Two polarizing, love 'em or hate 'em middleweights will tangle for the number-one contender slot in the co-main event of UFC on Fox 2 Chael Sonnen and Michael Bisping The similarities pretty much end there though.
Chael Sonnen (26-11-1), currently ranked as the #2 middleweight in the world, blared a truckload of scathing taunts at Anderson Silva in the weeks leading up to their collision at . Silva was considered virtually untouchable and Sonnen had been submitted by Demian Maia the year before, so everyone chuckled and chalked it up as the challenger merely exercising his K-1 level smack-talking skills. Sonnen ended up shocking the world by walking his talk, dominating the pound-for-pound deity for four and a half rounds with takedowns and topside pounding until Silva pulled off the Hail Mary triangle choke.
Sonnen would then become embroiled in multiple controversies in his personal and professional life, ranging from a suspension of his license in Nevada and California after pissing hot for banned substances and pleading guilty to some shenanigans involving mortgage fraud and money laundering. The drama kept the unequivocal Oregonian out of the cage for a little over a year, but he picked up where he left off against Brian Stann at UFC 136 last August, submitting him with a second round arm-triangle.
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Do I really need to expound on Michael Bisping's (22-3) caustic personality? How's this -- he greeted the booing crowd at yesterday's weigh-ins by flipping the double birds and mouthing the phrase that often accompanies the lewd gesture. Unless my lip-reading is faulty and he was just politely announcing an equipment malfunction, as in, "Stuck shoe!", or lending advice to a front-row attendee on grooming her eyebrows, as in "Pluck two!"
Nah. "The Count" has embraced the role of the villain like Sonnen has, and plays it just as well. The Team Wolfslair product first emerged on TUF 3 as a light-heavyweight and breezed through all three foes, finishing each, to win the show. Some were left with an unsatisfied feeling as Matt Hamill, who Bisping seemed destined to collide with in the finals, had suffered an injury in his quarterfinal win and was knocked out of the running. After Bisping picked off Eric Schafer and Elvis Sinosic by TKO, he was aligned with Hamill at UFC 75.
The split-decision ruling for Bisping was one of the most contentious verdicts of 2007, and the brash UK fighter didn't earn any fans when he jeered "Back to wrestling!" at the dejected Hamill in his post-fight interview. Regardless, Bisping displayed an admirable level of takedown defense, as he did in the follow up performance against another reputable wrestler in Rashad Evans. However, Bisping found himself on the opposite end of the split-decision affair, which was the first loss of his career. His remaining ten fights would take place at middleweight, where only legendary Pride veterans Dan Henderson (KO) and Wanderlei Silva (unanimous decision) would top him. Bisping is currently on a four-fight roll.
Gifs and analysis in the full entry.
The big question leading into Sonnen's title fight was how he was going to hang with Silva's electric striking.
The answer, which was the first of many jaw-dropping surprises that evening, was to come out of his corner and punch the champ square in the face. The clean left hand put "The Spider" on temporary roller skates and the Sonnen soiree began.
Propelled by the best fight IQ we've seen of Chael, he kept hurling gloves with the Muay Thai expert -- cracking him again with a swift three-piece combination -- just long enough to lullaby him, then exploded for double-leg takedowns like he was shot from a cannon.
Sonnen accomplished what most thought to be impossible by setting up his takedowns with his hands and penetrating deep in the pocket to control Silva's hips. Even though he didn't wing punches and then transition to a level drop in sequence, Sonnen engaged the Brazilian so ferociously on the feet that the set up was already in place. Chael needed only to await a proximity and position in which Silva would run out of real estate with his back against the cage wall. A startling stat is that Sonnen only secured three takedowns in the five-round affair, yet maximized his efforts by staying active enough from the top to preclude a referee stand up.
Whether you want to call it a resurgence or a reinvention or whatever, Sonnen has undoubtedly flipped the switch and rolled out a reconstructed game plan. The distinct evolution was born immediately after he became the WEC champion by defeating Paulo Filho and was subsequently manhandled in his UFC return by Demian Maia. His string of dominant decision wins over Dan Miller, Nate Marquardt and Yushin Okami proved that Sonnen wouldn't just swan dive into the first available triangle or armbar his opponent offered up (8 of 11 career losses via submission). Those fights consisted wholly of airtight boxing that paved the way for his synthesis of engulfing takedowns and frenetic top control.
Above, we see Sonnen's modus operandi on the mat. He's been slicing into half-guard right away and locking down a ten-ton base high above the knee on his opponent's trapped leg. This is a classic Team Quest slaughterhouse position made famous by Randy Couture, who was just as malicious from here as many fighters are in full mount. Notice how Chael maintains excellent posture, slithers ahead and uses his left knee to trap his opponent's right arm. This can end up with Chael having both of his hands free to thwack undefended strikes, attack the other arm with two-on-one control or hop to the other side for the arm-triangle (left, against Stann).
Michael Bisping takes a lot of flack for having no punching power. "Pillow fists" is an internet burn he's been branded with for a while now.
Let me address this up front: first, fourteen of his twenty-three career wins are by TKO. That rounds up to a 64% finishing ratio by strikes. Sure, for all intents and purposes, Bisping only recently finished his first A-level fighter in Jason Miller ... yet submission all star Demian Maia has only submitted one A-level opponent in Chael Sonnen and beat the rest by decision, but I sure as hell don't hear many people quipping that his grappling is soft. Bisping is an elite striker. Period.
His goal is to stay upright, and if you analyze the common symptoms of strikers who are taken out of their element by wrestlers, the two root-causes of failure are (1) planting their feet too heavy and too deep in the pocket while (over-) committing to punches and (2) a lack of fundamentally sound clinch and sprawl technique. Bisping is phenomenal in both aspects.
His lack of unruly knockout power is the exact reason why he excels at (1) rarely getting caught with his feet stationary. To put major mustard on your punches, you have to plant your feet, dig in and pivot while torquing your hips and core into the motion.
While the upside is an increase in velocity and heft, the downside is that the predatory wrestler is fixated on timing his takedown to connect at the precise fraction of a second when the striker's feet are planted. That's because the mechanics of elusive footwork to counter an incoming shot are the opposite: light on the toes, never directly in front (12:00 o'clock) of your foe, constantly at an off-center angle and poised to react defensively to evade the wrestler's grasp.
Bisping embodies those traits in the two gifs above versus Hamill. While the best approach to stay afoot is to eschew contact entirely, ala Lyoto Machida, eventually the sprawl and clinch elements (2) come into play.
Against UFC on Fox 2 main-eventer Rashad Evans (above), one of the most adept wrestlers at 205-pounds, we witness Bisping's defensive clinching arsenal. Staying light on his feet to keep his balance (1) when Rashad times an explosive double leg, "The Count" gets and holds an overhook with his left hand, aka "the whizzer", and underhooks his right into Evans' armpit. This gives Bisping a clinch hold to apply massive upward leverage against Rashad's downward force (2), powered by the strong base of his low and wide stance. At the tail-end of the gif above and in the one to the left, we see Bisping's final line of defense from his back.
In the first he uses his hips to create space and keeps extending that distance until his back is against the cage. Then, again with the whizzer, Bisping, who was just flat on his butt, breaks free and scrambles up to the standing position. The last animation depicts Bisping's mannerisms when he's in his least favorable spot, which is on his back in the center of the cage with no fence nearby to assist him. He goes with an old school, closed full guard and snatches paralyzing wrist control with both hands. This lets him sit on Rashad's hips, manipulate his posture by pulling his head down with his right hand and plant a short left elbow.
Notice how, as soon as Rashad breaks loose and tries to posture up, Bisping immediately opens his guard, activates his hip motion and threatens to escape. Rashad, not wanting to lose the top position he worked so hard to achieve, postures back down on Bisping to hold him in place, and the original process starts all over again.
This will be the chess match that ensues on Saturday night. Sonnen will have to set up his takedowns by committing to his strikes while waiting for the right time and position to rifle a double leg; Bisping will stay fleet afoot and sting with a high volume of medium-power punches from alternating angles while staying in open space and out of corners.
I think Sonnen has the slight edge here, but I'm telling you -- Bisping at +400 are extremely lucrative odds to throw some couch-cushion change at. My personal slant would put Sonnen around -125 and Bisping in the neighborhood of +150ish. I think this fight is that close. Bisping has never been submitted and should be hell on wheels for Sonnen to get and keep down.
My Prediction: Chael Sonnen by a close decision.
Sonnen vs. Stann gif via Zombie Prophet of IronForgesIron.com
All others via my "gif wingman", Caposa