After some surprise performances last weekend from Strikeforce and a potential Fight of the Year candidate in Sengoku Raiden 14's Misaki vs Santiago, I think we've grown a bit spoiled. Nonetheless, UFC 118 rolls into Boston, Massachusetts this weekend with a couple of marquee match-ups that will surely spoil us even more. UFC Lightweight champion Frankie Edgar will battle former champion B.J. Penn in the main event of the evening for the UFC Lightweight title, and former IBF Middleweight, Super Middleweight, and Cruiserweight boxing champion James Toney will finally make his transition to mixed martial arts as he battles UFC legend Randy Couture in heavyweight action. Gray Maynard and Kenny Florian will battle for the #1 contention spot in the UFC's lightweight division on the card as well. Some exciting battles that should have major implications within the UFC's ranks.
Before we meticulously pick apart the main card match-ups with a magnifying glass, here's a brief look at the UFC 118 preliminary card, which includes two battles that will take place live on Spike TV one hour before the pay-per-view broadcast begins.
Lightweight: Joe Lauzon (18-5, 5-2 UFC) vs. Gabe Ruediger (17-5, 0-1 UFC): The headlining bout of SpikeTV's free UFC 118 preliminary card will feature a lightweight battle between fellow The Ultimate Fighter season 5 cast members Joe Lauzon and Gabe Ruediger. Ruediger, if you recall, was kicked off the show due to missing weight when pitted against Corey Hill in his first match-up of the season. Adding fuel to the fire were the antics of Ruediger eating ice cream cake knowing he had to cut weight, and Dana White obviously didn't think it was worthy of a UFC fighter to be mismanaging such a vital part of fighting.
While Ruediger was cast out of the house with a comment that he'd never fight in the UFC again, Ruediger is back after rattling off six straight victories in the regional circuit with his best win coming against Wander Braga. The Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt has been very effective with his submission game, tapping out five of those six opponents. While he's dangerous on the ground, he may need to be a bit more well-rounded to have a chance against the diverse skillset that Lauzon possesses.
Lauzon has had a roller coaster ride in the UFC's lightweight division since his win over Jens Pulver and stint on The Ultimate Fighter. He won two fairly conservative bouts against Brandon Melendez and Jason Reinhardt before running into a buzzsaw in Kenny Florian at UFN 13. He bounced back with victories over Kyle Bradley and Jeremy Stephens, but dropped an unanimous decision loss at UFC 108 against Sam Stout in his most recent performance.
The loss pressed a lot of talk that Lauzon may be slowing down in his progression to become a top fighter in the division, but Ruediger should prove to be what Lauzon is looking for to regain some confidence and potentially show us some improvement in his skills.
In my mind, it's tough to see where Lauzon will have difficulty. While he isn't the Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt that Ruediger is on paper, he does have the skills on the floor to hold his own if he finds himself in trouble in a grappling battle. Gabe's striking isn't exactly great, but it isn't bad either. Lauzon, however, should have the edge in that department, and the fact that he's proven he can punch with stunning power should concern Ruediger on the feet.
Look for Lauzon to keep this fight standing and pepper Ruediger with shots from a distance. Ruediger will more than likely lunge in with some huge shots, but I fully expect Lauzon to avoid those dangers and notch a win on Saturday night.
Lightweight: Andre Winner (11-3, 2-1 UFC) vs. Nik Lentz (18-3-1, 2-1 UFC): In the second battle taking place on SpikeTV's free broadcast of the UFC 118 preliminary card, Team Rough House fighter and The Ultimate Fighter season 9 alum Andre Winner will try to improve his winning streak to three as he battles Minnesotan Nik Lentz in what could be a highly entertaining back-and-forth affair.
I'd expect Lentz to be much more pressing in the takedown game than Winner in this match-up, but he has the ability to shell out a lot of damage in the stand-up game as well. Look for Lentz to work powerful leg kicks against Winner's base for much of this fight, hoping to take the wind out of Winner's stand-up game. Winner will more than likely counter with his striking ability, something that has improved with his training camps at Team Rough House.
The real question is whether Winner can land the big blow before Lentz sets a torrid pace and tires out Winner. The x-factor to consider in answering that question, however, is that Lentz is one of the tougher fighters in the division to finish, and his kickboxing game is much more advanced than that of the typical "wrestleboxer". With that said, I'm going with "The Carny" via unanimous decision.
Middleweight: Dan Miller (11-4-0-1, 3-3 UFC) vs. John Salter (5-1, 1-1 UFC): Dan Miller's opportunities to impress UFC fans and ascend through the ranks of the UFC's middleweight division haven't been presenting themselves at perfect times in his life. He and his wife lost their first child at birth only days before his showdown with eventual title challenger Chael Sonnen in May of 2009, and his second child, Daniel, has had constant health problems since his birth. All of these developments have happened while Miller was in the process of battling against some of the top talents in the toughest pool of middleweights in the world, and it certainly has to be a factor when looking at his 0-3 record in his last three appearances within the promotion.
But Miller would probably give us the age old cliche among sports athletes. "No excuses." And anyone that knows him personally would probably say that's how he's always been. Now, Miller is truly on the verge of being cut from the promotion, but the UFC has tossed him somewhat of an easier fight on paper than his past three opponents.
This fight could go a number of ways. Miller's stand-up isn't great, and Salter may be looking to exploit that. On the other hand, Salter's wrestling is his greatest strength as he was the 2007 NAIA National Wrestling champion. He also happens to have some solid grappling skills, and in combination with his wrestling -- he could be a major threat on the ground in this fight.
I won't give Miller this fight by any means. He hasn't looked crisp in his stand-up game, and he has had problems with his conditioning in past battles. But he has to know the pressure is on, and he's faced much tougher competition than Salter in the past. I think Salter has the chops to avoid Miller's quick submission transitions, but Miller can edge him out via decision here. Salter is, in my opinion, a live dog in this fight though. Don't overlook him.
Welterweight: Nick Osipczak (5-1, 2-1 UFC) vs. Greg Soto (7-1, 0-1 UFC): Pellegrino MMA bred Greg Soto will get one more chance to prove he belongs in the UFC as he battles Team Rough House fighter Nick Osipczak in a somewhat relevant bout near the bottom of the division. While the match-up certainly doesn't have any meaning at the top or middle of the division, it will likely serve as a do-or-die battle for Soto. Unfortunately, Osipczak has the right combination of skills to be a real menace to Soto over three rounds.
Highly underrated in defending takedowns, Osipczak will prove to be a difficult to dominate from the top on the floor, and Team Rough House's overall improvements in the stand-up game haven't skipped by Osipczak either. He can be very damaging off his back as well, and I think that gives him a huge edge in this fight in terms of racking up points against his opponent. Soto will probably be very tough to finish, so I'm leaning toward a decision victory for Nick Osipczak.
Welterweight: Mike Pierce (11-3, 2-1 UFC) vs. Amilcar Alves (11-1, 0-0 UFC): UFC 118 will begin the evening off with a bang in a very interesting welterweight showdown between Nova Uniao product Amilcar Alves and relentless wrestling prospect Mike Pierce. The match-up, on paper, fits the mold of the classic grappler vs. wrestler showdown, but both Pierce and Alves have weapons in their stand-up game that could truly make this a struggle for supremacy on the feet.
Alves has over 25 years in mixed martial arts experience, especially in Judo. He's served as a training partner to WEC champion Jose Aldo, and he's been dominant in his last four appearances -- finishing all in the first round. Diverse skills on the feet include a steady diet of kicks and knees, along with a very capable ground game. He certainly won't be a pushover for Pierce, but he isn't being thrown a fastball right down the middle either.
My concern for Alves here is his heavy use of kicks in combination with Pierce's compactness on the feet and strength in the wrestling department. Kicking doesn't bode well for staying on your feet, and Pierce is strong enough to power out of submissions and remain positionally dominant throughout the fight. He also happens to be rather compact in how he throws his punches, giving him the ability to beat opponents to the punch. Add in his overall toughness, and you have the makings of a fighter who has staying power in the division. Alves has a lot of hype for his Nova Uniao roots, but I think he comes up short here.