In the first of two title affairs at UFC 136: Edgar vs. Maynard III, fourth ranked pound-for-pound candidate Jose Aldo takes on longtime lightweight standout Kenny Florian for the featherweight strap.
Let's just get into it: I'm going to take Florian for the upset here.
I'm overly stubborn in not giving fighters the benefit of the doubt, perhaps, admittedly, to a fault. MMA is so complex and dynamic that I feel certain aspects require a consistent demonstration against reputable competition. I'm not going to use the "O-word", and I'm not demeaning Jose Aldo's elite abilities, but I think he has a lot to prove.
Compared to current and past pound-for-pound constituents, the top-listers have cleaned out the division for years (Georges St. Pierre, Anderson Silva), mounted an insane surge by blowing through most of the top contenders (Jon Jones) or staked their claim behind the champions through an overall exemplary tour of duty (Jon Fitch, Jake Shields).
Here are Aldo's relevant opponents: Cub Swanson, Mike Brown, Urijah Faber, Manny Gamburyan and Mark Hominick. The flying double-knee knockout of Swanson was absolutely amazing but Cub wasn't ever significantly ranked and I'd actually love to see a rematch.
Cub is a tough S.O.B. and I'm baffled by his disappearance. Faber and Brown are totally legit and impressive wins. Gamburyan was a new transition to featherweight and always had some questionable striking tendencies, and Hominick is a multi-dimensional talent and a great win, but one that made Aldo look extremely mortal. Again, I'm not downplaying his performances or those opponents, but my opinion of Aldo has remained rather grounded.
I will add the disclaimer that the bulk of the lighter weight talent (lightweight and below) has a significantly stronger global presence, where the majority of the higher weight classes had much more time to migrate stateside and consolidate after the purchase of Pride.
In the full entry, I'll list some of Florian's attributes that might be foreign or unique to Aldo followed by my typical gif-barrage.
Size: I put tremendous emphasis on the myriad advantages that stem from additional height and reach, especially when that same athlete matches it with good agility and know how to use it. The only other threatening opponent Aldo has faced who was significantly taller is Jonathan Brookins. While no slouch of a fighter himself, Brookins is a pure grappler with seriously lacking stand up technique.
Florian, who is a very lanky 5'10", will have three inches of height and four inches of reach, and one of Florian's major strides as a lightweight was learning how to capitalize on his length in his striking, clinch game and on the ground.
Diversity: In addition to the size disparity, Florian has tighter technique in more areas than Aldo's past adversaries. I would put Hominick on about the same level in striking, but I'd assess Florian's ground and clinch skills as slightly better and more technical, plus he's a much stronger wrestler. This along with his size advantage is monumental.
Experience: Given my mild criticism of Aldo's tenure, Florian has tackled incredible competition throughout his career: Drew Fickett and Diego Sanchez in his third and fourth fights (who both were formidable welterweights), Thai Champion Kit Cope, veteran sharp-shooter Sam Stout, dominant wrestler Sean Sherk (who had thirty-six fights under his belt in Florian's ninth fight), a deceivingly dangerous grappler in Dokonjonosuke Mishima, and then virtually the entire who's who of the UFC's top lightweights.
To summarize, Florian has a physical stature, skill-set and experience level that Aldo has yet to encounter and, like Aldo, Florian is a technical striker and BJJ practitioner with better wrestling in a longer frame.
Now, the two major areas that cause me to hesitate are speed -- which is always lost or equalized when a fighter drops weight -- and Kenny's altogether underwhelming featherweight debut against Diego Nunes.
Throw in his high mileage at age thirty-five, and the speed factor alone might completely annihilate my entire theory, resulting in Aldo -- the quickest featherweight in the biz -- running circles around Kenny.
Speed and agility were integral to Florian's success at lightweight. If that doesn't translate well at featherweight, he's in big trouble.
His frame works against him a little here as Nunes clips his long, lead leg with a low kick. Not only is Aldo faster than Nunes, but his low kicks are utterly devastating. Ask Faber.
Nunes wisely keys on Kenny's strange absence of activity and brings the kick high. It's the sort of intense high kick that's effective even when blocked.
Florian's footwork is painfully predictable here.
In his three slow steps forward, Nunes reads the first two and times his kick to land right as Florian's feet are planted for the third.
You can easily count the pattern of the timing with each step: one ... two ... and BAM.
Let's contrast that with the Florian of old.
The differences are astoundingly obvious in this clip versus Guida.
Here you can see an increased spring in his step, his knees are bent and he's crouched lower, his center of gravity and balance is impeccable and his left hand is cocked at his chin.
Kenny bounces on his toes three times here in the span of a second, where, above, he sleepwalks forward with three steps, flat footed and hands down.
This is why speed is so critical. Florian is entering a new world where everything plays in fast-forward, yet his own quickness seems to be stuck on pause.
Also, these clips are from the first round against Nunes, so he should be fresh. He could be drained from the cut, but he's done for if it doesn't change.
Coupled with his snail-like reactions, Florian gets punished to the left for making another cardinal mistake, which is backing straight up with no angles.
Here Florian applies his savvy experience through what I think is another brutal tactic that's under-appreciated in MMA.
Going half-butterfly, he creates space and controls Nunes' posture by clamping his head down with his left hand and walloping wicked elbows to his head and face.
For a skilled ground practitioner with good defense, sweeps and submissions, this is how you assume control from your guard with strikes rather than BJJ.
Where Florian's speed may suffer from the drop in weight, I think his wrestling abilities will flourish.
He can get more leverage with his size in this weight class and threaten with takedowns from outside and in the clinch to complement his striking onslaught.
From the top, Florian's stellar grappling background helps him lock in a dominant position where he can shower down punches and his trademark elbows.
The Nunes fight showed equal parts of extreme concern and encouraging potential for what he can do vs. Aldo.
Allow me to regain some ground if you think I'm dogging on Jose Aldo, because the guy is insanely talented.
I've pointed out some areas where he's still unproven, but there are many where he's solidified himself as one of the greatest.
His stance, form, footwork and head movement are among the best in the sport today.
Check out how he upholds perfect balance after cleaving the uppercut by circling to the right while still pressing the attack with excellent hand position.
Every time I babble about stance, head movement, reaction times and using angles, the animation to the right is the quintessential example of how to do it.
Head movement is more than just high levels of activity (see: Clay Guida) where Aldo's shucking and jiving to the left could each be the starting motion toward unloading a combination.
You can see that simply by committing to his head movement, he causes Hominick to freeze in his tracks for a moment as he prepares to defend.
This sequence to the right is more of Hominick being Hominick rather than a major defensive flaw.
Hominick cuts such a hard swivel after his left hook set-up that he plunges the body shot at 4 o'clock after coming at 12.
It's also worth mentioning that this is a risky angle to cut, as it marches directly into Aldo's power hand and leaves his head entirely exposed for a counter.
This is where Florian's reach and footwork could get him deeper in the pocket with more power on the end of his punches.
Here's another: Florian established his jab well toward the end of his lightweight stint, especially against Gomi.
In fact, the Florian that took apart Gomi is both the fighter and the strategy that I think can unhinge Aldo.
Aldo is so grossly offensive at times that it seems a piston-like jab while darting in and then out of range could take him out of his game.
The problems that Hominick caused would seem to be multiplied if "the old Kenny" shows up.
This is what I love about Aldo's style.
Notice how he sets up the body shot by faking with the right and then planting hard off his left foot to needle the shovel punch into the body.
The danger with this combination is the left hook that Hominick grazes his exposed chin with. His initial strike connecting takes some steam off Hominick's counter, but there is that moment of vulnerability between Aldo's two strikes here.
Aldo shows a little Anderson Silva flavor by slipping punches while staying in the pocket with his feet planted.
It's bad ass. You can't knock something that works, though I will add again my emphasis of how Florian's long reach might prohibit this as well as that his flat-footed stance would expose him to a double leg if Florian timed it correctly.
Grappling-wise, we have two high level black belts with formidable ground-and-pound.
Broken record alert, but Florian's spidery length might show through on the ground as well.
A long-limbed grappler can snake his limbs farther around things, create more space, manipulation and leverage with his hips and has a wider range of travel for striking.
With many things being equal in their grappling pedigrees, Florian's size and experience are the intangibles that stand out to me.
I'm in a bit of a pickle as I'm hesitant to predict that Florian can finish him, and his sluggish performance against Nunes does not really indicate he'll have the energy for a five-round decision.
If Florian performs even close to the way he did in his debut, I think Aldo will not only win, but trounce him by TKO. I failed to mention Florian's strong beard (one TKO loss), which is another proven aspect on paper. If he brings back the defensive characteristics and effervescent movement of old, his chin should carry him through in the fewer times Aldo can connect.
If we see the same Florian we saw versus Nunes, Aldo will tag him frequently and his resilience to punches won't matter. Even if he's not knocked out, Aldo can score a stoppage via a blinding flurry just like Diego Sanchez did.
I'm being a tad hypocritical in that I opened with questions about Aldo because he hasn't necessarily proved himself, yet I realize my prediction for Florian is based on his past performances, meaning he hasn't necessarily proved he can replicate them at featherweight.
It will absolutely take some huge adjustments to deal with Aldo's speed and to implement the advantages of his frame at featherweight and, based on that alone, my pick is risky ... but I'll stick to my guns and guess Florian can pull it off.
My Prediction: Kenny Florian by decision
All gifs via Zombie Prophet of IronForgesIron.com