First off, I would just like to say this is my first written piece as a contributor to Head Kick Legend and I could not be more excited about the opportunity Matt has presented to me. I have been an avid fan of Mixed Martial Arts for years, and a sports enthusiast for much longer. It has always been a pipe dream of mine to publish my opinions, and I think that the format SBNation provides- allowing non-staff to scribe their musings for all to read- is a fantastic device for aspiring authors. It is with a very proud heart that I consider myself among the other people to jump ship into a more media-esque role, with most of us starting out as dedicated posters on the mothership, Bloody Elbow. The timing of all this also could not be more perfect, as we head into a weekend lush with MMA.
So let's get down to business. One of the topics I really enjoy leading into fights is the questions that surround fighters and matchups, so I figured with my first post I could break down some of the larger issues that I feel make this a dynamic (and FREE!!) card. I will post the most prominent questions I can think of now, and post what I feel are the answers to those questions on Sunday night, after the fights. I am going to include my predictions- at least those I am confident in- after the breakdown and questions.
Charles Oliviera vs. Nik Lentz
- Charles Oliviera is a heavily hyped lightweight prospect who started his UFC with two straight submissions, only to have his train derailed against the top lightweight contender, Jim Miller. The major problem I had with Oliviera in his loss was that he seemed entirely too calm as Miller snatched his leg, tapping soon after from a kneebar. I saw brilliant flashes of Muay Thai in his prior fight against Efrain Escudero, especially his kicks, and a very high level throw after pushing Efrain into the cage that was reminiscent of Demian Maia versus Chael Sonnen. I remember thinking at the time that while I was impressed with his striking, I was not with his stand-up defense. His fight with Miller ended so quickly that I think it's hard to judge how his abilities had progressed- the only known quantity is that he was not ready for such a high profile fight.
- Nik "the Carnie" Lentz is an intriguing fighter in a few senses. I think very few people realize that he has a current streak of 14 fights without losses, going 12-0-2 in that span. What hurts him in the eyes of fans is appeal- he has the type of grinding wrestling that most fans are apathetic towards, as we often see these "grinders" beat more exciting fighters, lending to the feelings most possess. HOWEVER. We cannot argue that Lentz has gotten the judge's nod against several above average fighters, including the debuting featherweight Tyson Griffin. Controversial or not, a win is a win, and Nik has twelve consecutive not including his aforementioned draws.
Questions: Can Nik Lentz's grinding style slow down the dynamic Charles Oliviera? How has Oliviera's overall defense progressed, and how does he respond to his first career loss?
-Matt Mitrione is a UFC-grown Ultimate Fighter product who, as you all probably know by know, started his athletic career as a lineman for the New York Giants before switching his attention to the growing sport of MMA. The man we saw as "Meathead" in his time on the show had his shot at a guaranteed UFC contract cut short by a James McSweeney guillotine. As is now commonplace with the TUF Finale, they showcased Mitrione against another former football star in Marcus Jones, who was KOed by Matt's heavy hands. Mitrione has subsequently gone on to defeat "Kimbo Slice," Joey Beltran, and most recently Tim Hague by KO.
I'm not sure why Mitrione's talent and future in the UFC is such a divisive issue. The athletic caliber it takes to succeed in not only getting to the NFL, but then switching paths mid-career to another sport and finding success is something that I don't feel enough people recognize. His first two wins were against two fighters who had no business being in the octagon, but they were still under the UFC banner. Despite his nickname on The Ultimate Fighter, I feel that Matt has come across as nothing less than articulate and likeable in interviews during his UFC career- someone who comes across as supremely confident yet no cocky, yet remains very realistic about the progression of his abilities. In my opinion his striking, especially his leg kicks, has looked increasing crisp in the span of his tutelage at Roufusport and now Xtreme Couture. He has shown capability at keeping the fight standing, but also has a surprisingly active guard should he encounter a high level wrestler.
-Christian Morecraft 1-1 in his UFC career, but has looked moderately impressive in both fights, albeit having succumbed to Stevan Struve's interpretation of Zombie Mode in route to his comeback KO victory in Morecraft's debut. Christian came back to submit the controversial Sean McCorkle in his next fight, and was matched against Mitrione, who is returning from a nearly-6 month layoff due to a brown metacarpal suffered against Tim Hague.
Questions: What does this fight say in terms of relevancy in terms of larger heavyweights in the 207-266 lbs division of the UFC? Does Morecraft have the tools to be successful in the UFC? Most importantly in my mind- How much progression has Matt Mitrione shown in his skillset, and will this win prove him credible to compete in the higher echelon of the division?
Prediction: From the breakdown I think it's fairly obvious that I'm a Mitrione mark. I disliked his personality on TUF, but now see him a fight or two away from being in serious discussion for the title. As a former NFL player, I see him slimming down from his NFL weight as a serious advantage in his fights; not only has he been that big, but he was functionally that large and competed consistently against larger and arguably better athletes than we often see in MMA, within the confines of a contact sport. He has big power in both of his hands, is adept at regaining his feet, and shows above average and improving technicality in all areas of the sport. Not only that, but he shows complete composure in all situations. I think Mitrione makes a statement in this fight, ending the fight via second round KO.
- Matt Brown is another Ultimate Fighter product who has seen some success in the UFC despite initially not winning a contract. He's 4-4 in his UFC tenure, losing his last 3 by submission to mid level opponents. He is coming in as a replacement for Martin Kampmann. Brown has a well rounded kickboxing skillset coupled with average takedown defense and jiu-jitu skills. Brown embodies the tough and game prototype of fighter, but has been in too deep with his recent competition and showed significant deficiencies in his submission defense.
-John Howard is a Boston-bred predominantly Muay Thai fighter who began his UFC career with 4 straight victories, only to lose his last pair to top competition in Thiago Alves and Jake Ellenberger. John trains at Wai Kru, where I had the pleasure of training for 3 months this past spring. I had actually began training before he was signed to fight Martin Kampmann, so I had the opportunity to watch some of his preparations. I spoke to a trainer one day about how I felt Howard matched up with Kampmann, who has lost two controversial decisions (I actually scored for Shields and Sanchez, respectively). I remember thinking that it was a stiff task to prepare for Thiago Alves and Martin Kampmann consecutively, but that the decision loss to Alves would help Howard in cage experience and would only be positive in his training going forward. The trainer said something that stuck in my head, mentioning how Kampmann trained at Xtreme Couture, competing daily against some of the top fighters in the world. There are some great talents at Wai Kru, and an excellent coaching staff, but I don't think this could replace sparring with a Jay Hieron or Forrest Griffin, and I believe this is what the trainer was alluding to.
Questions: After dropping three straight, will Matt Brown prove he has the abilities to compete in the shark tank of the UFC's welterweight division, or will he just be chum to get John Howard back on track? How does Howard respond after his lopsided loss to Thiago Alves, did preparing for Martin Kampmann help his preparation for the replacement Matt Brown?
Prediction: Howard wins this fight. He was game against Alves, is a very large and thick welterweight, and has more powerful and technical striking than Brown. Matt is game; but if the "Pitbull" couldn't stop "Doomsday," I don't see Brown having the skills. I can't but help think that preparing for Kampmann, who basically fights to draws with the upper tier of welterweight, will help John in preparing for Brown. Brown is like the 'B' version of Kampmann, having a similar well-rounded game, but lacking the takedown defense. I'm not sure how this ends, but I do predict that it will be in the running for Fight of the Night.
Tune in to see Part Two before UFC on Versus 4 on Sunday!