If a physical embodiment exists for cliche MMA terms like gritty, tenacious, brawler, and tough bastard, it's welterweight Matt Brown (17-11). While those qualities aptly portray "The Immortal's" identity in MMA, nowadays, deeming him as such is selling the man short.
At the dawn of 2012, Brown was a skosh over 50/50 with a 12-11 record and had won only one of his last five, which is almost unheard of for a UFC-caliber fighter. Even the harshest of critics acknowledged his gameness and fighting spirit, but they, like everyone else, still questioned his future longevity. Since that point of teetering uncertainty, the chaw-lipped scrapper has reeled off five straight victories that were accented by an exceptional penchant for bloodshed, finishing four by TKO, and vaulted up the contender ladder in the process.
Matt Brown has also morphed from an anomalous, fan-adored brawler into a legitimately technical and intelligent force. Jordan Mein, the young Canadian talent recently absorbed from Strikeforce, put his name on the map by out-finessing middle-of-the-pack brawlers like Evangelista Santos, Tyler Stinson and Marius Zaromskis, and has also knocked off some reputable killers in Dan Miller and Josh Burkman. Considering Mein's exemplary striking artistry, one cannot simply dust him with raw brutality.
In addition to improving his overall game, specifically his defensive prowess with clinching, wrestling and submission grappling, Brown has adopted a skill-set that complements his fierce nature perfectly. Initially, he was a rangy kicker with rather primitive infighting, but now Brown has polished up his footwork and entries, his phone-booth-range arsenal is replete with a variety of Muay Thai knees and elbows, his increasing grasp of the single and double collar tie -- somewhat of a calling card for the pupils of his distinguished trainer, Matt Hume -- greatly enhances his strike delivery and he's just flat-out fighting smarter.
Beyond representing the best competition he's encountered, Mike Pyle (25-8) poses some interesting challenges for Brown. Pyle, a stellar submission grappler and heavily experienced vet, has made a living by closing the distance and seeking out throws and trips from the clinch in order to apply his top-tier ground game. Though Brown is a long and lanky welterweight, he's much more inclined to let 'em fly at toe-to-toe range than uphold a distance-based and elusive striking strategy.
In plain terms, Brown's typical M.O. will put him exactly where Mike Pyle wants him. And despite his understated improvements, the fact remains that all but two of Brown's 11 defeats have come via submission -- which is Pyle's (16 of 25 wins by sub) specialty, and a complex realm of martial arts that's historically been the most difficult for the inexperienced to catch up on. Pyle's grasp of MMA-tailored grappling began in 1999, and there's simply no legitimate way that Brown or any other similarly bred fighter can equip themselves with the tools to match him in that department.
Yet, just as with Brown, we can't merely fit Pyle into the "experienced submissionist" box anymore ... mostly because he's throttled three opponents in his current four-fight run by TKO. "Quicksand" used to be an adequate boxer who used basic combinations as a smokescreen for his clinch entries, but has now developed a strong sense of timing whilst expanding his toolbox to include shockingly powerful right hands and exquisitely timed knees to augment his clinch-based assault.
On the flip side, Pyle still seems to be a fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants type of guy. While his recent streak has propelled him into the mix of top contenders, both Josh Neer and James Head appeared to be dictating (Head) or overtaking (Neer) the momentum before they were broadsided by teeth-rattling blows, and the split vote he earned to slip by Rick Story in his last turn was translated by media members with disparity; to say the least, as Pyle got the nod in three of eight total sources (which has almost become a better measuring stick than the actual decision). And, after all, there's something odd about Pyle being considered one of the top welterweight sub-grapplers, and justifiably so, even though he was choked out by Brock Larsen in his Octagon premiere.
Regardless of all those intangibles, the roles of the striker and the grappler become very clear in this match up. Pyle is quite accustomed to his directives and will look to replicate his standard approach of shrinking the gap, clinching up and working takedowns, and also on leveling heavy strikes when he can't enforce Plan A.
Brown will be tasked with adopting somewhat of an atypical strategy for him, which is to stay at range and keep Pyle at bay, on his feet and out of his element. As mentioned previously, Brown has a stature ideal for this very task but generally opts to get in his opponent's grill and grind them up with a blender of short elbows and knees. Or, at least, that plan seems like Brown's best option from a drawing board POV.
The clinch will be the great equalizer here, as it serves as the bridge between Brown's strength (striking) and Pyle's (grappling). Brown doesn't have to fear the clinch against Pyle nor avoid it all costs, but finding himself in that location means he'll be one step away from exactly where he doesn't want to be. The same applies for Pyle: he doesn't have to panic when trading with Brown in open space nor desperately endeavor to force a ground fight in standing tie-ups, but he has a crystallized set of advantages on the mat and a few less in the clinch.
The two auxiliary factors that might prove influential are Pyle's durable chin -- his three TKO losses were dealt by notoriously rugged bruisers in Rory MacDonald, Jake Ellenberger and Rory Markham -- and the way he can contest Brown on the feet more effectively than Brown can contest him in grappling encounters. Brown is also not a huge power puncher or a one-shot striker, but gradually wears his foes down with his incessant volume and pressure. Pyle's beard will likely serve him well on the volume side, and Brown's constant pressure, again, might just make Pyle's goal of connecting with him that much easier.
As a steadfast fan and supporter of "The Immortal," it pains me to succumb to logic in what is inevitably a very unfavorable match up for him. His forward-moving mentality has been key to his success but should do him a disservice here, and I'm not sure he's developed the submission chops to survive with Pyle in prolonged grappling exchanges.
My Prediction: Mike Pyle by submission