on the floor in style. Neither fighter has been stopped by strikes and both only have one submission loss on their record. This one should be classic and in a lot of ways I am looking forward to this more than the main event! Diaz has adopted the high volume striking attack of his brother to some effect, but one thing both Diaz brothers lack is kicks. Cerrone should look to deploy these early and effectively to give Diaz a taste of what’s to come and maybe make him re-evaluate his plan of attack. On the mat both men are pretty evenly matched and should there be a ground battle, it will be intriguing. You wouldn’t use “great wrestler” in a sentence to describe either fighter, but if pressed on who I think delivers better in this department I would have to say Cerrone looks to be the slightly better of the two. Certainly fighting out of Jacksons you would expect the improvements he has made in this area to continue. I really like both these fighters and this is a close match. I give the edge to Cerrone after the year he has had and the momentum he carries into the match. Diaz is a dangerous opponent, but I see going Cowboys way. Cerrone decision
Brock Lesnar 5-2-0 vs Alistair Overeem 35-11-0 (1 NC) – Heavyweight
OK so it’s on, a huge fight in every sense of the word – when these two men meet in the centre of the Octagon the fans will be going crazy. There is a massive experience deficit here, but to be honest that isn’t going to matter. There is no unknown quantity here, both men know what the other can do and all the fans do too. The anticipation is going to be in who gets to impose their game first. This one is slated to go 5 rounds, but I will eat my own face if it gets out of the third. In fact getting out of the second is pushing it here. Firstly the negatives: Lesnar has had a long layoff and as expected his camp are reporting that this is the best Lesnar ever. Overeeem is undefeated in MMA since November 2007 but since Pride died he hasn’t really faced great competition. His biggest opponent was his last, when he fought Werdum in Strikeforce. That was a horrible fight though and Overeem looked pretty terrible throughout, even being outstruck by Werdum. OK so what are the positives of this match? Well it’s two massive blokes who are going to attempt to smash each other in an Octagon – what’s not to like! This is not an MMA connoisseurs fight by any stretch. But it is a great piece of marketing by the UFC and a fight any MMA fan will want to see. I will shamelessly admit I’m a Lesnar fan, but it is pretty hard to see how he wins this. Rushing Overeem will surely end badly for him, so he is actually going to have to work to set up a clinch. Once he does clinch he needs to close any space immediately because you don’t want to be eating knees from ubereem. If Lesnar gets Overeem on his back, this one is over. Overeem does have some submission wins and is actually a European ADCC champion, but he largely gets his submissions by strength rather than technique. There is no way he is stronger than Lesnar and unless he catches a guillotine off a sloppy shoot, I can’t see him subbing Brock. On his back, he will struggle to get Lesnar off him and Brock will punish him. But all fights start standing and so Brock is immediately at a massive disadvantage. One of the most talked about attributes (or rather lack thereof) of Brock is his ability to take a punch. Many people suspect that Lesnar hates to get hit and it is hard to dispute that after seeing him try to get the hell away from both Velasquez and Carwin. But then, who wouldn’t want to get away from that! I can understand his reaction but the “cover and hide” reaction to getting punched, just invites more strikes from the aggressor. If he falls into this trap against Overeem he is going to sleep.
I can see a clear way to win for both men and either outcome is as likely as the other. I am rooting for Brock in this fight, but I can see a strong case for Overeem to win. He won’t be as fearful of Lesnar as he was of Werdum because that submission threat just isn’t there. I think if Overeem opens up on Brock then he can win. But equally if Brock puts Overeem down, which given the opening he will do with ease then all bets are off. I am still flip-flopping in my mind as I type this so I’m just going to type the winner as I see it right at this second, even though I will change my mind in a minute. Overeem TKO rd 2. (WAR Brock!!)
********************* UPDATED WITH EVENT RESULTS ***************************
Gamburyan vs. Nunes – My Pick:Nunes Decision Actual: Nunes Decision
Volkmann vs. Escudero – My Pick:Volkmann decision Actual: Volkmann Decision
Dong Hyun Kim vs.Pierson – My Pick:Kim decision Actual: Kim decision
Njokuani vs. Castillo – My Pick: Castillo Decision Actual: Castillo decision
Pearson vs. Assunção – My Pick: Pearson TKO rd 3 Actual: Pearson decision
Nam Phan vs. Hettes – My Pick: Phan TKO rd 2: Hettes decision
Matyushenko vs. Gustafsson – My Pick: Gustafsson Decision Actual: Gustafsson TKO rd 1
Hendricks vs. Fitch – My Pick:Hendricks TKO rd 1 Actual: Hendricks KO rd 1
Diaz vs. Cerrone – My Pick: Cerrone decision Actual: Diaz decision
Lesnar vs. Overeem – My Pick: Overeem TKO rd 2 Actual: Overeem TKO rd 1