Those who have read this website for a while know that I’ve been keeping my eye on Paul Sass. Sass is a lightweight fighter with an 11-0 professional record, good for a SILVA score placing him as an “elite” fighter in the lightweight division, of 44.64. This would seem to run counter to common sense. Sass lacks two things most consider necessary to be considered a great fighter. One is a win against a great opponent. While Sass has beaten decent/OK fighters with consistency, the best fighter he’s beaten is Mark Holst. The other is a great skill set. From what I’ve seen (and I haven’t seen much), Sass’s striking exists merely as a means of distraction while he attempts to get the fight to the ground. His wrestling is nearly impossible to rate, as he seemingly prefers pulling guard to actually taking his opponent down.
It would be easy to dismiss Sass’s fighting style as “gimmicky.” Sass’s game largely consists of the following process: throw strikes as protection while entering the clinch, dive down and attempt a heel hook, pull guard and attempt a triangle choke. Sure, it’s worked for Sass so far, but eventually he’ll face an opponent who doesn’t fall for that process, right?
Part of what was so cool about reading Moneyball (and I’ll be seeing the movie soon) was that it allowed for baseball players who were quirky or didn’t fit into the “box” to have a chance at success. The author of Moneyball, Michael Lewis, documented the history of Oakland Athletics General Manager Billy Beane. Beane was the epitome of everything scouts like in a baseball player: he was a great athlete, good-looking, and had all the “tools” that help play the game so well. Later in the book, Lewis tells the story of a pitcher named Chad Bradford, a man who on top of not having a hard fastball, pitched by throwing underhand to the extreme that his knuckles would scrape the dirt during his delivery. The scouts weren’t as enamored with Bradford. And yet, it was Bradford who found success in the major leagues while Beane struggled.
I feel like I’ve stumbled upon a similar situation here with Paul Sass taking on Michael Johnson. Johnson represents what anybody would look for in a mixed martial artist. He’s a good athlete with good power. He has a strong wrestling base combined with good boxing skills. While Johnson isn’t regarded nearly as well in MMA as Billy Beane was in baseball, he still has the kind of skills package that made both Josh Koscheck and Georges St. Pierre want him on the 12th season of The Ultimate Fighter. In that respect, he’s like a Billy Beane: one can easily imagine him becoming a great fighter.
Then there’s Paul Sass, the “Chad Bradford” of this fight. Sass is not as good an athlete as Johnson, maybe not even close. He doesn’t pack the same kind of power. He’s not a particularly good striker, although his striking can’t really be judged in the same way as anybody else. His fighting style is just different. Like Bradford, Sass has enjoyed a lot of success… but as Bradford was kept in the minor leagues for a while despite his dominance, it’s easy to dismiss Sass’s ability to beat high-level competition.
If you give me Michael Johnson in one hand, and Paul Sass in the other, and let me pick who I feel has the better chance to make a title run at lightweight, I’ll take Sass and I won’t think twice about it. For all I know, I’m the only person who feels that way, but let me explain why. First and foremost is the SILVA score of Paul Sass. While it could very reasonably be argued that Sass has yet to defeat a great opponent, SILVA still estimates him to be a great fighter. Months ago, I wrote about Sass’s statistical profile and who the most similar fighters are in the SILVA database. While names like Dave Branch popped up on the list, so did names like Georges St. Pierre, Cain Velasquez, and Matt Hughes.
Another point: Sass has been fighting the same way throughout his career. Wouldn’t Mark Holst have known about the way Sass fights, and trained specifically to stop it? At this point, I would assume that fighters are preparing for Sass in particular, and are losing by submission anyway. Michael Johnson may know exactly how Sass fights going in, but that doesn’t mean he’ll be ready to stop Sass’s attack.
Then there’s Johnson’s record. At 9-5, Johnson’s winning percentage is lower than would be desired of an aspiring UFC title contender. But look a bit closer, and you’ll see three losses by submission… including one by triangle choke and one by heel hook.
SILVA PREDICTION: PAUL SASS (44.64) OVER MICHAEL JOHNSON (27.01)
Most people might think that I’m nuts and/or SILVA is broken. The betting lines for this fight have Johnson favored as expected. SILVA’s take is very simple: Sass has shown, via his 11-0 start, that he has a good possibility of being a great UFC lightweight fighter, and a title contender. Johnson represents the perfect test for him. If Johnson turns out to be too strong, stopping Sass’s guard pull attempts and winning by KO, then it will be shown that Sass’s game likely doesn’t work in the UFC. On the other hand, if Sass can do to Johnson what he’s done to everybody else, then he’ll become a lightweight to be taken very, very seriously in the UFC. Call me crazy, but I’ll take Sass to submit Johnson and stake his claim as a lightweight fighter to watch out for in the future.