The Ultimate Fighting Championship breaks new ground on the Fox Sports 1 channel this Saturday with UFC Fight Night: Shogun vs. Sonnen from the TD Garden in Boston. At the helm is a light-heavyweight clash between former champion Mauricio Rua and Team Quest showman Chael Sonnen while malicious heavyweight contenders Travis Browne and Alistair Overeem clash in the co-main slot.
Lighting off the six-fight main card is a lightweight tilt pitting Michael Johnson vs. Joe Lauzon -- two gamers with contrasting styles who are battling to define themselves as elite.
TUF 12 finalist Michael "The Menace" Johnson (12-8) recently fell on hard times with back-to-back defeats (Myles Jury by decision, Reza Madadi by D'arce choke), which snapped a head-turning three-fight roll (Shane Roller and Tony Ferguson by decision, Danny Castillo by TKO). Johnson, now a member of the burgeoning Blackzilians fight club, was a legit prospect in his era of TUF at just 24-years-old. It's worth noting that his level of opposition has been a bit more prestigious than your typical TUF'er, both on and after the reality show that launched his career.
Johnson took out Pablo Garza by decision to score a spot in the house and then, after choking out Aaron Wilkinson, added more reputable names to his resume in Alex Caceres and Nam Phan, both wins coming by way of decision. He seemed on his way to clenching the whole enchilada before Jonathan Brookins mounted a comeback at the TUF 12 Finale, and "The Menace" went on to split his next two (defeated Edward Faaloloto by TKO, lost to Paul Sass by submission) before triggering the aforementioned three-fight run.
The dexterous wrestle-boxer, now age 27, has shown gradual improvements with his crisp boxing and takedown defense, but having tapped out in six of his eight career defeats is unquestionably the biggest hole in his arsenal. And such a flaw does not bode well against a submission specialist like Joe Lauzon (22-8, 18 submission wins).
The 29-year-old Boston native already boasts 14 turns in the Octagon and is on the cusp of a full decade of pro MMA. Lauzon registered one of the most impressive and memorable UFC premieres in the promotion's history when he clobbered former lightweight champion Jens Pulver at UFC 63 in 2006.
Despite having crushed a legit opponent in the UFC, Lauzon was atypically steered to role on TUF 5 where he defeated Brian Geraghty and Cole Miller, but lost to Manny Gamburyan in the semis. Though his competition has ranged from bottom-level to top-tier, "J-Lau" has been hot and cold while notching an 8-5 clip in the big show.
Given the style match up, Johnson will likely kickstart his sprawl-and-brawl routine, applying his wrestling in reverse in order to dictate the pace with his technical boxing. Lauzon presents a unique challenge, as he's also a significant threat on the feet. His boxing and submission grappling are both unleashed with wild ferocity, yet his vast experience with grappling lends a more refined and extensive technique whereas his striking is almost wholly savage.
The oft-careless hand position and porosity of Lauzon's striking defense are but a few symptoms of his offense-focused onslaught. The man is downright reckless, and it's been both a gift and a curse. Many victims on Lauzon's resume wilted under the storm of his voracious outbursts; many capitalized on that very trait to defeat him.
To achieve the latter, Johnson will have to impose his clean boxing in conjunction with cautious footwork, good timing and movement, mature cage generalship and, overall, unwavering Fight IQ. He's exhibited the first set of qualities with promising regularity: his most noticeable evolution was synchronizing his quick and straight punching combinations with defensive wrestling, and his in-and-out motion, accuracy and timing have definitely gone up a level. Though his submission defense is an obvious weakness, Johnson has displayed some semblance of competency and is far from a hack.
His intelligence and consistency are probably the biggest influences here. He's been hell on wheels in the 1st round but -- most notably against Brookins and Madadi -- he's relented on his early lead and momentum. Lauzon's submission appetite needs just one tiny window of opportunity to drastically change the complexion of the fight or finish it. The kicker for my vote is that is Lauzon's boxing, albeit imperfect and not as technical, makes the deficit standing much more balanced than his resounding edge on the floor.
I expect Johnson to win the majority of the striking exchanges, but see it as a matter of time before Lauzon can find a way to force a ground battle. Joe's been increasingly comfortable with using his strikes to set up takedowns and vice-versa, but his M.O. still basically boils down to charging forward and erupting with a flurry of heaters and then clinching up while his opponent has his feet planted to defend. It's not the prettiest strategy, and Johnson has all the tools to evade the barrage, edge him in exchanges or even knock him out -- but I feel the odds favor Lauzon creating opportunities and preying on an opening.
My Prediction: Joe Lauzon by submission.