Playing second fiddle to the main attraction of Rashad Evans vs. Dan Henderson at UFC 161 is a heavyweight tilt that aligns Roy Nelson vs. Stipe Miocic. That pair of match ups makes up the main and co-main events on a pay-per-view card housing five fights in all, which will go down from the MTS Centre in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada at 10:00 p.m. ET.
Roy "Big Country" Nelson (19-7) is an indelible heavyweight machine with extraordinary grappling skills, but simply prefers to punch people in the face. That affinity has landed the 36-year-old vet "Knockout of the Night" bonuses in four of his six UFC wins and, despite being a longtime black belt in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu under Renzo Gracie and making it to the quarterfinals of the 2003 ADCC tournament, more than doubles his career submission wins (5) with thunderous TKO's (12). Nelson was widely considered to be one of the top heavyweights outside the UFC before he signed up for Season 10 of The Ultimate Fighter and veritably steam-rolled the competition, culminating with a devastating KO over Brendan Schaub at the TUF 10 Finale.
After flattening another mid-tier heavyweight in Stefan Struve, Nelson was thrown in with the division's best and lost some momentum with three defeats (Junior dos Santos, Frank Mir, Fabricio Werdum) in his next four outings (defeated Mirko Filipovic by 3rd-round TKO). Since then, Nelson has pieced together a three-fight roll consisting solely of 1st-round TKO's (Dave Herman, Matt Mitrione, Cheick Kongo) while incrementally addressing the standard list of criticisms: he's trimmed up his physique, employed more effective wrestling and shown a (slightly) more dynamic striking game.
Stipe Miocic (9-1) was introduced as the #5 heavyweight prospect on Bloody Elbow's 2011 World MMA Scouting Report. Miocic was a Division 1 wrestler and one-time national qualifier out of Cleveland State University who eventually migrated to the Strong Style Fight Team, where he began training MMA with the likes of Bellator knockout artist Brian Rogers. The former Golden Gloves champ vaulted out of the gate with an undefeated six-fight record, all of which were finished were finished by strikes, which is atypical for an MMA newbie with a wrestling background.
His Octagon debut justified the hype, as Miocic dismantled the game Joey Beltran by decision, though -- as that was the first and only time he'd fought past the 2nd round -- he did exhibit some concerns in the cardio department. The surge continued when he smashed through another pair of heavyweights in Philip De Fries (1st-round KO) and Shane del Rosario (2nd-round TKO), but finally came to a halt just as he reached main-event status when youthful beanpole Stefan Struve pounded him out with strikes in the 2nd.
The commonalities of Nelson's UFC defeats (Mir, Werdum, dos Santos) are that they were heavyweights who were able to:
- Out-strike him
- Repel every single one of his takedowns
- Avoid his signature haymaker
Thus far, I have no qualms in stating that Miocic has exhibited the capabilities to out-strike Roy on the feet, he's displayed excellent defensive wrestling and, on paper, boasts far superior wrestling credentials to the trio that bested Nelson. That leaves the aspect of staying conscious in question.
Of course, every achievement on that list is much easier said than done, and college wrestling accolades are inferior to having demonstrated the elite wrestling prowess consistently in the cage against top competition, as Mir, Werdum and dos Santos have done to garner their prestige.
From the standpoint of strictly analyzing style, skill and tendencies, Miocic should be considered a live dog here. Along with a ginormous reach advantage (80" vs. 73") that could prove pivotal, he's a polished and intelligent kickboxer with a short and blistering right hand, nasty leg kicks, and the ability to string smart combinations together. His strikes are delivered with phenomenal balance and composure, which allows Miocic to react quickly to defend if and when he's broadsided with an unexpected takedown attempt. Beltran is the only fighter to score a single takedown on Miocic, but he's also the only opponent to pursue any (2 total).
The X-factors are Nelson's landslide advantages in overall experience, his teeth-rattling punching power, and whether Miocic will be able to take him down -- and if so, how often, and how Miocic's top game will fare against Roy's crafty grappling. The idea of Roy playing guard is intriguing, mostly because he never does or has to.
Now is a good time to qualify Nelson's stellar grappling: he's unique in that his submission grappling is actualized through utter mastery and domination of positional knowledge and technique, usually applied from the top position. In plain terms, Roy is an amazing guard passer, and he'll keep on advancing position until he can finish, and usually finishes with a high volume of strikes instead of a sub. Rather than wheel for flashy armbars or leglocks, "Big Country" will typically hop into side control and look to pin his opponent's closest arm under his knee to ease into the crucifix position (his favorite or go straight to full mount to pound away from there. Nelson is a position-first grappler -- he'll never attack with a strike or submission that could sacrifice his dominant perch.
That digression is supposed to somehow relate to the curiosity of Micioc taking Nelson down and spending time in his guard. We've rarely seen Roy on his back and Miocic hasn't tackled an opponent with his grappling venom. That being said, and based on what we've seen from Miocic, I think he has an underrated grasp of submission grappling, which can unfold in a highly effective display of anti-Jiu-Jitsu. On top, his wrestling background gives him a ten-ton base, which makes him tough to off-balance or sweep, he's a skilled guard passer himself, and he discourages submission/sweep attempts by drenching his opponent with a steady stream of leather.
Hopefully I've raised some eyebrows as to Miocic's chances in this fight by spotlighting the individual tools and cumulative potential of his skill set. Still, he's taking his biggest step up in competition and facing one of the most feared power punchers in the game and doing so on the heels of his first loss, in which he was walked down and put to sleep by punches.
My Prediction: Roy Nelson by TKO.