The UFC light heavyweight division isn't heavily represented on the UFC 119 card on Saturday night, but the lone battle taking place on the card within the division will have some major significance in future fights near the top of the division. Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt Antonio Rogerio Nogueira (19-3, 2-0 UFC) will hope to continue his unbeaten streak with the promotion while throwing his name into the hat of potential contenders as he faces The Ultimate Fighter season 8 winner Ryan Bader (11-0, 4-0 UFC). While Nogueira is the obvious veteran of this match-up, Bader has been impressive over the course of his eleven fight career, and many fans believe a win on Saturday night will solidify him as a legitimate talent in the division.
Both fighters have much to gain from a win here, and the route to victory won't be easy for either competitor. Nogueira happens to be one of the most well-rounded fighters in the division, sporting a Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt and a proven boxing background that won him gold at the 2006 South American Games. He lives on capitalizing on less experienced grapplers' mistakes, and he's also one of the best defensive grapplers in the division off his back. Reversals and counters seem to find their way into the mix whenever an opponent puts him to the mat, and battling him on the feet can turn ugly quickly as well.
But there are some doubts about Nogueira, many very similar to what we've talked about when his brother is involved in a match-up. Is defensive grappling enough to win fights at this high of a level? Can his striking compete with some of the best the division has to offer? Those questions really haven't been answered as Jason Brilz and Luis Cane didn't epitomize great wrestling or exceptional striking. Bader is a step up the ladder however, but it is debatable whether he's a better striker than the previous competition that Nogueira has faced.
We do know that Bader's NCAA Division I wrestling skills are something that Nogueira has rarely dealt with, but Nogueira has dispatched of solid wrestlers with relative ease in the past. Vladimir Matyushenko couldn't compete with Nogueira on the feet at Affliction: Day of Reckoning, and Dan Henderson succumbed to an armbar at PRIDE Total Elimination back in 2005. Will Bader suffer the same fate?
I wouldn't be inclined to think so, mainly because Bader combines good size, great strength, powerful striking, and enough know-how on the ground to crush opponents from top control. "Wrestleboxer" comes to mind when describing Bader's style, and while some fans cringe at that thought -- it works for Bader quite well since he has the power to make opponents pay when he can land strikes. Wrestling mainly acts as a fallback if he gets in trouble, or a base to stuff takedowns and maintain a striking gameplan.
So, which gameplan will Bader actually implement on Saturday night? It isn't unfathomable that Bader take down Nogueira and try to keep his posture high enough to pound out Nogueira on the ground. It's also quite risky for him to stand in front of a man who has very good hands on the feet, so in reality -- Bader must choose which risk is worth taking. Allow Nogueira to work for submissions and reversals, or chance being knocked out on the feet?
I'll go with the latter, and that should make this a rather interesting challenge for Ryan Bader. Bader isn't an awful striker by any means, but Nogueira's credentials speak for themselves. It would be a major statement to the division if Bader can bomb Nogueira, but I'm really not banking on it. In fact, I think the oddsmakers might be wrong here.
While Bader certainly has the wrestling and powerful punching to be a threat, I think Nogueira's hands could give him fits on the feet. Furthermore, I'm interested to see if Bader can avoid Nogueira's grappling prowess as the fight drags on. I'm not entirely convinced he can avoid some of the counters that Nogueira has put on display in the Octagon as Bader isn't a proven tactician on the ground. With all of that said, I have to go with the upset and pick Nogueira.