On Sunday night, a lineup that would be considered a complete gangbuster in any other promotion will serve as a mere appetizer to "UFC on Versus 4: Marquardt vs. Story".
Starting at 6 p.m. ET on the UFC's Facebook page, no less than seven fights will stream live and free as a prelude to the pay-per-view portion, which begins on the Versus network at 9 p.m. ET. Let's dive right into the match-ups.
If you care to witness what I fully guarantee to be the greatest display of heart in MMA that you're totally unaware of, watch Vazquez's fight with Alberto Crane. Vazquez massacred his ACL and could barely even put weight on his leg, and the injury happened in the first round. He went on to fight tooth-and-nail all the way through to a decision. Hobbling gingerly on one foot but still engaging Crane on the ground and attacking on the feet, Vazquez gutted out the entire fight with a severely wrenched knee like a cornered wolverine, baring his teeth and swiping his claws til the very end.
The most captivating aspect of the story is that Crane was also a black belt who eventually made it to the UFC, so he was no slouch of an opponent. More importantly, this was in 2003 before MMA went mainstream: there was no "Fight of the Night" bonus to be had, no major sponsorships to be gained, and no massive audience to endear himself to. This unreal display was nothing more than a true fighter -- to the very core -- letting his soul bleed out onto the cage floor because he had absolutely no quit in him.
Forgive my digression, but that story reveals more about Javi Vazquez than any stats or descriptions of his skills ever could. A complete analysis of all the Facebook fights awaits in the full entry.
While I'm reminiscing, the first thing I remember about Joe Stevenson is a particular domination in King of the Cage. I believe he was a member of the Ted Williams Combat Grappling team at the time, but Stevenson scored takedowns at will, and would intentionally drag his opponent over to one particular corner in the cage -- perhaps the swivel-post on the cage door -- that wasn't covered with padding. Stevenson kept sandwiching the poor fella's head against the exposed metal and ground-and-pound him viciously from the top.
This was in the NHB days, predating the unified rules and the athletic commission's strict regulations, but the point of my foggy recollections is that these two were MMA fighters long before there was any glory or money in the sport.
There are a number of similarities between Joe Stevenson and Javi Vazquez: they each have over a decade of MMA experience, they both came up in the King of the Cage promotion, they are both Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu black belts who started out in wrestling and still maintain a potent blend of each art in their grappling, and recently, they've both been plagued with more losses than they're accustomed to.
Vazquez has lost three of his last five, while Stevenson has lost five of his last seven.
"Joe Daddy", in his featherweight debut, is favored strongly on the betting lines, and I can understand why. Not only has he become more well rounded by advancing his clinch and striking game a little farther than Javi, but he was always a physical hulk who had more success imposing his will with brute force as high as welterweight.
Javi's style hearkens back to the primal black belts who had obscene mat-skills, but average abilities elsewhere (for the elite level of MMA). He's modernized by integrating some 10th Planet swagger, and being in his guard is like being buried in a tomb of endless limbs.
Javi is high-paced and has only lost by decision, and will therefore present the quintessential scenario for the hazards of a huge weight cut to emerge with fifteen grueling and fast-paced minutes.
If Stevenson's endurance and strength are 100% on Sunday night, his overall size and skill should allow him to ride out a decision based on control and position. Stevenson's gas tank will be crucial, and I'll reiterate that Javi has the type of high-caliber submissions and ceaseless determination that can snap anyone in a heartbeat, but I'll take the safe pick.
My Prediction: Stevenson by decision
Tyson Griffin will be the second perennial lightweight contender to make his featherweight debut on the card, though it won't be his first time in the weight class.
In fact, Griffin's name first resonated in the MMA community as the lone blemish on the otherwise spotless record of Urijah Faber during his rise to stardom in the WEC. After kicking off his pro career with seven perfect fights, Griffin set up shop in the Octagon and has battled within it ever since.
He started luke-warm by splitting fights -- submitting David Lee and dropping a decision to current champ Frankie Edgar -- but turned things red-hot by winning six of his next seven with four "Fight of the Night" performances. His only loss among that streak was to former champ Sean Sherk.
Then, hard times befell Griffin. In his last three, he was on the wrong end of decisions against Evan Dunham and Nik Lentz, and was finished for the first time by the skull-crushing Takanori Gomi in between.
Armenian Manvel Gamburyan was subjected to the same diversity, only along a different timeline. He also incurred a handful of losses in the UFC's volatile 155-pound class and decided his frame was better suited at featherweight, but his journey began in 2009.
After a tough break in the form of a dislocated shoulder in the TUF Finale against Nate Diaz, Manny bounced back in style with two first round submissions, but was not so fortunate in the next two, and shipped over to the WEC as a featherweight. Three bouts later, hot on the heels of an electrifying thwacking of former champ Mike Thomas Brown, Gamburyan fell to featherweight overlord Jose Aldo.
Gamburyan, an ace Judoka under Gokor Chivichyan and Gene LeBell, is also a BJJ black belt and a burly typhoon.
He has a soul-withering overhand right, Olympic level, Judo-flavored trips and throws in the clinch, and a violently methodical top game weaved together by hammerfists and wicked submissions.
Counter to what the knockout on the right might portray, I would consider him more of precision and volume striker than a power-puncher.
He should be the quicker to release and more accurate on the feet, but I'm intrigued to see how the clinch and ground portions of this fight play out. What Gamburyan lacks in striking finesse, he makes up for with his flailing meathooks; especially when unlatched from his pockets like the counter-punch in the animation versus Brown above, which is a strike Griffin has been susceptible to in heated exchanges.
Where Griffin might also have the speed advantage in shooting from outside, Gamburyan is a raging monster in the clinch, and his grappling is the highly technical yet powerful sort that has been a thorn in Griffin's side. I think Griffin's smooth striking will cause problems and accrue points on the score cards, but "The Anvil" has the heft to balance things out by landing only one punch, and might overwhelm Griffin elsewhere.
I feel this is much more competitive than the betting lines represent, so again, I will issue a warning to respect the underdog here.
My Prediction: Griffin by decision
Curt Warburton is a newer addition to the Octagon who, after losing a decision to Spencer Fisher in his debut, brought the Maciej Jewtuszko hype-train to a screeching halt by delivering the formerly undefeated fighter his first loss.
A member of the Wolfslair Team out of England, I found this passage in Warburton's Wikipedia entry worth mentioning:
Warburton's most notable achievement in the domestic circuit is his 1–1–1 record against TUF 9 winner Ross Pearson. The first two fights took place at the semi-professional level, at Total Combat (UK) 18 and 19, which resulted in a draw in their first bout (in November 2006) and a submission (armbar) victory for Pearson (in February 2007). Warburton would gain a measure of revenge in September 2007, when he was victorious via TKO (doctor stoppage) in the only bout to feature on both competitors' professional records.
There seems to be only one video of the Warburton vs. Pearson trilogy on Youtube, which left me wondering if the knee Warburton clipped a downed Pearson with was legal under the "Goshin Ryu" promotion's rules.
Regardless, Warburton is a long (73" reach) and lanky (6'0" tall) lightweight who puts his stretched frame to good use through nasty striking. He'll punish the lead leg mercilessly with low kicks, and has decent boxing and clinch-work to boot.
In his only loss in the Octagon, "The War" pelted Spencer Fisher with kicks, locked him up for a trip in the clinch, clamped on a guillotine and wrenched it hard within the first minute of action. He's got great Muay Thai and, while not his specialty, he hunts aggressively for submissions in all positions.
Joe Lauzon has been a heralded prospect out of Boston for some time, starting his pro career at the ripe age of twenty. Before he appeared on Season Five of TUF, he'd already clobbered legend Jens Pulver in the UFC and amassed thirteen wins on his way there.
The three losses preceding his UFC stint (Masvidal, Assuncao, and Menjivar) and during it (Florian, Stout, Sotiropoulos) were all impressive showings, against respectable opposition, or both.
Lauzon has firmly demonstrated he's a step above the pack, but has yet to establish himself consistently against the forerunners of the division. It will be a crippling blow if he can't continue that trend against Warburton.
Lauzon is hell on wheels for the first few minutes, and I expect the next stage of his maturity will be reigning in his initial outburst to apply steady pressure throughout. His barrage of elbows when sprawling, under-rated scrambling and propensity to wrench subs should pull him through this one.
My Prediction: Lauzon by submission
Nik Lentz (21-3-2) vs. Charles Oliveira (14-1)
Does everyone realize that Nik "The Carny" Lentz has never lost in the UFC?
The closest he came was a draw when Thiago Tavares targeted his groin repeatedly, resulting in a point deduction from Mario Yamasaki that rescued Lentz from his first Octagon defeat. Other than that, he's walked away victorious from scraps with Rafaello Oliveira, Rob Emerson, Andre Winner, Tyson Griffin, and Waylon Lowe
A D1 wrestler at the University of Minnesota, Lentz trains at the Minnesota Martial Arts Academy with a stable of fierce fighters. His entirely adequate but somewhat forgettable style has been employed wisely: against stellar BJJ player Rafaello Oliveira, Lentz warmed up his no-frills boxing with intermittent takedowns to avoid submission threats, and used his clingy cage-game to hit the pause button on sharp striker Andre Winner.
You won't have any trouble telling these two apart. Charles "do Bronx" Oliveira stormed into the UFC with an undefeated record and promptly entangled Darren Elkins in an armbar. Next, he unseated TUF winner Efrain Escudero in a thrilling stand-up performance, vaulting his stock with fans for the great showing.
His next fight sprung questions about his fight I.Q., as Oliveira seemed indifferent to the fact that top lightweight Jim Miller was twisting his leg into a funny shape. By the time he reacted with the proper urgency, it was too late, and Miller handed the BJJ brown belt his first and only loss with the kneebar.
Lentz has the icy cold composure to prey on just such a lapse in awareness, even though he'll do it with high level takedowns or attention-grabbing strikes rather than anything in the realm of submissions. Oliveira enters the fight a slight favorite, which is a bit of a surprise to me. He's a young kid who has shown fiery Muay Thai and a slick guard, but he must thrive in the exact arena where flags have recently been raised.
I'm not sure Oliveira can get by on a primal outburst of talent alone. I think size will be a huge factor, as the powerfully squatty Lentz should be able to fold up Oliveira's thin frame with takedowns from outside, pressure against the cage, and his affinity for the guillotine.
I don't see Oliveira stopping the takedown, which means he'll have to avoid it entirely with footwork by keeping Lentz on the end of his punches, or hit a sweep or submission from guard. This leaves pure and unadulterated offensive skills to carry him past a smart and steadily chugging tugboat in Lentz, or a precisely executed gameplan.
The kid has the potential to do that, but I'd be basing the pick strictly on potential alone. While Lentz can get sloppy standing and drop his hands, I think "The Carny" can outwit and overpower Oliveira in an ugly fight.
My Prediction: Lentz by decision
Roberts is a Cesar Gracie product working with the Diaz brothers, Jake Shields, and Gilbert Melendez on a daily basis. Attonito comes from a strong camp himself, American Top Team, and will be dropping to welterweight for the first time. Attonito defeated Jamie Yager and scored an upset over Rafael "Sapo" Natal post-TUF, but is fresh off a loss to Dave Branch.
Both fighters are purple belts, and while Roberts might be a bit smoother on the ground, I think Attonito's beefy punches and wrestling will cause fits, and he should have the sub knowledge to keep Roberts at bay on the ground. My Prediction: Attonito by decision
I was impressed with Johnson on The Ultimate Fighter, and despite losing in the end, he was giving Jonathan Brookins the business in round one of the finale. He's a powerhouse wrestler and athletic specimen with decent stand-up, and I expect to see him fixated on getting a win here.
Regarding Faaloloto: How does a guy with two wins get a fight in the WEC? And a subsequent in the UFC after losing? No offense, Mr. Faaloloto, but ... My Prediction: Johnson by TKO
Lamas had a decent run in the WEC (4-2) with wins over Bart Palaszewski and Bendy Casimir. Grice, the seven-hundredth fighter dropping a weight class on this card alone, makes his featherweight debut.
Grice had a lightweight run in the UFC -- beating Jason Black but losing to Terry Etim, Shannon Gugerty, and Matt Veach -- but chalked up four wins in smaller shows to earn another invite at 145. Both fighters have solid wrestling and subs, and prefer to quickly assume control, but I've got Lamas in a close one. My Prediction: Lamas by decision
Gifs via Zombie Prophet of IronForgesIron.com