UFC 159: Jones vs. Sonnengoes off this Saturday from The Prudential Center in Newark, New Jersey, with 205-pound overlord Jon Jones defending his title against the love-him-or-hate-him Chael Sonnen atop the pay-per-view card. Playing second fiddle to the featured attraction is a middleweight brawl pitting Michael Bisping vs. Alan Belcher, which should unfold as an intense chess match between technical finesse and primal aggression.
Michael "The Count" Bisping (23-5) has burrowed his way into a lasting role inside the Octagon since appearing on and winning season 3 of The Ultimate Fighter (TUF). Bisping held his own as a light-heavyweight until razor-thin decisions against powerhouse wrestlers Matt Hamill (win) and Rashad Evans (loss) persuaded him to test the waters a weight class south.
The deceivingly sturdy takedown defense exhibited by the Brit at 205 became even more reliable and trustworthy at 185 pounds, allowing him to invoke the sweet rhythm of his technical boxing in greater doses. Since the change in weight class, Bisping has posted a respectable 9-4 record with big-name fighters accounting for his stumbles (Wanderlei Silva, Dan Henderson, Chael Sonnen and Vitor Belfort).
Alan "The Talent" Belcher (18-7) is a hard-nosed Muay Thai practitioner with an overall game that always seems to be improving. By my estimation, his striking base was first complemented by enhanced wrestling and beefy clinch-work throughout his 7 years and 14 fights (9-5) in the UFC. Following closely behind his wrestling advancements were equal strides in submission grappling, as evinced by his truly remarkable showing against human appendage collector Rousimar Palhares.
With a similar amount of wins, losses and time clocked in the Octagon, their trajectories are a tad divergent in that Bisping has always been pecking his way up the contender ladder against A-list competition, whereas a pair of defeats early in Belcher's UFC run -- Jason Day by TKO and Kendall Grove by submission -- definitely hindered his rise to the spotlight. Beyond those losses, in the UFC, Belcher's only fallen to star Judokas Yushin Okami (twice) and Yoshihiro Akiyama; all by decision and the latter was quite controversial.
Fight-wise, though they're both top-notch strikers, Bisping is extremely composed, methodical and tactical, sacrificing raw punching power for hand speed, fleet-footed movement and astounding takedown defense. By staying ultra-light on his toes and exceptionally mobile, Bisping mitigates the precarious situation of being broad-sided by a takedown while he's amidst a combination. Having an arm extended and your feet firmly rooted to the floor, as every striker must be to ply the trade, is the ideal position and moment that an aspiring wrestler is waiting for to time the takedown attempt. Bisping is rarely in such an out-stretched and vulnerable stance, and thus a real pain in the ass to put on his back and no easier to keep there.
Belcher is far from an incapable wrestler but it's just not his strong suit (though a viable opportunity to pursue), so I expect the success of all clinching and wrestling encounters to be dictated more by timing and instinct in the heat of battle. I don't think I'm the only one hoping to witness a good ol' stand-up war here, as Bisping's high-volume finesse versus Belcher's heavy-hitting savagery sounds like good times for a Saturday night.
Belcher has adjusted his stance in the last few years, standing less tall and upright to stay in a more crouched and widened stance. Though an orthodox fighter, he's been known to switch to southpaw and, when he does, a bevy of cracking left kicks (some inside low kicks; most are to the body and either are often set ups for a head kick) are sure to follow.
This onslaught of left-leg kicks from Belcher in the southpaw stance might play a big role versus Bisping: it's Belcher's trustiest distance weapon (along with the teep/push kick), Bisping's arsenal is absent of any threatening long-range tools (meaning he has no offensive counters for it other than to evade or use footwork to get inside) and he was just slept by a left high kick courtesy of Vitor Belfort.
The only other notable tendencies Belcher has from southpaw is raising his defensive guard at toe-to-toe range (he keeps his hands dangerously low out on the fringe, but it shouldn't be a huge concern here) and starting to plug in a busy right jab. In the pocket, Belcher keys off that jab to set up his follow up left straight/hook, dart into the clinch to tie up or occasionally hurls a leaping or step-in knee to the body.
I'm really unsure how Bisping might counter Belcher's range striking, and intrigued to find out. Based on past performances, Belcher has been taken down if/when he starts throwing nonstop left kicks all willy-nilly, and Patrick Cote was able to put him in serious danger with a top-side kimura after catching a kick and turning it into a single-leg takedown. Bisping is widely heralded for his counter wrestling but I'm thinking he could benefit greatly from employing that skill on the offensive end. Predictability is never a good thing and, no matter how formidable Bisping is in a straight boxing match, merely posing the threat of a takedown will disrupt Belcher and force him to make adjustments. Timing one of Belcher's rangy kicks and changing levels to shoot a takedown might be Bisping's best bet to counter Belcher's distance game.
A metaphor and comparison: while some fighters -- Roy Nelson and Dan Henderson come to mind -- throw punches like they're sprinting toward a large tree and trying to fell it with one massive chop of the axe, Bisping would flit in circles around the tree trunk while whittling it down with a million quick slices.
The vast majority of Bisping's handiwork is comprised of a 1-2 foundation: he'll throw single jabs and single crosses but most of that is geared around setting up a hard and meaningful 1-2 combination. It's also in this instance (during the jab/cross medley) that Bisping plants his feet and cautiously puts a little heat on his punches. However, a natural human tendency -- and still one of Bisping's -- is to moderately shuffle left in order to center up your follow up right cross, which it does, but that habit also steers you toward your opponent's power-hand and sets up their straight cross just as well.
As Bisping builds momentum after assuming his range and scoring with those basic 1-2 options, he'll get a little more aggressive and start stepping into the pocket with confidence, often tacking on a left hook, chaining another combination on top of his initial 1-2 or seeking out the clinch to fire off knees or short punches (though he doesn't hang out in the clinch too long before disengaging).
For whatever reason, I can't even remember Bisping throwing a single shot downstairs, as almost every punch is straight and aimed directly at the head and chin. Personally, I think this limits him significantly, as his clever angles and head movement would be more diverse with (random example) low-swooping hooks to the body, which would also open up more opportunities for his bread-and-butter straight punches upstairs.
It's interesting to note that Belcher hasn't really tangled with many top-shelf strikers, and certainly none as polished as Bisping.
The betting lines tilt toward Bisping here and I think that's perfectly understandable, especially if he relies on more than just his hands when attacking. However, he typically does not, and I like Belcher's chances in a stand-up gunfight. His chin is decent and I think he'll be able to wade into range and batter Bisping with his raw aggression, and his many years of striking experience should make him more comfortable than most in dealing with the Brit popping in and out of range with his hands whirring. Finally, I think Bisping has trouble leaving a demonstrative and lasting impression on the judges unless he really puts his opponent in trouble, as his steady hum-drum of mid-power leather can be devoid of any real tangible swings in his favor.
My Prediction: Alan Belcher by decision.