In what should be a high-paced mutual massacre, The Ultimate Fighter (TUF) 14 winner Diego Brandao is set to swing it out with perennial featherweight contender Dustin Poirier on the UFC 168 main card.
Having descended to featherweight after a lightweight loss to Danny Castillo (the first of his career) back at WEC 50 in 2010, Poirier's settled into his new surroundings with a crackling seven wins and two defeats. The losses were dealt by the featherweight elite in Chan Sung Jung (Brabo choke) and Cub Swanson (decision), but Poirier might've found consolation in the 2012 MMA "Fight of the Year" award and UFC "Fight of the Night" bonus that stemmed from his electric collision with "The Korean Zombie." Poirier's UFC tour has cemented him as both a tough-as-nails technician and frenetically aggressive brawler with an extensive and diverse arsenal.
After he arm-barred Dennis Bermudez in a back-and-forth slobber-knocker to win TUF 14 plus "Fight of the Night" and "Submission of the Night" honors, Brandao, a Brazilian hailing from the Jackson/Winklejohn camp, suffered his first UFC defeat. After administering what was potentially a 10-8-worthy beating in the opening stanza, Brandao was buried somewhere beneath the enveloping top-game of wrestler Darren Elkins en route to a unanimous decision loss. The 26-year-old slugger bounced back strong with a trifecta of consecutive wins in Joey Gambino (decision), Pablo Garza (arm-triangle) and Daniel Pineda (decision) though he had to paddle toward the shallow end of the pool to get them.
Pavement-scorching tempo, a two-pronged onslaught consisting of fearsome striking and submission grappling and the bloodthirsty urge to finish quickly and violently are all qualities that Poirier (6 subs, 5 TKO's, 3 decisions) and Brandao (9 TKO's, 5 subs, 4 decisions) share. The most notable differences emerge in their overall experience and level of competition, in which Poirier's quality trumps Brandao's quantity, along with the two inches of height (5'9" vs. 5'7") and the four inches of reach (73" vs. 69") on behalf of Dustin "The Diamond." (Screech fan?)
The lesser pronounced variables seem to favor Poirier as well. While aspects like cardio, maturity or Fight IQ could stand as individual edges for Poirier, the end result when they're all lumped together is that Brandao's rollicking aggression comes in resounding waves and lulls. Example: after opening the round demonstratively against Pineda in his last outing, Brandao's pace slowed to a crawl to end the first and stayed the same in the second frame, a round in which he was both swept and mounted halfway through.
In a battle between two striking and grappling specialists whose cardinal attribute is overwhelming their opposition with menacing offense at fast-forward speed, the combatant who manages his aggression most effectively throughout the entire contest should enjoy quite a substantial advantage. Based on all known evidence, that guy is Poirier in this match up. He upholds a methodical yet dizzying pace from bell to bell and the one knock on Brandao has been his inconsistency in that very department. In other words, that's probably Poirier's greatest strength and Brandao's biggest weakness.
From a style standpoint, Poirier's extra height and length will influence things a little bit in almost every area, the most imperative of which is in the striking interplay. The only punch Diego throws straight with any sort of regularity is his heat-seeking right -- almost every left and even some right hands are hooked to some degree. Poirier, on the other hand, throws laser-straight punches with both hands almost exclusively, and they're uncorked with a high guard and from a tight stance. This tendency will only maximize Poirier's reach advantage even more, as straight punches land first and travel farther.
While it might seem ineffectual, their divergent striking habits has an affect on defensive prowess too. The way Poirier stays poised and on balance, draws from a more conventional boxing arsenal and plunges out long straights is much more conducive to striking defense, as the hand and body position lends itself to a quick and fluent transition to protecting the head and chin. Brandao's erratic selection of looping overhands, leaping left hooks and sporadic flying knees and uppercuts, though integral to his highlight-reel swagger, inevitably take a toll on his striking defense, balance and perhaps his endurance as well.
This likely accounts for Brandao dropping half (4 of 8) of his career losses via TKO and also means that Poirier will have the stronger beard. And that's just too many perceived advantages for Poirier: height, length, top-level experience, endurance, consistent performances (overall and in the context of one fight), more technical defense, more effective delivery of strikes and chin durability.
There's no question that Brandao flat-out hits harder ... but punching power and maybe a tiny edge in hand-speed doesn't compare to Poirier's list above. Finally, I'd assess their offensive wrestling as about even and give Poirier another definitive notch in takedown defense. Poirier's front kicks could wreak havoc from outside since Diego is light on range weapons and I also think Poirier's cleaving, short-range elbows and leverage will keep him comfy in the clinch.
Maybe I'm missing something and hopefully I'm not being unfair, but I see this as an extremely adverse match up for Brandao, and actually feel the betting lines are a tad generous toward Brandao.
My Prediction: Dustin Poirier by decision or positional strike-stoppage.