Preceding the Ultimate Fighter Season 9 Finale main event Clay Guida vs. Diego Sanchez, the UFC has put together a solid lightweight bout between up-and-comer TUF Season 5 winner Nate Diaz and former UFC lightweight title contender Joe Stevenson. Both fighters will hopefully answer questions that many fans have been asking since their last fights in the Octagon. Does Nate Diaz have what it takes to become a true contender in the next year? Can Joe Stevenson avoid being pushed toward the bottom of the barrel within the division or possibly cut? Has Stevenson improved his skill set enough to deal with Diaz? Most of those questions won't be clearly answered on Saturday night, but we'll be given a substantial clue as to what those answers are.
Stevenson has the most to prove in this fight. He's been labeled by many fans as being slightly one-dimensional in that most of his wins in the UFC having come via the guillotine choke or by hard fought decisions. While Stevenson has shown some improved stand-up skills, he still lacks the power to end fights quickly, and his ground game has been underwhelming against top competition within the division.
Brian Oswald over at MMAMania.com caught up with Joe Stevenson and asked about the specific aspects of his game that he feels have improved with his recent move to Greg Jackson's camp:
Brian Oswald (MMAMania.com): You are now training over at Greg Jackson’ camp, alongside fellow TUF 2 castmates Keith Jardine and Rashad Evans. Is it fair to say that your time there has taken your game to another level, and if so, what specifically have you improved upon?
Joe Stevenson: I definitely can say that my time there has been well spent and I have improved vastly. The exciting part is there is lots of room to improve. I can’t go into too much detail this close to a fight. It was definitely the best move for my career though.
Knowing Keith and Rashad were there and having the opportunity to come back and be with them again in an environment where I was going to feel a little out of touch and out of tune was huge. Having those guys here has been great. There are so many great guys here to roll with. I have spent a lot of time with Donald Cerrone and Leonard Garcia. I have trained with Keith and Rashad as well. It’s been an invaluable experience.
I'm very curious to see how Stevenson's skill-set has "improved vastly". It isn't exactly an easy task to come into the fight against a guy who has a 6" reach advantage while also sporting a very good jiu-jitsu background. Trying to work an improved boxing with added ground tactics is going to be a true test for Stevenson when Diaz, on paper, might actually be better in both areas.
The Diaz brothers, Nate and Nick, are probably two of the tougher fighters in the sport today. While Nate doesn't have the resume to stand out as being a "badass", Nick has done his fair share of taking unbelievable beatings and also inflicting his own brand of punishment on opponents. Nate has begun to make a name for himself as potentially being a better version of his older brother. Nate is lengthier, uses range well, boxes almost as good, and utilizes his ground game much more than Nick. He also carries around a solid chin and the true Diaz attitude toward fighting... talk the talk and walk the walk.
Breaking down this battle, Nate Diaz stands out as the winner. I believe his skill-set outmatches Stevenson in both the stand-up and ground game, but his reach advantage coupled with his length on the floor is going to present huge problems for the smaller Stevenson. Diaz's guard is rather high, and he can work submissions effectively off his back as we saw in the Kurt Pellegrino and Alvin Robinson fights. Both Diaz brothers train with former world champion boxer Luisito Espinosa, so I imagine Nate's boxing will be on display early.
If Diaz wins, I think it will warrant some higher profile fight as he's been featured on multiple televised cards. He surely has a fan base to support him. Stevenson will probably stay with the promotion as his losses were to a champion in BJ Penn and the current challenger to the crown in Kenny Florian. The Sanchez loss might be a detractor to keeping Stevenson, but the hype surrounding Sanchez will likely save him. Look for Stevenson to stay in the UFC if he loses. With a win, Stevenson will be back in the middle of the pack.
Check out the rest of our The Ultimate Fighter 9 Finale coverage