This is a compelling match-up between two talented grapplers. Beerbohm is coming off his first defeat after a perfect fourteen-fight MMA debut, as veteran Pat Healy's experience carried him to a competitive decision in an entertaining scramble-fest.
The 'love him or hate him', spandex clad Shinya Aoki makes his sophomore stateside effort after the icy cold composure of Gilbert Melendez left him no footholds in the first. Since the convincing loss to Melendez at "Strikeforce: Nashville", Aoki quickly regained form with three-straight wins over Kawajiri, Aurelio and Sithoar.
Aoki's chin: Counter to popular opinion, Aoki has a decent and fairly resistant chin. Notorious heavy hitters like "Mach" Sakurai and Joachim Hansen are the only recent MMA fighters to finish Aoki with strikes, even though Aoki's last outing in "Dynamite!" ended with him asleep versus K-1 Max kickboxing champion Yuichiro Nagashima in a "mixed rules" bout. Back in 2004, Shooto scrapper Jutaro Nakao got wobbled from a punch but then flattened Aoki when he charged in overzealously in a very Scott Smith vs. Pete Sell-ish outcome.
Banana Pants: Aoki's rainbow leggings do not magically conceive submissions, and he's still extremely dangerous without them. But make no mistake about it -- the added friction and absorption of spandex-coated legs offers myriad advantages to a fighter that relies on snaking his limbs to grip and maintain position like Aoki does.
Pressure: Against Melendez, Aoki put the entire credibility of Japanese MMA on his shoulders. Crossing the pond for the first time resulted in his most crushing and high profile defeat, and you can bet this is far from just another fight and could be weighing on him mentally.
Analyzing Healy: Don't write off Pat Healy as a simple journeyman. This is a big, strong, and seasoned lightweight with good wrestling. Healy holds sub-wins over world class welterweights like Carlos Condit, Paul Daley, and Dan Hardy, and hung tough in decision losses against Chris Leben, Jake Ellenberger, Jay Hieron, and Chris Lytle. He's a beast at 155 and Lyle showed admirable perseverance against him.
Full phase-by-phase break down after the jump.
Free Movement / Striking Phase
It's not that Beerbohm excels here, it's just that standing is the only area Aoki isn't a complete terror. He's made subtle strides with his striking, and he actually throws a satisfactory left high-kick in his southpaw stance, but we can only point to his "Aoki-Cop" performance against Vitor Ribeiro to demonstrate any signs of effective stand-up.
Aoki is almost as deadly in the clinch as he is on the ground, so most of his intentions while standing are to close distance and smother. When he drops levels and shoots, his wrestling is usually a little telegraphed and awkward, but what makes Aoki a brilliant fighter is his unorthodox creativity. For example, in the gif to the left, he can instantly teleport directly into your lap.
Suddenly finding a skinny Japanese man stuck to your waist and trying to strangle you unconscious can be a little disconcerting.
Beerbohm recently relayed to MMAFighting.com that his "sprawl-and-brawl isn't up to par" and that he doesn't intend to follow Gilbert Melendez's blueprint of forcing Aoki to stand, but rather believes the addition of elbows will enable him to duel with Aoki on the ground. While this could be a ploy, it's a commendably brave but highly questionable approach.
At the risk of sounding redundant, the Striking Phase is also called "The Free Movement Phase" because it's the only area that allows complete freedom and control over your own movement, where your opponent is trying to manipulate you in the other categories. Since Aoki is a very devious master of manipulation, Beerbohm should use the free movement phase like a floating raft in the middle of the ocean; an area of safety that he must always keep within reach to escape back to when Aoki tries to drown him in deeper water.
Staying free of Aoki's octopus-like embrace is the best chance for "Fancy Pants" to dictate the pace and control the momentum of the fight. Because Aoki's offense is so potent, most of his marquee wins came early when his opponents were too focused on attacking (Kawajiri, Alvarez, Hirota, Hansen 1 and 3), where those that respected him by defending his initial onslaught and waiting for the right moment to unload (Melendez, Hansen 2, Sakurai 1) enjoyed the most success.
Distance and space will be Lyle Beerbohm's friend, as the farther away Shinya Aoki is from his opponent, the more frustrated, impatient, and uncomfortable he becomes.
If Beerbohm isn't going to follow the traditional sprawl-and-brawl shtick, the best way to nullify Aoki's offense is to prohibit him from implementing it. Staying stationary and pummeling for position in the clinch or on the ground is where Aoki uses unconventional methods to advance position and take over, so maintaining the ability to break free and use the open room in the cage will be a decisive tool to disrupt Aoki's rhythm.
Aoki's loss to Melendez was very demoralizing because he never got the chance to work his game, a result of Melendez being slippery, elusive, and never becoming ensnared in Aoki's tentacles. It is possible for Beerbohm to pepper with strikes in the clinch and on the ground, as long as he doesn't over-commit, penetrate too deep, or hold position for too long, and stays unpredictable by continually diversifying his movement and offense.
Shinya Aoki doesn't get enough credit for how sneaky he is in the clinch, mostly because he's built like a starving and sickly teenager. In fact, his ability to force a grappling match through Judo techniques and clever clinch-work is what perpetuates the myth that Aoki is one-dimensional.
His appendages seem to have been concocted in a petri-dish by some mad scientist trying to infuse humans with prehensile qualities. At close range, he's adapted his Judo black belt and guard pulling competence perfectly, but even from afar, Aoki can fasten himself anywhere on his opponent and turn a bad position into a better one.
The entire MMA world knows what Aoki wants to do and can see it coming from a mile away, but only one out of thirty-one opponents completely shut him down -- and Melendez did it with distance and by refusing to be swallowed up in Aoki's web of serpentine limbs. That's why Beerbohm needs to keep the free movement phase available to him at all times.
In the gif to the right, we see a turtled Aoki plastering himself to a low single while JZ Cavalcante bounces punches off his melon. For most fighters, the highly technical terms to describe this situation are "not good" and "ouch", but watch how Aoki is relentless in digesting the ankle, getting to his feet, and transitioning to a flying leglock.
(I chose JZ for these examples because he's similar to Beerbohm in size, strength, and grappling wit.)
Here we see a stalemate with Cavalcante pinned in the corner while Aoki clings to a double. In a flash, Aoki changes the direction of force he's appyling to create a few inches of space, then slithers his head under JZ's elbow and takes his back, already coiling a hook in.
This led to a standing mata leao that took JZ a while to wriggle out of, which shows how it only takes a split-second for Aoki to trigger a lethal chain of events that can end fights or win rounds.
Against Healy, Lyle forced his head too deep on a few takedown attempts against the fence that Healy countered with inverted triangle attempts. Even though Beerbohm showed incredible submission defense that belies his experience level, those mistakes could cost him dearly.
This is where Aoki is one of the best in MMA history, so let's just accept that it's tough to give anyone else the nod here and examine the ways Beerbohm could be effective.
Looking at all five of his career losses, the tactic that seems ideal for Beerbohm is Joachim Hansen's route in their second encounter. Anytime Aoki had him wrapped up in Rubber Guard, Hansen spent 100% of the time in survival mode. However, when Hansen was able to create space and break free, it created opportunities to posture up and shower ground-and-pound, or stand and throw punches to the prostrate Aoki while dodging up-kicks.
Beerbohm first earned recognition for fearlessly taking down BJJ black belt Rafaello Oliveira in only his ninth pro-fight. This shows positives and negatives. Beerbohm penetrated deep and hit a beautiful fireman's carry, but "Tractor" punished him for it by locking in a tight armbar. While Aoki built his reputation on capitalizing in these exact circumstances, Beerbohm ended up fighting out of Oliveira's armbar, taking him down, and shellacking him with a single elbow that opened up a cut and ended the fight.
Therefore, the theme of creating and maintaining space to steer clear of Aoki's vice-like grasp while waiting for the perfect spot to hammer down strikes is the recurring theme for Beerbohm.
Another encouraging aspect for "Fancy Pants" is that overseas grapplers have struggled to acclimate to the unified rules, specifically with the twisting, downward-arcing elbows that can be thrown when an unfamiliar guard-player grabs wrist control. Gonzaga landed these freely on CroCop, and more recently, Antonio McKee blasted the experienced Luta Livre grappler Luciano Azevedo with them for a TKO win.
Finally, completing a submission requires achieving a technical sequence of steps to end a fight. A strike requires only one. While Aoki has the clear edge as one of the slickest submission wizards in MMA history, MMA has taught us that one single strike can change everything. Aoki's obvious specialty -- no matter how fearsome -- also makes his strategy painfully transparent.
The betting lines placing Aoki at just over -200 and Beerbohm slightly below +200 seem about right. Just as Aoki is known for eating top-players for lunch, Beerbohm started to turn heads for quickly rising to prominence as a phenomenal offensive wrestler, which makes this a very dynamic collision ... but Aoki has further cemented his status as an elite lightweight and a stellar grappler.
Beerbohm is a self-professed "black belt in scrambling" and definitely has the tools to upset Aoki, but the real test will be his fight-IQ and how well he can devise and adhere to a strategy. Aoki's unorthodox techniques might catch him totally off guard, or he might be able to carefully test the waters and get more confident as time ticks on. His chances increase later in the fight when the sweat is flowing, which makes submissions harder to latch and elbows and strikes easier to slip through.
Though a Beerbohm TKO or close decision wouldn't shock me, the odds favor Aoki to out-position him if he can't affix a sub.
My prediction: Aoki by submission
Gifs courtesy of "Caposa"