There was something comforting and harmonious about this week.
In the frenzied days leading up to tonight's UFC on Fox 5 event, as the Bloody Elbow staff scrambled to cover each interesting angle and the community delved into their own passionate discourse underneath each article, I noticed something unusual: everyone seemed extra chipper, and the responses to the same type of work we do for every major event were more thoughtful and complete. In the MMA sewing circle, where a dissenting opinion is commonly addressed with half-witty mother jokes, this type of tranquility is rare.
As if undergoing a soul-altering epiphany, solving a Rubik's Cube or figuring out the code for endless lives on Contra for Nintendo, the reason for it all hit me: it's because the lineup for this card is bad ass. We might annoy one another, get a little heated and over-emotional in intense discussion or secretly want to stab each other with a dull spork -- but we have one thing in common, and that is we all live and die and breathe and bleed for the sport of MMA, and the last few days were like a time-bomb ticking away to the explosion that will take place in the cage tonight.
While the star-studded supporting cast -- especially B.J. Penn vs. Rory MacDonald and Alexander Gustafsson vs. Mauricio Rua -- played a role in the palpable anticipation, the main event is the icing on the cake. Ben Henderson (17-2), the electrifying WEC crossover who's taken the UFC lightweight division by storm, will defend the strap against Nate Diaz (16-7), one of the most polarizing and entertaining raw scrappers in the game.
They, like all of the aforementioned competitors, are not only amongst the best in the world in their respective classes, but they don't stall, they don't fight for points, they don't play it safe and they just flat-out don't fuck around. Or, considering the urban mystique surrounding the headliner (and the veritable interchangeability of the Diaz brothers), another way to say it is this: they ain't no bitches.
In more traditional dialect, I think we're in for a real treat tonight.
Henderson authenticated his kickboxing in the double-decker series with former champion Frankie Edgar, who'd previously cemented himself as a dynamically enigmatic striker. Nate's boxing wizardry has long been respected, but his breakout performance against Thai practitioner Donald Cerrone indicated he'd reached a new level of brutal effectiveness.
While it may be unorthodox, my measuring stick for the stand-up portion of his encounter is that almost no one trades with the Diaz brothers and wins. The exception for Nick Diaz is the first K.J. Noons fight, which was stopped for a cut, while the sole unexpected flaw for Nate is wrestler Gray Maynard, who brazenly opted to rely on his hands more than his takedowns in that razor-thin split decision victory.
Before Edgar, Henderson's striking routine consisted of close-quarters grinding; either toe-to-toe exchanges or dirty boxing and knees in the clinch. The only past opponent Henderson dueled with out in open space was Anthony Pettis in the WEC's bon voyage match, wherein the ultra-competitive decision was likely tilted in Pettis' favor via the indelible Showtime Kick.
Henderson's Taekwondo background shined through while jousting with Edgar, mostly in the unending succession of kicks he uncorked throughout. The southpaw was also calculating and judicious with his hands, swatting Edgar with short right hooks and left crosses. On the critical side, Henderson continuously pumped out a double and triple jab before he was even in range, which is meaningless filler and wasted energy at best, but was also predictable enough to allow Frankie to key off it with side-pivots and counters.
To address the popular assertion that Henderson will capitalize on Nate's distinctly closed and front-foot-heavy stance: yes, there's no question that low kicks are a well suited tool, especially because Diaz doesn't even attempt to check them. However, Henderson's stance is also fairly closed, the difference between the quick release of mid-power Taekdowndo kicks versus the hip-torquing shin penetration of a Thai kick is quite evident in his style, he's never really relied on leg kicks nor done significant damage with them, and Nate's size and counter-striking should strongly discourage the high-volume success he'll need to be effective.
When Henderson throws his kicks, he goes a phenomenal job of maintaining his balance and composure so he can react instantly to counter-fire. Whether it's a purposeful choice or just his style, he prioritizes a quick release that mitigates risk over committing to the kick by turning his hips over to generate power. That means he's smart about using kicks so as not to compromise his defense and, while it's still a worthwhile tactic, I find it highly unlikely that he'll wear Diaz down with leg kicks before Nate, a master of "taking a few to give a few," will wear him down with his rhythmic boxing.
The other aspects that have me feeling confident that Diaz will own this category are his momentous advantages in height (6'0" vs. 5'9") and reach (76" vs. 70") and his virtually indestructible chin. He'll stay have to remain cautious not to rely on his chin too much though -- if he does take a shot, he best be answering with 3-4 more, and Henderson could also break character and load up a haymaker, which will do more damage but also make him more vulnerable.
Henderson looked good against Edgar, but Diaz is an entirely different animal: the range he commands is exorbitantly larger, his tempo is nearly impossible to read, the timing and trajectory of his punches are confounding and he also just hits a hell of a lot harder than Edgar. While Nate could lower his level, square up his shoulders or start using any type of angle other than a straight line to attack, he's made the conscious decision to maximize his length as much as possible with his signature style, and I think that will weak havoc on Henderson to the fullest.
For as elaborate as the last category was, this one's straight-forward and all Henderson. Diaz definitely has some cunning Judo throws, thudding knees, thorny dirty boxing and the occasional elbow in the clinch, the way he maximizes his height/length with his upright stance is not conducive to defending takedowns in the clinch.
Now, the gist of this perspective hinges upon the idea that Henderson will look to stifle Diaz in tie-ups with his vice-like body lock or strong underhooks while seeking trips or by dropping levels and attacking his waist. Striking with Nate is a highly toxic endeavor in any position, so Henderson will have to establish and maintain control with his physicality before unleashing any strikes -- that way he can address any and all of Nate's counters by threatening to take him for a ride with his clinch control. whilst slamming home knees and elbows.
Outside of contact range, i.e. anytime Henderson doesn't have his hands on Diaz, he runs the risk of dealing with the infamous Stockton-style in-fighting, so any clinch striking must be accompanied by a strong semblance of control and relentless pressure. When the champion locks horns, he's a killer whilst slamming home knees and elbows -- his journey to the championship demonstrated that, as Mark Bocek and Clay Guida (and, to a certain degree, Jim Miller) are burly clinch fighters who couldn't match Henderson's unique blend of strength and agility with an unshakable center of gravity.
Here's where it gets interesting. From a big-picture standpoint, Henderson might have the best top game and submission defense at 155, just like Diaz might have the most multifarious and complex guard game in the division. I don't think there's any question that Henderson can put Diaz on his back, even though it might not be easy and require tenacious persistence (which Henderson has in spades).
Which brings us to the next popular variable being voiced about this match up: that Henderson can take Diaz down and stifle his sweep and submission attempts from the top. This is difficult to assess but a scenario that I desperately hope we're able to witness.
Evidence supporting that claim can be found in Henderson's unreal command of a potent BJJ black belt in Miller, who's fully adept with submissions, sweeps and scrambles. Regardless of Henderson's WEC performances or the lore that he's "unsubmittable," the way he thoroughly dismantled Miller from the top was his most authenticating showing.
Miller is undoubtedly a monster off his back, but I'd put Diaz at a higher level and among the very best guard players in the sport. We've seen him held down exactly once in his career, which was by welterweight Dong Hyun Kim; a stellar top player who contained Nate for 2 rounds. This is entirely subjective, but I'm hesitant to put Henderson's top game on the same level as Kim's. His top-game tactics are startlingly similar -- in fact, he's better at jamming his opponent's head against the fence to limit their movement -- but I don't feel comfortable stamping with him with the same voracity as Kim, a perennial contender in a weight class 15-pounds heavier.
Nate has the uncanny ability to make things happen from his back through a hyperactive set of hips, upholding a frenetic pace while constantly attacking with different angles, his freakish flexibility -- which, through use of his legs, allows him to always maintain guard and prevent passes -- and the massive leverage he generates from his exemplary technique and spidery length. Diaz is also one of the few who can foster action from an old-school closed guard, though he'll alternate from that to half or full spider or butterfly guard, all the while transitioning from one offensive attack to another.
Unfortunately, the "top guy is always winning" sentiments and the way the judges view guard play pans out in Henderson's favor, but not enough to sway things entirely his way.
I'm taking Nate Diaz for the following reasons:
- Henderson has been willing to engage his opponents in their realm of specialty: he stayed upright and jousted with the best featherweight striker, he engaged Miller in his strongest aspect and he played Bocek's and Guida's game by tangling up with them in scramble-fests. This makes me a little leery about his Fight I.Q. -- if he's on Edgar's level of striking, why didn't he capitalize on that against grapplers in Bocek, Guida and Miller? If he's at their level of wrestling and grappling, why didn't he impose that (or really even attempt to) against an under-sized striker in Edgar? He won't fare well playing Nate's game.
- Nate's chin and size: comparisons have been made to Diaz being rag-dolled by Rory MacDonald, a leviathan who throws around most welterweights, as comparisons in the striking department have been made between Edgar and Diaz. Nate's not only long and tall for a lightweight, but he's also not some frail and sickly waif with no strength. Additionally, his guard is more effective and dynamic than any of Henderson's previous foes, plus he's just as good and tricky of a striker as Edgar but he hits exponentially harder and eats punches like crackers.
- Countering Henderson's control: Bocek and Miller were still able to hit sweeps, threaten with submissions and escape their fair share of encounters. Bocek was successful using the guillotine counter, which is one of Nate's trademark assets.
Overall, I see this is quite a poor match up for the champion, even if he had shown the willingness to construct and adhere to a strategic game-plan. I don't envision his leg kicks as powerful enough to slow Diaz down and Nate's gangly counters pose more of a threat. His best route is to power Diaz down and ride him out on top, which is quite possible, but he'll have to work his ass off just to get him down, and I'm not sure he can inflict enough damage (though his elbows are nasty and could be a fight-changer) without Diaz using that window to latch on a sub, hit a sweep or escape.
My Prediction: Nate Diaz by TKO.