In a bout that has Fight of the Night written all over it, the ever-displeased Nate Diaz squares off with accelerating WEC crossover Donald Cerrone in the co-main event of UFC 141: Lesnar vs. Overeem.
The intriguing lightweight collision has captivated fans just as much (or more) than the evening's headliner, and understandably so. They're both consistent crowd-pleasers who are built for violence and extremely aggressive. They share the same type of long and lanky physique, their preferred weaponry is a smooth but vicious medley of striking and Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, and they're both exceptionally technical martial artists who apply their skills with the rugged mentality of a street fighter.
Big-picture similarities aside, it's the finite differences that will decide the outcome. Ironically, despite engaging his opponent ceaselessly and being fully capable wherever the fight goes, Nate -- like big brother Nick -- is notorious for performances that don't sit well with judges. Of his seven losses, six are by decision; the remainder was a 2006 submission to Hermes Franca when Nate was a wee 21-years-old.
This is a curious phenomenon, and I'm not exactly sure if the cause is a lack of top-shelf wrestling, physical strength or a strategy flaw that surrenders the influential element of control to his opponent. With Diaz, it seems to be all about finding his rhythm. He's typically a slow starter who is very hittable while he's gauging the pace and dialing in his striking range. Quick and assertive fighters have been able to jump on him from the get-go and never let him settle in, putting Diaz behind on the score cards early and into recovery-mode during the later rounds. Conversely, if he does get a comfortable grasp of distance and timing and starts working his hands, the tempo and angles of his unorthodox boxing are a nightmare to defend and can shift the momentum completely in his direction.
Cerrone is more explosive and straightforward. His boxing is tight and crisp, his low and high kicks are crippling, he's a decent wrestler and his submission grappling is voracious. Since coming to the UFC, he seems to have drastically matured. In the WEC, he was pleasingly reckless and succumbed to his raw instincts, but has harnessed his bloodlust into a more functional approach. Cerrone has found a nice balance by taming his fiery aggression and now battles with intelligence and a steely composure.
While Cesar Gracie is undoubtedly a premiere coach, there is none better than Greg Jackson when it comes to devising a concisely effective gameplan, and this along with Cerrone's recent evolution could be more of a factor than how their individual combat skills compare.
Match up analysis in the full entry.
Even though they're comparable in size, Diaz will enjoy a 3" reach advantage. He'll come out in a closed southpaw stance -- and one that's dangerously flat-footed with a lot of weight on his front leg -- and paw continuously with his lead hand while looking for holes to stuff counter punches through.
This "feel out" period will be crucial in assessing Cerrone's strategy and whether he's apt to shoot takedowns and lead the striking attacks or playing things more cautious and defensive. The element of surprise probably lies with Cerrone as Diaz's pace and intentions are much more predictable. In most cases, Diaz is content to walk his opponents down and throw his uniquely-angled punches from the perimeter or deep in the pocket. He will also clinch up on the fence to pressure with dirty boxing and knees to the thighs and body.
Cerrone will have more options. Shooting for takedowns, even if Diaz defends them or eventually escapes back to his feet, will be key in disrupting his rhythm and for scoring purposes. While Diaz's lanky counter punching will always be a concern, Cerrone's cleaving low kicks could materialize as a game-changer in open space, especially considering Diaz's slight reach advantage and skill from a distance. Connecting on a few Thai kicks to the lead leg will force Nate to disengage and reset or lure him into closer range.
Both are excellent BJJ players but I would give a distinct edge to Diaz in a straight grappling match. Since Nate is more of a volume puncher than a knockout artist, I think his proficiency in guard with sweeps and submission attempts is his most formidable asset and his best chance for a stoppage. His ground game is a seriously under-utilized tool that I don't think he exercises nearly enough, usually because he's happy to brawl on the feet. He has the type of dynamic creativity off his back that makes him very difficult to hold down and his busy hips almost always produce advantageous opportunities. His solid Judo game offers a sound avenue to ground the fight but he rarely imposes that strength and only implements it opportunistically.
Again, this plays into the perils of the Diaz style: unless he's able to finish on the ground or latch on a legitimately threatening submission, interactions where he can sweep or escape back to his feet are generally scored for his opponent. Cerrone is far from a pushover on the mat and will make Diaz work hard to secure a catch or he'll be able to initiate a scramble to break free.
Along with his more diverse kickboxing, Cerrone has better footwork, head movement and defense and should have the quicker hands as well. They both have rock-solid chins and are difficult to finish, so it's likely that this contest will go the distance.
Even though Cerrone has more options and a better chance of winning a decision, I had initially picked Diaz for the win here. However, after further scrutinizing the positives and negatives of this match up, I find myself inclined to change it up and go with Cerrone. I think his broader set of tools, footwork and hand speed will put him in the driver's seat early, his chin and ability to shoot takedowns are viable back-up options if he takes too much heat standing, he's likely to be on top in any grappling exchanges and his BJJ acumen should be savvy enough to stay out of submissions.
My Prediction: Donald Cerrone by decision.