The battle for the lightweight belt. Sherk is going into this fight not as much the heavy as he is pronounced favorite. With all due respect to the Brazilian jiu-jitsu wizard, the odds makers are being charitable with there offerings.
I said this about Phil Baroni going into his fight with Frank Shamrock, but I honestly don't see how Sherk can lose. Sherk was a wrecking machine at 170lbs, losing only to two of the best welterweights of all time, Matt Hughes and Georges St. Pierre. In fact, Sherk took two of five rounds against Hughes, proving he was an elite fighter in the division. St. Pierre was able to handle Sherk, but the size differential was simply too much to overcome. Besides, St. Pierre at his best is virtually unstoppable for anyone in that weight division.
Sherk's list of competition is no joke, either. Names like Benji Radich, Nick Diaz, Jutaro Nakao, Kenny Florian, Karo Parisyan (albeit a very young Parisyan), Manvel Gamburyan, Jake Short, and Gerald Strebendt are a Who's Who list of losers when it comes to battling Sherk in professional MMA competition. There has been a knock on Sherk that while some of the names he's fought are respectable, many of his 31 wins are against less than elite foes. This claim is true, but largely immaterial. When Sherk faces tough competition, he performs very well, losing only to the best of the best.
So is Hermes Franca the best? We'll find out on Saturday for sure, but fans of the Brazilian do have some reason to cheer. Following close split decision losses to Yves Edwards and Josh Thomson, Franca was released from the UFC. He fought a mixed record on smaller shows, but in addition to being flat knocked out for the first time in his career, he eventually lost three straight, including a rematch with Edwards. At that point, Franca hit rock bottom.
But Franca didn't earn the adoration of fans solely off beating Manny Reyes, Jr. for a buck. Franca has a spirit and determination to win that is almost without parallel. Since dropping three straight to mixed opposition, Franca has rattled off 8 straight victories against top flight fighters, all of the wins coming by TKO or submission. It's one thing to come back so strong by winning 8 after losing 3, but to do it by finishing all of your opponents is downright incredible.
So let's breakdown technically what is likely to happen. Franca would be more than happy to wing hooks from the outside as long as Sherk is, which is likely to not be very long. Sherk hits very hard, has good technique, and looks solid hitting the focus mitts, but has such a distinct reach disadvantage that often his striking is for naught. He's perfectly competent on his feet, but not a threat. Franca's windmill approach seems amateurish, but wins fights because of the KO power in his right hand. Will that work on Sherk? Unlikely. Sherk can be rocked, but a) his defense standing is excellent, b) he's not likely to lower his guard due to fatigue, and c) even if Sherk is rocked he can fall back on his wrestling to recover and control Franca.
The real question, then, is what happens when this fight hits the floor. Franca's submission acumen is widely acclaimed and for good reason. He's got excellent hip movement and is able to set up submissions from unorthodox positions. He's also especially good at locking up superior position in a scramble. Franca's ground and pound - with the right hand - can also be vicious. How Josh Thomson managed to avoid being KO'ed by Franca's devastating punches is still a mystery to me.
But Franca also has a tendency to get outworked. Franca relies heavily on cleverness and technique, a trait of many jiu-jitsu fighters from Brazil. His game is supremely technical and tricky stuff doesn't work on him, whereas the opposite cannot be said for his opponents. The only problem is that Franca's wrestling is poor compared to Sherk. Sherk will invariably get the takedown. What I fear is Franca will be all to willing to engage in guard play with Sherk, just as Kenny Florian did. Sherk's limitless energy, excellent posture from on top and savvy submission defense will neutralize Franca's guard play.
With respect to Sherk, this fight is won when he's on top and in side control. Sherk's guard passing is good, although his ground and pound leaves a little to be desired at times. As bloody as his fight was with Kenny Florian, the Bostonian could've eaten a lot more punches and elbows than he did. Part of that is Florian's defense, the other part is Sherk's small stature which makes defending a lot easier for any opponent. A good jiu-jitsu player can normally survive against Sherk, but is controlled.
Sherk won't be able to submit Franca, but he can outwork him. Franca will hang on in this fight and never give up. He'll also likely go for as many leg attacks as one can in scrambles. But short of a miracle submission, expect Franca to spend this fight on his back being controlled, bullied, and out of breath. Worse, I doubt this will be the fight of the night. It's an important fight and worth watching on those grounds, but I do not expect this to be the back and forth that Bocek vs. Edgar will bring.
Both fighters still emotionally reside in the Land of Redemption. In many ways, winning and competing today are as much about proving they do belong in professional competition as it is icing on the cake of an earlier career with unfulfilled ambitions. Competing is fun for now. They have virtually everything they ever wanted when they began this quest. Alas, that will change for one man on Saturday. My sincerest hope is that whomever the champ may be come Sunday, the loser of the fight realizes just how good they are and what an asset to the lightweight division they've become. This is one of those fights were the fans lose. Sherk and Franca have everyone's respect. It's sad to realize one of them will have to suffer a defeat.
PREDICTION: Sherk, Unanimous Decision.