The Spike TV preliminary card for UFC 136: Edgar vs. Maynard III begins at 8 p.m. ET, sandwiched between the Facebook stream and the main. The two featured match ups pit middleweights Demian Maia vs. Jorge Santiago Anthony Pettis vs. Jeremy Stephens.
Demian Maia (14-3) vs. Jorge Santiago (23-9)
Maia's losses to Nate Marquardt and Anderson Silva were understandable. Marquardt is considerably more experienced and well rounded, plus the knockout fit into the semi-dismissive "he got caught" category. Anderson Silva is ... well, he's Anderson Silva.
The Mark Munoz fight seemed to reveal a very mortal Demian Maia. In addition to his vastly improved striking and deceiving takedown prowess, Maia had accrued a rep for submitting or thoroughly dominating anyone and everyone on the mat. Perhaps we all placed too much stock in his astounding trip and insta-triangle of Chael Sonnen, the Sherman Tank of 185.
I'll admit that I was immediately inclined to pick Maia when Jorge Santiago was announced as his opponent. However, Santiago's well known Achilles Heel (six of his nine losses are by TKO) shouldn't factor in considering Maia's relatively deficient punching power. Additionally, the former Sengoku champion's BJJ black belt and MMA experience should allow him to stay competitive with the submission demon on the ground, as he's never been submitted.
Gifs and analysis in the full entry.
The metamorphosis of Maia's kickboxing has never ceased and deserves mention.
It started out ugly, showed a semblance of legit technique, advanced to adequacy and looked the best it ever has against Munoz.
I thought UFC 131 was the first time Maia seemed fully comfortable and confident in exchanges, going so far as to stalk Munoz and back him up with a fireball left hand.
In the clip to the right, his technique, power and footwork are clearly the best they've been.
I got the impression before that Maia was "imitating" a striker, but his overall stand up game at UFC 131 might have shown his steepest progression yet.
Unfortunately, effectively rounding out his weaknesses was overshadowed by the lack of venom in his outright specialty.
My hat's off to Munoz for his grappling awareness and submission defense, but purposely pushing the fight into Maia's guard used to be the proverbial nail in the coffin.
While almost any other location is more advisable, Munoz demystified the notion that Maia was untouchable on the ground.
He showed that one can not only survive but still vault ahead on the score cards and beat Demian Maia somewhere other than standing.
Jorge Santiago is nowhere near the level of wrestler of Munoz nor can he match his physical strength, but I think there's more light at the end of the tunnel than ever before in tangling with Maia, especially for a skilled grappler like Santiago.
Most of the talk on Jorge Santiago's record revolves around his 67% TKO defeats and rarely on the bright side of his respectable winning and finishing percentages.
Of his twenty-three career wins, twelve were submissions (52%) and nine were by TKO (40%) with only two victories going the distance.
Sure, you can bag on his overseas competition or lackluster Octagon performances, but you can't ignore his affinity for taking risks and finishing fights in exciting fashion.
After his UFC release, Santiago went a twelve-fight tear against the best middleweight competition available while becoming the Sengoku middleweight champ and Strikeforce Middleweight Grand Prix champion.
With Stann now ranked sixth and Maia seventh, Santiago isn't getting any easy opportunities this time either.
At UFC 130, Stann never let Santiago find his groove: he beat him to the punch, he sidestepped and counter-punched his incoming flying knees and takedown attempts and shut him down in every sense.
Just like Santiago can't replicate Munoz's strength and wrestling, Maia won't be the imposing and immovable force that Stann was.
I'm interested to see how Maia's enhanced striking compares to a veteran knockout artist like Santiago, and also whether Santiago will pursue takedowns and how he'll fare against Maia's astronomical sub game.
I was impressed enough with Maia's striking against Munoz to put him near Santiago's level. Though unlikely, I wouldn't put a Maia KO beyond the realm of possibility.
Alternatively, I would probably evaluate Santiago's grappling with that same proximity in reverse, which -- I realize -- is a bold statement.
We are talking about a guy who choked out the legendary Jeremy Horn in the first round and has never been submitted throughout a pretty loaded list of opponents.
I think Santiago is being mildly overlooked here and, on paper, only trails Maia by a little. I considered calling for the upset but Maia's slick clinch throws and trips inspire me otherwise, as this will likely put him on top and in control of any grappling encounters, and Maia's top game might be more fearsome than his guard.
My Prediction: Demian Maia by decision
I have to start with a little rant on behalf of Jeremy Stephens, who I feel deserves to make the top twenty-five cut in the consensus lightweight rankings. From a pure performance standpoint, I understand his absence, especially based on his less than flattering inauguration into the UFC.
Stephens began his career losing only one of thirteen fights to Chris Mickle; a defeat he twice avenged by vicious knockout. In fact, Stephens crushed his opponents in all twelve victories leading up to his tenure in the Octagon, nine by TKO and three by submission, closing all but two of those in the first frame.
His entrance to the big leagues was an armbar at the hands of savvy veteran Din Thomas before, after notching another first round smashing elsewhere, Stephens reappeared with a decision over Diego Saraiva and a strike stoppage of Cole Miller.
Here's where things went downhill: Stephens would drop three of his next four to Spencer Fisher (decision), Joe Lauzon (submission) and Gleison Tibau (decision). His win in that sequence was a knockout of sixteenth-ranked lightweight Rafael Dos Anjos. Stephens boomeranged back by winning four of his next five, including twenty-one ranked Sam Stout, and the sole loss was a controversial decision to ninth-ranked Melvin Guillard.
The scoring wasn't accompanied by the typical bickering about MMA judging yet, from cage-side I had the fight a draw, Brent Brookhouse had it for Stephens as did all three Sherdoggers on their play by play. Hey, I warned you it was a rant, but the point is that Stephens has comparable or better records than the four lightweights ranked from fourteen through eighteen but doesn't even appear in the top twenty-five.
Don't get me wrong ... there's not much to dislike about Anthony Pettis. The Showtime kick will always be one of the most innovative jaw-droppers in MMA history.
His creativity is off the charts and he's a dual pronged threat with a stockpiled kickboxing arsenal and a fluid guard.
Entering the WEC undefeated after eight fights -- all first round stoppages (4 by TKO, 3 subs) save one decision -- the Roufusport fighter won five of six, consummated by snatching Ben Henderson's title.
It is of particular interest that his sole WEC defeat -- a split decision to Bart Palaszewski -- was delivered by a fighter who bears the most similarities to Stephens.
Pettis has smooth boxing and high kicks, enjoying the most success striking when he's getting off first, though he is a skilled counter puncher.
The animation to the left shows nothing but nice, clean technique with straight punches. Defensively, his lack of head movement in this exchange could be a concern against a slugger like Stephens.
His hand speed and accuracy are top notch, his footwork has been sound and his ability to react quickly with punches ties everything together in his formidable stand up arsenal.
The seamless addition of the left high kick to close out his combination (right) depicts his unnerving comfort in stringing strikes together, though again his static head position is a bit of a concern.
While there's nothing tremendously flawed in his defense, Stephens is easily the biggest power puncher he's encountered, leaving a tiny margin of error for even the slightest mistakes.
His wrestling is rarely mentioned, but taking down a juggernaut like Bendo (left) attests that Pettis is dangerous there as well, endowing him with the oft-absent aspect to transition to the floor to maximize his multifarious offense.
His clinch is ruthless in that he alternates from technical striking to latching onto the back or chomping for submission attempts.
Clay Guida unwound him with a strategy that Stephens can't replicate, so Pettis is faced with trading with Stephens or exploiting his grappling wit.
While jousting strikes would be the fan's choice, Pettis would be foolish not to implement his avid submission artillery.
Still a technical striker, Stephens is much more primal and raw.
He substitutes an extra heaping of vicious punching power and unbridled forward aggression for not being the most fundamentally textbook kickboxer.
The problems with that style are the defensive holes that are left exposed, but the best band-aid is having the brick-laden chin that Stephens has demonstrated thus far (no TKO losses).
In his last outing, a commanding decision win over Pettis training partner Daniel Downes, Stephens rolled out some strong wrestling and surprising submission attempts of his own.
Typically, his clinch game was restricted more to the stiff knee he clips Downes with to the left, but Stephens, perhaps in an attempt to break his one-dimensional mold, secured a shocking six takedowns throughout the fight.
These weren't of the mild variety either.
Stephens went all Matt Hughes by lifting Downes off the canvas and taking a short job before burying him against the cage.
The fun didn't end there, as another statistical category was uncharacteristically checked: Stephens attempted three submissions as well (below).
I don't think this means he can compete with Pettis on the mat; just that he's making subtle strides to round out his game with each showing.
I do think he can give Pettis hell standing though.
The prediction should surely favor Pettis just for being so thoroughly dynamic. The balance is pretty even standing and everywhere else except technical BJJ.
While I might give Stephens a slight nod in the striking, mostly for his cleaving power advantage, Pettis also has a sturdy chin to even things out.
I'd guess Stephens' stand up will influence Pettis more and more that the ground is his friend as the fight goes on.
Hopefully I've put some on notice that Stephens is the last lightweight you want to overlook and has all the potential to score an upset, especially if Pettis plays his game or doesn't respect his power. From a judging standpoint, his aggression and power tend to stand out if it goes the distance, so he might be worth taking a chance on at +250.
With their knack to take a punch being about even, Pettis' clean punches and devious ground-work make him the clear (but slight) favorite.
My Prediction: Anthony Pettis by decision
Jorge Santiago vs. Kazuo Misaki gif via MMA-Core.com
All others via Zombie Prophet of IronForgesIron.com