UFC 144: Riki Fukuda Vs. Steve Cantwell Dissection

Fighter images via UFC.com

A middleweight match up between Riki Fukuda and Steve Cantwell will grace the FX channel's four-piece preliminary card lineup for UFC 144: Edgar vs. Henderson. The FX broadcast begins Saturday night at 8:30 p.m. ET before the event's loaded seven-fight offering on the main card, which features lightweight champion Frankie Edgar defending the title against Ben Henderson.

Riki Fukuda (17-5) made his Octagon debut one year ago as the reigning DEEP middleweight champion and a fairly hyped overseas prospect, meeting Nick Ring in what turned out to be one of the most controversial decisions of 2011. Ring got the unanimous nod but nearly every media source had Fukuda penciled in as the winner. Fukuda established his vaunted wrestling prowess throughout the fight but had trouble keeping the slippery former TUFer on the mat and neither painted a demonstrative case in the stand up exchanges.

The unparalleled fervency of high-level wrestling in North American MMA is typically expected to be a shock to the system for a heralded import, yet Fukuda is an exception. His wrestling is not only adequate, but an outright specialty. Fukuda holds a pile of reputable finishes on the All-Japan College wrestling circuit in the Greco Roman and Freestyle categories. He turned heads in his first MMA turn by lasting to a decision with experienced veteran Joe Doerksen, who at the time had thirty-one fights and twenty-two submission wins under his belt.

Fukuda won eight of his next nine, which included a second-round TKO over future UFCer Brandon Wolff, before hitting a tepid four-fight stretch where he batted .500, with Joey Villasenor accounting for one of those losses in EliteXC. At this point, Fukuda would soar with a perfect seven-fight sequence that was highlighted by a win over Murilo Rua in the DREAM 8 welterweight tournament. Fukuda was paired with Rafael Natal for his sophomore effort but injured his knee in a car accident, which required surgery and sidelined the Team Grabaka fighter since his promotional debut at UFC 127 last February.


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Steve "The Robot" Cantwell (7-5) was the WEC light-heavyweight champion when the league underwent its first stage of downsizing and transferred the higher weight classes to the UFC. He left the promotion with only one blemish to Brian Stann after seven outings, but Cantwell avenged the TKO loss by returning the favor in the second round of their rematch, snaring the 205-pound strap in the process.

Cantwell, a BJJ black belt and laudably creative kickboxer, scored a gruesome and cringe-worthy submission win over Roufusport product Razak Al-Hassan in his Octagon debut. From the mount, Cantwell spun for a smooth armbar and then readjusted his angle when Al-Hassan tried to scramble free, treating the at-home viewers to the garish realities of the "tap or snap" catchphrase. The wheels would fall off for Cantwell in his remaining four, as perilous strikers Luiz Cane and Cyrille Diabate out-gunned him on the feet and Stann sealed their trilogy with a win in the rubber match.

The three-fight skid inspired a drop to the middleweight division. In his 185-pound premiere, Cantwell started strong but faded out against Team Bombsquad southpaw Mike Massenzio, who handed him his fourth consecutive loss by decision at UFC 136.

Gifs and analysis in the full entry.

SBN coverage of UFC 144: Edgar vs. Henderson

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In the wrestling department, Fukuda does all the little things right: he's always in range when he shoots, his takedowns are set up properly, he has good head position, gets deep penetration on his double-legs and he continues to drive through to finish them off.

On the mat, Fukuda is a calculating technician with solid ground-and-pound and guard-passing skills. He never over-commits or forces anything and has exceptional submission defense. He's a highly durable fighter with a strong chin who's only been finished once in his five defeats.

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Fukuda is no slouch as a striker either.

Already a serviceable boxer, his recent trip to Tiger Muay Thai with teammate Kazuo Misaki is a wise choice to enhance his striking and diversity.

There are quite a few parallels between Fukuda and Massenzio, who handed Cantwell his last loss: both are southpaw boxers with tight and stiff punches who like to pressure at close range and puzzle their foes by alternating seamlessly from striking to dropping levels to shoot.

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Steve Cantwell has a visually pleasing and finesse-based kickboxing style. Unfortunately, he's almost become lopsided on the aesthetic end while lacking damage inducing and results-driven striking, i.e. "more show than go."

On the bright side, there's no question that Cantwell has a vast arsenal of tactics and implements them creatively. He's thrown the adored Brazilian kick effortlessly in the past and shows shades of Taekwondo in his rear-leg roundhouse kicks. To the right, he leads off with a TKD-type roundhouse and follows up nicely with a short right hand and a left kick to the body.

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He's also a sturdy boxer with good angles and head movement when he's vitalized, but lately these qualities have dwindled away in later rounds.

Cantwell likes to play little strategy games with his kicks from outside. Against Massenzio, he started out keeping him at bay with a long push kick. As soon as Massenzio shield blocked in anticipation of the straight kick, Cantwell raised his leg to simulate the beginnings of a chambered kick and then, pivoting well on his support foot, switched it up to a roundhouse in mid-flight.

Unfortunately for Cantwell, it was the chess match of Massenzio's feints that turned the tables. Massenzio amped up his aggression and faked takedown attempts to set up his striking; as soon as Cantwell covered up to stifle the blows, Massenzio capitalized on his upright stance by lowering levels and shooting. He assumed control by keeping Cantwell back on his heels and unable to react to the vacillating attacks.

And that game-plan is exactly what Riki Fukuda does best. He engages in a striking match with enough ferocity to capture his opponent's full attention and then launches low to the floor to snare takedowns. Unless Cantwell has seriously buttoned up his cardio, I expect him to win the first round with strong takedown defense and slick striking before a blue-collar two and three from Fukuda.

There are also some potentially influential X-factors here:

  • I'm giving Cantwell a little lenience for sputtering out in the second and third against Massenzio because it was his virgin run at middleweight.
  • Cantwell is probably the best submission fighter that Fukuda has encountered and may push his topside grappling defense to new limits.
  • With four straight losses, Cantwell is almost guaranteed to be cut with another defeat and might throw caution to the wind and/or markedly alter his approach.
  • Fukuda is coming off a year-long absence, a car-crashed knee and subsequent surgery, which fosters a whole pile of concerns in agility, explosiveness, longevity, etc.

My Prediction: Riki Fukuda by decision.

All gifs via Zombie Prophet of IronForgesIron.com

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