UFC 94 Predictions – Nowhere to go but up

By Nicholas Bailey (nbailey@mmaratings.net)

UFC 94 is the sort of card fight fans dream about. Obviously with GSP vs. BJ we have two premier fighters at the top of their game engaging in a very necessary, relevant, and compelling fight. Beyond the obvious, however, we get many other types of bouts to cherish and enjoy—Lyoto Machida will attempt to prove he deserves a title shot in the most stacked division in the UFC; Jon Jones will look to establish himself as a prospective top-ten fighter; Karo Parisyan will struggle to prove he’s still the real deal; Jon Fitch will attempt to bounce back to the impressive form that made him a feared opponent; and Nate Diaz will continue his ascent as one of the best fighters in the lightweight division.

So then, a card filled with well-matched, exciting fights between top fighters. Maybe living in a Zuffa world isn’t so bad after all.

Welterweight champ Georges St. Pierre (-175) vs. lightweight champ B.J. Penn (+145) (for welterweight title)

Before we can look forward to this bout, we must look back to the first meeting between these two titans of the sport. The received wisdom is that on March 4, 2006, BJ Penn hammered Georges half to death in the first round, and then gassed out while Georges laid on him for the following two rounds. The actual result is a bit more nuanced. In the first, BJ was the more effective striker, although the most damage was done with two strikes that didn’t threaten to end the fight – an eye poke an an uppercut that was just inches too short, catching nothing but the tip of GSP’s nose, which it broke badly. After being marked up in the first (although not seriously threatened) Georges actually out-struck a slowing Penn in a standup-oriented second round, beating him to the punch and making good use of his kicks. For those last two rounds, whenever BJ started to find his rhythm in the standup, Georges would force another takedown, and on the ground BJ couldn’t threaten to sweep or submit. All in all it was a very close fight, although GSP was the clear winner. Now all that remains is to see how much each man has grown in the intervening years.

As amazing as it is to say, GSP has only gotten stronger and more physically dominant, absolutely destroying Serra, Hughes, and Fitch. Penn, too, has improved by leaps and bounds in this category, bullying a perennially-too-small Jens Pulver, as well as Joe Stevenson, both in embarrassing fashion. In fact, in none of BJ’s three wins since returning to 155 pounds did it even look like his opponent posed a reasonable threat. As a fighter that’s never come back from being down a round, it’s debatable whether BJ is mentally ready for the challenge GSP will provide. Like Penn, GSP has rarely come back from adversity (or even been in a position to do so) but I think he’s demonstrated more mental toughness, in bouncing back against BJ all those years ago, as well as going five rounds with Fitch, with Fitch threatening even in the last couple of rounds. I think deep waters will still be BJ’s enemy in this fight, as he slowed in the later rounds, even against Sherk.

Standing, BJ is primarily a pure boxer, with some of the best hands in the business. BJ used a bit of a flicker jab to great effect against Sherk and Stevenson, to great effect, helped along by the fact that Sherk and Stevenson would be about 6’2″ if stacked on top of each other. BJ expanded on this reach advantage (something he won’t have against GSP, who has at least the advantages of an inch of height and three to six inches of reach, depending on which measurement you believe) by using excellent head movement, slipping both to counter and avoid counters. The most amazing part of BJ’s standup, however, is his timing; he is very relaxed, but strikes with laser precision straight through even Sean Sherk’s traditionally sound defenses. While it’s very difficult to squarely connect with BJ’s head while he’s bobbing and weaving, his legs are solidly planted to the floor while he’s doing this, and he does very little to check leg kicks. GSP is no Thiago Alves in the leg kick department, but he does employ a dynamic kicking game, and the more mobility and dexterity he can take out of BJ’s legs, the better he’ll fare in all facets of the fight. Georges definitely doesn’t want to get into a boxing match with BJ, but he does have the dynamic variety of strikes and reach to hang with BJ and deal a good amount of damage. The one problem with standup exchanges for GSP is the fact that BJ has a rock solid coconut head. Unless GSP is really shellacking BJ in the standup, the benefits of dinging away at BJ’s ninja-turtle looking dome are outweighed by the risk of BJ perfectly timing a counter uppercut and knocking GSP to the floor. GSP is a hardy dude himself, Serra KO notwithstanding, but BJ does have the power to put him down, and the skills to put him away if he can get on top of a hurt St. Pierre.

BJ’s chances of getting on top of St. Pierre otherwise are pretty slim. Both fighters are fantastic wrestlers, but Georges is just a bigger man, and has better timing on his shots. BJ can do his weird “I have no bones” takedown defense, but Georges will turn him over onto his back. If GSP can exchange strikes at all to set up his takedowns, he should be able to put BJ on his back when he needs to, but not without a struggle (which may actually work in his favor, in terms of wearing BJ down). I expect Georges to work a lot of takedowns in the fight, as part of a strategy of wearing BJ down and capitalizing on his physical advantages.

On the ground, BJ is phenomenally dangerous, but GSP is capable of working in his guard. St. Pierre works a very basic smash pass top game, but throws powerful punches and elbows while doing so. BJ doesn’t have the tightest defensive guard, playing a bit more offensive, looking for sweeps and subs, which he will have a difficult time getting on Georges. GSP is capable of dealing a very large amount of damage from the top, and I expect he can defend and control BJ well enough to make it work.

Cardio-wise, GSP has an advantage. BJ’s gas problems are blown far out of proportion (even in their first fight, BJ held it together and was dangerous at the end) but he simply cannot match Georges pace and intensity over five rounds. Even against Sherk, BJ slowed down in the third round and his work rate dropped off.

Both of these guys are extremely dangerous in all facets of the game, so any result is possible, even GSP knocking out or submitting BJ. That said, I think the most likely result is GSP wearing BJ down with a combination of strikes to set up takedowns and ground and pound, without taking too many risks and maintaining control of the pace and location of the fight. If GSP can do this without giving up bad positions, getting submitted, or getting caught with a huge strike, he will wear BJ down and either cruise through the last two rounds as BJ’s gas runs out or pour on the damage for a TKO.

BJ can win if he can land a very big punch in the standup and swarm GSP (as he did against Sherk, although it will be much harder to do to Georges) or if he can sweep Georges and get on top. GSP is very difficult to keep down, but Penn has the agility (at least early in the fight) to slip to his back in a scramble, which would likely spell GSP’s doom. I think GSP wins this fight two out of three times. Georges St. Pierre by decision.

With more favorable odds available on other fights, I don’t see much value in betting on GSP unless he can be found for -150 or better.

Lyoto Machida (-250) vs. Thiago Silva (+220)

This is a much simpler fight to handicap. Thiago Silva has a very basic game. He comes straight forward and throws strikes with intent to kill. If he gets a clinch he goes for a takedown and continues his attempts to drive his fists through the back of his opponent’s head. All this violence means that he usually overwhelms subpar opposition in under a round, but also indicates he’ll wear himself out before the third. The single-mindedness also means that he will come straight forward into Machida’s counters and get beat up by the technically superior striker as Machida moves away at angles and otherwise breaks the matrix.

Machida has two ways to lose this fight, as I can see it. If he gets taken down, Silva has a very heavy top game with a lead-assed mount, and it won’t take more than a few punches to ruin anyone’s day. Machida has excellent takedown defense, mostly due to the fact that he doesn’t let anyone touch him, but he’s flashed some real wrestling as well, so that is a very unlikely scenario. The other situation is the ‘perfect punch’. When Machida breaks from a clinch, he’s usually got his hands extended straight out to push his opponent away, and does not guard himself at all. If he has his hands down when backing away from Thiago, Silva could very well clip him hard, since all the guy does is throw. Machida so confuses and frustrates his opponents, however, that they rarely have the presence of mind to take the swing in that position, let alone time and aim it properly.

This fight was put together to put Machida over as a truly dominant 205 pound fighter, and Thiago’s style is perfectly suited to do just that. He will continue to engage Machida against his own best interests, wear out, and get finished. Lyoto Machida by TKO round 2.

With Machida still available at -250 in many places, this is an excellent bet for a couple units.

Stephan Bonnar (-175) vs. Jon Jones (+145)

I’m very interested to see how this fight plays out. Jones had 9 months of professional experience and 12 days notice when he picked apart Andre Gusmao over 3 rounds, and he looked like a very talented prospect. Now he has another 5 months of experience and a full training camp, so he’s going to perform twice as well (right?). Bonnar’s body is apparently breaking down, as he’s coming off yet another injury and more of a year off since his last fight.

Against Gusmao, Jones showed that he still has fabulous wrestling, and has the confidence to throw a wide variety of crazy strikes. He also looked like a dysfunctional robot in throwing those strikes, with technical problems galore. If Jones continues to drop his guard, lose all form on the second punch of a combination, and try to lean away from all punches instead of properly defend himself, he could get beat up badly against Bonnar.

Bonnar is a solid, well-rounded fighter, but he doesn’t have plus-level skills in any area. At times, his striking is too unrefined, his wrestling isn’t dominant, and his submission game is lax.

If Jones has smoothed out his striking somewhat, and doesn’t hit a brick wall when facing someone he doesn’t have a massive reach advantage on (Bonnar is just as tall as Jones is) then I think he can outwork Bonnar on the feet and gas him out in the later rounds to take a decision. If Bonnar’s hands are too sharp, I think Jones has a good chance of just taking him down and controlling him for a terrible fight, since Bonnar will have trouble sweeping or submitting someone with such a strong base. Jones isn’t afraid to get hit, but if he can’t put his striking together and Bonnar can sweep him, he’s in for a very long night, since submission savvy is usually one of the slowest areas of development for any fighter. Jon Jones by decision.

At the currently available +145 I think Jones is a very good bet. He has Bonnar’s poor endurance, weak wrestling, ring rust, and general physical deterioration all working in his favor.

Karo Parisyan (-275) vs. Dong Hyun Kim (+225)

Karo is under tremendous pressure, having lost much of his fan support after blaming his loss to Thiago Alves on panic attacks and then pulling out of his next fight at the very last moment with an injury that many of the MMA rabble said (with no proof) was only a cover for another panic attack. Kim is also coming off a bit of a flop after barely squeaking out a W over the unheralded Matt Brown and gassing badly.

Kim has a decent striking game, and Karo has earned many of his recent wins through strikes, so don’t be surprised if this bout is contested primarily on the feet. Karo often relies on his chin too much for defense, so if Kim can throw with real power, he could hurt him there.

On paper, however, Karo should be able to win this fight handily, having a much stronger record and the necessary skills to defuse Kim’s offense and attack his weak conditioning. Karo Parisyan by decision.

Given the very long odds on Kim and the fact that Karo is under so much pressure in a fragile mental state, coming off an injury and a brutal loss, and rumored to be injured again, a small play on Kim is worth the risk. At +280 I expect to be able to arbitrage out the risk on fight day.

Nate Diaz (-130) vs. Clay Guida (EVEN)

Nate Diaz is a multidimensional threat that has more potential than his highly-touted brother. He has excellent boxing and reach, and is virtually impossible to control on the ground, with the sudden submission finishing ability that all grapplers aspire to. In his last fight with the powerful wrestler Josh neer, Diaz even showed some takedown defense and throwing ability of his own, a Diaz Family first.

Guida brings a very well-known, but very effective gameplan to every fight. He will hustle you, relentlessly shoot for takedowns, then posture up and throw wild ground and pound, more in hopes of wearing you out than knocking you out with a single blow. Against the weaker Diaz, I think Guida’s wrestling will mean he gets to dictate where the fight takes place.

Unfortunately for Guida, that only gives him the choice of a rock and a hard place. On the feet, Guida throws hooking punches, further shortening an already limited reach, meaning that Diaz will likely be able to jab away at him for points. On the ground, Guida’s constant posturing up and wild attacking leaves him open to submissions, which have proven to be his greatest weakness in the past. I think that Diaz can win rounds off his back in this fight, and has a good chance of catching Guida in a triangle and putting him to sleep. Nate Diaz by submission round 2.

I think -130 doesn’t even begin to handicap the style matchup in this fight, so I’m making another multi-unit play here.

Jon Fitch (-600) vs. Akihiro Gono (+525)

Grabaka fighter Akihiro Gono has a generally useful fighting style. While he is weakest at defending takedowns, he has a clever ground game that can often let him threaten off his back, and he protects himself well on the feet and counterstrikes in a very technically sound manner. However, Jon Fitch is going to grind him into paste. Fitch is the worst possible style matchup for Gono: a grinding wrestler that can grapple at least as well as the Japanese fighter and punish him with physical dominance. Look for Gono to be in Sengoku by the end of the year. Jon Fitch by decision.

-600 is very long odds, but this is a very safe play, so it’s worth laying down some chalk. With such a limited reward, I don’t want to risk more than a couple of units.

Manny Gamburyan (EVEN) vs. Thiago Tavares (-120)

Gamburyan is coming off a very funny and awkward KO loss, where he was sort of chipped into unconsciousness by a falling Rob Emerson. Tavares is coming off a very rough 1-3 run against some of the toughest guys in the division in Kurt Pellegrino and Tyson Griffin, with a face-melting KO at the unlikely hands of Matt Wiman mixed in for good measure.

Manny is very strong and has good top control and footlocks. Tavares is a BJJ black belt with a vast arsenal of submissions, solid wrestling, and a ever-improving standup skill set. Gamburyan is the shortest guy in the division and has very poor standup skills, consisting entirely of throwing hammers and hoping he’s facing Jorge Santiago in 2003. If Tavares can avoid (for once) placing his face in front of the haymaker, I think he can control the fight with his longer arms and legs, and work over Gabmuryan while fighting off takedowns. I don’t think Manny has a very good shot of submitting Thiago at all, and Thiago could KO or submit Manny if he ends up on top. Thiago Tavares by KO round 2.

At -120 I think people are discounting Tavares’ skills too much. Yes, he lost to Matt Wiman, but his other losses are to the very tough Tyson Griffin (in a very close fight) and the vastly underrated Kurt Pellegrino. I think Manny will have too much trouble finishing Tavares for this not to be a good play.

John Howard vs. Chris Wilson

Wilson will remind everyone how talented he is when he uses his length and wrestling to batter Howard to a second round stoppage. Maybe this will be Wilson’s breakout year, if he doesn’t run into another Jon Fitch. Chris Wilson TKO round 2.

Jake O’Brien (-250) vs. Christian Wellisch (+215)

Interestingly, both men are moving down to 205 after being crushed by much larger wrestlers (Cain Velasquez and Shane Carwin). O’Brien is a much better fighter, but he’s also a larger man, so he may have more trouble with the weight cut. Wellisch, who’s smaller than Chuck Liddell but has long fought at heavyweight for no good reason, should be hoping O’Brien can’t make the cut, since otherwise he’s going to get beat up badly. Jake O’Brien TKO round 2.

Matt Arroyo (-170) vs. Dan Cramer (+160)

Arroyo is a talented grappler that doesn’t deal well with getting beat up on the bottom. Especially not by Matt Brown. Fortunately for Arroyo, he’s fighting Dan Cramer, not Matt Brown. Cramer is also a grappler (with NO pro fights!), and Arroyo should be able to dominate and submit him. It’s weird that a card that has talent like BJ Penn and Georges St. Pierre on it also has fighters so early in their development. Matt Arroyo by submission round 1.

Cramer sucks, so a small play on Arroyo here is fun.

My plays:

3u on Jon Fitch to win .5u
3u on Machida to win 1.15u
1u on Kim to win 2.8u
2u on Diaz to win 1.43u
2u on Tavares to win 1.6u
2u on Jones to win 2.9u
1u on Arroyo to win .59u

What Do You Think of This Fight/Event?