Friday's UFC on FX 4 event, which is headlined by Gray Maynard vs. Clay Guida, will lead off with a featherweight scrap between former lightweight Ross Pearson and the ever-game Cub Swanson. The main card is comprised of 4 fights and airs on FX at 9:00 p.m. ET following the 6-piece Fuel TV preliminary card at 6:00 p.m. ET.
I was fairly skeptical about Ross Pearson's (13-5) decision to drop down to featherweight. The lighter-class populace will generally be smaller and quicker, so a fighter cutting down should typically expect a boost in size and strength while sacrificing a certain degree of speed and agility. Since boxing is the main cannon in Pearson's arsenal, the latter is much more integral to his core competency. Additionally, he only imposes his physicality for defensive purposes, he's never been manhandled or out-muscled in the Octagon and the move was inspired by a split-decision loss -- that was contested on the feet and could've gone either way -- to kickboxing phenom Edson Barboza.
Pearson's virgin run at 145-pounds versus UFC 2nd-timer Junior Assuncao reflected some of these concerns. Though he won a unanimous decision and Assuncao is no walk in the park, Pearson struggled with his quickness and deft movement, and the performance was far from commanding. If Pearson continues to rely on hand speed and dueling in the pocket to win fights, I'm not convinced that the switch will bear fruit.
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Cub Swanson (16-5) was a staple and fan favorite in the WEC for his guns-blazing aggression. The Jackson/Winklejohn rep has a well-furnished repertoire: he's a flashy and functional kickboxer with legit power in his hands and a Capoeira-flavored kicking style, he has an under-rated clinch game with a nice blend of wrestling and Judo techniques and he holds a black belt in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu.
His willingness -- or eagerness -- to take risks and prioritize finishing over caution has been a double-edged sword. Swanson's last outings exemplify both sides of the blade: after winning the 1st round against Ricardo Lamas, he fearlessly gave up his back in order to stand up after a takedown, was forced to roll onto his back to prevent the rear-naked choke and then went back to threatening with a guillotine or sit-up kimura; Lamas countered brilliantly by driving his head into Swanson's armpit and finishing with an arm-triangle. Against George Roop, who's become a very formidable tactician with technical striking and takedown defense, Swanson simply unloaded the cannons and drowned him with leather to notch an impressive TKO stoppage.
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This match up epitomizes the "boxer vs. brawler" theme. Pearson is a technical boxer with active head movement who sets up his strikes with finesse, feints, angles and short pivots in the pocket; Swanson will look to brawl the boxer by exploding forward and head-hunting with haymakers.
That's not to say that Swanson will or should be sloppy -- he'll have to stay unpredictable with his angles and method of approach while keeping his guard up and his head moving. I expect him to throw the whole toolbox at Pearson as well, using crisp low kicks to attack Pearson's heavy lead leg from the fringe, sweeping high roundhouse kicks to deter Pearson's side-to-side head movement and parrying, mixing up his strike selection and constantly alternating between strikes, clinching and takedown attempts, all at a frenetic pace.
Pearson must remain composed, avoid getting sucked into a brawl and focus on his footwork and retreat patterns to keep circling out into open space. In the center of the cage, he likes to lead off his combinations with his lurching left hook, going both upstairs and down, and follow up with a right cross or uppercut. Though he slides to the left well on his lead hook, Pearson has been known to let his right hand drift away from protecting his chin and is often exposed to a right hook or straight counter.
In a head-to-head wrestling match, Pearson is probably stronger with takedowns, takedown defense and clinching, but Swanson's timing, quickness and fluid transition from striking make him an active threat to catch his opponents off guard. Swanson is adept at controlling the pace by phase shifting and pressuring with an ever-changing medley of offense.
Pearson will have an extra inch of height (5'7" vs. 5'8") but Swanson will have the same edge in reach (70" vs. 69"). Both contestants have strong beards with a single loss by TKO but Swanson definitely has more power standing and the better submission grappling game.
I think Pearson deserves to be the favorite for his better momentum and technical style, and he's the safer pick here. However, I think Cub is a little overlooked and that this is a razor-thin match up with legit cases for both. I'll take a chance on Swanson flustering Pearson with his diverse and judge-friendly aggression, though he's in trouble if Pearson shuts down the clinch and forces him into a pure boxing match.
My Prediction: Cub Swanson by decision.