Face-punching of an exquisite and socially acceptable nature will transpire from The Prudential Center in Newark, New Jersey this Saturday on the UFC 159: Jones vs. Sonnen card. The show's namesake is a title fight pitting light-heavyweight champion Jon Jones vs. Chael Sonnen while middleweights Michael Bisping and Alan Belcher assume the co-main role.
Leading into those featured matches is a heavyweight tilt that aligns heavyweights Cheick Kongo vs. Roy Nelson; a pair of extreme opposites, to say the least. They're both big, experienced and they hit hard, but the remaining factors of their combat personalities differ greatly.
Chiseled French striker Cheick Kongo (18-7) dabbled in Karate and Savate at age 5 and later spliced in some Muay Thai and Silat before making the rounds on the European kickboxing circuit. Kongo crossed over to MMA around age 25 (2001) and entered the Octagon with a 8-2-1 record, quickly made a splash with back-to-back TKO's in the 1st round. Overall, he's notched a solid 10-5-1 pace in the UFC over the last 7 years. More importantly, Kongo has incrementally welded up the holes in the game -- wrestling and submission grappling -- and his determined focus on the former has, for the most part, kept him out of positions conducive to the latter.
Roy "Big Country" Nelson (18-7) is an anomaly in MMA for a few reasons. To wallop the dead horse just a bit more, his physique, though drastically improved of late, is one. Further to that point, the layperson would never guess that a man of such girth could move with the grace and agility of a cat in a grappling match. Make no mistake about it -- Roy is one of the most technically proficient and talented submission grapplers in the sport. Continuing the list of anomalies, Nelson's ground game isn't actualized like notable grappling counterparts Frank Mir or Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira: whereas their Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu acumen unfolds in rousing sweeps and submission attempts, Nelson is a master of position and passing, and employs that know-how to achieve a dominant perch and batter away with strikes.
As the last observation of Nelson's atypical style, for a high-level martial artist with resplendent technical prowess on the ground that few can match, most of Roy's fights consist of him barreling forward in a straight line and sailing haymakers of barbaric proportion somewhere toward his opponent's chin, and doing a pretty damn good job of finding it despite the primitive means.
The general consensus and betting lines are all steered toward Nelson for this collision, but I have to admit that I've been feeling like Kongo has all the size and skill to pull this off. Here's why, starting with the more obvious aspects:
- Striking: not only will Kongo enjoy a 4" height and substantial 9" reach advantage, he's a polished striker by MMA and especially MMA heavyweight standards. His punching form, footwork and stance are respectable, and much more intricate than Nelson's caveman charge and home-run right hand. His overall finesse and fundamentals, particularly when the lopsided height/reach measurements are factored in, give him a huge edge standing.
- Range: while there's plenty of overlap between this note and the last, it's worth mentioning that position and location are intrinsic to Nelson implementing his strengths. Because he lacks distance weapons and artful entries into phone-booth range, Nelson must be either directly in Kongo's face, tied up with him in the clinch or on top of him on the mat. To do so, he must cross through a barrage of fast, telephone-pole punches just to start working his game. And Kongo, like everyone else, will be quite aware of Nelson's path to victory.
- Wrestling: Kongo is far from an elite wrestler but his size, athleticism and strides in that department have built him into a tough cookie to take down. He's accrued basic knowledge of underhooks, widening his base when entangled and avoiding corners to stay moving of his own accord. Despite his polished moves on the floor, Nelson has the tenacity and will to take Kongo down but definitely doesn't have the wrestling chops to rag-doll Kongo easily ... if and when he's in range to do so. For Roy, wrestling is the bridge he must cross to unlock the efficacy of his submission acumen.
Hypothetically, even if "Big Country" is able to overcome that assembly of challenges, it's not like Kongo is just going to offer up an arm or lie nice and still for him. The Frenchman has become a feisty scrambler with a defensive mentality, i.e. his efforts, when in danger, are largely dedicated to breaking free and getting back out into open space, where he's strongest and Nelson is weakest.
There's no question that Nelson could easily defy the on-paper mechanics and just march forward and drill Kongo with a looper, as we've seen him do countless times before. However, another thing we've seen lately is fighters with known anomalies or abnormalities paying the price for them. Nelson is flat-out limited in his options to win: pull the curtains with a big right hand or impose his stellar grappling, and I feel Kongo's counter-wrestling will prevent or largely prohibit the first, leaving Nelson to deal with a larger, stronger, quicker, longer and more technical striker with nothing but a huge heart and a big right hand. Could that happen? Of course, but that's a predictable and less than ideal set of options to get the win.
My Prediction: Cheick Kongo by decision.