UFC 97: The Wheat and The Chaff

By Nicholas Bailey (nbailey@mmaratings.net)

UFC 97 is likely to bomb in terms of pay-per-view sales. Anderson Silva has never shown much drawing power, he’s in what’s seen as an uneven matchup, the undercard lacks in star power, and there is very little buzz among online fans. The exception, of course, is Chuck Liddell, who could once have done half a million buys hitting a heavy bag (no offense intended, Jeremy Horn). This event will be a useful barometer of what drawing power the aging star still has. No, despite being packed with 12 fights, the bulk of the fighters on this card are struggling to remain relevant, or fighting in loser-leaves-town matches. Not a lot of excitement in terms of the all-important divisional relevance, but there’s a lot of fights with a strong possibility of finishes, so it’s hard to imagine fans won’t see some fireworks out of 12 matches.

Anderson Silva (-600) vs. Thales Leites (+500)
Normally a title fight requires a detailed exposition of subtle nuance and marginal edges in order to understand what’s in play when the two men step into the ring. Not so much in this fight, where we fight the old classic of a striker vs. a grappler. Of course, this is 2009, so the ‘striker’ has a BJJ black belt, and the ‘grappler’ has the punching power and striking acumen to badly hurt the likes of Martin Kampmann and Nate Marquardt.

Anderson Silva’s gradual transformation to an all-time top pound-for-pound competitor is truly amazing. Fighters used to walk through his punches, only fearing his kicks and knees, now he has videogame power in his hands, power that immediately turns tough-as-nails fighters like Dan Henderson or Nate Marquardt into helpless children, power that seems unfair, as if he has a horseshoe in his glove. There’s no question that if he can connect on a few quality strikes that he’ll put anyone in the world down hard.

Yet Leites has a chance in this fight. Yes, he is most likely going to get murdered after Silva has taken a few minutes to get his timing down, especially because Leites is quite hittable. However, Leites has a good chance, since he’s a terrible style matchup for Anderson.

If Anderson has a universally recognized weakness, it’s his poor wrestling ability. Yes, he hit one switch on Nate Marquardt (after scrambling his brain with a big punch) one time, but other than that, whenever someone has gotten a good hold on him, he’s gone down. Leites isn’t a freestyle champ, but he does have better-than-average wrestling, and a very solid chin, which may be enough to survive a few punches on the way in. When fighters are desperate for the takedown, Anderson likes to stand way outside and try to snipe them at a long distance with kicks, so Leites is going to have to do something to close the distance. Thales has heavy hands, so, despite never having been hurt in a fight, Anderson will have to give at least some respect to that threat, which may make it easier to close the distance with a punch or two.

The weakness Anderson has which is not-so-universally recognized is that, despite his black belt and the irrelevant submission of a legally dead Travis Lutter, the champ is pretty crap off his back. Anderson couldn’t get out from under Marquardt (stalling until Big John stood up the fight). He couldn’t even recompose guard against Henderson, letting him sit in half guard for 2 minutes and hammer away, and then actually pass to side. Lutter mounted him and Anderson’s response was just to bait an armbar and then escape the attempt. Leites is a very high-level submission artist, having done well in international competitions. If he can get Anderson onto his back without being killed, then there’s a very good chance he can advance position and accumulate ground-and-pound damage or catch a submission.

But the champ is a champ for a reason. Those may be his weaknesses, but they have been known, and only the legendary Daiju Takase has even been able to properly exploit them. It remains to be seen whether Leites can emulate such a luminary. Anderson Silva by KO round 1.

Anderson may be more likely to win, but +500 for a fighter with a well-defined and reasonably likely path to victory (takedown, advance position, arm-triangle choke) is lunacy. Make a play.

Chuck Liddell (-200) vs. Mauricio “Shogun” Rua (+160)
This is a battle for relevance. Shogun looked like warmed-over death in his pathetic tilt with Mark Coleman, and Chuck looked dead after his last fight. Rua hasn’t looked impressive in two years, although he’s only had two fights in that time period. Chuck is one for three in his last four fights, although he’s been fighting top-tier competitors and been competitive and threatening in each of them.

Chuck’s record may be on a slide, but his skills remain sharp enough to beat even a prime Shogun, because of the style matchup. Despite his reputation as a feared striker, Shogun has had very little success striking with skilled hitters, aside from quickly injuring Rampage. Cyrille Diabate made him cry, Alistair Overeem controlled the standing portions of both of their fights, Rogerio Nogueira put Shogun on his ass, and even rotund and unloved Kazuhiro Nakamura did an excellent job of boxing with the Chute Boxe superstar. No, Shogun’s real talent is his lightning grappling game, which is exactly the wrong skill to beat Chuck Liddell.

Chuck has built a career on knocking out fighters desperate to close the distance, get inside his bubble of personal space, and take him down. He’s lost against fighters that are comfortable standing and banging with him (Rampage, Randy) or are happy to wait for Chuck to come to them and overextend himself (Jardine, Rashad). Shogun doesn’t have the technical acumen or patience to wait for Chuck and counter, and if he comes at Chuck guns blazing, he’s going to get dropped.

Shogun’s endurance has never been good, although it’s never before looked as horrible as against Coleman. If the fight goes past the second round, I think Shogun will have a very difficult time keeping up with a larger and more powerful Liddell, who has long corrected any cardio problems he had early in his career.

Shogun has long left himself far too open when exchanging strikes, getting hit in hopes of hitting back. Against Chuck the last thing you want to do is get hit. If Shogun can get Chuck to the ground, then he has a dynamic enough game to threaten anyone, but he’s going to have a huge problem getting him there, let alone keeping him down. Chuck Liddell by KO round 2.

There’s life in the old warhorse yet, and the style matchup is not favorable to Shogun at all. If you can get chuck at -185 or better, take it for a unit.

Krzysztof Soszynski (-155) vs. Brian Stann (+135)
The troll vs. the robot. Stann throws every punch for a knockout in a very cybernetic manner, and Soszynski headhunts by swinging giant looping punches, returning his fists to the side of his chest after a punch. Both of them are brawlers with power, although I think Stann has the crisper strikes and faster hands. Both of them suck on the ground, and neither one of them is really that great. Soszynski was an established fighter well before his time on TUF, so I don’t think he has much room for growth. Stann has a lot of athletic ability and power, but it remains to be seen whether he can grow into a real MMA fighter. Chances are he can’t. This fight is likely to be ugly, but I think Stann can hit harder faster, as well as take a better punch. Additionally, Stann will have an easier time landing since he’s faster and Krzysztof is wide-open and doesn’t move his head. Brian Stann by KO round 1.

Underdog should be a favorite, good bet, although the KO could go either way.

Cheick Kongo (-290) vs. Antoni Hardonk (+275)
It’s no surprise that this fight made it to the main card, as it has “slugfest ending in knockout” written all over it. Upon closer inspection, there is the ugly possibility of a repeat of Kongo vs. Herring, with a total slopfest of inept grappling resulting in two heavies flopping all over the ring.

Hardonk is supposed to be a high-level kickboxer, and he certainly kicks and punches well and extremely hard, but he tends to forget all his form and brawl, which resulted in him being dropped several times by Eddie Sanchez. If Kongo doesn’t get obliterated by a single crushing blow, he should be able to pick Hardonk apart, especially if he gasses out in the later rounds. If Kongo gets in too much trouble, he may even be able to work some sort of horrible takedown/top control game of pure athleticism and strength, which would make for poor television. Cheick Kongo by KO round 2.

Luis Cane (-275) vs. Steve Cantwell (+250)
Cantwell was the champion of the now-defunct Light Heavyweight division in the WEC, which was by far the weakest in the organization. His victories have come to unimpressive opposition, and Cane represents a huge step up in competition. Cane is a lethal striker with and undefeated record. He is very tough and long, scoring powerful shots at the very end of his reach.

I think Cantwell is out of luck here, short of landing a perfect punch. Cane can take what he dishes out and throw back harder. In the unlikely event of the fight hitting the ground, Cane should still have an advantage, but will at the very least be able to protect himself and avoid submissions. Overall an unfortunate matchup for Cantwell, and one that is likely to be an embarrassing thrashing. Luis Cane by KO round 1.

Vinicius Magalhaes vs. Eliot Marshall
It’s very frustrating that no betting lines have been opened on this fight, and a mystery to me. Marshall is going to win. He can hang with Vinny’s grappling (as seen in this video) and Eliot’s boxing, while not the second coming of Roy Jones Junior, is more than enough to give the fragile Vinny nightmares. Magahales will be on his heels from the start of this fight, as Eliot is very aggressive, and the minute a couple of those big shots land, it will all go downhill for him. Eliot Marshall by KO round 1.

Xavier Foupa-Pokam (+300) vs. Denis Kang (-325)
Kang outmatches Xavier in every aspect of the fight game. “Professor X” is an action fighter with good power and submissions, but he will be outmatched by Kang, who will likely knock him out. Many are taking Xavier as an upset special, due to the long odds and Kang’s inconsistency, but that misses the fact that Kang is fragile and inconsistent, not bad. There will be fights where he looks great and on the verge of establishing himself as a top ten fighter, and there will be times when he throws away fights by diving headfirst into submissions or being blown away by power strikes. The line is fair. Denis Kang by KO round 2.

Jason MacDonald (-110) vs. Nate Quarry (-105)
MacDonald is a skilled grappler that tends to be fragile, falling apart under heavy strikes. Nate Quarry is a powerful, if extremely robotic, striker that gets hit more than he should and taken down more than he’d like. If MacDonald has his smart pants on Saturday night, he’ll execute a trip (rather than his typical grab-a-leg and run around takedown attempts) and then summarily dispatch Quarry on the ground. MacDonald is good enough that if he gets it down, and he should be able to, he’ll likely finish Quarry off. Quarry hits hard enough to mess up MacDonald’s day at any time, but that’s his only shot. Jason MacDonald by submission round 1.

MacDonald opened as high as +105 in this fight, but he should be a moderate favorite. He’s overlooked because he’s been unable to string together a significant number of victories in the UFC, but he’s also been fighting top-tier guys.

Ed Herman (Even) vs. David Loiseau (-120)
Herman is exactly the kind of problem Loiseau has always had problems with. The Crow has been performing far far below the level that saw him work his way to title contention in 2006, and even in his heydey he struggled with fighters that could put him on his back and take him out of the driver’s seat of the fight.

Ed Herman is not likely to get much better than he is now, but his wrestling, chin, and power is enough to be a marginal UFC fighter, more than Loiseau can reasonably expect. A talented offensive fighter that collapses under pressure can find success in the thin and finish-happy heavyweight division, but at 185 it’s a no-go. Ed Herman by decision.

I think Herman has an edge here, enough for a bet. Loiseau always has the chance of opening someone up with elbows, but he’s going to have a very hard time getting a dominant position on a wrestler like Herman, and the Crow’s advantage on the feet won’t amount to much if he doesn’t spend much time there.

David Bielkheden (+240) vs. Mark Bocek (-285)
Two more fighters that are headed out of the UFC. Bocek might have the talent, but he was pushed too far too fast in fighting Frankie Edgar and Mac Danzig, and either needs more development or will never really belong in the UFC. He has strong takedowns and truly excellent grappling, but has big weaknesses in his striking skills and gas tank. Unless he gasses out badly, he should be able to dominate Bieklheden, who is a skilled one-dimensional grappler himself, making the prospect of Bocek running out of steam a bit higher, so no bet is wise. This fight has the potential to be a real stinker because of the style matchup. Mark Bocek by decision.

Ryo Chonan (-215) vs. T.J. Grant (+175)
What is Ryo Chonan good at? The guy doesn’t have a single outstanding skill, but has tons of wins and is a legitimate top-tier competitor? It’s very strange, because he relies on his toughness, gameness, and hanging around in fights until he can find a way to win. Lately, that has been happening less and less, as more fighters exploit the fact that Chonan is least threatening when put on his back and dominated. Ryo is pretty good everywhere, but that’s not good enough when you can get taken down by top control specialists.

Grant has the wrestling and submission savvy to outwork Chonan for a mediocre fight. TJ Grant by decision.

I think Grant at +175 is a good play. He’s being undervalued because he has no name recognition. Too much exposure should be avoided, as UFC newcomers have a decided tendency to underperform and gas, as well as the fact that Chonan is a real competitor with a bit of a striking advantage, although he doesn’t always have the power to really exploit that.

Sam Stout (-125) vs. Matt Wiman (+110)
At this point it’s safe to say both of these men are headed out of the UFC before the end of the year. Wiman’s bout with Jim Miller showed that the flashes of brilliance he showed in the Thiago Tavares fight are not going to stick around, and Stout simply hasn’t grown into much of a well-rounded fighter, although he’s certainly less vulnerable on the ground than he used to be.

Stout’s improved ground defense is enough to let him survive for longer when grapplers take him down, but his striking simply isn’t dangerous enough to be so one-dimensional and still win over top competition. Wiman is tough enough to endure the sporadic blows of Stout and keep coming. Wiman has shown problems with his gas in the past, but he should be in dominant positions throughout this fight, with Stout wearing himself out trying to escape. Matt Wiman by decision.

My plays:
.5u on Thales Leites at +475 to win 2.38u
1.85u on Chuck Liddell at -185 to win 1u
1u on Brian Stann at +135 to win 1.35u
1.25u on Jason Macdonald at -125 to win 1u
1.1u on Ed Herman at -110 to win 1u
1u on TJ grant at +175 to win 1.75u

What Do You Think of This Fight/Event?