Henderson will be making his UFC debut and looking to rebound from being doubly victimized by Anthony Pettis in his last venture, who highlight-reeled him with "The Showtime Kick" and then absconded with the WEC championship belt. Bocek surely intends to continue his steady grind toward the top of the lightweight heap while camouflaging his scalding submission skills behind a sheepish smile and humble demeanor.
I'm not going to lie -- I have no idea who is going to win this fight -- but you should remain vigilant and tread on with confidence. As only the most esteemed and professional of MMA analysts would, I'm going to expound upon my total lack of insight and awareness in explicit detail with a skillful vocabulary.
12-2 Henderson, from hereon referred to as "Bendo" for practicality, is a brown belt in BJJ, black belt in Taekwondo, two-time NAIA All American wrestler, a feisty striker, and in my estimation, a black belt of the highest degree in escaping submissions.
Amidst the entertaining tirade of back and forth smack talk and controversial bouts between distinctly isolated WEC lightweights Jamie Varner and Donald Cerrone, the huge question in 2009 centered around who was really the best of the two and deserved to be crowned champion. The answer lied with neither Varner nor Cerrone, but rather with Ben Henderson and his asphyxiating guillotine choke, which was the device he used to eradicate both from the title picture altogether.
9-3 Bocek is a black belt in both Kempo karate and Brazilian jiu-jitsu, making him a handful standing or grappling. On past UFC broadcasts, Bocek was said to have trained with Team Quest, Jackson's MMA and American Top Team, which are three of the best joints on the market. He was also the personal BJJ coach of the Fertitta brothers, and via commentator Mike Goldberg circa UFC 83, Mike Van Arsdale boasted that Bocek has some of the best takedowns in all of MMA, a claim supported by Kenny Florian's allusions to his highly under-rated wrestling skills.
8 of Bendo's 12 wins came by submission, and before Pettis, he was on a 10-fight roll. Overall, Bocek's notched 7 of 9 by tapout and enters UFC 129 on a 4-1 stride, fresh off a complex catch to sour 10th Planet's Dustin Hazelett's lightweight initiation, with a scrappy showing versus top contender Jim Miller accounting for his only recent loss.
With past competition that's tough to compare, fairly similar styles with few weaknesses and weapons aplenty, the only thing I'm comfortable predicting come fight-night is that Bocek will be the red-haired, pasty Canadian guy.
More elaborate and high-tech scrutiny like this is posted after the jump.
Free Movement / Striking Phase
Both of these guys have shown that they have big hearts and can take a punch.
Don't be fooled by befuddling referee Jon "Schorle You Can't Be Serious" (who has a well-documented track record of alarming ineptitude) and his brow-raising stoppage of Bocek vs.Frankie Edgar at UFC 73, which was the former's only loss to strikes.
Bocek proved his true durability against Mac Danzig at UFC 83 when he was blasted off both feet and into orbit with a knee early in the fight, then subsequently dabbed with a frenzy of elbows throughout the next two rounds before finally succumbing to a rear-naked choke in the third.
On the same token, Henderson was laid-out flat on The Matrix floor by the fence-walking Pettis, but recovered remarkably, and he marched through some square shots from Cerrone as well. His chin also digested the same monstrous right hand that Shane Roller just clubbed Thiago Tavares unconscious with at "UFC: Live on Versus 3".
The difference was that Bendo quickly regained his wits to wriggle free from the tight guillotine, snatched a leg and stood back up, took Roller down momentarily and then folded him up with a brutal meathook of his own.
These sequences show what a raw scrapper Benson Henderson really is.
Imagine waking up from a pleasant daydream, your back against the fence, your neck fully exposed and being wrenched furiously in a deep guillotine against a powerhouse who had just won 3 of his last 4 fights with the same choke -- and then sitting Roller down in the exact spot you were in just a minute before to win by TKO. It's unforeseen and dramatic turnarounds like this that make MMA such a marvelous sport.
All of these animations show how Bocek and Henderson incorporate shooting takedowns and assuming control in the clinch to to even the scales, turn the tide, or just catch their breath and regain composure.
Offensively, there's no question that Bocek is a little clumsy and awkward when lumbering forward and lobbing strikes from the traditional stance.
After Edgar hopped around and whirred a few lasers through his guard, we see Bocek force him to defend with a takedown attempt, back him up with a big knee and then shovel a counter-punch down his throat. He was able to hold his own on the feet versus Jim Miller with accurate counters and by keeping the threat of his powerful shots lurking in the back of Miller's mind.
Bocek isn't the most graceful chap on the block, but he has decent boxing, mixes in a few kicks, and forces you to respect his takedowns while constantly maintaining pressure and moving forward. However, as seen above, just when you think Edgar is toying around and you're about to make a sarcastic reference to Frankenstein or molasses, Bocek connects with a lightning-fast counter or launches a spry takedown. He has the sort of odd and off-tempo rhythm that can be a curse and an asset at the same time.
Henderson seems much more fluent in the stand-up department, with quicker hands, better balance and a broader arsenal. Standing in a closed southpaw stance, Bendo flicks out straight and low kicks, puts together solid sequences with his hands and feet, and has shown pretty good reaction-time and footwork. As with Bocek, Henderson has used the same takdown threat to instill hesitation in superior strikers like Cerrone and Pettis.
There is some discrepancy with Bocek's reach length, as the UFC has listed it as both 68" (vs. Edgar) and 75" (vs. Bielkheden). Compared to Henderson's 70", it's always nice to know whether Bocek will have a rather significant 5" advantage or not, and how 3.5" per arm can be misconstrued.
Either way, even though it's only by a very narrow margin, I'm putting Bendo slightly ahead in the stand-up phase for his unreal recovery time and being just a tiny bit "smoother".
Advantage: Henderson (slight)
Even though much of the above applies in that Bendo is quicker and more agile, I feel Bocek has exhibited superior strength and control in the clinch, but it's another tough area to assess.
Review the gifs above. They both use the clinch as an equalizer: to slow down or corner a surging striker, to regain position in the rare occurrence that they're trying to get back on their feet, or in most cases, to relentlessly pursue their own tenacious takedowns.
Though again a bit more robotic, Bocek adheres to all the right fundamentals, keeps a wide base, appears to have very deceiving strength, and is absolutely relentless once he adheres in the clinch.
I do think that this aspect is such an integral part of their very analogous styles, that whoever is able to dictate the clinch will enjoy a huge surge in momentum, and it doesn't necessarily have to be with only one fighter or the other. Bendo is slippery and always on the move, so the motion, angles, and variety of tactics he uses to deal with Bocek's powerful grasp will be pivotal.
Bocek is more consistent and Henderson is more of a flow-fighter, so we could see ten different results in ten clinch interactions between these two, just like we could see either make that one crucial mistake that his opponent is adept enough to pounce on.
Knees high and low are interspersed by both along with a little dirty-boxing here and there, but generally, jockeying for position, pummeling for under-hooks, and trying to enforce control makes up most of their strategy. This will be a sheer battle of willpower that could go either way, and I think there are arguments and examples on both sides to refute any opinion that one fighter has the clear advantage.
Given my nod to Henderson for his activity, I'm leaning by a hair toward Bocek for being so technical and consistent with his robust double-legs and overall authority in the clinch.
Advantage: Bocek (slight)
There's a couple of important reasons why I think Mark Bocek should be the better grappler in the grand scheme of things, the biggest being that he's a threat in more areas.
Henderson has shown freakish submission defense and a wise ground-and-pound strategy by keeping an upright posture and fending off attempts while he lances down punches. However, he seems perfectly content to sit or stand tall inside the guard and throw strikes rather than pass, and Bocek has shown elite abilities in every aspect.
On paper, Bocek's overall ground game (sweeps, control, positioning, striking, defense, and submissions) seems a little tighter, so when added to his strong clinch, my first inclination is to go with the Canadian. The way he submitted Hazelett was shocking and showed another level, and he also had Jim Miller in serious trouble, both highly reputable grapplers.
What makes me pause is Henderson's absolutely inhuman submission defense and escapes, and what a crafty scrambler he is.
I think it's going to be extremely difficult to put Bocek on his back, and even if he's able to, Bendo will probably spend more time defending submissions than mounting offense; but could emerge on top and banging strikes.
Then again, that's exactly what happened in his first fight with Cerrone, which I scored 3 rounds to 2 in favor of "Cowboy". The judges didn't see it that way, and if Bendo continues to improve like he has and is still able to squirm his way free of deep submissions, it's very possible to ride out the round in the highly praised top position.
Advantage: Bocek (slight)
I have to reiterate that the advantages I've given are all meager, and overall I consider these two neck-and-neck in every category. The betting lines reflect how close this fight is, with the majority giving Henderson a small advantage, one favoring Bocek and another calling it even.
I've been on the fence about this one since it's been announced. With some hesitation, I'll conjecture that Bocek will emerge victorious by decision through rock-solid clinch work, hefty and relentless takedowns, and forcing Henderson to constantly defend with clever position-work and sub attempts.
My prediction: Bocek by decision