The big hurrah at Saturday night's UFC on Fox 4 event is a 5-round light-heavyweight showdown between former champion Mauricio "Shogun" Rua and Brandon "The Truth" Vera. Action begins at 8:00 p.m. ET on Fox on the heels of the Fuel TV preliminary card, which airs at 5:00 p.m. ET.
"Shogun" Rua (20-6) is among the last bastion of old-school bad-asses still competing -- and winning -- at MMA's apex. He initially tornado kicked his way into the hearts of adoring fans in Pride FC's pristine ring, having risen up just as his big brother, Murilo Rua, also a fan-favorite from the Chute Boxe team, started to lose his mojo. In fact, Mauricio exuded all the exemplary traits that Murilo was respected for but skyrocketed to a loftier status after his indelible demolition in Pride's Middleweight Grand Prix.
There, Shogun authenticated his prestige with a series of jaw-dropping triumphs that included violent stoppages of Quinton Jackson, now-heavyweight Alistair Overeem, Ricardo Arona in the finals (all by TKO) and a Fight of the Year slug-fest with Antonio Rogerio Nogueira along the way. After Zuffa, the UFC's parent company, purchased the Pride organization, Shogun perpetuated the mantra that "Pride fighters can't cut it in the UFC" with lollygagging disappointments against Forrest Griffin in his Octagon debut (submission loss) and Mark Coleman in the follow up (uninspiring TKO win). Rua then helped to shatter (or, at least, partially deflate) that myth with a nostalgia-inducing sequence that ended with him atop the UFC's 205-pound throne.
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Brandon Vera (12-5) once emanated a vibe that seemed almost to be destined for Shogun-like proportions. Debuting in the UFC as a heavyweight with a scant 4-0 record, Vera doubled the count of his career wins and finishes by taking the highlight-reel approach in 4 devastating victories. Fabiano Scherner, Justin Eilers (both TKOs), Ausserio Silva (submission) and a debilitated Frank Mir (TKO) all fell in the flashy half-Filipino's wake of rangy Muay Thai and adept submissions.
Being a small heavyweight gave Vera the quickness and agility to buzzsaw the general populace, but it actualized as a weakness against top-shelf leviathans in Fabricio Werdum and Tim Syliva, both of whom relied on their size advantage to deal out the first losses of Vera's career and send him down to 205. In that division, Vera's cardinal assets of speed and dexterity didn't stand out as much, and he's won a sporadic 4 (Reese Andy, Michael Patt, Krzysztof Soszynski, Eliot Marshall), lost 3 (Keith Jardine, Randy Couture and Jon Jones) and was spared of a 4th when his convincing defeat to Thiago Silva was overturned after Silva's drug test came back positive.
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I'm sure I'm not the only one struggling to conjure up a good case for Vera. On paper, he has all the right tools: a crisp and precise Thai boxing acumen bolstered by a 2" reach advantage, a brief stint as a D1 wrestler at Old Dominion University followed by some time at the Olympic Training Center and a BJJ brown belt under the renowned Lloyd Irvin. That assembly of weapons proved deadly in the heavyweight division but, from a pure application standpoint, it hasn't been up to par at light-heavyweight.
Really, Vera's last outing is an ideal example: Marshall is a tough and talented fighter but nowhere near the elite level, and I scored that fight a draw when Vera eked out rounds 1 and 2 but got blasted off his feet with punches and left with a broken arm due to a last-minute armbar; domination that warranted a 10-8 in the 3rd round.
While technique and characteristics generally decide the outcome of a fight, the disparity in overall status is prevalent in this one. Because, regardless of what stylistic advantages or specific opportunities he could create, Vera has lost 3 of his last 4, 2 of which were one-sided beatings, and the lone victory was lackluster and against average UFC competition ... and he's facing one of the best light-heavyweights in MMA history on Saturday.
Now, centering on the straight fundamental goodies, Vera actually matches up pretty well with Shogun. A southpaw, Vera's wiry frame complements his kickboxing in the delivery of cracking roundhouse kicks -- which have done exceptional damage to the legs, body and head of past opponents -- and his straight, stretchy punches. His length enhances his submission attempts and clinch game as well, allowing him to snake his arms under the neck for standing guillotines and actualizing as leverage in tie-ups to defend takedowns or strike with the plum grip.
Vera's Greco-Roman application has been hot and cold: it looked stellar in fending off the game's best clinch mauler in Randy Couture but seemed flimsy under the weight of Thiago Silva's takedowns and top-side pounding. He does seem to blend his wrestling, clinch striking and free-phase jousting well and seamlessly switches between the arts like it's second nature.
Shogun's Muay Thai is about as proven and devastating as it gets in MMA. He's one of the rare few who can maintain an obscenely furious pace and overwhelm his opponents without being a sitting duck for counters. However, despite his track record, there's no question that Shogun becomes increasingly more vulnerable the more offensive he is. He's not a traditional kickboxer who will key off his jab and methodically undress opponents from outside.
Rather, he's upheld the trigger-happy, guns-blazing style that distinguished the Chute Boxe team. Even the casual observer can identify defensive flaws or brief instances where his chin is exposed, but opponents have to immerse themselves in his soul-reaving wheelhouse in order to capitalize, which is exactly where Shogun wants them. Though he's not drastically flawed with fundamentals, Shogun just chooses to add a lot more raw brutality to his combinations. The reward is exceptional fight-stopping detonation and the risk is increased vulnerability. Thus far, Jones is the only fighter to beat Shogun up on the feet while Forrest Griffin and Renato Sobral snared him with chokes.
Rua has found the perfect balance between technical superiority and primal ass-kicking. His polished technique was on full display in his battles with Lyoto Machida, especially in their initial encounter. He was the first to crack the riddle of Machida's legendary movement by zig-zagging his way into range with blinding explosiveness and unpredictable angles, then capitalizing with well-timed kicks and combinations. Despite the way Vera's length assists his range game, it's hard to believe that he'll pose more of a distance problem than "The Dragon" did.
Having noted Vera's burly resilience against Couture in the clinch, Rua's secret weapon has always been his phenomenal trip takedowns. Setting the tone with the nonstop pressure of his striking salvos, Shogun intelligently flashes leather up high and then drops levels, encircles the waist with underhooks or a body lock and topples his foe over by driving through with inside or outside trips. Defensively, Shogun is rock-solid off his back as well, often going to a deep-half guard and swiveling for an underhook to manipulate sweeps or escapes.
My conclusion is nothing short of anti-climactic: Shogun, all the way. There simply aren't any salient advantages for Vera to capitalize on nor substantial weaknesses to exploit, and Shogun has consistently performed better against a definitively higher level of opposition. That leaves the ever-present chance of Vera catching him with a random shot or producing one of MMA's humbling "Who saw that coming?" performances -- which is possible, but quite unlikely.
My Prediction: Mauricio "Shogun" Rua by TKO.