UFC 98 Picks and Predictions: Enter the Dragon

By Nicholas Bailey (

Headlined by a fight between a chronically unrespected champion and an extremely divisive challenger whose talents go wholly unrecognized by many fans, UFC 98 doesn’t have the sheer starpower, fabricated rivalries, or manufactured storylines that have so often brought success to Zuffa’s oeuvre. What it does have is the kind of style matchups that get a serious fan’s blood pumping like a Jose Canseco steroid syringe. While not every fight is likely to be a gem, each one should at least have educative value, clearly demonstrating a fighter’s caliber, and be worth watching for that purpose.

Champ Rashad Evans (+190) vs. Lyoto Machida (-200) (for light-heavyweight title)

Despite absolutely clubbing two former champions, Evans is given little credit and seen by many as little more than a placeholder champion. Wearing a strap to a fight that you’re a 2:1 underdog in will really drive home the fact that you have a tough row to hoe if you want to be seen as a divisional kingpin.

Of course, with the power Rashad packs into his heavyweight lower-body and channels into his punches, it just takes one shot to immeasurably strengthen the argument that Rashad really is the best in the world at 205. Unfortunately, he’s fighting the man that is most likely the least susceptible to such a blow (after fighting two of the most vulnerable).

Lyoto Machida has achieved cult status for his unique style and apparently impenetrable defense, moving at angles, getting in and out with strikes without being touched, and generally zigging whenever he’s expected to zag. He’s well-rounded, athletic, incredibly fast, and should have a height and reach advantage and a power deficit.

Against Forrest, Rashad got off to a terribly slow start, unable to get inside on the lanky Georgian and dropping the first two rounds while being picked to death. Similarly against Chuck, Rashad (more willingly) gave away the first round staying out of Chuck’s range, until the former champ got frustrated and started chasing Rashad in the second, leading to his crushing defeat after standing in front of Rashad with his hands at his sides, trying to decide on the best punch to throw. This shows an excellent level of discipline and commitment to the gameplan for Rashad, although giving up rounds to a fighter that can demonstrably and clearly win rounds and control a fight like Machida could spell disaster in a five-round fight.

Machida, despite his skills at sniping from his bicycle, will not fall apart if Rashad refuses to chase him around. One of the more insidious aspects of Machida’s style is that he punishes fighters for not chasing him, as it only lets him control the engagements to a greater degree, sneaking in that lightning-quick right-hand lead and circling out before a fighter can react. In order to have any say in when blows are exchanged, an opponent must put pressure on Machida, although so far that has only meant walking into counters instead of waiting to be hit.

Before stunning Chuck and Forrest, Rashad was primarily known for his wrestling skills, impressively cruising through a number of inept heavyweights on TUF, and riding out a number of close decisions. If Machida’s technique and reach advantage prevent Rashad’s striking from getting out of neutral, he’s going to have to turn to takedowns, where he will still have a real challenge. While not versed in traditional wrestling, Machida has a very strong sumo(!) background, and seems able to channel all the experience with the famous fatties into unnaturally heavy hips. He’s helped by the fact that he’s almost always approximately ten miles away from his opponent, and running away any time they move forward, so a simple shot usually finds nothing but a cloud of dust. Furthermore, Rashad will have difficulty using his explosive power in a clinch, not just because of the difficulty of getting ones hands on Machida or pinning him against the fence, but because he has very solid judo skills, as the very talented judoka Kazuhiro Nakamura and Sokoudjou found, to their detriment. If Rashad isn’t careful when tying up with Lyoto, it’s entirely possible he gets tossed flat onto his back.

Should Machida be put on his back, it’s unlikely that Rashad’s ground-and-pound will appear as crushingly brutal and effective as it was against Forrest Griffin or Jason Lambert. Lambert has always floundered very badly when put on his back, and Griffin, usually a skilled grappler, was either badly rocked or ridiculously overconfident, as he played an incredibly loose guard with no defense or control of Rashad’s body or fists. Machida plays a much tighter and defensive style, which will limit Rashad’s effectiveness to little more than maintaining position and control. Rashad has never attempted a submission in his UFC career.

Shoulda Machida get on top of Rashad (be it a well-timed trip or a crushing counter that puts him down) he will likely be little more effective, as Rashad’s short limbs and ball-of-muscle build will make it very difficult to control him, and his grappling acumen will prevent anything as embarrassing as the choke that finished off Sokoudjou.

No, Rashad’s most likely path to victory is to land that big shot, and there’s a very real chance that he will. Nobody has yet solved the mystery of Machida, but that’s the kind of thing Greg Jackson was probably game planning for on his vacation, for fun. The only vulnerability I’ve noticed is that when Machida is really trying to get-out-of-dodge and break from a clinch, he leaves his hands straight out to push his opponent and his chin high up in the air. If Rashad can somehow time this and break from the clinch with a huge shot, he could really land it. Machida is so good at parrying shots though, that he might do this because he’s confident he can intercept and deflect such a punch.

Failing that, Machida is going to put on a clinic and work Rashad over for as many rounds as it takes. Neither man has ever been stopped, but neither has either ever taken a lot of punishment. I wouldn’t be shocked to see Rashad get put down by the same kind of counter punches that floored Thiago Silva or the knee that folded Tito in half, but he’s such a gamer he could probably recover unless a significant flurry was landed on him. Whatever the outcome, this has the makings of a truly great fight. Lyoto Machida by decision.

At -200, Machida is good for a medium play. Rashad’s striking is overrated because of flashy finishes of hittable opponents. I wouldn’t take extreme risks because Rashad is very live in this fight, and it seems that title fights have upsets at a higher rate than other fights.

Matt Hughes (-240) vs. Matt Serra (+210)

Hughes is well on his way to retirement, but Serra is only 5 months younger than him and was the weakest UFC champion in a very long time. Hughes has had extreme problems against fighters that he can’t take down and dominate, but Serra doesn’t hold a candle to Thiago Alves or Georges St. Pierre in the physical tools or wrestling skills department. Serra has never been a threat off his back and has terrible gas for such a light fighter. Hughes is a very good grappler and is probably more motivated than he has been in years.

The one onion in the Hughes ointment is that he really seems to have a psychological hangup on the knockout. He always talks about how he wants to be like Chuck Liddell and crush people, and he’s worked diligently on developing a weak and non-threatening standup game that he has used to his detriment. Serra is not the second coming of Ernesto Hoost, but he does have power, so even if they simply go punch-for-punch in a brawl, he’ll easily win. Furthermore, while actually landing the punch that killed GSP is a fluke given GSP’s skills, Serra landed essentially the same punch on Karo and nearly took his head off, with Karo only surviving because he has a very serious beard.

Barring a gigantic mental lapse on Hughes’ part and a pathetic striking battle, Hughes will get the takedown and beat Serra up for the bulk of the first round, wear him out, and finish him in the second. If Serra has improved his gas, he can look forward to being ground down for three rounds. Matt Hughes by TKO round 2.

While many have recognized that Serra is not an elite fighter, Hughes deserves credit for the fact that he’s only lost to elite fighters and still has the tools that made him a champion. He’s just been left behind by the growth of the game. Against a fighter that’s even more of a relic, he should be a larger favorite. Medium play on Hughes.

Xavier Foupa-Pokam (-175) vs. Drew McFedries (+155)

Against Kang we saw that Professor X may not be a mutant, but he’s certainly a gifted youngster. He showed off a very classy kickboxing game and ground work competent enough to contain the dangerous Kang.

Drew McFedries has absurd crushing power, a poor chin, surprisingly poor wrestling for a MFS fighter, and embarrassing groundwork. If Professor X takes him down, he will likely submit McFedries within a minute, and on the feet he will work McFedries over. Because McFedries hasn’t seen the third minute of a fight in years, it’s also forgotten that he has a drag racer’s gas tank, pooping out if he fails to get knocked out.

This should be an entertaining (and quick) fight, and, as Alessio Sakara found out, McFedries has the power to crush you at any time, even if you technically outclass him, so it’s best to be careful until you’ve put him to sleep. Xavier Foupa-Pokam by KO round 1.

At -175, Professor X is good for a play. He’s not likely to break into the top ten in the division, but he has a well-developed and classy game which should be enough to take out McFedries.

Dan Miller (-200) vs. Chael Sonnen (+160)

Sonnen is a monster wrestler that has never adapted to the ground game or shown himself to have standout talent on the feet. Miller is similarly undistinguished on the feet, but, like his brother, is a wrestler that took to the ground game like a fish to water. With Sonnen’s historically weak submission defense and bone-headed insistence on driving himself right into danger over and over again, it’s hard not to expect Miller to catch something and take it home, possibly another decapitation-attempt guillotine.

Compounding Sonnen’s problems, he is a late replacement (22 days) for an injured Yushin Okami (who likely would have rolled over Miller) and was dealing with weight and personal issues, meaning he’s not going to be 100% against an opponent that would likely beat him even if he were at the best of his abilities. Dan Miller by submission round 1.

Miller at -200 is good for one unit, although I was able to get a multi-unit play at -165 (follow my twitter , as I announce many of these plays early, and never broadcast about my bowel movements or lunch decisions).

Frank Edgar (+275) vs. Sean Sherk (-300)

Remember the Gray Maynard fight? This is going to be worse. Sherk is much faster than Gray, has better (although far less powerful) hands, and a much more well-developed guard-pass and control game. Unless Frankie has made a quantum leap in some aspect of his game, Sherk is going to roll over him with speedy combinations that couldn’t bust a grape and a dominating takedown and grind game. Sean Sherk by Decision.

Edgar also has weak hands and isn’t nearly a good enough grappler to catch the very wily Sherk. He only wins on a fluke or if he suddenly developed a completely unexpected talent, so Sherk is a good play even at -300.

Brock Larson (-310) vs. Chris Wilson (+275)

Larson is a terrifying physical force in the cage, manhandling fighters and blasting them into unconsciousness or, more commonly, powering out a limb-threatening submission. Wilson, while strong and athletic, is much more of a finesse fighter, with a very technically sound game in every area. After making an impressive UFC debut in his loss to Jon Fitch, Wilson is coming off a loss to John Howard, where he was simply physically dominated by a very game John Howard (who I feel is a rising star in the division).

While Larson has been submitted before, Wilson’s well-tuned submission game is not on the level of suddenness and sneakiness that Carlos Condit brings to the mat, so Wilson will be lucky if he can use his skills well enough to control and stifle Larson’s aggression.

Larson is very powerful, but Wilson has good power in his strikes, and a more refined style. If Larson slows down as the fight wears on, fails to get takedowns, or chooses to engage, there’s a very real possibility of Wilson pounding him the way he did Steve Bruno, who was dropped repeatedly. Larson fading is a very real possibility, as he hasn’t been past the first few minutes of a fight in a while. However, with Wilson coming off a disappointing showing against Howard and Larson cruising along with great momentum, the most likely outcome is Brock Larson by decision.

With Wilson’s well-rounded skills and the possibility of Larson wearing himself out against a defensively sound fighter, taking a flier on Wilson is a smart play.

Pat Barry (-315) vs. Tim Hague (+300)

Pat Barry is going to stomp another much larger but unskilled heavyweight. This is good for Barry, as he really needs time to work on his non-kickboxing skills and is very inexperienced. Pat Barry by KO round 1.

Don’t bet on this fight. Hague has a small chance of laying on a smaller fighter that is very much still a kickboxing convert with limited ground skills. There’s much better value elsewhere.

Kyle Bradley (+300) vs. Phillipe Nover (-345)

Nover has a lot to live up to, although the line in this fight is as if he’s already proven that the hype was for real. He’s being set up to win here, and Bradley is going to be a step or two behind in every aspect of the fight, while still being somewhat dangerous, making him a good test and development for Nover. Don’t bet, but watch carefully and expect a finish. Phillipe Nover by TKO.

Andre Gusmao (-145) vs. Krzysztof Soszynski (+135)

Gusmao should be a much larger favorite here. Jon Jones befuddled him by hitting him with a spinning crane kick whenever the two got close, and dunking him with a lateral drop whenever they got closer. Soszynski doesn’t have that kind of dynamic striking game, and certainly lacks the wrestling acumen of Jones. Gusmao has a legitimate striking game, and he certainly isn’t going to let Krzysztof flail around on top of him looking for a submission like the (surprisingly) hapless Brian Stann.

Soszynski has looked more impressive than he actually is, by virtue of facing weak opposition in his highest-profile fights. He has a pretty spotty record and I expect him to be exposed for what he is here: a strong fighter with an aggressive, brawling style, but severe limitations. Gusmao could knock him out or could submit him. Andre Gusmao by TKO.

At -145, I take a play on Gusmao. Soszynski is overrated and underskilled, Gusmao hasn’t shown all that he has to offer.

Brandon Wolff (+350) vs. Yoshiyuki Yoshida (-500)

Yoshida is being set up here to rehabilitate himself from his shockingly brutal knockout loss to Josh Koscheck. Yoshida looked flat and intimidated in that fight, and could still be suffering some real psychological damage from such a severe knockout. He is a very skilled fighter, and should be able to handle Wolff without undue fuss, although there’s no way Wolff is as bad as he looked against Saunders. Yoshiyuki Yoshida by submission, round 2.

David Kaplan (+130) vs. George Roop (-155)

One of the more embarrassing fighters to have been associated with the UFC, Kaplan looks to prove that he’s not actually a complete joke by taking on the utterly unheralded George Roop. Much has been made of Roop’s size disadvantage in this fight, but Kaplan looked abysmally bad in his defeat to Junie Browning. This time next year neither of these guys are going to be in the UFC, unless Dana needs a new peanut vendor, and the level of fighting on display will likely be appalling when juxtaposed with that on the main card of this even. George Roop by submission.

My Plays:

4u Machida (-200) to win 2u
2.4u Hughes (-240) to win 1u
1.75u Foupa-Pokam (-175) to win 1u
3.3u Miller (-165) to win 2u
3u Sherk (-300) to win 1u
.5u Wilson (+275) to win 1.38u
1.45u Gusmao (-145) to win 1u

What Do You Think of This Fight/Event?