Lanky lightweight Cody McKenzie will make his featherweight debut against prominent contender Chad Mendes on the main card of this Saturday's UFC 148 event from Las Vegas, Nevada. The show's main attraction is the trumpeted rematch between UFC middleweight champion Anderson Silva and the ever confident Chael Sonnen.
Pony-tailed Alaskan Cody McKenzie (13-2) has an absurd collection of wins by Gable-grip guillotine, which he's dubbed "The McKenzie-tine." His official fight record reflects 10-straight guillotine chokes and he secured yet another in his last outing against Marcus LeVesseur, who may have displayed the most inept Fight I.Q. in UFC history by gift-wrapping his neck for the renowned choke-out artist.
Despite securing his 11th guillotine and 12th career submission win overall, McKenzie snapped a 2-fight slump (Yves Edwards and Vagner Rocha, both by rear-naked choke) by defeating LeVesseur and has now decided to squeeze his wiry frame into 145-pound proportions for a run in the featherweight class.
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Team Alpha Male's Chad "Money" Mendes (11-1) is the longtime #3-ranked featherweight behind champion Jose Aldo (who's responsible for Mendes' sole career flaw) and recent arrival Hatsu Hioki, the latter of whom surrendered his #2 station to Mendes when he was upset by Ricardo Lamas at UFC on FX 4 on June 22nd.
Mendes is a stellar wrestler who, during his term at Cal-Poly University, earned D1 All-American honors twice, was deemed the 2008 Pac-10 "Wrestler of the Year" and finished 2nd in the NCAA championships his senior year amidst a controversial ruling on a takedown in the finals. The 27-year-old is startlingly athletic, as evinced by his front-flip guard passes, and has enhanced his striking and submission knowledge at an extraordinary rate for a fighter with less than 4 years on his time card.
Excluding his TKO loss to Aldo in his last outing at UFC 142, Mendes has been thoroughly dominant against savvy strikers (Steven Siler, Cub Swanson) and elite submissionists (Javier Vazquez, Rani Yahya) alike.
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McKenzie was already exceptionally tall (6'0") and lengthy (74" reach) for a lightweight, so his move to featherweight is intriguing and there are many match ups in which his size will be a tremendous advantage. This isn't one of them.
Before we get into the aspects of size and style, aligning McKenzie, a lightly experienced lightweight who was mid-level at best, against the best featherweight wrestler right off the bat is a head-scratcher. He'll enjoy a monumental edge in height (6") and reach (8") but hasn't been the type to keep opponents on the end of his punches to capitalize on his stature.
Style-wise, his gangly proportions would be well suited to an average size 145er who prefers to clinch or strike. Mendes, however, is one of the shortest, quickest and most agile featherweights in the class who specializes in closing distance and using his low center of gravity to topple his foes with explosive takedown prowess. Since McKenzie hasn't demonstrated a distance-based or sprawl-and-brawl strategy in the past, his size should work against him when Mendes slices into range and hovers low to attack his hips and waist.
Additionally, Mendes proved that his submission defense was top-notch while battling inside the dangerous guards of heralded black belts in Vazquez (11 of 16 wins by submission) and Yahya (14 of 16 wins by submission), and McKenzie is more of an unorthodox anomaly than a traditional sub-fighter. While McKenzie has made noticeable strides with his stand up, he hasn't displayed the level of balance, footwork and cage motion to keep Mendes from trapping him against the fence, attaching himself and penetrating deep with takedowns.
Mendes might not be an upper-tier striker but he's unusually comfortable for someone that comes from a wrestling background; a foundation that's typically unconducive to the contrasting footwork and stance of MMA striking. Mendes has great timing and instincts with his boxing, his footwork and balance are rock-solid, he employs a lot of angles to create opportunities and he's active with feints. He's especially clever when dropping levels to mimic a takedown, causing his opponents to drop their hands and defend the shot, which leaves holes to exploit with punches upstairs (or even with leaping knees if he really sells them on the fake).
If McKenzie had genuine knockout power to supplement his basic striking, he'd have an honest chance to wobble Mendes or at least change the course of the fight. He doesn't, and Mendes' chin has been durable thus far.
All of this justifies the landslide for Mendes on the betting lines, who enjoys the most substantial betting odds on the card at an average of -600. For any chance of success, McKenzie would have to roll out a significantly improved grasp of takedown defense and striking for 3 rounds, perfectly time a haymaker when Mendes is coming in or or a knee just as he's dropping levels. McKenzie has the big heart and admirable spirit to pull off something unexpected, but his arsenal is too poorly suited for Mendes and his size will be more of a drawback than a benefit.
I expect Mendes to joust with McKenzie just enough on the feet to steer him into a corner, camouflage a quick double leg in a flurry of strikes, restrict his movement by pressing his head into the cage and unload a barrage of strikes. McKenzie's a gamer and a feisty scrambler, so he might win some respect -- but I definitely don't see him winning the fight.
My Prediction: Chad Mendes by TKO (via positional ground-and-pound).