September is stacked for the hardcore MMA fan. This month will yield five tournaments, the return of Pride rules, three Bellator events, two shows apiece from Strikeforce and the UFC as well as one offering from Dream.
A few compelling match ups caught my eye in which a top ranked fighter is paired with a deceivingly venomous opponent or where the odds indicate a sure trouncing. Here are eight opponents who present highly precarious match ups, listed in chronological order for September 2011.
September 10 - BAMMA 7: Wallhead vs. Trigg
Our first offering is the epitome of a lose-lose scenario. Tyron Woodley bumped the trigger happy "Semtex" from a fringe top-ten position to twenty-two in the consensus welterweight world rankings, and now Daley has signed up to face a former UFC fighter and Olympic wrestler with no name recognition.
The key to defeating the malicious Muay Thai expert is no secret. Jordan Radev is a Bulgarian freestyle Olympic wrestler with almost thirty fights to his name. Half of his career losses came in his 2007 UFC stint as a middleweight where knockout artist Drew McFedries caught him in the first and grappling whiz Dean Lister decisioned him in a snoozer. Radev's two other defeats were to top Polish product Robert Jocz and former NFL running back Herbert Goodman.
Spending most of his career at middleweight, Radev is an unknown who has all the abilities to stifle Daley with takedowns and top control, leaving almost nothing to gain for the British brawler in this match up.
Nine more perilous underdogs are listed after the break, starting with three from next weekend's Strikeforce tournament.
September 10 - Strikeforce Grand Prix: Barnett vs. Kharitonov
I think everyone forgets how promising Russian paratrooper Sergei Kharitonov was back in Pride, but I suppose Jeff Monson's insta-sub at Dream 8 and competing only once in 2009 and 2010 dulled the luster.
In addition to Monson, Kharitonov's losses are to Aleksander Emelianenko, Alistair Overeem and a prime Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira; his noteworthy victories are Fabricio Werdum, avenging the Overeem loss with a first round KO in the rematch, and an armbar on UFC heavyweight Mike Russow. Kharitonov is a decorated boxer who opted to fight in Pride rather than compete in the Olympics, an experienced Sambo player and also broke even in four K-1 kickboxing matches.
Barnett, one of the slickest catch-wrestlers to grace the sport, has been a perennial top-fifteen heavyweight despite competing only seven times since losing to Big Nog in 2006. The updated rankings have Barnett in the ninth slot and Kharitonov at thirteen while the betting lines favor Barnett as high as -300 over Kharitonov.
I imagine Barnett will struggle to enforce his specialty against the iron-chinned, brick-fisted Russian, who I have pegged for the upset in this match up.
This one speaks for itself. Cormier, a former D1 national champion and Olympic freestyle wrestler, earned a top-twenty spot after passing his biggest test in Jeff Monson. The most encouraging aspect of the win was the impressive way Cormier has sharpened up his striking skills.
Alistair Overeem dropping out of the heavyweight tournament will be the opportunity of a lifetime for Cormier, who steps in to face massive ATT veteran Antonio Silva. While Silva has also improved his boxing and was always a tremendous grappling threat, Cormier brings lightweight-level speed and agility to the heavyweight class. An evasive strategy relying on his superior agility to dart in and out range while alternating crisp strikes and takedown attempts could carry him to an upset via decision.
Olympic wrestling seems to be the common thread here, as 2000 freestyle wrestling silver medalist, Cuban Yoel Romero, makes his Strikeforce debut against former light-heavyweight champion Rafael "Feijao" Cavalcante.
With only four fights to his name, there's still something inherently frightening about Romero, perhaps because he relies on his hands rather than his nonpareil wrestling accolades. Three of his four wins were devastating first round knockouts, the last a forced retirement in the third after countless knockdowns. Any time a wrestling specialist is waving for his battered and butt-flopping opponent to stand back up, strange things are afoot.
While Cavalcante is extremely diverse and has the more polished Thai and BJJ arsenal, Romera is a leviathan southpaw with solid boxing and immense power who will control where the fight takes place. "Feijao" will have to tread cautiously against this future superstar.
September 17 - UFC Fight Night 25: Shields vs. Ellenberger
Usually I'm issuing a cautionary rant about the eternally under-rated Jake Shields. Now that he's more widely recognized, the focus shifts to Jake Ellenberger, who probably has the heaviest set of hands in the UFC's welterweight class.
Shields' dual-pronged attack of wrestling and submission grappling will be an interesting contrast to Ellenberger's wrestling and boxing combo. They both have Division II NCAA wrestling credentials. The gap in skill between the technical mastery of Shields on the ground and Ellenberger's crippling striking is very similar.
What I like about this match up is that have both have bulletproof beards, so look for Ellenberger, who's won fifteen of twenty-five by TKO, to sprawl and tee off on Shields. While I do think Shields will eventually nail a Sakuraba-like low single and work his magic, Ellenberger presents a tough style to topple, especially with the unfortunate passing of his father and manager weighing on Shields' mind.
September 24 - UFC 135: Jones vs. Rampage
Is Jon Jones insanely talented? Yes. Are the -550 and -600 odds borderline insane? Yes.
"Rampage" might have the best takedown defense in the sport. Add his simple, crisp and powerful boxing coupled with a great chin and unparalleled fighting instincts, and I think Jones has his toughest test ahead of him by far. The only thing Quinton doesn't do is check leg kicks -- ever.
Matt Hamill, Ryan Bader, and Vladimir Matyushenko were all talented wrestlers, but I would still put Jackson's takedown defense on a higher level and few can match his experience against elite light-heavyweights. The dominant win over Shogun obviously validated Jones' ability and potential, but no one is invincible. I like Rampage's chances in this fight.
September 24 - DREAM 17: Bantamweight World Grand Prix
Here is another opponent that offers nothing but risk for the polarizing Shinya Aoki. An experienced lightweight and five-time Muay Thai champion like "Razor" Rob certainly has the skill set to replicate the Gilbert Melendez blueprint, but will be written off as "another nobody" if Aoki beats him.
Aoki has under-rated takedowns and creative Judo in the clinch, but a straight blast to the jaw accounts for three of his career losses and also happens to be McCullough's specialty. Again, high risk and low reward.
September 24 - Bellator 51: Bantamweight Tournament
Joe Warren vs. Alexis Vila
Another Cuban Olympic wrestler will vault into the mainstream as undefeated American Top Team product Alexis Vila draws featherweight champion Joe Warren in the opening round of Bellator's bantamweight tournament.
Vila scored a bronze medal in the 1996 Olympics as a freestyle wrestler and currently carries a flawless nine-fight clip, finishing all but one. Warren has been an amazing new face in the sport since his 2009 debut, but his standard advantage is being able to out-muscle his foe and ground the fight at will, which is something he won't pull off against Vila.