In the opening main card bout of the evening, Australian Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt and The Ultimate Fighter season six alum George Sotiropoulos (12-2, 5-0 UFC) will aim to continue his rise in the division's ranks as he battles the surging Kurt Pellegrino (15-4, 7-3 UFC). Both fighters have been running through the competition as Pellegrino has rattled off four straight wins while Sotiropoulos hasn't lost in the UFC with five consecutive victories. Pellegrino's most recent win came at UFC 111 over Fabricio Camoes via submission, and Sotiropoulos defeated Joe Stevenson in a "Fight of the Night" performance via decision.
For the opening fight on the main card of a major UFC event, it doesn't get much better than this match-up. Sotiropoulos has a proven track record of great positional Brazilian jiu-jitsu, and in combination with solid striking ability, great conditioning, and dizzying transition skills -- he's made a name for himself as a potential up-and-coming star in the UFC lightweight division.
Pellegrino, while a year younger than his opponent, has been with the UFC for roughly a year longer than Sotiropoulos, but he hasn't enjoyed the sudden success that the Australian has displayed in the cage. His initial stint with the promotion at UFC 61 went poorly as he was choked out by Drew Fickett, and his second chance, despite winning two straight bouts at UFC 64 and UFN 9, hit a wall in Joe Stevenson. A win over Alberto Crane at UFN 12 started another comeback run, but he ran into yet another obstacle at UFN 13 as he fell into a triangle choke slapped on by Nate Diaz.
Pellegrino hasn't lost since that battle back in April of 2008, and he's shown vast improvements in his overall game. His striking, while lacking knockout power, is still a means to an end, and his wrestling in combination with his grappling knowledge has been his real bread and butter over the last four fights. For this battle, Pellegrino has enlisted the help of Marcelo Garcia, four-time World Jiu-Jitsu Champion and three-time ADCC champion, to help him mold his jiu-jitsu into a dangerous weapon and ward off Sotiropoulos' attempts on the ground. Will it succeed? It's possible when you've got a grappler in your camp who many believe is the absolute best in the world.
One of the major focal points in this fight is the positional battle that will take place on the ground. While I think Pellegrino will definitely improve defensively with the inclusion of Marcelo Garcia in his camp, he has relied fairly heavily on his knowledge that he's beaten black belts before in the cage. Unfortunately, I think Sotiropoulos' Brazilian jiu-jitsu is highly evolved within the realm of mixed martial arts, and it's tough to fathom Pellegrino not finding himself in the same positions as Joe Stevenson.
Sotiropoulos' guard passing is absolutely mesmerizing to watch, and it works in a double-headed assault in that not only is he advancing position continuously on the ground -- but his opponents are normally caught off guard in where he's going next. In some of his past fights, he's moved from completely advantageous positions like mount to side control simply to catch different submission holds and keep his opponent guessing, and that's something that can be very beneficial for him in this match-up.
Height may be an issue as well. Sotiropoulos' lengthy frame will not only work to his advantage on the ground, but I believe Sotiropoulos' arms give him a slight reach advantage over Pellegrino. While I doubt we'll see knockout power from the Aussie, he can score damage consistently over three rounds if he threatens with takedowns.
Pellegrino's best chance is probably on the feet, or from a top position standing over his opponent, something we've seen Pellegrino do quite frequently. If he can land more power shots and down Sotiropoulos a few times, he'll need to follow that up with punishing shots from the top while avoiding a ground exchange with George. If he wades in too close or tries to maintain range, I think Sotiropoulos has his number. I think the best option is to throw quick combinations and escape, hoping for a downing shot and following it up with brutal ground and pound.
This won't be an easy fight for either competitor, and it's a pretty tough fight to call. I'm going to take George Sotiropoulos here as I don't think three to six months of training with Marcelo Garcia is going to revolutionize your ground game immediately. George is simply too good at passing guard for me to believe Pellegrino will suddenly have the answer.
The winner will probably see himself in the mix toward the top of the division, although I wouldn't consider them to be contender material just yet. It'll most certainly prove that the winner doesn't belong in the catacombs of the division, and I'd venture a guess that there could be a shot at someone in the top ten.