UFC 107 may end up being the best event of 2009.
B.J. Penn versus Diego Sanchez for the UFC Lightweight Championship is a great fight for a number of reasons. First, Penn is attempting to become the first fighter in the history of the sport to successfully defend the lightweight title three consecutive times. He is currently tied with arch nemesis Jens Pulver. Second, Sanchez has long proclaimed that he is a champion in the making, a future all-time great and just about every other superlative that one can think of. On Saturday night, he will finally get the chance to make good on those proclamations as he challenges for a title for the first time. Finally, from a matchup perspective, Penn-Sanchez is a bout that has little chance of going the distance. Sanchez will force a torrid pace, forcing Penn to fight in a fast and furious fashion, thereby taxing his gas tank. Thus, Penn will be ultra focused on stopping his foe before the final bell.
Former UFC Heavyweight Champion Frank Mir versus perennial contender Cheick Kongo is the classic clash of styles. Granted, Mir has recently shown vastly improved standup, and Kongo has proven time and time again that he is actually a better wrestler than most believe. Nevertheless, there is no way that Mir wins this fight if it remains on the feet. In fact, he will most likely get knocked out if that happens. Similarly, Kongo has virtually no shot at beating Mir on the ground. He will get submitted if he spends more than a few seconds on his back or a few minutes inside Mir’s guard. Which man will impose his will on the other? I honestly have no idea, which makes this a very intriguing matchup.
Jon Fitch is looking to get back into position for a second shot at welterweight gold by defeating up and comer Mike Pierce, who has been impressive in his two career UFC bouts. Each man likes to take the action to the ground and pound out his opponent, so this one could be decided by who has the better wrestling. Fitch is also one victory away from stepping into eighth place on the UFC’s all-time win list. Penn, Sanchez and Mir can also move into eighth place with a win on Saturday night. With a win, Fitch moves back into title contention, along with teammate Josh Koscheck, for Georges St-Pierre’s UFC Welterweight Championship.
Alan Belcher versus Wilson Gouveia is an excellent matchup. Belcher is one of the more underrated guys in the middleweight division. Gouveia is an aggressive, action-first blue chipper. Both men are coming off losses and neither can afford a second consecutive defeat if he wants to stay in the short-term mix at 185 lbs. There is little doubt, therefore, that these guys will compete as if their respective careers are on the line, and that makes for a great fight, particularly when it involves two closely matched combatants.
Another interesting fight is the return of Paul “The Headhunter” Buentello. The knockout specialist fighting out of the American Kickboxing Academy faces the tallest heavyweight in the division, Stefan Struve, himself a talented kickboxer. There is no way that bout will last the distance.
But the matchup that has the greatest potential to steal the show is Kenny Florian versus Clay Guida.
Since coming up short in the middleweight finale of the inaugural season of The Ultimate Fighter, Florian has found his niche in the lightweight division. Since dropping to the land of the little fellas, the former collegiate soccer player has been close to perfect, winning all of his non-title challenges. His only slip ups, of course, have come in his two quests to become the 155-lb champ.
On the feet, Ken-Flo is not going to be mistaken for Anderson Silva or Vitor Belfort in terms of knockout power any time soon. He instead is a guy who strikes with precision and technique. Mixed martial arts is chess to him, and he is constantly thinking multiple moves ahead, rather than just reacting to the action as it unfolds. That is what allows him to outclass guys who appear to be better athletes, if not better fighters, on paper.
In his early days of UFC competition, Ken-Flo’s most dangerous standup weapons were his elbows. His style of throwing elbows leads to fight-ending cuts in the blink of an eye; just ask Chris Leben or Alex Karalexis. But elbows haven’t been a significant part of his arsenal in several years and that’s due to the fact that he simply has more weapons to choose from these days.
Nonetheless, I wouldn’t be surprised to see Florian attack Guida with a renewed focus on his elbows because that is a very effective way to fight someone who insists on making the action a brawl in a phone booth.
On the ground, Ken-Flo is a skilled submission artist, a black belt in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu who is constantly improving his ground skills under the watchful eye of his brother and head trainer, Keith Florian. Those skills could prove to be handy against a brutish wrestler like Guida, though Ken-Flo knows that Guida’s best chance at winning is to secure the top position and grind out a decision, so he should try to avoid spending unnecessary time on the ground at all costs. That means really focusing on defending the takedown and, if Guida is successful getting the action to the ground, quickly scrambling back to his feet rather than looking for submissions.
Guida isn’t on the UFC’s top contender list yet, but he might just be the division’s reigning upset champion, scoring more improbable wins and disputed losses than anyone else over the last few years—Nate Diaz, Mac Danzig, Tyson Griffin and Sanchez. If the judges go the other way in the Sanchez fight, we could very well be breaking down Guida versus Penn right now.
In other words, he is nobody’s light lunch.
Stylistically, he is the polar opposite of his opponent. His game is not predicated on precision and technique. It is derived from chaos. Guida is the division’s Tasmanian Devil. Its whirling dervish. And its rock’em, sock’em robot. All wrapped into one.
In other words, he is all-action all the time.
On the feet, Guida doesn’t scare anyone with his power. In fact, he doesn’t scare anyone with his technique. But he demands respect from everyone because of his amazing work rate. This guy throws so many strikes in such a short period that it can disrupt even the most talented striker’s rhythm.
The entire goal of his standup game is to open the door for a takedown. For Guida to beat Ken-Flo, or just about anyone else, he must get the fight to the ground. Once there, it is all about controlled, annoying ground and pound. It is annoying not because it irks the crowd, but rather because it truly drives his opponent crazy. He does that by maintaining the same high work rate that he employs on the feet, rather than focusing on maximizing the impact of any one strike. It is an extremely effective approach because the constant flow of conservative punches and elbows allows Guida to remain focused on hip control and balance, thus minimizing the risk that his opponent will escape the position. The constant barrage of strikes also helps prevent his opponent from setting up submissions, since he must continually defend strikes.
So, what will happen once the referee signals for the action to begin?
By all accounts, Ken-Flo is a comfortable favorite entering this fight. He is more skilled. He is more accomplished. But no matter, and I’ve written this once before and I still stand by the statement today: Nobody gets more out of his skills than Guida. This guy brings every part of his game to each and every fight, and he performs up to the maximum of his ability each and every night. That makes him an ultra dangerous test for anyone.
I am going to go out on a limb and pick Guida in this one. He has a way of making opponents fight his fight, and that trend won’t end on Saturday night. I think that his nonstop, smothering attack will result in a chaotic fight that unfolds at close range, leading to plenty of takedown attempts for Guida. Ken-Flo’s inability to stop those takedowns and his opponent’s insane work rate on the ground will carry the day. It may end up being another in a long line of close, controversial judges’ decisions involving Guida, but one way or another, I see “The Carpenter” leaving the Octagon with his hand raised.