In a division that once bustled with powerhouse wrestlers and overwhelming grapplers, such as champion Georges St. Pierre, Matt Hughes, Jon Fitch, Diego Sanchez, Josh Koscheck, and Karo Parisyan, a short, squatty striker emerged as one of the top threats. On top of that, this was a guy who was submitted by eventual lightweight Spencer Fisher in his UFC debut.
American Top Team's Thiago Alves (18-7) has continued to develop his game with fervent dedication over the years. Alves was always an explosive striker, but when he put the stopper on storied takedown artists like Parisyan, Hughes, and Koscheck before carving them up standing, he proved he was on another level.
Both he and Jon Fitch have isolated themselves as the runner-ups to unstoppable pound-for-pound god, Georges St. Pierre, and both got a crack at the champ and threw down in all five rounds in admirable but unsuccessful efforts. Excluding Thiago's uncharacteristic hiccup against Fisher and Fitch's draw with B.J. Penn, both Fitch and Alves have overwhelmed everyone in the division but GSP and each other.
Like Alves, Rick Story (12-3) also kicked off his Octagon debut with a loss, falling by decision to John Hathaway at UFC 99, but has recently revivified his chances as a legitimate contender. Story has been flawless since, rattling off five in a row over Brian Foster, Jesse Lennox, Nick Osipczak, Dustin Hazelett, and Johny Hendricks.
Training out of the Brave Legion camp in Washington alongside fellow UFC welterweight Mike Pierce, "The Horror" Story has knifed through the crowd by tightening up his striking, using it to set up his takedowns, and maintaining his frenetic aggression.
The specs on the match-up are after the break.
Alves has slowly got the hang of his significant weight-cut, which has plagued him on more than one occasion before. A healthy and energetic Alves with a full tank of gas presents an elite combination of striking and takedown defense. Story is improving by degrees with each performance, but even the best version of him doesn't equate to some of the similarly styled fighters Alves has blitzed in the past.
Thiago has perfectly meshed the dexterous footwork of a striker with ten-ton takedown defense, detonating Muay Thai combinations from behind the safety of a swiveling steel plow that brings incoming wrestlers to a screeching halt.
His clinch is merciless and perfectly balanced; flipping the switch quickly from defense -- to stuff the shot with the utmost efficiency -- immediately to offense with devastating knees. His leg kicks and left hook represent sheer brutality and are integrated seamlessly.
What Story might bring to the table to unhinge Alves is an unbridled exuberance and ceaseless pressure. Story is the underdog, everyone expects him to lose, and he'll be prepared for Alves to stuff a few of his best takedowns. I don't think he'll become frustrated if he's neutralized early, and should have the composure to make Alves come after him and prey on mistakes.
The burden to perform with mechanical meticulousness is all on Alves. Story just has to go out and do his thing, which is throw his stiff and straight one-two from southpaw and devour any clinch or takedown opportunities Alves gives him.
If Thiago is one step slow on his sprawl, or one second short on his counter-strikes, he could be flat on his back, and Story probably has the base and top-game to ride out the round.
I imagine Alves will make a strong statement early, and might even score a stoppage in the first, but Story might spoil his evening if he can survive to the later rounds. He's the type of inexorable athlete that will never quit, like a shark that will bite off a fisherman's leg after he's dragged into the boat.
Thiago Alves should definitely be the favorite and expected to win, but don't sleep on Story if he can drag him into deep water late in the fight. He might be able to out-hustle Alves to a decision. The striker has to plant his feet and commit to generate power, and with the right angles, set-up or timing, Story could enforce his wrestling wit in each of those examples.
Despite his promising potential, Story shouldn't throw anything at Alves that he hasn't seen. There are few in the game as adept as Alves with avoiding the takedown, cornering his foe, and chopping them up with bone-breaking Muay Thai.
My Prediction: Thiago Alves by TKO
All gifs via MMA-Core.com