In the UFC's first non-title five rounder, Chris Leben takes on Mark Munoz in the headliner of UFC 138: Leben vs. Munoz from the LG Arena in Birmingham, England. The broadcast starts tonight at 8 p.m. on Spike TV.
Leben is the perfect specimen to trial a non-title five round main event. I don't think there's any question that Munoz deserves to be the favorite and will be the safer prediction, especially coming off his career heightening victory over Demian Maia at UFC 131.
However, Leben's huge heart and unfaltering, zombie-like fortitude could benefit largely from the extended format, and his whirling blender of wild, caveman punches keep coming until you activate his "off-button", which is far from an easy task. I can't help but recall Leben's thrilling TKO comeback against Aaron Simpson, who has a style similar to Munoz, after being buried by takedowns in the first round.
Then again, Simpson's cardio obviously flatlined in that fight, and Munoz has exhibited no such signs and is a better finisher than his D1 wrestling counterpart. Leben is no Demian Maia off his back though he does have one of the more under-rated guard games in MMA, making his meathook punches and resolute intrepidity an inimitable package and cementing him as one of the sport's most consistent wild cards.
Recently, Leben rebounded from consecutive losses (Michael Bisping by decision, Jake Rosholt by submission) to post a spirited three-fight streak. Less than a month after the come-from-behind stoppage of Simpson, Leben stepped in to face Yoshihiro Akiyama at UFC 116 and submitted the Japanese-Korean Judoka in the third round. Brian Stann then joined the great Anderson Silva as the only fighters to stop Leben with strikes, but a signature Leben performance followed in a devastating first round knockout of legend Wanderlei Silva at UFC 132.
Undefeated after five fights, Munoz lost his UFC light-heavyweight debut against Matt Hamill by way of a rugged head kick. "The Filipino Wrecking Machine" made the twenty-pound plunge to 185 and has only lost one of his seven fights since to perennial contender Yushin Okami. In that stretch, his last three outings have been the most impressive to date: a decision over Simpson, a knockout of C.B. Dollaway and a scrappy decision over Maia.
Gifs and analysis in the full entry.The gif to the right was posted on the UG after Leben beat Akiyama. This is right before the start of the third round.
Leben's unremitting warrior spirit is his most fearsome attribute. It must be unnerving to throw everything you have at a guy for two rounds and not only does he not go down, but he's raising his hands and inciting the crowd with a maniacal air of bloodlust.
In fact, Leben's raw toughness and massive punching power are the reasons why I'll be glued to the television tonight to see if he can pull off another unlikely and amazing performance.
These steadfast traits propelled Leben to another memorable knockout of Terry Martin back at UFC Fight Night 11.
Leben is cut from the rare cloth in that his instinct after getting wobbled with punches is to wade into the trenches while headhunting with heavy leather. The downside is ... well, losing -- but the upside is that many are supporting Leben tonight as the underdog.
He's put his nose to the grindstone and upped his conditioning and technique everywhere but his pervious stand up.
He's still that defiant kid who bragged that he'd "show up smelling like strippers and cigarettes and still put the stamp on kids" on the first Ultimate Fighter, just now a slightly more refined and mature version.
Along with the nostalgia of his many knockouts and knack for defying the odds, the "live by the sword and die by the sword" analogy looms ominously as well.
Brian Stann simply beat him at his own game by capitalizing on his porous defense and overwhelming him with brutal power shots.
For as much as Leben is devoid of grace and traditional fundamentals on the feet, his surprisingly fluid guard makes up for it.
That doesn't mean he won't still double-club the head with hammerfists once he has the triangle locked in though.
No one can survive on the ground with unadulterated aggression alone, but Leben maintains his primal ferocity while meshing it with a set of ultra-active hips, good wrist control and excellent overall technique.
His cage tactics, though improved, are highly predictable.
Further attesting to his natural abilities, he went on to become a two-time state champ and national champ in high school, then was honored as the first Filipino American to win a D1 national title at Oklahoma State University. Munoz was also a three-year member of the Fila Junior World Wrestling Team, nabbing a silver medal in 1998.
He won his first three MMA fights and was invited to the WEC, where he trounced both foes by first round TKO.
Since I've lauded Leben's durability, it's only fair to point out how Munoz persevered through a crushing Kendall Grove uppercut (left), regained his composure and turned the tide by finishing the Hawaiian with a torrent of unruly ground and pound (below).
Rafael Cordeiro's prestigious oversight has been evident since Munoz took up part-time training at Kings MMA.
He's become more comfortable in his striking stance and adapted his footwork well -- a task wrestlers often struggle heartily with -- while tightening up his defense, form and punching technique.
His boxing prowess is evinced in the first gif above where he smashes Dollaway, and he's no longer dipping his head in the pocket while closing range.
That last habit is exactly what Grove keyed on to rock him with an uppercut and something he needs to abstain from against Leben, who has a nasty uppercut. It's the punch he hurls most often when entering the clinch and to greet the advances of potential takedown artists.
I thought Munoz's last performance against Maia was a definite sign of his intelligence and maturity as a fighter. He was unafraid to dive into one of MMA's most perilous guards and executed a bulletproof gameplan.
He'll have to do the same to surpass Leben.
That engagement actualized in the exact opposite way I imagined it would, with Maia stunning Munoz on the feet and Munoz controlling things and mounting the more effective offense on the mat.
Munoz will have to apply his overwhelming dominance of control to pinpoint Leben's glaring weaknesses, which are his striking and takedown defense.
The prime counter for a fighter who sloshes forward, plants his feet and wings power punches is exploding for a double leg takedown with extreme emphasis on head position and not telegraphing the shot.
Anytime Leben has time to settle in -- whether on the feet, in the clinch or on the ground -- he has the feisty attitude and tools to quickly build momentum. With active head movement and calculated footwork, Munoz can switch up his attack from short bursts of straight punches, catching Leben off-guard with takedowns and locking horns in the clinch to dampen his strikes and impose control.
As I opened with: Munoz is definitely the safe choice even though Leben has a legit chance for the upset.
I might have picked Leben if Munoz hadn't shown such solid power in his strikes -- both standing and from top control -- and the submission knowledge to evade Maia's clutches. I think he has the smarts and skills to finish Leben by catching him on the feet and pouncing ruthlessly, trapping his head in the cage-corner and pelting with ground and pound for a referee intervention, or forcing Leben into a dicey scramble where he can latch a power-sub.
Of course, the longer the fight goes on the more opportunities Leben will have to pull another rabbit out of his hat. Considering that Grove and Maia both caught Munoz on the feet, it would be crazy to rule out Leben doing the same.
My Prediction: Mark Munoz by submission
First Leben gif via The Underground Forum
Grove uppercutting Munoz gif via mmagif.blogspot.com
All others via Zombie Prophet of IronForgesIron.com