The influx of Strikeforce fighters continues at Saturday's UFC 162: Silva vs. Weidman from the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas, Nevada, as former Strikeforce middleweights Tim Kennedy vs. Roger Gracie will each set foot in the Octagon for the first time. The bout is one of five penciled in for the featured card, which is captained by Anderson Silva vs. Chris Weidman and begins at 10:00 p.m. ET on pay-per-view.
Middleweight, along with Lightweight, was always a pretty happenin' division for Strikeforce. As he did in just about every fight league in which he fought consistently, MMA legend Frank Shamrock battled his way to the promotion's middleweight championship, becoming Strikeforce's inaugural 185-pound titlist. The four champions that followed behind Shamrock -- Cung Le, Jake Shields, Ronaldo "Jacare" Souza and Luke Rockhold -- are all currently on the UFC roster and ranked in the Top-Ten of their respective weight classes; save Cung Le, who's erratic availability lands him at #15 in the Middleweight Meta-Rankings.
During his eight-fight stint in Strikeforce, Army Special Forces sniper Tim Kennedy (15-4) only fell to champions "Jacare" and Rockhold in championship bouts. Factor in a loss via cut in his MMA debut to Scott Smith and a 2007 decision defeat to Jason Miller on a HDNet Fights card, along with wins over Miller (in their first meeting), #12-ranked welterweight Robbie Lawler and consummate killer Melvin Manhoef, and it becomes apparent that Kennedy is well deserving of a UFC shot.
As is Roger Gracie (6-1), perhaps based on family lineage alone. Beyond the resounding reputation of his last name, Roger is the mean hombre who's unanimously cited as the best grappler on the planet by MMA and grappling folks alike. Of course, the weight of high expectations has been at play, as Gracie has yet to enjoy a "gimme fight" in MMA, having started his full-contact fighting career against Pride FC vet Ron Waterman (16-6), former Pride/UFC fighter and multiple-time King of Pancakes Yuki Kondo (53-27), former Pride fighter and UFC heavyweight champ Kevin Randleman and cagey veteran Trevor Prangley (30-9).
Despite being past the peak of their careers, just facing that list of opposition right out of the gate would normally be received as respectable, and beating them all would be impressive. Yet Roger submitted all four, three in the 1st round, and the combat sports audience treated it with an affirming nod, as if indicating, "That's what he's supposed to do."
That outlook is both a deep compliment to what the Gracie family has done for martial arts and somewhat of a loftily unfair standard to hold an entirely inexperienced fighter to.
As with all grappling virtuosos crossing over to MMA, Roger's wrestling and striking were well behind the curve, but the advancement he's shown with his boxing, entries and takedowns have been highly encouraging. Those improvements seemed to actualize the most after his TKO loss to Muhammed Lawal in Strikeforce, as we see a sharper and more comfortable and confident Gracie dismantle Keith Jardine (decision) and Trevor Smith (submission) en route to another pair of wins.
Kennedy is the type of opponent who will exploit the questionable aspects of Gracie's game. Really, he's like Gracie in reverse: he's a no-nonsense wrestler with excellent top control and submission defense, and typically fights like the bully of the bunch. Even in his losses, Kennedy has always fought tooth-and-nail to the end and has been impossible to control or push around. His boxing, while far from A-level, is quite a serviceable and reliable asset. His striking is basic but effective; he does nothing flashy but has enough of a grasp of overall technique to hold his own on the feet.
Kennedy's striking is usually a set-up for his bull-dozing clinch game or to grease the rails for takedowns and top control. And Kennedy's top game is virtually overbearing: he manages to keep a frenetic pace, switching between technical guard passing and pinging down short punches and elbows, while smothering his foe continuously. Of course, even though he's never been submitted, Kennedy has never faced a submissionist of Roger's caliber and will likely alter his standard game-plan slightly to account for his unparalleled grappling prowess.
I imagine his intention will be to engage Gracie on the feet with smart but aggressive bursts of strikes while using in-and-out movement, and still pursue clinch control and takedowns, only with the catch that he'll be extra cautious about diving into his guard and exploding for positional advancements. Instead, I expect Kennedy to reap the rewards of landing takedowns but vigilantly maintain good posture and be prepared to eject immediately to prevent Gracie from latching on and building a rhythm.
Roger's stand up has come along nicely, especially for someone with seven career outings. His somewhat clumsy plodding, low hand position and awkward punches have developed into a more comfortable style, a decent stance and snapping out punches while retracting his hands right back to his chin. He's even vaulted for a flying knee and pieced together some solid two- and three-punch combinations, all of which are greatly enhanced by his tremendous length (6'4" tall, 79" reach).
Realistically, however, his striking is a bit of a liability. The advantage of his frame is balanced out by his lacking quickness and speed, both in his feet and hands. When he's able to shrink the gap and lock up a clinch, his upper body throws and trips have been effective, but Kennedy's strength, athleticism and takedown defense will make it a challenge for Roger to even tie up with him, much less force him to the floor. And while Kennedy's not a gunslinger on the feet, his striking is much more proven and complete.
What seals the deal for me is Kennedy's intelligence and Fight I.Q. This is a very unfavorable match up for Roger and the fact that Kennedy, a Jackson/Winklejohn rep, will be aware of and prepared for the imbalance makes him a strong favorite in my eyes -- even stronger than the tight betting lines reflect. Regardless of how astronomical his Jiu-Jitsu is, Roger basically has one way to win this fight: close range, score a takedown, submit. I would never consider those achievements impossible, especially for the world's alpha-grappler, but I just don't see them as likely against such a hard-nosed wrestler with exceptional smarts and anti-Jiu-Jitsu skills.
My Prediction: Tim Kennedy by decision.