Most of us are pretty fascinated with the complexities of MMA, but simple is good too -- especially when it works. Amidst the array of elaborate techniques we see performed in the cage, an overhand right and left hook are simple tools. Yet few have capitalized on the intelligent application of basic weaponry better than UFC middleweight Constantinos Philippou (11-2), who enters his UFC 154 bout with Nick Ring on a rollicking 4-fight win streak.
The vast majority of Philippou's offense has consisted of fast, powerful, well-timed and accurate left hooks and right hands. A boxer since 1994, "Costa" did well on the amateur circuit and eventually accrued a 3-0 record as a professional. Philippou's transition to MMA coincided with his last boxing match in 2007; he debuted on a 2008 Ring of Combat card against future UFCer Ricardo Romero, who wrestled at Rutgers University, and lost a tight split decision.
Philippou stepped into the Octagon 3 years and 7 wins later. Drawing another Kryptonite match up, the stand-up specialist dropped a decision to savvy wrestler Nick Catone at UFC 128 -- but that would be the Greek Cypriot's last taste of defeat. Showing significant signs of improvement with his takedown defense, footwork and use of underhooks, opponents were unable to exploit his grappling inexperience and begrudgingly forced to deal with the high-caliber marksman on the feet.
Staunch veteran Jorge Rivera, the scrappy Jared Hamman, TUF winner Court McGee and wrestling standout Riki Fukuda -- all of whom represent a takedown threat -- wilted under Philippou's nonstop torrent of leather. McGee and Fukuda are among the better wrestlers in the weight class, but fared poorly with Costa's welded up takedown defense, and ultimately couldn't hang with his polished and powerful combinations.
However, Canadian Nick Ring (13-1) has a decent pro-boxing record too. He's also a Muay Thai practitioner, a pretty solid wrestler and a damn good submission grappler. Despite his laid-back attitude and accountant-like appearance, the kid is tough as nails as well -- see the first 2 rounds of his clash with leviathan middleweight Tim Boetsch for evidence of his deceiving grit and strength.
Unfortunately, Ring was cursed from the onset when he got a controversial nod over Fukuda that for some reason was over-dramatized and blown out of proportion. Regardless, everyone was pretty upset with Ring for ... I guess, for inspiring a purportedly incompetent judging performance. (The judges' names should be read after a controversial decision, if for nothing more than the sake of appropriately directed animosity.)
Ring precluded having to bear that cross in his next match by finishing James Head with a 3rd-round choke in what turned out to be a good ol' fashioned slobber-knocker. In the first 10 minutes, Ring went tit-for-tat with Boetsch, a former UFC light-heavyweight and Division 1 wrestler, and current barrel-chested, brick shithouse of a middleweight with a rep for throwing people on their heads.
Ring looked sharp in keeping "The Barbarian" on the tip of his punches and kicks, circling actively out into open space and staving off his monstrous takedowns. Boetsch lost the 1st round, regained ground in the 2nd and dominated the 3rd. On the heels of his first career defeat, Ring got back on track against McGee in a back-and-forth decision win that unfolded with both encouraging and disappointing moments.
This is a fascinating match up between a straight-A striker and a B+ gamer in all aspects. Because of some of his lackluster mid-fight spells -- an odd flaw that's been a trend -- I think Ring's striking is still a little under-rated. He's really an excellent kickboxer who, when he's on, has a knack for slipping punches, bobbing and weaving, landing sharp counter-strikes and circling out of danger. Strangely, he'll go from being light on his toes, throwing different attack angles and popping in and out of the pocket with blistering combinations to standing flat-footed, walking straight forward and not moving his head.
Unless there was an unknown issue at play, these little mental time-outs have occurred in his last 3 outings: noticeably in the 2nd round against McGee and 3rd round against Boetsch, and it was early on in the Head fight, when Ring was floored by a punch. Philippou will eat him alive if he slacks off defensively and Ring's offense will be predicated on how intelligently he applies it, so that could unfold as the biggest driver.
Back to the plus side, I'm not sure people realize that Ring is a pretty burly-sized middleweight. He's mostly known for his speed and striking finesse, but he's got a nice blend of agility, height (6'1"), reach (72") and strength for 185-pounds. That theme is similar to his proficiency in striking, wrestling and submissions -- he's not a standout phenom in any single facet, but gets great marks all the way across the board. His thorough physical and fighting traits combined give Ring the luxury to be a chameleon and adapt to a certain style that his opponent will struggle with.
The mold he should fit against Philippou, who straight up murders people at phone-booth range, is that of a calculating distance striker who cuts angles and counter-strikes in the center of the cage. Side to side movement, a hefty serving of low kicks, short and controlled bursts of clean punches and the occasional takedown attempt will be an ideal strategy for Costa's straight-line stalking.
Philippou is far from predictable on the feet, but he generally keeps his hands cocked and knifes forward with short-arcing punches. Since he relies almost solely on his hands and doesn't have any distance weapons (though he does have a 73" reach), the footwork and angles he pursues Ring with will be critical. The chess match will take place in the instance where Costa launches forward to connect with short-range punches and Ring reacts with evasive movement and counter-fire.
Ring is a gifted counter-striker, and sprinkling in takedown attempts while Philippou is coming forward should only enhance his options when keying off the attack. Boxers are traditionally susceptible to low kicks and Costa's fairly closed, lead-leg-heavy stance is no exception, so I expect Ring to crack off low kicks to keep him at bay, then drop levels for a takedown while Philippou is planting his feet to throw power, or especially when/if he over-commits on his entrances into phone-booth range.
Philippou, on the other hand, will have to be a carefully measured predator and avoid chasing Ring around by cutting off the cage. Ring will surely expect that, so Philippou can't use predictable, straight-line angles to do so. Just like Ring will be doing defensively, Philippou has to stay light on his feet, keep mixing up the angles he uses to shrink the gap and then find the right time and place to dig in and throw heaters. His strike selection could also be tailored for a fighter that circles out (adding wide, deep-placed hooks) or drops his head for takedown attempts (uppercuts and mid-level shovel punches) and he'll also want to stay on balance with tight punching form so he can easily switch to clinching or sprawling.
I gotta tell ya -- I've been set on Philippou's malicious boxing carrying him through but, after walking through the analysis, I'm having second thoughts. I think a prime condition Ring, both physically and mentally, has the wide-ranging skill set and Fight I.Q. to pull off the upset here. With betting odds as high as +250, I think Ring is the best underdog bet on the card, but his random fizzles and mental lapses will end up steering me (hesitantly) toward my original prediction.
My Prediction: Costa Philippou by hard-fought decision.