A battle between elite middleweights will take place on the pay-per-view portion of UFC 155 on Saturday, as the surging Constantinos Philippou faces his biggest (literally) challenge to date in leviathan
In a sport defined by the importance of being proficient in all aspects, there are always exceptions. Chuck Liddell remains the cardinal example -- rather than improving his weaker areas with the intention of exploring a more diversified offense, "The Iceman" simply bullet-proofed his holes with high-level defense. The end result was forcing a scenario in which his weaknesses were minimized and his strengths were maximized, and Costa Philippou (11-2) has adopted that blueprint brilliantly.
In the island country of Cyprus where he grew up, Philippou started boxing in 1994, won a bronze medal at the European Boxing Championships just 2 years later, and was on the verge of being an Olympic boxer, but fell short. He was coaxed to the states by his coach where he accrued an undefeated career as a professional boxer but, like most in MMA, his level of competition was far from illustrious.
Philippou was ready to move on to greener pastures but had to ride out the last 2 years of his boxing contract, so he decided to give MMA a whirl and the rest, as they say, is history (acceptable to read that in Mike Goldberg's voice). Stationing himself at Renzo Gracie's school, Philippou received top-notch oversight in the exceedingly foreign environment of submission grappling and formed up his boxing to MMA standards under striking whiz Ray Longo.
His weaknesses were put to the test immediately, as Philippou made his MMA debut in 2008 against future UFCer Ricardo Romero; a solid wrestler with submission savvy to boot. The trial was ultimately unsuccessful but an admirable split decision in his first tango against a Kryptonite-type opponent signified his future potential. Costa was unbeaten in his following 8 turns (one of which was a No Contest) to earn a UFC shot: first on TUF 11, where he was submitted by Joe Henle in the elimination round, then straight to the Octagon, where another powerhouse wrestler awaited him in Nick Catone, which led to his 2nd defeat (unanimous decision).
From that point forward, Philippou hit the afterburners and has yet to let up. He cleaved through a quartette of middleweights on his way up the ladder, each rung representing an increasing in status: Jorge Rivera (split decision), Jared Hamman (1st-round KO), Court McGee and Riki Fukuda (both unanimous decisions). The latter half of that run was highly authenticating, as the wrestling of McGee and Fukuda seemed well attuned to pinpoint his Achilles heel.
Barrel-chested savage Tim Boetsch (16-4) has had an interesting journey through the middleweight ranks. After falling into the fan's favor with an unforgettable debut against David Heath, Boetsch was unable to find a permanent hold at light-heavyweight and made the drop to 185, where he's yet to falter. However, it's hard to deem his middleweight tour as entirely flawless.
The first half of his new venture was convincing, as Kendall Grove and Nick Ring were handily overpowered en route to dominant decisions. The second half was not: fellow UFC 155 cast member Yushin Okami had his way with Boetsch on the feet until the tables were turned dramatically by a 3rd round, Hail Mary blitz of punches. In his last turn, Boetsch welcomed Bellator juggernaut Hector Lombard to the UFC and eked out a baffling decision that was, for some unknown reason, accepted without a peep instead of greeted with the usual cries of controversy. The performance was equally unimpressive on both sides yet Lombard suffered the loss and shouldered all the blame.
The recent showings of Philippou and Boetsch are worth referencing, as Philippou, the striker, has tackled a number of strong wrestlers of late and, Boetsch, the wrestler, has encountered his share of strikers. Looking at those mutual performances as a whole, the salient factor that comes to mind is how Philippou has adjusted his style (and, perhaps, how Boetsch has not).
The boos that echoed throughout the arena during Costa's fight with Fukuda attest to the way he ratcheted back his aggressive forward movement and outburst of heaters. We saw the most patient and methodical version of Philippou yet, which I believe is directly attributed to his takedown defense. Obviously endeavoring to avoid ground exchanges, Costa wisely refrained from charging forward in a straight line and planting his feet to throw, which is the ideal opportunity for a wrestler to time a takedown. Instead of wading in and swinging for the fences, Costa opted to press the action but stay camped out on the fringe, and gradually chip away with measured combinations. The change in strategy decreased the level of excitement, but also decreased his chances of suffering a round- or fight-altering takedown while committing to power shots.
Really, for a boxing specialist like Philippou, this was the best possible approach, and one that will serve him just as well against Boetsch. "The Barbarian" is one of the most befitting nicknames for Boetsch because his raw power and crude brutality play such a large role in his effectiveness. He is not, however, absent talent nor technique, as his Division 1 wrestling credentials reflect. Those accolades are superior to those of McGee or Fukuda, yet I feel Fukuda is quicker, more agile, and one of the best in the game at smoothly transitioning from strikes to dropping levels, and also getting ultra-deep penetration on his shots.
Granted, Boetsch packs more of a wallop on his feet than Fukuda, so it will be interesting how his straight-forward mauling compares to Fukuda's less powerful but more artful punching combinations. Boetsch will also be the strongest clinch fighter that Philippou's engaged; in fact, I think he has a better chance of flooring Philippou by steering him into a corner, mashing him on the cage and imposing his will from there.
Another factor that's made me leery about Boetsch is his striking technique, which is altogether basic and, again, centers more around his physicality than fundamentals. There's no question that Boetsch's arsenal is deadly at close range but it's also rather limited out in open space, which is exactly where Philippou will try to keep him.
Both pose distinctive threats and are fully capability of exploiting weaknesses, which is likely behind the dead-even betting odds. Boetsch has a clear-cut advantage in past competition but, though he was my initial selection, that's not enough to negate my suspicion that Costa will out-finesse him on the feet and hold his own in the wrestling department. It's close, it's a coin flip, it's ...
My Prediction: Costa Philippou by decision.