Strikeforce crossover and former light-heavyweight Lorenz Larkin (14-1-1) has stabilized as a fan favorite due to his eclectic bag of tricks. On his way up, the 27-year-old has dabbled in boxing, kickboxing, Kung Fu and Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. The end result, however, is one of the most atypical and crowd pleasing striking assemblies in MMA, replete with jumping roundhouse kicks, side kicks, front kicks, low kicks and Capoeira "martelo" kicks.
I usually try to avoid extremes and absolutes ... but "Monsoon" is one of the most dynamic and gifted kickboxers that our sport has seen. It would be easier to list the kicks that Larkin doesn't throw, or hasn't yet, which would be axe kicks and hook kicks. Larkin has that ultra-rare, Machida-esque ability to implement extremely uncommon techniques from traditional martial arts with shocking alacrity.
And what makes this kid truly special is that he'd be an impressive prospect if his striking venom was limited to the aforementioned laundry list of kicks. It isn't. He touts a full-blown Muay Thai arsenal that's anchored by vicious knees and short-range elbows, his boxing is slick, technical and scary, and Larkin gets high marks across the board for under-pronounced aspects like footwork, rhythm, controlling range, head movement and counter-striking.
As one might expect, the act of taking Larkin off his feet and out of his element has emerged as the blueprint to beat him. Though his record only reflects a single loss -- a hotly disputed unanimous decision to Francis Carmont -- he was taken down and pounded on mercilessly by accredited wrestler Muhammed Lawal, but the bout was changed to a No Contest when "King Mo" failed his post-fight drug test. Regardless, Larkin dazzles in the Free Movement Phase but struggles in the face of imposing powerhouses with takedown skills like Lawal and Carmont.
On the surface, it seems unlikely that TUF 11 product Brad Tavares (11-1) has the wrestling chops to exploit Larkin's Achilles Heel. After all, the 26-year-old Hawaiian is without a flashy wrestling pedigree and rarely pursues offensive takedowns. What might alter that impression is how underrated and phenomenal Tavares' takedown defense has been.
Division 1 All-American Aaron Simpson, who's responsible for Tavares' only loss in a thoroughly unconvincing decision, ended the fight with a measly 13% success rate in the takedown department (2 of 15) and Riki Fukuda, who's heralded for the fluidity of his double-leg takedowns, secured just one in their match. Sure, fighters like Dongi Yang and Bubba McDaniel hit one of their three attempts but the point is that no one has been able to take Tavares down easily nor do a damn thing to him on the ground before he pops right back up to his feet.
Typically, Tavares' wrestling is applied in reverse, i.e. to repel takedowns and handle business on the feet. And yes, that's obviously quite different from launching offensive takedowns. But really, he hasn't had much use for offensive wrestling as he's only faced one opponent who could contest him on the feet, and that was Tom Watson -- and Tavares took him down five times.
Listen, I'm not building this up into some titillating cliffhanger. Let's be reasonable: no one has gotten the better of Lorenz Larkin on the feet and he's susceptible to wrestling; Tavares has consistently exhibited astounding defensive wrestling while also showing the capability for offensive wrestling when he's needed it. In plain terms -- Brad Tavares can wrestle. For some reason, there's no hype around him even though he only had five fights under his belt before TUF, he's improving in every outing and he's practically undefeated. (Disclaimer: Simpson won that fight by holding Tavares on the cage and failing with takedowns, neither of which are score-worthy in the unified rules. Though it was scarce on both sides, the only effective offense came from Tavares.)
Beyond his rapid ascension and feisty sprawl-and-brawl, Tavares is a pretty basic boxer, but a heavy-handed one. He throws the occasional low kick from a distance so he's not completely unarmed from a distance where Larkin excels. Thus far Tavares' chin has been bulletproof and he conducts himself with the calmness and composure of a veteran. If anything, Tavares has been a little too composed, as he presses forward at the same speed and strikes in the same even tempo throughout. The occasional fiery burst of sheer violence seems like such an appropriate device to shake up his monotonous rhythm, but Phil Baroni remains Tavares' only finish in the Octagon (his last five bouts were decisions).
While that doesn't bode well against Larkin's electric striking, blinding speed and elevated pace, let's not forget that Tavares is no slouch on the feet either, meaning he won't be reduced to telegraphing desperation takedowns from bell to bell. His tactical mindset is conducive to luring Larkin into a firefight before springing surprise takedowns at opportune intervals.
Overall, Tavares is a taller fighter (6'1" vs. 5'11") with a longer reach (74" vs. 72") and a brick-lined chin; he can engage Larkin on the feet but switch things up and shoot for takedowns, which happens to be the best method to keep a killer striker from squeezing the trigger fearlessly. Also, the bulk of Larkin's outrageous kicking repertoire will be precarious options if Tavares is indeed hunting for takedowns, and Larkin will probably have to simplify his assault in order to mitigate that risk.
My intention here is simply to cast a different light on this match up, which I think is far more competitive than most. Brad Tavares is tough as hell, he's still young and steadily improving, he's curiously overlooked and he's demonstrated wrestling proficiency that belies his experience and background. And he has the chin, the skills, the gameness and the fight team to endure Larkin's wrath and put him on his back. Don't get me wrong though -- if Tavares is content to stand and trade the whole time, Larkin's scorching speed, scary accuracy and unparalleled arsenal should render a commanding decision or Tavares' first departure from consciousness as a professional.
My Prediction: Lorenz Larkin by decision.