Former UFC 205-pound champ "Shogun" Rua (21-8) has had a bit of a rough go since relinquishing the strap to Jon Jones at UFC 128 in 2011. Since "Bones" booted him off the throne, Rua has etched a mediocre five-fight stretch with three losses (Dan Henderson and Alexander Gustafsson by decision, Chael Sonnen by submission) and only two wins (Forrest Griffin, Brandon Vera). And for the first time in his entire 11-year career, Shogun has incurred back-to-back losses.
I'm usually not one to speculate on a fighter going downhill but it's plainly obvious that Shogun's days at the top are numbered. Rua defined his electric brand of Muay Thai savagery in the Pride FC ring but a pair of bum knees and too many surgeries to remember have noticeably diminished his foot-speed, explosiveness and agility -- and it's hard to fight like "the old Shogun" without those attributes. Rua has given us many examples of his duality: just contrast the fiery artistry and machine-gun-paced offense of the two Lyoto Machida fights with his lackluster debut loss to Griffin or the unconvincing follow up against Mark Coleman, all of which transpired in a three-year window.
Despite his dilapidated knees, Shogun's made due with his auxiliary qualities of raw gameness, a stubbly hunk of hardened lead for a chin and his ever-threatening striking onslaught. While a marauder of Shogun's caliber will always be a formidable opponent on the feet, his injuries and high mileage have whittled his vast and elaborate Muay Thai arsenal down to basic boxing combinations and knees from the clinch. Gone are the awe-inspiring and acrobatic kicks -- even his scorching low kicks have been absent -- along with Rua's trademark of sparking off unending cascades of violently aggressive combinations.
The forced metamorphosis inevitably results in a flat-footed brawler who wades into the pocket throwing haymakers where the human hurricane who invoked mass carnage used to stand. Perhaps in general terms it's safe to say that Shogun has devolved from a quick and complex Thai killer into a mediocre boxer with big power and an even bigger heart. And if you review Shogun's illustrious career and isolate the boxing prowess he's shown in the past, it's far from inadequate but still only one small piece in a formerly multifarious puzzle. Shogun got away with his half-technical/half-berserker kickboxing because it was coupled with valuable accoutrements like thigh-shredding low kicks, blistering high kicks, an ongoing and ever-changing assembly of assertive footwork and a nearly unparalleled and exhausting pace.
The emphasis on Shogun's subtracted horsepower is germane here because he's relegated to heaving power at toe-to-toe range, which is a scenario that James Te Huna (16-6) thrives in. Maybe it's just me, but I'd consider the 32-year-old Aussie among the more technical and polished boxers on the UFC's roster. He reminds me of a younger Junior dos Santos, as Te Huna is quite content to handle business with nothing but well-timed, hefty and accurate boxing combinations whilst stuffing any grappling aspirations with sound takedown defense.
Te Huna's ability to stay upright has been consistent but not infallible, and having tapped out in five of his six career losses substantiates the critical importance of his takedown defense. In a straight striking comparison, yesteryear's Shogun would have a litany of advantages, mostly pertaining to his greater stocked arsenal and more dynamic motion and footwork. Now Shogun is almost locked into playing Te Huna's game. His low kicks would be an ideal counter to the heavy front leg of Te Huna's boxing stance, he might be thoroughly devoid of a valid distance weapon and his two most underrated traits -- his trip takedown from the body lock and his fluidly effective submission grappling -- don't have the oomph they used to, and are much harder to implement with his physical limitations.
I expect Te Huna to engage Shogun just like Gustafsson did -- which was by pressuring him with quickly uncorked boxing combinations at a calculating yet menacing clip. Against a range striker like that, Shogun's effectiveness was diluted without his effervescent movement and punishing distance kicks (either of which would've been direly useful). The difference is that Te Huna, at 6'2" with a 76" reach, can't replicate the Swede's stretchy proportions (6'4", 79" reach) and tends to throw more bent-arm meat-hooks than straight and long punches.
This puts a huge focus on distance and range. Again, the repetitive theme here is that Shogun is somewhat relegated to duel in the pocket where Te Huna's at his best. To compensate, Shogun must draw from as many of the dwindling characteristics mentioned throughout that he possibly can; anything to to avoid hinging his fate on merely boxing a better boxer. And though it feels icky to type that, Te Huna is the more polished and artful pugilist: his shelling and overall defense, head movement, in-pocket pivoting and counter-striking are more technically proficient than Shogun's.
Now, even though we won't see a prime Shogun from the vaunted Pride Grand Prix era and his supporting skills have waned, the man is not incompetent nor a one-trick pony. He just doesn't perform in those areas as well as he used to and, therefore, doesn't rely on them as often. While it's not impossible to fathom an inspiring and redefining performance from Rua, a more realistic approach would be the simple and intelligent application of whatever striking angles he can muster (to avoid the predictability of consistent straight-line entries) while maintaining some semblance of a takedown threat to disrupt Te Huna's boxing. For the latter, as always, simply pursuing takedowns (which, for Shogun, will come from the clinch) will be enough to keep Te Huna on his toes, literally, by making him hesitant to plant his feet and sit down on powerful boxing medleys. Also, any semblance of in-and-out movement as opposed to the dangerous monotony of straight-line attacks should pay dividends.
Te Huna is a boxer and, as the timeless analogy goes, you "box the brawler and brawl with the boxer." Shogun might be MMA's archetype for intelligent and technical brawling, but has to reinvent himself to some degree to compensate for the absence of his explosiveness and complexity. Considering Shogun's inevitable decline and the bad match-up that Te Huna represents as a result, it's understandable that the former champ comes in as a slight underdog on the betting lines. This should still be a close one though -- let's not forget that Te Huna's biggest wins are probably Ryan Jimmo and Igor Pokrajac, and Shogun's been entrenched with the who's who at 205 throughout his career. It might be a longshot but I'm guessing that even a semi-debilitated Rua, who was still feisty enough to compete with Dan Henderson for five rounds and eat the infamous H-bomb like it was a Ritz cracker, has enough juice left to pull this one off.
My Prediction: "Shogun" Rua by late submission.