Yes, I’ve been very quiet on this blog recently, but there’s a good reason for it. You’ll find out soon enough. Here are my picks for this Saturday’s fights:
185 lbs: Vitor Belfort (22-10, 11-6 UFC) vs. Luke Rockhold (10-1, 0-0 UFC)
Vitor Belfort has exceptional hand speed and blistering knockout power. When he has an opponent hurt, he rushes in with a barrage of strikes until he gets the finish. That’s pretty much Belfort’s game in a nutshell – he fights at a slow pace, sometimes to the point of being passive, throwing out an occasional big punch or head kick. When one of those connects, he rushes in and often is able to finish the fight. It’s not an approach that would work for most fighters, but Belfort has such power in his hands and feet that it’s worked for him throughout his very long MMA career.
The optimal strategy for almost anybody set to fight Belfort is to take him down. While Belfort does have some submission skills, he’s not very dangerous off his back, and putting him there removes the chance he might win by knockout. That’s where I’m nervous about Luke Rockhold’s chances to win this fight – Rockhold almost never goes for takedowns.
According to Fight Metric statistics, Rockhold only lands 0.2 takedowns per 15 minutes. Like Belfort, his preference is to stand and strike, and that’s unlikely to change, even with an opponent as dangerous as Belfort is. In a fight that looks like it will be mostly a striking battle, Belfort will have every opportunity to hurt and eventually finish Rockhold.
But there are reasons to think that Rockhold can survive where others have gone down. Reed Kuhn over at Fightnomics has done a terrific job of linking a fighter’s age to his chin and resistance to being knocked out. If you look at the fighters Belfort has knocked out recently, they’ve all been on the wrong side of 30 years old. Michael Bisping was 33, Yoshihiro Akiyama was 35, Rich Franklin was 34, and Matt Lindland was 38. In contrast, Rockhold is 28 years old, and hasn’t been competing in MMA nearly as long as Bisping, Franklin, or Lindland. It’s possible that Rockhold will prove more difficult to put away.
Another reason Rockhold might be able to survive the early storm is that he’s simply very good at avoiding strikes. Over seven fights tracked by Fight Metric, Rockhold has only been hit by 1.78 significant strikes per minute, a very low number consistent with championship-level fighters in the UFC, and lower than Jose Aldo and Demetrious Johnson in particular. Belfort already lands a low number of strikes in his fights; if all he can do against Rockhold is land 8-10 strikes per round, his chances of finishing the fight become substantially diminished.
I picked Bisping to beat Belfort based on the idea that if Belfort didn’t get an early finish, Bisping would be able to cruise to victory over a fatigued Belfort. Well, Belfort got the early finish. In this fight, I’m going to pick Rockhold to win based on the same reasons I picked Bisping. The difference is that Rockhold is younger, taller with a longer reach, and is better at defending strikes than Bisping. There’s always a chance Belfort can win very quickly and make me look like a fool, but I think Rockhold can weather an early storm and end up either winning on points or finishing Belfort by TKO in a later round.
Pick: Luke Rockhold by TKO
185 lbs: Chris Camozzi (19-5, 6-2 UFC) vs. Ronaldo “Jacare” Souza (17-3, 0-0 UFC)
The good news for Chris Camozzi is that, after a four-fight winning streak, he now has an opportunity to break into the top ten with a victory over Ronaldo “Jacare” Souza. The bad news is that Jacare is about the worst stylistic matchup he could ever imagine. Despite Camozzi’s recent success, there’s not a lot he can do to win fights in the UFC. He doesn’t have much knockout power and isn’t particularly good on the ground. His takedown defense is nothing special either. If Camozzi wants to win, he needs the fight to stay standing so he can out-point his opponent.
Jacare won’t let the fight stay standing for long. He attempts eight takedowns per 15 minutes, and lands about half of the takedowns he attempts. Against Camozzi, whose takedown defense is very average, I expect Jacare to land an early takedown, and when he does… it’s just not good for Camozzi at all. I’ll put it this way – if Kyle Noke only needed 95 seconds to submit Camozzi, then I doubt Jacare will have too much trouble getting Camozzi to tap out either. Camozzi’s been on a nice run recently, but it’s about to end.
Pick: Ronaldo “Jacare” Souza by submission
155 lbs: Rafael dos Anjos (18-6, 7-4 UFC) vs. Evan Dunham (14-3, 7-3 UFC)
This looks like a very close and competitive fight, even if the betting public doesn’t see it that way. Dos Anjos is listed as a 2-1 favorite to beat Dunham in this fight, and I honestly don’t see why. Dunham should prove to be a very tough opponent – he strikes at an extremely high pace, has tough takedown defense, and is a good scrambler as well. With the way these two match up, over three rounds, I would expect Dunham to out-strike Dos Anjos 60-40, with Dos Anjos winning the takedown battle 2-1 or 3-1. To me, that doesn’t sound like there’s a clear favorite; to the contrary, it sounds like it will be a very tough judges’ call.
There are reasons to slightly favor Dos Anjos in that situation. Judges tend to side with the fighter who lands takedowns, and if that’s the case, Dos Anjos may have a slight advantage if this fight goes the distance. Again, Dunham has tough takedown defense, so there’s no guarantee that Dos Anjos will succeed in landing takedowns here. What’s more important is that the fight is in Brazil – if this really is a 50-50 type of fight, the judges might be inclined to give the decision to the home favorite. That’s enough for me to pick Dos Anjos to win this fight, but I only favor him by the slightest of margins.
Pick: Rafael dos Anjos by decision
–Joao Zeferino started his MMA career 1-3, and is 12-1 since then. He’s also fighting a very aggressive opponent in Rafael Natal on short notice. Both fighters are very good on the ground, but I have my doubts that Zeferino will be able to handle Natal’s pressure well. Natal by decision.
–Nik Lentz has a strange statistical profile – he lands a lot of takedowns, but doesn’t have good takedown defense. I think Hacran Dias can take Lentz down enough to win a decision in what would be a mild upset. Dias by decision.
-I’m very enthusiastic about Francisco Trinaldo’s UFC potential. I’m not so enthusiastic about Mike Rio, a wrestler who often struggles to land takedowns, and was shut down by Efrain Escudero two years ago. I think Trinaldo stuffs Rio’s takedowns and gets a stoppage victory. Trinaldo by TKO.
-A battle of grapplers will feature Gleison Tibau, the lightweight division’s most dominant wrestler, against John Cholish. Cholish has done well in defending takedowns in his brief UFC career, but he hasn’t been tested against a tank like Tibau. I think Tibau wins by decision, but if Cholish can keep the fight standing, there’s definite upset potential here.
–Michel Prazeres enters the UFC at 16-0, and a handful of those wins were against tough opponents. I wish I knew more about him, because his record definitely has me intrigued. He does seem like a submission-based fighter, which is what Paulo Thiago is good at, so I’m going to stay safe and pick Thiago. But I’ll be watching closely. Thiago by decision.
-It’s not often a fighter enters the UFC with 34 fights on his record, but Iliarde Santos is doing exactly that, as he is 27-6-1. Unfortunately for him, he’s fighting Iuri Alcantara, one of the most underrated/overlooked fighters in the UFC. There are some bantamweights I would like Santos’s chances against – Alcantara is not one of them. Alcantara by TKO.
–Roger Hollett is a very stocky and muscular light-heavyweight who… at least has that going for him. If he goes for takedowns against Fabio Maldonado, he could pull off an upset here, but let’s be honest, Hollett just isn’t a UFC-caliber fighter. Maldonado by decision.
-Somehow, Azamat Gashimov is only a slight underdog against John Lineker, despite all of his career victories being against opponents who were 0-0. Gashimov does have some wrestling abilities, but has yet to prove that he’s truly ready for UFC-level competition. I have to take Lineker to win by TKO here.
–Jussier Formiga entered the UFC with a lot of fanfare, but didn’t show much against John Dodson. Formiga was easily out-struck and then knocked out in the second round. I don’t think Chris Cariaso will knock him out, but Cariaso is a very good kickboxer who I definitely think can out-point Formiga. Cariaso by decision.
–Lucas Martins got overwhelmed by Edson Barboza in his UFC debut, but this time, he’s facing a much worse opponent in Jeremy Larsen. I’ll be honest – I’m surprised Larsen is getting another UFC fight after his loss to Joe Proctor, but that might just be to build Martins up a little bit. Martins by TKO.