Typically, when preparing for a UFC event, I'd be immersed in countless hours of research on each fighter, scrutinizing elements like fight footage, martial arts background, in-cage characteristics and tendencies, value of past competition, and overall strengths and weaknesses a full week before the event even started.
This intense recon has transpired since early 2010 and nearly forced me into a voluntary check-in at the local looney bin, and I opted to take a time-out from Dissections after UFC 156 to preserve my sanity, which has been recommended as a valuable aspect to retain. Therefore, it was odd to wake up this morning and realize that, beyond the interim bantamweight championship bout between Renan Barao and Michael McDonald in the headliner, I had no idea who was competing on tomorrow night's UFC on Fuel TV 7 card.
Consider this a 1000-foot view of the main-card lineup with a general synopsis on some match-up intangibles.
Renan Barao vs. Michael McDonald
Most are aware that "Mayday" McDonald is a talented up-and-comer at just 22-years-old, yet Barao, who's soaring on the most impressive win streak in MMA with 30-straight, is still only 25-years-old. Regardless of who wins this fight, this pair will be stationed at the top of the ladder for many years to come.
With no significant size disparity, this clash should be dictated by pure combat prowess. Striking-wise, McDonald has excellent kickboxing and tight form, and cracks off his combinations in a more traditional sense; his stance is compact, his combinations are crisp and his punches are straight and fast. Barao has a little more openness in his striking: many punches are wide-sailing hooks and he's very leg-kick heavy, both of which leave him a touch more exposed from a defensive standpoint. The tradeoff is that Barao has a little more range and the power advantage, which can quickly shift the momentum and pay dividends on the score cards.
For Barao, I feel his control of distance and tempo on the feet will dictate his success. This is not meant to imply that he's over-matched at phone-booth range -- he isn't -- but he's been a little more effective from out on the fringe and throws his opponent off by switching up his distance attack and brawling at close quarters. McDonald is more intent to keep himself at toe-to-toe range while bobbing and weaving in the pocket, using his speed and accuracy to mount a volume-based attack. Barao has better capabilities at a greater number of ranges, and his footwork, use of angles and controlled power should give him the slight edge in open-space striking.
The X-factor for McDonald should be his wrestling, especially if he employs it smoothly in conjunction with his striking. I see McDonald's edge as his phase-shifting: I feel his chances are better if he keeps Barao guessing with unexpected takedown attempts, which will force the Brazilian into more of a defensive mode and make him hesitant to plant his feet and commit, thus reducing his power advantage.
Again, in order to attempt viable takedowns, McDonald must put himself in the proper range to do so, meaning that the control of range and fighting distance will probably have the largest influence over the outcome.
Cub Swanson vs. Dustin Poirier
This is a killer match up. Poirier has long been heralded as a top-tier featherweight, yet he's faced a single top-tier opponent in Chan Sung Jung, which resulted in Poirier's first and only loss at 145 pounds. Swanson's an established vet enjoying a hard-earned rejuvenation in the UFC by slaughtering 3-straight opponents by highlight-reel TKO after losing his Octagon debut to Ricardo Lamas.
Swanson will be facing a 2" deficit in height and 3" of reach; a key factor in this striking-centric bout. While both are extremely well-versed on the mat -- Swanson is a black belt and Poirier is clearly at that level despite an inferior belt color in Jiu-Jitsu -- the wrestling and subsequent grappling exchanges will all be steered by their characteristics on the feet. Much like Barao vs. McDonald, Swanson will assume the role of the wild brawler with more defensive holes and greater power whereas Poirier is faster and straighter with his hands along with being more clean and technical; variables that should complement his height and reach advantage nicely.
I can't help but offer up footwork/movement and the control of range as the pivotal factor here as well. Swanson's recent opposition made the mistake of either not respecting his skull-crushing power or allowing him to engage at phone-booth range, and replicating highlight-reel finishes is a tough blueprint to follow against a taller and longer technician. The clinch and wrestling facet is interesting, as neither are credentialed wrestlers but fully capable in that department, and their grappling venom seems about equal though Swanson is highly inclined to take risks and Poirier is more calculating.
Overall, I imagine that Poirier will inch ahead as long as he can keep Swanson at bay, out of his grill and on the end of his punches, which will require a firm dedication to footwork, timing and defensive clinch-work.
Jimi Manuwa vs. Cyrille Diabate
This bout just screams rollicking entertainment. Despite being relatively unencumbered by top competition, Manuwa clobbered a cagey 205er in Kyle Kingsbury in his Octagon debut and cemented his punching power as downright fearsome. "The Poster Boy" will tangle with one of the most experienced and rangy kickboxers in the game in Diabate, who will also impose a daunting 6" advantage in reach and 5" in height.
Maybe I'm stuck on repeat, but the aforementioned distance/range characteristics are what jump out the most. Manuwa is a brutal savage with his left hook and a virtual killing machine when he can center you in his cross-hairs. Diabate is a highly polished and refined kickboxing specialist, though only on the offensive side as his defense is quite porous and his head movement is curiously rudimentary. The Frenchman has all the tools, knowledge and physical attributes to out-finesse Manuwa, yet he rarely implements them.
Gunnar Nelson (10-0-1) vs. Jorge Santiago (25-10) -- Welterweight bout
While Manuwa debuted in an authenticating fashion that left me with a fairly conceivable grasp on his ceiling, Gunnar Nelson's premiere was equally authenticating but not as clear regarding his limitations. Mostly because he seemed to have none. While many were anticipating a one-dimensional submissionist, the ADCC grappling champion showed an uncanny comfort with striking, wrestling and tying the whole package together that was truly special for a UFC first-timer.
I'm thrilled to see Santiago back in the big leagues, yet his B+ to A- grades in all categories, which have propelled him to much success, are not a good fit for a well-tuned grappling machine with such diverse proficiencies. Perhaps Santiago can combine his fight-tuned Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu with his high-level experience, dynamic striking, and increased size and strength after coming back down to welterweight to swarm Nelson with an ever-changing onslaught of offense. If he takes that route and presses aggressively while throwing different looks at Nelson, protecting his chin vigilantly is a must.
James Te Huna (15-5) vs. Ryan Jimmo (17-1) -- Light-Heavyweight bout
I've placed Te Huna in a "The Junior dos Santos of 205" mold and I think it fits. His boxing is rugged and overbearing and it's delivered with effective timing and frightening accuracy. Following the underlying current on the main card, Jimmo debuted like a boss with a nearly instantaneous KO of Anthony Perosh, but his well-rounded arsenal will likely be whittled down to a straight striking match with Te Huna, who's demonstrated sound takedown defense and defensive clinch-work.
Jimmo has to find a way to draw from his experience and varied offense in order to steer Te Huna out of his element, so his attack pattern and entries into clinch range must be on-point and nearly flawless to avoid the whirring barrage of leather. Te Huna's advantage is that he just needs to go out and do exactly what he's done to climb the ladder so far.
Che Mills (15-5) vs. Matt Riddle (7-3) -- Welterweight bout
Riddle will rarely encounter a welterweight with better wrestling or athleticism, so this will be another test of his maturity, Fight IQ and ability to rely on his iffy-but-lengthy striking. This isn't the first time Riddle will endure that test and, for the most part, he's passed with flying colors thus far. I'm not sold on Che Mills as the striking juggernaut he's being portrayed as, but the UK-based gamer definitely has skill with his hands and actually matches Riddle's gangly reach length at 76".
Beyond the striking comparison, Riddle always enjoys having the option to shoot takedowns if the stand up isn't to his liking, so Mills' takedown defense and guard play could be a crucial factor. Additionally, Mills' highly functional boxing game and intelligence might throw a wrench into Riddle's fallback plan, as a streaking uppercut or well-timed knee can be the best deterrent to a wrestler aspiring to charge in and drop levels for a takedown. This means that the way Riddle sets up his takedown attempts with strikes, footwork and angles will dictate whether he can envelop Mills' hips unscathed or gets showered with a cascade of explosive combinations on the way in.