UFC 89 Picks and Predictions

By Nicholas Bailey (nbailey@mmaratings.net)

UFC 89 as it exists today is a much weaker card than the one originally scheduled. The back injury that forced Thiago Silva to cancel his fight with Lyoto Machida also robbed the card of much of its luster and star power. Instead we have a large number of UK and Europe-based fighters that wouldn’t have made it to the UFC if not for the need for local draws. While I’m not one to begrudge more fights, successful marketing, or up-and-coming fighters, the quality of this card and its free broadcast mean it’s more of a fight night card than a ‘number’ event.

Interestingly, almost every matchup on the card looks poised to deliver a slugfest, so this may be an enjoyable ‘popcorn’ UFC. The fights to keep your eye on are not the main event, but the light-heavyweight matches, since the winners of Vera/Jardine and Cane/Sokoudjou will likely be in title eliminators in short order.

Michael Bisping (-220) vs. Chris Leben (+190)

If I were Joe Rogan I’d just compare head sizes and say all you need to know is that Leben’s skull is 10% larger. However, my brain has not been fried by DMT. These guys may have both come off of TUF, but they’re well-established UFC veterans at this point, and we know what we’re getting from them. Bisping is an aggressive, technically talented striker, with no glaring weaknesses. Leben is an extremely aggressive slugger with a phenomenal chin, which he insists on testing in every fight. Bisping is very technically sound, defends himself well, and relies more on accumulating combinations of strikes in the style of a point-fighting kickboxer rather than headhunting for a one-shot KO. Both fighters are competent on the ground, and capable of threatening with submissions, but are stronger defensively there, so I doubt either could get much done in terms of advancing position and threatening with subs.

Leben still punches the exact same way he did on TUF. He leads with his nipple and drags his whole body to whip his hand around. It makes his punches hard, but it lets crisper boxers tag him easily. However much Leben may load up and throw haymakers, he’s throwing them accurately now, not just winging them and hoping to hit. He may be wide open to counters, but he swings through them, so his opponent must be wary of getting into tit-for-tat exchanges.

Leben also managed to gas out badly and look like death against Terry Martin (and was well on his was to losing a decision before he got rocked very badly and then scored a knockout), and fought so stupidly that he lost to Kalib Starnes in a fight that actually saw Kalib cower away from him in a premonition of the debacle he put together with Nate Quarry. Leben had no energy in that fight and continually put himself in positions that negated his advantages over Starnes.

Leben has really had his success against fighters that can’t take a lot of punishment, so as soon as Leben can get a good shot in, it’s all downhill.

Bisping has shown no sign of any chin problems. In addition to a successful run in pure kickboxing, he was battered and ragdolled by Matt Hamill without ever seeming out of it or wobbly, and managed to come back and win the fight. Bisping had a ton of problems in that fight, mostly due to the extreme difference in physical power–Hamill is an enormously strong man, and a very straight puncher. His success against Bisping came from just overwhelming him. Bisping keyed off this fight and performed impressively in his loss to Rashad Evans, a smaller man than Hamill, but another very physically gifted wrestler. Bisping demonstrated excellent takedown defense in that fight, to the point that I think he could outwrestle Leben if he felt it necessary. I won’t be surprised if Bisping throws in a couple of takedowns just to throw off Leben’s rhythm and accumulate some ground and pound points.

Bisping also has a significant advantage in terms of gas. Leben looked like death late in the fight against both Starnes and Martin, and while Bisping visibly tired after three rounds of grappling with much larger men, he remained active and energetic, and (most importantly) didn’t allow his form to fall apart and his defenses to collapse.

Against fighters where he can move in and out, mix up his strikes, and generally technically outclass, Bisping looks fabulous. While he has to be concerned about Leben’s power, and keep his footwork and head movement going so Leben can’t just chop away at his skull, I think Michael has the talent needed to win this fight with some certainty. When you have someone that is a very crisp and accurate puncher that throws straight down the middle against someone that leads with their chest out, chin up, and hands wide, it would be silly not to expect Bisping to win this fight. Leben is tough enough and has the power that it’s always possible he’ll initiate an exchange and somehow land something that puts Bisping down and out, but Bisping’s chin is solid. Michael Bisping by decision.

At -220 I’m mildly inclined to play on Bisping, but I think it’s just about a fair, and therefore uninteresting, line. However, I expect late money to come in on Leben as a 2:1 underdog, which would open up Bisping’s line to a more enticing play for a unit.

Keith Jardine (+155) vs. Brandon Vera (-180)

Jardine is coming off an absolute emasculation at the hands of Wanderlei Silva, and Vera has to redeem himself after a gutless performance in a close decision win over a hand-picked opponent following a few disappointing losses.

Both of these fighters are competent and well-rounded, and if this fight stays on the outside, we could see a great display, as that’s where both men are strongest–exchanging blows at the maximum range. Vera, however, has an often-annoying tendency to swim into a clinch and try to dirty box, totally negating his excellent pure kickboxing skills, and he does this even when it’s a terrible strategic idea. Fortunately for Vera, the weakest link in Jardine’s game seems to be a tendency to get clipped and go down if he’s being swarmed. Vera, for all his flaws, is an excellent finisher, so all it will take for him is one clean knee or inline elbow. That’s a big advantage in this fight, because I think Vera’s chin is good enough, and his defense strong enough, to keep Jardine from having much chance of finishing him in this match.

It is possible that Vera comes in uninspired or doesn’t work hard for the win. Jardine is a junkyard dog, and he’s going to try to find a way to win from bell to bell. He could grind and outpoint Vera for a decision if Brandon decides to have another personal therapy session in the cage like he did against Reese Andy.

However, I think Vera has all the tools to frustrate the very awkward Jardine, and he definitely has the power and killer instinct to exploit any openings for a sudden finish. It’s even conceivable that he could catch another guillotine if Jardine isn’t expecting it. Brandon Vera by KO round 2.

On paper, -180 is a good price for Vera, but his recent performances give me enough worries about his mental state that I’ll stay away from this one.

Luiz Cane (-105) vs. Rameau Thierry Sokoudjou (-120)

Cane is a very vicious traditional Muay Thai fighter with excellent accuracy and timing in his strikes. Sokoudjou makes up what he lacks in technique with sheer cartoonish power; the uppercut he landed on Arona looks like something from a bugs bunny cartoon. However, I think the Lyoto Machida fight showed us everything we need to know for this one. Sokoudjou isn’t great in top position, and doesn’t offer much at all off his back. More importantly, a skilled kickboxer can stay away from his power while still countering. It’s also important to remember that Sokoudjou only has 7 fights, and in the only two I’ve seen where he got hit hard, he went down. Cane has vicious speed in his strikes, and I think he’ll plonk Sokoudjou just like Glover Texeira did. Cane by KO round 1.

The line opening up this close was a huge disappointment to me, gambling-wise, as I really expected Cane to open as a moderate underdog and be a really juicy multi-unit bet. At -105, however, I would only recommend a normal play.

Chris Lytle (-350) vs. Paul Taylor (+300)

This is why I don’t like UK cards. Paul Taylor is only in this matchup because he’s a local guy. He’s a talented fighter, but he’s severely overmatched in every aspect of the game here, and there’s no point in feeding Chris Lytle easy opponents to build him up. We know what we’re going to get from Chris, and nursing him along to a title shot is just not in the picture.

Lytle has a very good chin, and has recently been very aggressive on the feet. He’s surprisingly well-rounded, and can easily dispatch the one-dimensional Taylor on the floor if he so chooses. Lytle can most likely also knock him out if he comes to that. Chris Lytle by submission round 3.

I think there’s a little value in Lytle at -350, although not a lot since there’s always the possibility of a cut.

Marcus Davis (-295) vs. Paul Kelly (+250)

David hits incredibly hard for the weight class, but the gameplan for beating him has already been written; a clinch, a takedown, and top control all frustrate Marcus, who has at times sounded off about his philosophy that the only way to prove ones cojones is to stand and trade. Now, that sort of attitude is fine for 1998 or keyboard warriors, but for a professional fighter on the sports biggest stage, it usually leads to a refusal to train to fight off your back or otherwise become a well-rounded fighter. Davis has a shockingly large number of submission wins for someone that tries to bang out all his opponents, but his ground game is still lacking quite a bit of offensive punch, as we saw in his fight with Mike Swick.

Nevertheless, Paul Kelly simply doesn’t have the chops to control Davis for 3 rounds, and will probably fade early when he has trouble getting past Davis’ hands and finishing a takedown. Davis is not one to cruise for a decision, so expect him to pursue the knockout if he can avoid spending too much time underneath Kelly. Marcus Davis by Knockout round 2.

Again, long odds that still have a little value for the favorite, although not a lot.

Shane Carwin (-700) vs. Neil Wain (+500)

This should be a fun fight if someone can get a knockout before they gas embarrassingly. Two undefeated heavyweight sluggers are going to put on a show. Carwin has much more going for him than Wain, who will have to rely on that proverbial “puncher’s chance”. Shane Carwin by KO round 1.

Carwin is a far higher-quality fighter, but I think that any heavyweight has a chance in a slugfest, since the power of a 250lb man far outstrips the human body’s ability to take punishment. If you’re a degenerate gambler, it could be fun to take a chance that Neal Wain can channel the spirit of Eric Pele vs. Antonio Silva, given the longshot odds.

Akihiro Gono (-330) vs. Dan Hardy (+285)

Gono is pretty much the living embodiment of crafty veteran status. It’s easy to forget because he’s not a broken-down old man, but Gono is an MMA pioneer, having fought almost as long as Ken Shamrock and his contemporaries. Gono has a unique elusive and effective counter-striking style, with an emphasis on protecting his chin from excessive damage (I can only wonder what it looks like when he spars with training partner Misaki, who has a similarly unorthodox and passive style) letting him go deep even when badly out-gunned on the feet. While he isn’t a technical wizard like a Jacare or Shinya Aoki, Gono’s submission game is all craftiness and guile. He is able to utilize his experience to create openings that wouldn’t be there for a by-the-book grappler, snatching submission wins over skilled grapplers like Tamdan McCrory and Gegard Mousasi.

While Hardy will be the sharper man in direct exchanges of strikes, I think Gono will be able to move around the ring and take enough potshots to frustrate Hardy, opening up opportunities for takedowns. On the mat, Gono’s class will show through and he will keep Hardy on the defensive until he is able to lock in a submission, although the fight is just about as likely to go the distance. Akihiro Gono by submission round 2.

Terry Etim (+260) vs. Sam Stout (-265)

There was a time when Stout could accurately be predicted to tap out whenever his opponent took him down. Although he still struggles on the ground, those days are far past him, so Etim’s impressive string of submissions may mean less than some think. Etim is still the more versatile fighter, threatening on the feet and able to punish with submissions those who attempt to control him on the ground. Stout is the more dangerous fighter standing, but Etim shouldn’t be counted out. Etim’s wrestling is horrible, however, so unless he can knock Stout down or pull guard, this fight will be decided on the feet, where Etim should be at a disadvantage. Sam Stout by Decision.

If the odds on Etim were longer, I think he would represent a great live dog. As it is, I’d only recommend a bet on him if you’re a true Sam Stout hater (and there are plenty of those).

My Plays:
Parlay: Lytle and Vera .5u to win .47u
Parlay: Cane and Davis .5u to win .78u
Parlay: Davis, Gono, and Cane .5u to win 1.16u
Parlay: Davis, Gono, Bisping, and Vera .5u to win 1.38u
Parlay: Davis, Gono, Bisping, Vera, and Cane, .17u to win 1.06u
Parlay: Wain, Cane, Lytle, Davis, Gono, Bisping, and Vera .08u to win 4.5u

Look for my forthcoming article on the role of parlay betting in MMA

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