In the five-round fracas atop the UFC Fight Night 34 soiree in Singapore, Belgian karateka Tarec "The Sponge" Saffiedine (14-3) collides with spindly Korean Top Team wrecking ball Hyun Gyu Lim (12-3) in the welterweight class.
Saffiedine etched his name on the map with a shocking upset of battle-hardened vet Nate Marquardt in Strikeforce's last hurrah, and basked in the sweet bliss of becoming world champion for a whole five minutes or so. Saffiedine literally had that coveted strap wrapped around his waist after winning the biggest fight of his life and remained champion all the way through his post-fight interview ... then the show was over, the plug was pulled, Strikeforce was no more and Saffiedine has been referred to as a former Strikeforce champion or the last one standing ever since.
Talk about bittersweet.
Though he'd quietly scored a workmanlike win against Siechi Ikemoto in his promotional debut, we first really took notice of the Team Quest prospect in a 2009 DREAM event. Not only was Saffiedine a late replacement for Paulo Filho, but the short-notice bout was to be contested at middleweight. Despite the split decision defeat that ensued, Saffiedine's ballsy showing against Dong Sik Yoon, a feisty and experienced middleweight Judoka, earned him widespread respect. All but one of Saffiedine's remaining eight fights took place in Strikeforce and all but one ended in victory. The lone exception was Tyron Woodley, who's currently climbing his way up the ladder in the UFC's welterweight division.
While he dabbled in a little bit of everything when he began training martial arts, Saffiedine eventually centered on a rare form of karate called Shihaishinkai, which is uniquely equipped with MMA-friendly adders like throws and grappling. The 27-year-old currently holds a black belt in Shihaishinkai karate and brown belt in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. The former best defines his identity in MMA but the latter deserves a closer look.
Before his DREAM premiere, Saffiedine was once tarnished after seven fights and he'd finished five of his six wins. Of significant note for a karate-based fighter is the fact that every one of those five stoppages were via submission, and not basic, opportunistic catches like rear-naked chokes or guillotines either: a kimura, a keylock, two armbars and an arm-triangle. That's not earth shattering, but it's an under-pronounced example of how diverse Saffiedine is and how quickly he learns. Thus, "The Sponge."
Chan Sung Jung, everyone's beloved "Korean Zombie," first warned us about the rising Korean Top Team talent affectionately known as "Ace" in a May 2012 interview on Bloody Elbow, and Hyun Gyu Lim signed with the UFC six months later. Though his Octagon premiere was muddied by a treacherous weight cut that left him medically unfit to compete on the UFC Macau card, Lim maliciously kneed and punched his way back into fan favor with a pair of nasty TKO's to kickstart his UFC tour (Marcelo Guimares, Pascal Kraus).
Lim doesn't fit the average mold of an overseas prospect by any means. At 6'4" and imposing a daunting 79" reach, he's amongst the tallest and gangliest of welterweights. He started combat sports as a boxer but soon complimented his rugged striking with Judo, wrestling and submission grappling at the renowned Korean Top Team. In addition to the grappling-heavy style that KTT fighters are known for, Lim also exudes the hair-trigger ferocity and unbridled aggression that delights fight fans.
Shortly after incurring consecutive losses in 2008-09, Lim, who started out as a middleweight, dropped down to welterweight and has been wrecking shop ever since. He'll enter the cage on Saturday on a seven-fight streak, all of which were finishes and all but one of which were dealt in the opening frame. And dealt violently.
The on-paper strengths for Saffiedine mostly pertain to the gleaming polish in his kickboxing game. Every little aspect that makes a great striker -- head movement, footwork, patience, the command and implementation of angles, dictating the tempo, ever-changing angles being employed on the way in and the way out -- are evident in Saffiedine's striking artistry. The only element he seems to be missing is fearsome punching power.
Saffiedine is the type who will zig-zag into range with exceptional speed that's disguised by his grace, crack you with a surprise right hook and then, instead of regaining his balance and resetting like most fighters do, greet you with a lightning-fast roundhouse kick and a foot to the mouth. His unorthodox medley of karate and traditional boxing and kickboxing make for an unpredictable arsenal, and Saffiedine unfurls his venom in broken rhythms and from unexpected angles.
Really, based on his past losses to powerhouse grapplers Woodley and Yoon, the blueprint for Saffiedine is to out-muscle and overpower him with takedowns. His improved takedown defense will make that a tough route to follow but it's the most sensible alternative to jousting with him on the feet. However, there is one exception for a Plan B based on one other past opponent that gets no love: Tyler Stinson.
Stinson is a hard-hitting yet technical boxer with a stretchy frame like Lim's, only he's an inch shorter at 6'3". He's also a hard-nosed and underrated gamer who took Saffiedine to a scarcely mentioned split decision in Strikeforce. I believe Stinson was surprisingly successful against Saffiedine because of his monstrous height and length advantage along with his aggressive boxing. Saffiedine's striking finesse from a distance is simply taxed more by the extra ground he needs to cover, whether that's taking an extra step, throwing in an extra feint or an angle on his way in to land strikes or compensating defensively for the extra depth that his longer opponent's counter-strikes will travel. And taking some of the sting off your opponent's best weapon is the name of the game.
Another reason Stinson was successful is because he fearlessly engaged Saffiedine with a finely tuned combo of heated aggression and technical prowess, i.e. he swarmed at a high pace without leaving himself wide open defensively. Finally, Stinson made serious ground on the score cards when pressuring Saffiedine from outside and then shellacking him with heavy knees, punches and elbows at close range.
And that's the veritable M.O. on Hyun Gyu Lim, only he's a bit taller and longer, he's much more of a takedown and grappling threat, he's fought and beat better competition and he hits harder.
This should boil down to Saffiedine "boxing the brawler" as the composed tactician and Lim trying to disrupt all the pretty stuff by going into smash mode. As with Stinson, Lim needs to harness his aggression carefully in order to maximize his pressure without sacrificing his defense and leaving himself open in the process.
Look for Saffiedine to get on his bike early and establish his range with a wide array of low and front kicks, then slowly start to carve his way into punching range in order to unleash rapid-fire combinations before getting out of Dodge. That's what he's best at, but that's also what he's done in virtually every outing. His success speaks for itself but it's no easy task to out-point a 6'4" leviathan with lengthy and powerful boxing -- and legit takedown prowess as well -- for all five rounds, which is the likely scenario for a Saffiedine win.
Saffiedine deserves to be the favorite for his level of competition and recent surge, but I'll go out on a ... no, wait. I'll take Lim for the upset here, though his steep weight cut could become a critical factor if he's still chasing Saffiedine in the later rounds.
My Prediction: Hyun Gyu Lim by TKO.