The patriotic ire of the Brazilian crowd at Wednesday's UFC Fight Night: Teixeira vs. Bader will turn from Russia to Sweden when Tor Troeng follows behind Dagestani Republic's Ali Bagautinov to face one of the howling audience's countryman in Rafael Natal on the Fox Sports 1 main card (8:00 p.m. ET start time).
Rafa Nadal -- wait, wrong sport -- Rafael Natal (16-4-1) is a longtime Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu black belt under the great Renzo Gracie and an instructor at legend's academy headquarters in New York. The 30-year-old southpaw got off to a shaky start for his Octagon stint with a loss to Rich Attonito followed by a majority draw (OMG no!) resulting from his clash with Jesse Bongfeldt, in which "Sapo" clearly steered the first two stanzas but was utterly dominated in the last, rendering a 10-8 3rd round (on two score cards) that balanced the points.
Natal surged onward from there, winning four (Paul Bradley, Michael Kuiper, Sean Spencer, Joao Zeferino) of his next five (head-kick KO loss to Andrew Craig) and reviving his status in the process. Having always been a talented submissionist, Natal's advancements in his wrestling and his unpredictably wild but often effective striking have been noticeable in his recent outings, and those auxiliary capabilities might make the difference against another capable submission grappler in Sweden's Tor Troeng (16-4-1).
Troeng first emerged on TUF 17 as a rep for Team Sonnen and crumpled under a hail of leather from Josh Samman after submitting Scott Rosa in the elimination match. Troeng's submission savvy has been an available asset due to his ultra-clever regiment of sneaky takedowns from the clinch, yet the finishing ratio of "The Hammer" is more balanced (6 subs and TKO's apiece) than Natal's (8 subs, 3 TKO's).
It's worth noting that three of Troeng's four defeats transpired in a narrow window of his early career, wherein he lost to Mamed Khalidov, Lucio Linhares and Daniel Acacio -- all of whom are respectable adversaries. Barring his unsanctioned TUF performances, Troeng's only shortcomings in the 14 turns since are a submission loss to Thales Leites and a draw in 2008.
While Natal has the edge in UFC experience, his record is not entirely more impressive than Troeng's. Both are exempt from a truly prestigious win and have generally fallen to the A-list opposition they've encountered. Really, Natal's best wins (Bradley, Kuiper, Travis Lutter) do not drastically outshine those of Troeng in much more than UFC status and, for whatever it's worth, the caliber of competition in all of Troeng's losses was considerably more threatening than any of the names on Natal's resume.
Troeng will also benefit from a slight (1.5" to 2") advantage in respective reach and height, and has been a little more consistent in a few different ways. Natal's striking, while undoubtedly improved, can be all over the place. It can range from causing him to lose his balance after whiffing a spinning back-fist and being taken down because of it to surprisingly turning the tide after connecting with a crisp and well-placed flurry. His punching combinations can be fast, straight and long or wide, looping and telegraphed, and the latter is accompanied by greater defensive concerns as well.
The Swede is a little more basic, using decent low kicks from outside and picking the right time and place to burst forward behind a stream of heaters to set up his entries. While capable of traditional singles and doubles, as Natal is, Troeng is cunning with takedowns from the clinch. He can cycle through a litany of trips and throws while entangled on the feet or expertly off-balance his adversary with a simple collar tie and foot sweep.
For this reason, Troeng might be a tad more reliable in the takedown department and, while not immune to counter strikes himself, his simple and basic striking approach affords more composure, balance and awareness; traits that positively accent all things in MMA.
However, despite being a tad hot-and-cold or even out of control at times, Natal's fiery spurts of aggression have been pivotal to his success. He was perceived to be at a substantial striking disadvantage against Craig but pressed him like a bat out of hell and won the first round with stellar head movement and boxing, then rattled Craig with more punches before eating the high kick that finished his night.
There seems to be a direct correlation to Natal's success based on whether he stays on balance and throws tight, straight punches versus the sequences in which his combinations turn dramatically reckless with wide-sailing haymakers. Which of those Natals is letting his hands go on Wednesday night will probably have the biggest impact on the outcome.
Though I feel it's closer than the betting lines portray, the secondary traits are what steers me toward Natal here. Despite his lapses in composure and striking defense, he's proven to be a tenacious fighter with a big heart, and one with the ability to affect massive changes in the fight's flow. Natal and Troeng's submission offense might be of a similar level, but I feel Natal has the superior defense and scrambling abilities. While Troeng is sneaky with his trips and throws from the clinch, Natal's not bad there either and should have the more powerful and effective single- and double-leg takedowns. Those factors along with Natal's experience and momentum earn him my vote.
My Prediction: Rafael Natal by decision.