As a precursor to Saturday's UFC on Fox 5 main card, which is headlined by UFC lightweight champion Ben Henderson defending his title against Nate Diaz, the FX channel will host a half-dozen match-ups starting at 5:00 p.m. ET.
The bouts are listed below in the order in which they're intended to air, but I'll tackle them by way of my own descending list based on status and appeal:
FX Preliminary Card (5:00 p.m. ET)
In the compelling feature bout of the FX prelims, a pair of wily and dangerous veterans will collide. Edwards, the self-professed "Thugjitsu" practitioner, is one of the last remaining pioneers still competing at the elite level. He boasts a whopping 59 fights against reputable competition throughout a career that stems way back to 1997. The sizzling southpaw is a technical boxer (with a 2-0 boxing record) and kickboxer who unfurls a creative selection of strikes with laudable precision, quickness and timing.
Edwards is also a cunning submissionist -- while he doesn't have any notable credentials in sport grappling, he's more than proved his grappling voracity in the cage. He flaunts an impressive finishing ratio of 78% which is divided between 17 submissions and 15 TKOs in his 41 career wins, demonstrating the dual-pronged effectiveness of his offense.
Stephens has undergone a noticeable evolution throughout his lengthy UFC career. He made his Octagon debut in 2007 at UFC 71 with an armbar loss to Din Thomas, but has fought tooth and nail to stay afloat in the upper-end of what has historically been one of the promotion's most loaded and competitive divisions. Stephens is just a hair over even in his 15 total UFC fights with a 8-7 record, though his rap sheet is populated by the who's who of the weight class.
Establishing himself as an aggressive striker with a brawler's mentality, Stephens has gradually bolstered his kickboxing with improved wrestling skills. One can never go wrong by beefing up their wrestling ability, but the choice has been especially beneficial to Stephens, for many reasons: in the past, he was basically a one-trick pony and opponents knew exactly what to expect; now, they're unsure whether his forward blitz will entail an explosive level drop or more of his typical head-hunting punches. Even though Stephens isn't the type to dominate someone with takedowns and top control, merely posing the threat of shooting a takedown has opened more doors for his striking acumen while endowing him with another viable option to make a memorable impression on the score cards.
This match-up has a little bit of relevant history: Edwards was scheduled to face Donald Cerrone but was replaced by Stephens when he withdrew with an injury (Stephens lost to Cerrone by unanimous decision). Next, Edward and Stephens were aligned for the UFC on FX 5 show but, in a high-profile snafu, Stephens was taken into custody by police on the day of the event and the bout was rescheduled.
Getting the win is imperative for both fighters, as Stephens is on a 2-fight slide (Cerrone, Anthony Pettis by split decision) and Edwards has dropped 2 of his last 3 (KO'd Rafaello Oliveira between a KO loss to Sam Stout and unanimous decision loss to Tony Ferguson).
The standout advantages for Stephens are his crackling punching power (14 of 20 wins by TKO), invincible chin (never been stopped by strikes) and surly aggression. His wrestling edge is intentionally excluded, as I don't think he'll fare well in a guard as complex and dynamic as Edwards'. That leaves Edwards' submission grappling -- especially in scrambles and transitions -- and finely polished striking as well attuned weapons against Stephens.
I feel Edwards will eventually establish momentum in grappling exchanges, so Stephens should look to score takedowns and bail out rather than immerse himself with Edwards on the mat. Standing, this is a clear case of the brawler (Stephens) vs. the boxer (Edwards), as I expect Stephens to hurl vicious leather at close range while Edwards adopts an elusive strategy of counter-striking from a distance while circling out to maintain space.
Like many of the contests on this card, this one could go either way. My assumption is that Edwards can avoid Stephens' thunder and out-finesse him to a decision, or even latch on a submission should Stephens opt to grapple with him.
My Prediction: Yves Edwards by submission.
With a forecast indicating fan-friendly exchanges on the feet, this striking-centric tilt will lead off the FX broadcast and is easily one of the most intriguing match ups of the evening. Vietnamese veteran Nam Phan has been competing since 2001 but only recently hooked up with the UFC through a lightweight stint on TUF 12, and he's gone on to register 2 wins and 3 losses as a featherweight in the Octagon.
The word "robbery" is always excessively dramatic to describe a controversial decision; however, Phan's loss to Leonard Garcia is as close to a robbery as it gets in modern day MMA. While that makes his mediocre pace in the UFC look a little better than the numbers indicate, Phan was outright dominated by Mike Brown in the 1st round, and for all 15 minutes in a lopsided affair with rising phenom Jim Hettes -- both of which elicited serious skepticism about his wrestling and defensive grappling.
Phan is a true martial artist to the core. He holds black belts in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, Karate and the Vietnamese style of Quyen Dao, a brown belt in Judo, and also has a short history as a professional boxer. His MMA style is best described as a boxing base -- Phan's body shots are among the best in the sport -- that's strongly complemented by atypical but highly functional kicks. He'll unroll standard high kicks but also has an affinity for spinning back kicks and chambered side kicks.
Siver was a German kickboxing champion who posted a solid run as a lightweight and is now fresh off a successful featherweight debut (unanimous decision over Diego Nunes). Even though he's built like a fire-hydrant, Siver was always a little undersized for 155-pounds, but I was mildly concerned about how his quickness might be diluted against the faster-paced featherweights. Based on his premiere against a speedy striker in Nunes, it didn't seem to be a problem but that variable will be tested again this Saturday.
Like Phan, Siver culls from an unorthodox striking background; his is Taekwondo, but the end result of high kicks with no set up and spinning kicks are quite similar. Generally, both fighters are content to battle on the feet though I wouldn't rule out some surprise takedowns from Siver. Standing, with their kicking techniques being fairly equal in style and effectiveness, it's their hands that portray a marked difference: Phan is more of a tight, traditional boxer whereas Siver torques looping haymakers that sail out from the waist-level. Siver's choice of delivery allows him to generate massive power, yet his wide (and, at times, wild) method of slinging punches leaves his chin more susceptible to counter-fire.
At the time of writing, betting odds haven't emerged for the undercard but I imagine Siver will be a strong favorite, and deservedly so. [Update: Siver is indeed that with a -300 rating.]This will be my long-shot pick for this show, as I'll take a chance on Phan pulling off the upset by way of his cleaner and more technical stand up. Siver will likely sit back and try to time monstrous counter-punches while Phan needles his way in with ever-changing mixtures of his left hook and overhand right, which are his best weapons. Even though he accepted this match on semi-short notice, I think Phan can come out on top as long as he assumes a tactical role with cautious in-and-out movement rather than engaging in an all-out brawl at close quarters.
My Prediction: Nam Phan by decision.
I'll pick up the pace a little -- Easton has chugged his way into a rising contender role with 3-straight UFC wins, though his recent decision over Ivan Menjivar represents his only A-list opponent (Byron Bloodworth and Jared Papazian preceded Menjivar). Easton is at the black-belt level in BJJ and Taekwondo but his wrestling and athleticism are his defining traits. Easton's only career loss transpired in 2007 when the bout was deemed a TKO via injury after Easton broke his arm severely while blocking a kick.
Assuncao is a staunch veteran with a BJJ black belt and loads of high-powered experience. Before making it to the big leagues, Assuncao posted insanely impressive wins over lightweights Joe Lauzon and Jorge Masvidal but settled into his WEC career as a featherweight. He went an even 3-3 at 145-pounds and, after dropping his UFC debut to Erik Koch by KO, dropped to bantamweight, where he's undefeated after 2 turns (Johnny Eduardo by decision, Issei Tamura by KO).
Easton will be a tad bigger and stronger and should have the wrestling advantage as well. He's been extremely methodical and judicious with his striking, and with his offense in general, which hasn't produced any highlight-reel moments but has still been largely effective. Assuncao is more of a spark-plug who's willing to let his hands go and push the fight aggressively. He'll have the edge with power on the feet and, despite the equality of their belt color, should pose a legitimate submission threat to Easton.
The betting lines elevate Easton in the range of -185 to -225, which seems about right. He's been tough to read thus far but should be equipped to disrupt Assuncao's striking with well-timed takedowns and avoid trouble from the top.
My Prediction: Mike Easton by decision.
When combined with his devastating boxing, Means' proportions -- a 6'2" tall lightweight with a 75" reach -- have proven to be a dominant formula. The former King of the Cage lightweight champion has won 16 of his last 18 fights (1 loss, 1 draw) with an impressive career finishing ratio of 13 TKOs and 3 subs.
Trujillo is a UFC debutante out of the burgeoning Blackzilians camp who earned 4-time All-American honors as a NAIA collegiate wrestler. He's currently riding on a 4-fight streak but has some less than impressive defeats beforehand. This bout should hinge entirely on Means' ability to sprawl-and-brawl; a strategy he executed to perfection against "Trekko" Magalhaes in his UFC premiere, and one that his lengthy stature is perfectly suited towards.
My Prediction: Tim Means by TKO.
Cruickshank is a respected Michigander who got his shot in the big leagues as a contestant on TUF: Live. He's a lifelong martial artist who started training at a young age, as his mother was a professional kickboxer and his father a professional MMA fighter. Cruickshank wrestled for Olivet College (Division III) and holds a black belt in Taekwondo; a uniquely mixed background that's helped Cruickshank evolve into a creative and atypical talent.
The animation above is Cruickshank's pro debut, which would be the first of 6 TKOs in the 1st-round. In addition to complementing his unorthodox striking with a sound wrestling game, Cruickshank is also savvy in the submission grappling department, which makes for a diverse package of skills overall. On TUF, he was in the driver's seat throughout the 1st round against James Vick until he absorbed a perfectly timed knee during a takedown attempt. Cruickshank got back on track at the live finale with a unanimous decision over Chris Tickle.
Martinez is a scrappy Jackson/Winklejohn rep who showed his grit and crisp counter-punching in an Octagon debut against Matt Riddle, which was a welterweight bout Martinez accepted on short notice. Following that split decision loss, Martinez got on the better side of a split judges' nod against Bernardo Magalhaes. The well-timed boxer and BJJ black belt has been tough to read: he looked like a technical machine in dotting up Riddle with precise counter-boxing but seemed mediocre in his sophomore effort. That could be a result of Martinez's extra quick hand-speed when fighting up a weight class in his premiere or a marked improvement in the striking of Magalhaes, who many expected to be out-classed on the feet.
This is a coin-flip, but I'm leaning towards Cruickshank's diversity and length carrying him through.
My Prediction: Daron Cruickshank by decision.
TUF alumni square off in the lightweight class, as TUF 13 runner-up Nijem faces TUF 15 quarterfinalist Proctor. Nijem seems to have hit his stride after the show, sustaining his strong wrestling acumen while developing a nasty set of hands under the great John Hackleman at The Pit. Proctor, a decent wrestler himself, isn't quite as well rounded and struggles when he can't impose his takedowns, which is what I expect to happen against the tenacious Nijem.
My Prediction: Ramsey Nijem by decision.