Feisty veteran John Alessio begins his 3rd tour of duty in the Octagon as a late replacement for an injured Matt Wiman, stepping in to face BJJ black belt Mark Bocek in the opening bout of Saturday's UFC 145: Jones vs. Evans.
For those unfamiliar with Xtreme Couture fighter John "The Natural" Alessio (32-14), here's the specs: At 32-years-old, he has 46 professional fights and 14 years of experience (he started his career as a welterweight at age 19 in 1998). In his Octagon debut at UFC 26 in 2000, Alessio was brought in to challenge legend Pat Miletich for the the welterweight title, losing by 2nd-round armbar. In his 2nd UFC run circa 2006, Alessio drew another pair of monsters in a prime Diego Sanchez (controversial decision) and Thiago Alves (unanimous decision). Switching over to the WEC and scoring a 1st round sub on Brian Gassaway, Alessio was aligned with current UFC welterweight interim champion Carlos Condit, who tapped him with a rear-naked choke.
Alessio has competed for the UFC, Pride, the WEC, Dream, King of the Cage (where he held the welterweight and superfight championships), and Canadian promotions TKO (where he was the welterweight champion) and MFC. To get a handle on the legion of killers he's fought, and in addition to the aforementioned opponents, Alessio's noteworthy losses are to Joe Doerksen, Jason Black, Jonathan Goulet, Brock Larsen (Alessio was DQ'd for an illegal knee), Paul Daley (who was the first fighter to finish Alessio by TKO) and Siyar Bahadurzada (who just clobbered Paulo Thiago and was the second fighter to stop Alessio with strikes).
His wins include UFC-caliber opposition in Sean Pierson (head-kick KO), Chris Brennan (1st round TKO), Ronald Jhun (decision), Pete Spratt (rear-naked choke), Gideon Ray (1st-round TKO), Luigi Fioravanti (3rd-round KO), Jon Koppenhaver, aka "War Machine" (rear-naked choke) and Eiji Mitsuoka (2nd-round TKO). Of his 34 career wins, 15 are by submission with 10 by TKO. After losing by armbar to submission virtuoso Andre Galvao in Dream, Alessio has put together 10 wins in his last 11, with Bahadurzada, in the finals of the United Glory welterweight tournament, accounting for the lone flaw. Alessio recently made the plunge to lightweight and defeated former Pride fighter Luiz "Buscape" Firmino and Team Quest's Ryan Healy.
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Submission specialist Mark Bocek had the good fortune of training Dana White and Lorenzo Fertitta in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu which, after orchestrating 4-straight catches in the 1st round, paved the way for his UFC debut. He premiered against eventual champion Frankie Edgar at UFC 73 and lost by TKO in a back-and-forth 1st-round, evened things out with a decision victory over Douglas Evans, then tapped out to a 3rd-round choke courtesy of Mac Danzig.
Bocek would build up momentum with 3-straight chokes of his own (Alvin Robinson, David Bielkheden, Joe Brammer) before alternating results in his last run. He lost to Jim Miller, defeated Dustin Hazelett, lost to current champion Benson Henderson, and bested Nik Lentz -- all by decision save his win over Hazelett, which was a high-tech triangle choke in the 1st. He's a 3-time Pan-Am medalist, a North American ADCC Trials champ, a World Cup BJJ champion and a 5-time Canadian grappling champion. Bocek has finished 7 of his wins by submission with 2 TKOs and 1 decision.
Complete analysis in the full entry.
Bocek's game boils down to elaborate submission wizardry and deceivingly overbearing takedown prowess, even though he lacks a distinguished wrestling pedigree. He has a particular knack for enveloping his adversaries with forceful double-leg takedowns and continuing to weigh down heavily in the front headlock position even if they fail.
He also holds a black belt in Kempo karate but doesn't really embody the panache typically associated with such an accolade. On the feet, Bocek's boxing is uncommonly slow, stiff and rigid, but the way he floored Edgar with a short jab testifies to his punching power. On the surface, Bocek's striking seems painfully statuesque and clunky, especially in open space, yet he's held his own with accomplished lightweight strikers and his 10-ton clinch and fluid scrambling have compensated well. Edgar is the only fighter to TKO Bocek and he's been highly durable against potent opposition.
Bocek is at his best in close and at contact-range, where he has excellent strength, control, dirty boxing and takedowns in the clinch or brilliant technique on the mat or in transitions. For as robotic as his stand up is, Bocek is as smooth as can be in all grappling aspects. His guard play, guard passing, position work, ground-and-pound and submission awareness are top-notch.
Over nearly 1.5 decades of competition, Alessio has accrued a fully functional arsenal in every facet. He's been a little prone to submissions, which account for 7 of his 14 losses, and defensive lapses, though both can generally be attributed to his offense-first mentality. Anchored by a plunging jab, a cracking straight right and a crisp counter left hook, he's a handful on the feet with tight and thunderous boxing. His offensive and defensive wrestling are sound, the latter being on full display in the admirable sprawl-and-brawl he executed against a prime Sanchez. His grappling is complete with a wide range of submissions and exemplary knowledge and confidence in any and all scenarios.
Alessio is a thoroughly diversified athlete with unshakable composure, well-tamed aggression, a vast toolbox of options and the intelligence to implement his skill effectively. Movement-wise, he's calculating in employing angles and footwork to wreak havoc with his striking and can quickly change gears from methodical counter-striking to explosive attacking. He was a firecracker at welterweight and stands to benefit largely from dropping to lightweight. He will also come in having nothing to lose and eager to revivify his career by capitalizing on this short-notice opportunity -- and he definitely has the abilities to pull off the upset.
Bocek is a massive favorite on the betting lines at a minimum of -400. I think that's way too steep but I understand the slant. The clear and easy conclusion is a Bocek submission, yet Alessio is troublesome and crafty enough to consider as a legitimate underdog here. Not only will he be more agile and athletic, Alessio thrives in staying elusive on the feet and chucking precise and powerful punches against grappling-based opponents.
If Bocek is able to corner and contain him, it's only a matter of time before he sticks to him and works his submission savvy. Alessio should be able to dictate the striking exchanges and force Bocek to chase him down, and I'm tempted to give him the nod by TKO or decision here. With that disclaimer aside, I'll play it safe and predict that Bocek will lock horns and tie on a submission or can out-work Alessio in the greater number of rounds.
My Prediction: Mark Bocek by submission.