I like this card. I know a lot don't, but context is always needed before you proclaim the UFC is trying to feed us a load of crap disguised in some pretty gift wrap. Chris Weidman was originally supposed to defend his belt on this card (whether it was against Vitor Belfort or Lyoto Machida is irrelevant as far as I'm concerned), but injury forced the UFC to make a change to the main event with relatively short notice. Thus why we have the main event of Renan Barao against T.J. Dillashaw. The co-main event was made on relative short notice as well (remember that Henderson fought only 2 months ago) and the Robbie Lawler-Jake Ellenberger bout was another one patched together quickly after Ellenberger's opponent at last months PPV, Tarec Saffiedine, pulled up lame and pushing Ellenberger back to this card against Lawler... who fought only two months ago. It seems everything important about this card came together late, but it still reeks of awesomeness to me.
But I know I'm preaching to the wrong crowd. Those who read this already have a strong appreciation of this card and I thank you for your views of my writings and you interest in such a badass sport. Enough of this though! I have a breakdown to do!
(C) Renan Barao (32-1, 1 NC) vs #4 T.J. Dillashaw (9-2), Bantamweight
Story Thus Far: I'll be honest: many fans are not excited about this title fight. Dillashaw is unknown to many and Barao doesn't connect with the casual fan, largely due to the language barrier. Many of those who do care cried foul about this match initially as most believed Rafael Assuncao deserved the fight until Assuncao clarified he couldn't fight due to injury. As a result, this fight (though I admit it is less than ideal) is getting a bum rap it doesn't deserve.
Barao is considered by many (including UFC president Dana White) to be the second best fighter on the planet behind Jon Jones and with good reason. Consider that his only loss was his very first fight and he has not had a close fight since coming under the Zuffa banner (and he has faced good competition... he is the champ for hells sake!), there is validity to that statement. As dominant as he is, he is still improving at the age of 27. Barao has as realistic of a shot as anyone at challenging the length of time Anderson Silva was champion.
No one has denied that Dillashaw is talented. Coming from Team Alpha Male, many agree he is in the right camp to cultivate that talent into a contender. Include myself amongst those. We all just figured it would be about another year before his title shot came. So now the debate comes down to whether or not he is ready for it. Its easy to forget that his first pro fight occurred just 4 years ago. Whether he is or isn't the opportunity is now and Dillashaw has progressed faster than most expected him to. With that said, perhaps he is ready...
Fighting Style: The more I watch Barao the more I get the feeling that there isn't anything that he can't do. But I suppose I should focus on what he usually does. Barao is patient in the sense that he waits for his opponent to make the first move. This makes him sound like a counter striker and he is capable of doing that. But often he is gauging his opponents movement and timing so that he can unleash a barrage or killer blow. It has happened more than once. He is consistent about peppering in stinging leg kicks and has one of the best sprawls in the business. He is also cat-quick in transitions and has an solid chin (I would say great, but it hasn't had a true test yet).
In one of my earlier previews, I mentioned how Chris Holdsworth isn't your typical Team Alpha Male product. Well, Dillashaw is exactly what you would expect out of an Alpha Male product. He is a top-notch wrestler that has gained a better grasp of MMA wrestling as he has gone on gaining experience in the UFC. He has reigned in (for the most part) his raw punching power with some help from coach Duane Ludwig and made him a formidable opponent on the feet. And he has a deep bag of chokes to throw on his opponent. His BJJ is far from elite, but good enough to keep him from getting submitted in most situations.
What to Expect: One thing I love about the Alpha Males is they never lack for confidence in their abilities. It is well established that Barao is one of the hardest in the business to take down, yet Faber still tried to do so a couple of times in their last bout. Look for Dillashaw to ignore the statistics and try to take Barao down as well. I wouldn't be surprised if he can get him down once, maybe even a few times. But it'll take a lot of diligence and many attempts for that strategy to pay dividends. Even if he doesn't get the takedown, he'll try to clinch up with Barao and beat him up from there. Easier said than done. Barao isn't exactly monstrous for the weight class, but he is strong and could easily move up in weight if he wanted to great success.
Because Barao takes his time to figure out his opponents, don't be surprised to see Dillashaw win the first round. Dillashaw's power isn't the only thing in his striking which has improved, his accuracy has looked much better as well. Barao is rarely an easy target so he'll need to know where to place his punches as a result. Along those lines, some will say that Barao is an inaccurate puncher as well, but he throws a greater volume than Dillashaw with the knowledge a lot of them won't land. Dillashaw isn't that type of striker.
Barao doesn't often look to take the fight to the ground, but don't be too surprised if he does so here. Dillashaw hasn't faced an elite level grappler on the ground yet... largely since Dillashaw hasn't been taken down in his UFC career. I believe its safe to say if Barao wants to get Dillashaw down, he'll find a way to do so.
X-Factors: Not much to note here. Dillashaw has yet to look tired in the Octagon, but this is also his first 5 round fight. I believe he'll be fine, but ya never know. This is more of a fun fact than an X-factor, but even though Dillashaw is seen as the prospect, he is actually older than Barao by about a year. See why I think Barao is gonna reign a long time?
Who Will Win: I would love to see Dillashaw pull off the upset since upsets are always fun and for once I would love to see an Alpha Male win the belt. In 6 tries in the UFC, no one from the camp has done so yet. Look for it to get to 0-for-7. Barao is too good and Dillashaw still too green. It sucks to say that... but its the truth. Barao by Submission 2nd Round
Story Thus Far: We all know that Alexander Gustafsson gets the next shot at Jon Jones, but the question has been who is next in line. Cormier had been in the discussion along with the likes of the winner of last months Anthony Johnson and Phil Davis fight won by Johnson. But Henderson? You better believe it.
Cormier manhandled men with a definitive size and possibly strength advantage thanks to his Olympic wrestling background as he opened up his career at heavyweight. Having made the drop successfully to 205 in February picking up a gimme victory over late injury replacement Patrick Cummins, Cormier's detractors have stated he has yet to beat anyone of significance in the division despite his extensive resume at heavyweight. Due to the lack of depth in the division, a victory over Henderson would be enough to silence the critics.
After many wrote off Henderson after he lost three in a row (including his first KO/TKO loss) in 2013, Henderson reminded us that he is never out of a bout with his powerful right hand by scoring one of the most impressive KO's of the year in a come-from-behind victory over Shogun Rua. The same reason that Cormier can be looked at as a legit contender with a victory here applies to Henderson despite the recent three fight skid: lack of division depth.
Fighting Style: Fans don't like to watch Cormier fight. I have nothing against the guy and think he is an elite athlete and fighter, but his grinding style doesn't do him any favors with the fans. He did gain a modicum of applause for his finish of Cummins... but he was expected to do that and anything less would have been met with scorn. An Olympic wrestler, Cormier can take the fight where he wants to and due to facing BJJ practitioners in Frank Mir and Roy Nelson, he choose to keep the fight standing and grind them out. He has the capability to fight in spaced and will likely do so more now that he isn't at quite the size disadvantage.
Henderson is another Olympic wrestler... but his last Olympic appearance came 18 years ago. That is not a typo as you have to remember that he is 43 years old. Hendo (I'm done typing out Henderson) doesn't look to take the fight to the ground anymore as he would rather conserve his energy and relies on the most basic strategy in all of MMA: land his right hand on his opponents chin with full force. Everyone knows that is the plan, but in the heat of the moment its easier to get caught just once than simply making it your plan. That punch is deadly enough that it is known as the H-Bomb. Hendo is still capable of wrestling in short bursts, but using it in reverse to keep the fight standing.
What to Expect: Cormier's wrestling is still at a world class level whereas Hendo's has unfortunately faded with time. Expect Cormier to take the fight where he wants to as a result. Hendo isn't a stiff by any means, but his reaction time isn't what it used to be and his proper weight class has always been 185. So not only is he undersized for the division, but Cormier is used to ragdolling heavyweights. Where Cormier wants the fight, the fight will go.
Cormier will proceed with more caution against Hendo than he has with his other opponents in the Octagon thus far. Mir isn't a reputable striker and Cummins was out of his league. Nelson has similar one punch power, but also needs more windup to connect whereas the H-Bomb has seemingly come out of nowhere at times. Cormier knows one punch is all it will take to end his night.
It seems that Hendo's chin is weakening, but it achieved its legendary status for a reason and it is still stronger than most. Cormier doesn't have one-shot power and relies more on punches in bunches. If the H-Bomb doesn't connect, this fight is going the distance. Whats that? You're asking about submissions? Each one only has one submission hold victory in their careers. It isn't happening.
X-Factors: The H-Bomb is always the greatest X-factor in any Hendo fight, as is Hendo's stamina which isn't the greatest at his advanced age. But what about Cormier's stamina. Sure, he went 25 minutes with Josh Barnett, but he wasn't cutting weight at the time. He has a total of 79 seconds of fight time at 205. Will the weight cut affect his gas tank?
Who Will Win: As awesome of a story as it would be to see Hendo pull out a victory here and get a title shot at the age of 44, I can't see that happening here. Cormier is a smart fighter and I see him avoiding the H-Bomb and if Hendo isn't landing that anymore, he isn't winning. Cormier by Decision
#1 Robbie Lawler (22-10, 1 NC) vs. #5 Jake Ellenberger (29-7), Welterweight
Story Thus Far: It is doubtful the winner here gets the next title shot as Lawler had his turn and both Rory MacDonald and Tyron Woodley face off next month and are ahead of Ellenberger in the rankings. But if there ends up being an injury for the winner of that bout...
Lawler was thought of as a career underachiever making his return to the UFC last year as he largely fought at middleweight. Returning to welterweight upon his return, he rattled off three straight wins and took part in the most entertaining welterweight title fight seen since long before the GSP era. He may have salvaged the way people look at his career at this point, but Lawler is still hungry and his title fight with Johny Hendricks was close enough that a rematch in the near future isn't out of the question.
Ellenberger is looking to get back into the title picture himself with this fight. In one of the most disappointing bouts in recent memory, Ellenberger dropped an uneventful decision to MacDonald last summer and has yet to step back into the Octagon since due to injuries to himself and his potential opponent. Lawler can better survive a loss here due to his recent resume. Ellenberger's name will get lost in the crowded welterweight picture.
Fighting Style: Lawler has come a long way from simply being a brawler who used his raw punching power to overwhelm his opponents. Perhaps I'm being to crude with the past description of Lawler, but he is a much smarter fighter at this point. But his lack of diversity cost him the title in his fight with Hendicks as he didn't look for takedowns or look for strikes outside of punches to the head. He rarely looks for takedowns anyway, but he threw a lot of leg kicks at Rory MacDonald in November and it got him a title shot. Lawler is at his best when he mixes up his arsenal. Not that his technically precise boxing sucks... it is likely the best in the division as 18 KO/TKO's prove.
Ellenberger isn't as technically clean as Lawler, but has just as much power in his fists as his 18 KO/TKO's show. He isn't quite the high volume striker that Lawler can be, but he does know how to make it count. He is a big and strong welterweight who will be more than happy to push Lawler against the cage and work some dirty boxing and knees if allowed. A former Division II wrestler, Ellenberger is a bit more diverse than Lawler which was why many have held him in higher regard over Lawler the last few years until Lawler's recent resurgence. He is also nearly impossible to takedown with his outstanding sprawl.
What to Expect: Lawler acknowledged he was looking for the KO blow against Hendricks and said he should have been looking at the long-term picture (i.e. possibility of a decision) while in the heat of the battle. Look for him to get back to those ways here. I don't think he'll look for a takedown, but leg kicks and better angles will be utilized this time around. Not that he won't look for the KO blow if he sees it available...
Ellenberger on the other hand should end up going back to his calling card and come out aggressively as his lack of activity cost him against MacDonald. Lawler does have an effective jab, but not quite like MacDonald (I would say all of his other punches are better though). He'll look to put Lawler on the ground a time or two as well which will help him to set up the KO blow he is always looking for late in the fight.
If the fight goes to the ground, don't look for it to stay there long. Lawler isn't a bad wrestler himself, but uses it more to stay on the feet. He is pretty good about being able to get the fight standing again. Neither of these guys are active in looking for submissions either. If either of these guys pull off a submission I'll be shocked. This is gonna be a slugfest people.
X-Factors: Ellenberger isn't known for a deep gas tank. Remember Diego Sanchez mounting an exhausted Ellenberger in the final round? The longer the fight goes the more it favors Lawler. Ring rust could affect Ellenberger too... he hasn't fought in 10 months. Then again, Lawler only fought 2 months ago. Is he jumping back in too soon?
Who Will Win: The last truly technical striker Ellenberger faced was Martin Kampmann. Anyone else remember how that ended. I think he'll show Lawler more respect than he did Kampmann, but his gas tank will cost him in the end... and Lawler has learned to let the KO come to him. It will... its just gonna take longer than usual. Lawler by KO 3rd Round
#6 Takeya Mizugaki (19-7-2) vs. #10 Francisco Rivera (10-2, 1 NC), Bantamweight
Story Thus Far: Considering there is only one person in the top 5 of the bantamweight rankings that Barao has yet to beat or soon face (Rafael Assuncao), this fight could have serious title implications in the near future... but it seems to be flying under the radar. Do yourself a favor and don't overlook this fight.
Mizugaki opened his Zuffa career by alternating wins and loses his first 9 fights as he fought some of the top talent in the bantamweight division (Faber, Brian Bowles, Miguel Torres, and Scott Jorgensen among the losses). He has since rattled off four wins in a row, but the level of talent he has faced has dropped too. Originally scheduled to fight Dillashaw before he got the title shot, Mizugaki would need at least one more victory to be in serious title talk, but this would be his most impressive win.
Rivera has looked much better than the guy who was let go by the UFC in the summer of 2011 and has gone undefeated in his four appearances since his return (the No Contest on his record is one of those fights, but was originally a victory). It is worth noting none of his victories are over a ranked opponent, but considering he has made a habit of finishing his opponents and Mizugaki isn't one to take lightly, Rivera is in the same boat as Mizugaki: a victory here could put him one more victory away from title talk.
Fighting Style: If Chan Sung Jung is the Korean Zombie, Mizugaki would be his Japanese counterpart. When he first entered the WEC he was the definition of a fighter who takes two shots to land one. Though he has wised up a bit and learned to avoid so many strikes, he will still fall into that habit at times. Good thing his chin is as solid as they come. He is primarily a boxer who throws simple combinations and has good power from his lead hand. He isn't a large bantamweight, but he can hold his own in the clinch with his Muay Thai. His wrestling isn't among the elite, but is effective against most of the division and he has proven difficult to take down himself.
Rivera is a KO artist plain and simple. Some guys don't pursue the KO and just let it come to them as the fight develops. Rivera is looking for it from bell to bell. His 7 victories by KO/TKO are good proof and his no contest originally was a KO as well. Overhands, hooks, and uppercuts are about the only thing you will see out of him as they have the most power behind them. He is a big and strong bantamweight and can bully his opponent up close. Not the best wrestler, he uses trips and upper body strength to floor them, but doesn't do that often. If he gets top position, he doesn't care to look for the submission as it is GNP all the way.
What to Expect: Rivera is going to come out hard and try to put an end to it early. His gas tank is questionable and he was visibly exhausted at the end of his last fight with George Roop. If Mizugaki can survive the early onslaught, he'll get stronger as the fight goes. Keep in mind that 7 of Mizugaki's 8 victories have come by decision (and 13 of 15 overall have gone the distance) so he is more than comfortable to drag out the fight.
Rivera has been a tough dude to take down statistically (66% rate stopping takedowns), but he hasn't faced an opponent reputed for getting the fight to the ground. Mizugaki isn't an expert himself, but he is better than any past Rivera opponent. If Mizugaki gets a few takedowns, expect him to win. In his UFC victories, he averages 2.4 takedowns as opposed to 0.8 in his losses. Attribute it to points with the judges or simply a smart all-around fight, I don't care what you pick (probably both).
The best part about this fight is easily the likelihood that it could devolve into a slugfest. Both guys have good chins (plus confidence in those chins) and like to throw so what else would you expect? It won't be technically pretty, but it will sure be damn entertaining!
X-Factors: I already mentioned Rivera's gas tank, but feel its worth mentioning again. If anyone is going to win by KO, it will be him. But I don't like his chances in a fight going the distance. With most Asian fighters I would point out the flight and time difference, but Mizugaki has been dealing with it for so long and it doesn't seem to affect him.
Who Will Win: This is a very tight match. I'm surprised that the betting lines weren't closer. Mizugaki is one of my favorite fighters to watch and I want to pick him, but I feel as though he has to run out of luck sometime (4 of his 8 Zuffa victories by split decision, all decision losses unanimous). And I always feel obligated to try and pick at least one upset on the main card. Here it is. Rivera by TKO 2nd Round
Story Thus Far: Varner was a hell of a story two years ago when the former WEC lightweight champion made a comeback as a late injury replacement against Edson Barboza and walked out with an upset victory. He has only gone 1-3 since that time with the only victory over the now departed Melvin Guillard. He gained a lot of leeway with his highly entertaining losses to Joe Lauzon and Abel Trujillo, but he needs a victory here or he is likely done in the Octagon. He may only be 29, but he has a lot of miles on his tires.
Krause pulled off an injury replacement upset himself when he stepped in to face Sam Stout last summer before suffering a controversial loss in November to Bobby Green (Krause took 3 shots to the groin in the first round... including the last one that ended the match for a loss). Considering the nature of the loss, Krause likely has a bit more breathing room than Varner. But I'm just a guy typing up crap on his computer. I don't know for sure if he'll be able to stay around if he losses. It very well could be a loser leaves town match.
Fighting Style: Varner's background is in wrestling and he usually does a pretty good job of using it. But he also has a tendency to fall in love with his boxing. Against the same Abel Trujillo who was taken down 21 times by Khabib Nurmagomedov, Varner didn't attempt one single takedown in 7 plus minutes of action which ended with a violent KO loss for him. He does pack a hell of a punch so it isn't like there isn't merit to him standing and banging, but he needs to remember to use his wrestling chops like he did in his victories over Guillard and Barboza. What people often forget is he has a deep bag of chokes as well with 11 submission victories.
Even with Varner's submission capabilities, Krause is without a doubt the submission expert in this fight as his 13 submission victories will attest to. Though he is only a purple belt in BJJ, his abilities in the cage prove rankings can mean very little. The owner of 75' reach on a 6'2 frame, Krause has developed a nice jab as well. He isn't particularly powerful, but he is a high volume striker and the Diaz brothers have proven time and again how well that can wear down an opponent. His accuracy is worth noting as well.
What to Expect: Varner has surely heard the criticism that followed his loss to Trujillo and you can expect that he'll take that to heart. He won't look to turn this fight into a ground affair by any means, especially when you consider that Krause is savvy off of his back. But he'll put plenty of pressure on his lankier opponent and mix in the occasional takedown for points in case it goes to the judges.
The standup will be a chess match as Varner will look constantly to keep things close where Krause can't use his reach advantage and Varner can work over Krause's body as well. When Varner can mix it up between the head and body is when he is at his best... plus he'll be in position to go for the takedown. Krause try to stay outside and pick Varner apart with his jab and some leg kicks.
Up until their last fights, neither had ever lost by KO/TKO. Then they both did. Varner was in a brutal war and his chin may be showing signs of cracking... though I wouldn't expect Krause to be someone else to break it. Krause's loss was a fluke with bad luck all over it. His chin appears to be as tough as ever... though Varner is certainly talented enough to be the one to legitimately hand him a KO/TKO loss. If there is a finish between these two though look for it to be a submission.
X-Factors: Varner doesn't always have the tank to go a full 15 minutes. It was the reason for his downfall to Lauzon and has popped up at other times as well. I'd also look to see if Krause is in a funk based on the way his last fight went. A psyche can be a fragile thing. I don't expect it to be an issue... but you never know.
Who Will Win: This is fight that has the potential to be FOTN and both have pulled those type of performances out of their hat recently. I think Varner has his back against the wall and he responded very well to getting tossed out of Zuffa. I think he fights a smart fight and pulls out the victory. Varner by Decision
Record for last Card: 5-8 Record for Year: 101-63-1
Worth noting... I realize this is lengthy. My apologies. I won't be offended by any means if you don't read it all. Hell, I won't even know!