At Saturday's UFC 163 soiree from Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, English middleweight Tom Watson bravely ventures into the belly of the whale to meet Brazilian submissionist Thales Leites on his home turf. The bout is one of five gracing the featured pay-per-view card, which is helmed by featherweight deity Jose Aldo in a title defense against Chan Sung Jung; more affectionately recognized as "The Korean Zombie."
The name Thales Leites (20-4) typically circulates in discussions regarding Anderson Silva's brief streak of unpopular title defenses. The grappling whiz earned a crack at "The Spider" by mounting a five-fight roll after dropping a decision to Martin Kampmann in his Octagon debut. Sporadic bellyaching about the opportunity foreshadowed the one-sided championship bout, as the only elite contender Leites defeated was Nate Marquardt, who was edged by split decision despite being docked two points for fouls (illegal knee in the 2nd round, elbow to the back of the head in the 3rd round). Leites found himself on the wrong end of a split decision against Alessio Sakara in his post-Silva bout and was handed his walking papers.
Since his 2009 release, Leites has pieced together a solid 5-1 streak outside the UFC that is, quite unusually, replete with recognizable names: former UFC'ers and longtime submission standouts Dean Lister and Jeremy Horn were the only to survive to a decision while TUF alumni Tor Troeng and Jesse Taylor fell by tapout. He traded submissions with Matt Horwich, another past UFC fighter, who choked Leites out in their first meeting but saw the favor returned in their second.
Tom Watson (16-5) won the UCMMA and BAMMA middleweight titles before signing with the UFC, and shares two common opponents with Leites: Horwich, whom he bested, and Jesse Taylor, who out-wrestled him (both decisions). Watson owns a 1st-round KO over the UFC's John Maguire and suffered early career defeats to Xavier Foupa-Pokam and Pride FC's Daijiro Matsui.
"Kong" debuted against the hard-nosed Brad Tavares and lost a unanimous decision that I thought was much closer than most scorecards indicated. Despite being taken down five times, Watson picked up his first UFC win and dual bonuses (Fight and Knockout of the Night) in his sophomore effort against Stanislav Nedkov.
This striker vs. grappler pairing makes for a straightforward analysis: Watson, a boxing-based striker, will look to employ a sprawl-and-brawl strategy to stay clear of Leites' submission venom.
The UFC stats do not favor Watson, who was put on his back five times apiece by Tavares and Nedkov. However, both of those men are better traditional wrestlers and more physically imposing than Leites, who seeks out the clinch position to work trips and throws. Though not a blast double-leg guy, Leites is still effective at grounding the fight, especially if he can trap his opponent on the cage and/or secure the body lock.
The striking of Leites is nothing to write home about and typically a smoke screen to camouflage his entries. Regarding their known weaknesses, Leites will, in my opinion, be able to contest Watson better on the feet than vice-versa. Watson only has two losses via submission on his record but his shortcomings on the ground have really been a key part in each of his losses.
The variables are the same in every striker/grappler match up: Watson will be tasked with using evasive footwork in open space and carefully choosing when to flick out probing strikes vs. sitting down on his punches and committing; the latter bringing the risk of being caught with his feet planted and taken down. When Leites is able to connect, Watson must be vigilant with defensive clinch-work and look to keep a low level and dig in at least underhook to keep from being toppled over.
For Leites, he has to find a way to cross through Watson's crisp and straight punches in order to lock horns and off-balance him in the clinch. If he can force Watson to the canvas, Leites has the technique and mentality to capitalize wholly by finishing or riding out the rest of the round dominantly.
And that's really all there is to it. I was leaning towards Watson for the minor upset here, but a key aspect for Leites is that he's never lost by KO/TKO in his entire career. While that's the deciding factor for many, Leites' resume is particularly devoid of reputable strikers save Silva, Kampmann, Drew McFedries and Sakara ... all of which were losses. I'll take a chance and stick with Watson, though he cannot afford many -- if any at all -- mistakes that lead to fighting his way out from underneath Leites.
My Prediction: Tom Watson by decision.