There comes a time in the life of every combat sports fan when he’s forced to be honest with himself.
We all like to pretend that we’re discerning connoisseurs, only selected the finest cards and most worthwhile main events to pluck down out $49.99. As long-time, intelligent fans – not those lowly “bandwagon” or “casual” fans – we can separate the pre-fight hype from the real deal, the overly-promoted hype shows from the actual, interesting main events.
That’s what we tell ourselves, anyways. But it’s not true. When the moment of truth arrives, even the most “hardcore” combat sports fan can be swayed to go against his own instincts by the allure of hype and “what if?”.
After all, how did Mike Tyson have the latter half of his career? How did Kimbo Slice ever headline big-time MMA cards? How did James Toney ever get a headlining fight in the UFC? How does Bob Sapp still have a career?
Because hype sells, even to those who know better. I’m guessing most MMA fans know Jon Jones vs. Chael Sonnen is neither a “legitimate” title fight (by that, I mean the champion facing off against the clear-cut #1 contender) or a closely-matched contest (on paper, at least). If social media, Las Vegas bookmakers, and every MMA site on the planet are to be believed, we’ll all be paying for a squash match main event tonight.
And it won’t matter one bit, because I’m guessing we’ll all be watching. That’s what happens when the sport’s most polarizing champion faces off against the sport’s most polarizing figure, period. Dana White gets to pull a rabbit out of his hat, and we all eagerly tune in to see Jon Jones face his second middleweight challenger.
But there’s more – much more – that just Jon Jones vs. Chael Sonnen on tonight’s card. Let’s break down the night’s fights, shall we?
Jim Miller vs. Pat Healy
Opening the night is an extremely interesting clash of lightweight contenders at opposite ends of the career spectrum.
Jim Miller is one half of the legendary “fighting Millers” of New Jersey. Ok, they’re neither legendary, or known as the “fighting Miller”, but brothers Jim and Dan Miller are still some of the toughest SOB’s to ever grace the garden state. They’re also, by all accounts, fantastic people and more importantly than that – they’re rarely ever in a boring fight. Case in point: Jim Miller’s last fight against Joe Lauzon was 2012′s “Fight of the Year”.
Still, that shouldn’t overshadow the point that Miller has hit a bit of a rough patch career-wise. He’s 2-2 in his last four fights, with wins over Melvin Guillard and Lauzon and losses to current champ Ben Henderson and Nate Diaz. That’s a damn tough foursome to have to fight back-to-back-to-back-to-back, so I give Miller some credit. Still, this is a guy who was once viewed as a sure-fire #1 contender and future title challenger – going .500 in his last four fights can’t be what he had in mind for cementing that reputation.
On the other hand, Oregon native Pat Healy is riding a huge surge of momentum coming over from the defunct Strikeforce promotion. He’s currently riding a six-fight winning streak, and has only lost once since dropping to lightweight (to Josh Thompson, who had a huge “coming out party” at last weekend’s UFC on FOX card). The former MCF welterweight champion up in Canada, Healy brings an underrated wrestling and submission game to the cage, as well as the sort of experience that comes with 45 professional fights.
This is a tough one to call – Miller has stumbled of late, while Healy has looked fantastic. Still, I just can’t bet against the grit and toughness of a Miller brother. And as good as Pat’s ground game and tenacity may be, I think Miller is just slightly superior in either department.
Jim Miller via Decision
Phil Davis vs. Vinny Magalhaes
Every so often, an outstanding and intriguing fight manages to sneak up on me. Case in point: this fight, which features perhaps the most intriguing pure style match-up on the entire card.
At some point, both Vinny Magalhaes and Phil Davis have been called “the future” of the light-heavyweight division, and with good reason. Phil Davis is an elite-level wrestler in every sense of the word, an NCAA Division I All-American all four years of college, and national champion in 2008. Combine that with years of MMA training at Alliance MMA (home of UFC bantamweight champ Dominick Cruz and heavyweight Brandon Vera) and BJJ instruction under Lloyd Irvin, and you see why so many people had Davis pegged as “the future”.
That being said, his hype train has hit a bit a stumbling block recently. He suffered a setback last year in his first-ever MMA loss to Rashad Evans in a fight where he didn’t look particularly good. He’s followed that up with back-to-back fights with Wagner Prado, because an eye-poke ruled their first fight a No Contest. Bottom line: he needs to get back on the winning track against serious contenders.
Vinny Magalhaes brings one of the strongest ground games in the UFC light-heavyweight division. He was a 2011 gold medalist at the Abu Dhabi Combat Club Submission Wrestling Championship, considered the most prestigious no-gi grappling event in the world. He has also won multiple times at the Mundials, Brazil’s world BJJ championship. Still, his UFC track record isn’t particularly sterling: after failing to win his season of TUF, Vinny went 0-2 before being bounced from the promotion.
Since then, however, Vinny has rebounded with right victories, one of which netted him the M-1 Global light-heavyweight championship (for whatever that’s worth). Unfortunately for him, we’ve seen how the “elite BJJ player vs. elite wrestler with submission defence” narrative plays out: with the wrestler grinding the Jiu-Jitsu player into the mat like a cigarette for 15 minutes. I’m thinking that’s what happens here, but honestly nothing would surprise me.
Phil Davis via Decision
Roy Nelson vs. Cheick Kongo
So after predicting two straight decisions, I’m going to go on a limb and say that in this fight, someone’s getting slept.
Roy Nelson and Cheick Kongo is a battle of two extremely hard-hitting heavyweights. It’s also, in many ways, a battle of seeming opposites. Cheick Kongo is a former kickboxer with excellent technique and power. He also looks like a living comic book character, 250-pounds of pure sheet muscle. And finally, he’s a bit chinny, he can gas despite his impressive physique, and he sometimes has a tendency to rely on his ground game too much. This works when his opponent is even worse on the ground than he is, but it can get him into trouble against elite grapplers.
Roy Nelson is also in the 250-pound range – only “pure sheet muscle” isn’t exactly how I’d describe his physique. Basically, the guy looks like he slid off the stool at the local Boston Pizza and decided to give this MMA thing a try. Looks can be deceptive, however – Nelson is an elite BJJ black belt under Renzo Gracie. He’s also surprisingly durable cardio-wise, for a guy dragging around a small horse’s weight in body fat. He’s got the strongest chin in the division, surprisingly strong hands, and a tendency to get into firefights on the feet when going to the ground would serve him much better.
I’ll be as direct about this as possible. Kongo doesn’t have the skills to submit or stop Nelson on the mat. This fight stays standing up, and one guy is getting knocked out. Roy Nelson has never been knocked out in his career, and he’s fought Junior Dos Santos, Mirko Cro Cop, and Andrei Arlovski.
Roy Nelson via (T)KO
Michael Bisping vs. Alan Belcher
Yesterday, I wrote about how this fight too had surprisingly flew under the radar. This is a surprise considering the name “Bisping” on a card usually entails lots of trash talk, pre-fight hype, and buzz from fans.
At the UFC 159 press conference, Mike told us why that was: no one cared about this fight because he was facing “some retard from Mississippi”. Ah Mike, it’s good to have you back.
This middleweight clash features two fighters who are extremely well-rounded, and can get the job done on the feet or on the floor. Bisping, as is becoming something of a theme to his career, is coming off a crushing loss to a top-10 opponent that would have guaranteed him a title shot. Now he’s back to the drawing board – again – to fight another tough contender at 185-pounds. The question now becomes what’s next for Bisping even if he wins? He’s a couple fights removed from the title picture (here’s hoping, anyways) yet still a big enough “name” where he can’t be given gimme fights. It’s an interesting problem.
Alan Belcher could seriously use a name like Michael Bisping on his resume. In his last fight, Yushin Okami helped to halt a four-right winning streak for Belcher in the UFC, and “The Talent” needs this win to regain some of that momentum. He’s an extremely versatile fighter who has shown flashes of brilliance, such as when he absolutely handled submission expert Rousimar Palhares on the ground. But he’s also shown moments of regression, like when he was himself handled on the mat by Jason Day (who was bounced from the UFC after dropping his next two).
Who takes it? Well seeing as how this isn’t a title fight or #1 contender’s fight, I see this fight following the usual Bisping formula: at some point he’ll get dropped, and all the questions about his shaky chin will get brought up again. But he’ll still be the busier, more versatile fighter, and eventually he’ll get his hand raised.
Michael Bisping via Decision
Jon Jones(c) vs. Chael Sonnen – UFC Light-Heavyweight championship
We’ve been over this fight a hundred times. We went over it back when UFC 151 was cancelled, we went over it all this season of TUF, and we went over it all this past week. By now, even the average fan must feel inundated by coverage of a fight that, at its essence, features the LHW champ and top-five pound-for-pound fighter putting his belt on the line against a middleweight coming off a loss.
Can Chael Sonnen win this fight? Absolutely he can. In fact, it’s a good idea never to count out someone with Sonnen’s Greco-Roman wrestling, gas tank, and sheer dogged determination in any fight. And in some ways, Jones presents an easier challenge than Anderson Silva did. Jones doesn’t have quite the one-hit-quit power that Silva has (though he’s just as rangy and creative). He’s also not nearly as effective off his back, should Sonnen get him down.
But that’s the rub right there: getting Jones down. Because unlike Silva, Jones is an absolutely phenomenal MMA wrestler who bring a 100% takedown defence record into this fight. That’s right: Jon Jones has been taken down exactly never. To say Chael Sonnen has his work cut out for him is a titanic understatement.
And what if this fight stays on the feet? Sonnen is certainly no slouch there (he dropped the legendary Silva twice in their first fight) but Jones is simply a sniper in the stand-up department. The guy who picked apart “Shogun” Rua, Lyoto Machida, “Rampage” Jackson and Rashad Evans should have no problem finding a way to put his fist on Chael Sonnen’s jaw.
Really, this fight is as predictable as they come. But the last time we said that, Matt Serra absolutely steamrolled GSP in under a round. This is MMA folks – anything can happen. It just probably won’t.
Jon Jones via (T)KO